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Literary Moscow

Alexei Tolstoy memorial flat in Moscow
Text and photos by Marina Kashpar

In the centre of old Moscow, not far from Nikitskie Vorota square, there is a small house with a memorial plague fixed to one of the gates which says: “Here lived and worked A.N. Tolstoy.”

Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy experienced both criticism and praise by the bucketful during his career. But when all these comments are put together, one is left with a feeling of awe of such a talent. “Whatever stupid things you might say about his work, however much he has lashed at by the critics, you always read him with total admiration and even wonder, like a huge stupendous gift,” wrote Georgi Adamovich.

Alexei Tolstoy was one of the most life-loving writers in the story of Russian literature. He was a kind of Russian Rabelais. Of the Soviet period, he belongs to a very small group of writers who are still read to this day.

By a strange twist of fate, the wing of the house at number 2 Spiridinovka, that was designed by Shehtel for the Ryabushinsky family’s servants, became Count Alexei Tolstoy’s last earthly shelter. However, Tolstoy’s life was intertwined with Spriridinovka in more ways than this. His well known predecessor Peter Andreevich Tolstoy, whilst serving time in a Turkish jail and preparing for the death penalty, turned to St Spiridon and prayed for help. He avoided punishment, and from then on, St Spiridon became the guardian saint of the Tolstoy clan.

Tolstoy lived in the house on Spiridonovka from 1941 to 1945, right up to his death. He worked on his third book on Peter the Great, finished The Road to Calvary, a trilogy, Stories by Ivan Sudarev, and wrote articles about war.

Tolstoy’s study, living room and corridor have been preserved exactly as they were when the writer lived there. You can almost feel his presence in this room.

If those who say that personal belongings are an extension of their owners are right, then there is plenty of evidence of Tolstoy here. Take the study for example. It is warm, unruly and excessive, like its generously-gifted owner. A bulky, funloving man whose life’s journey ended at 62, Alexei Nikolaevich was inspired by life, carried by a multitude of tastes, interests and attachments. The study parquet floor is covered with soft carpet. The furniture is strange and belongs to the epoch of Emperor Paul. There are a lot of antique and decorative objects in this room, things that Tolstoy enjoyed immensely. Strange, wild things entertained his eyes. He could stare at them for hours, touch and feel them.

There is a strange bronze inkwell on the huge writing desk in the centre of the study, an intentionally useless artefact from Catherine the Great’s day, a collection of pipes which Tolstoy assembled over the years. In a word, the desk had a decorative rather than a functional role. Tolstoy hardly ever used it. A humble-looking lectern made of redwood stands by one of the walls. This desk was given to him by his mother Alexandra Leontevna who was also a writer, way before the revolution. She had carted his desk around with her wherever her destiny sent her. This was the actual place that Tolstoy’s works took form. Here, standing up, he created his brilliant literary gems.

The tastes of a man who loves life and people are reflected in the living/dining room area, which was big enough to entertain a lot of people. If it wasn’t for the crystal aristocratic chandeliers on four sides of the room, or the twisted Paul-era armchairs with monograms on them in the dining room, you might detect a certain commercialism, characteristic of the writer’s personality. The walls are lined with rose-covered silk, the sofas are of cherry-coloured wood and paintings which are somewhat frivolous are hung on the walls. “Here there is everything you need to live!” Tolstoy would declare when showing guests in, sometimes hungrily smacking his lips.

As Korney Chykovsky once mentioned, Tolstoy took his literary characters from himself. Everything he has created is the continuation of his character, his way of living, his habits. A great worshipper of beauty, Tolstoy surrounded himself by luxury and beautiful things. According to his distant relative, the author and historian Nikolai Tolstoy,

“Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy’s life remains in large part an enigma... It is not hard to believe that the degrading personal role he undertook in Soviet society exerted a damaging effect on his creative capacity. His personal character was without question beneath contempt, reflecting as it did the pitiful morality of many contemporary European intellectuals. His friend Ilya Ehrenburg wrote once that Tolstoy would do anything for a quiet life, and his personal philosophy rose no higher than this confessio vitae, uttered when an exile in Paris: ‘I only know this: the thing that I loathe most of all is walking in town with empty pockets, looking in shop windows without the possibility of buying anything— that’s real torture for me.’ There was no lie, betrayal, or indignity which he would not hasten to commit in order to fill those empty pockets, and in Stalin he found a worthy master. Few families have produced a higher literary talent than Leo Tolstoy, but few have sunk to one as degraded as Alexei Nikolaevich.”

Alexei Tolstoy Memorial Flat
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,
Saturday, Sunday— from 10-6pm
Ul. Spiridonovka, 2 6
(Metros Arbatskaya, Barrikadnaya
or Tverskaya)
Telephone: (495) 690–09–56.

Bunin said that Tolstoy “wrote ….a lot of awful things, but even in the awful he was talented.”

There is a polarity in his creative work. There was a polarity in his life. So as a result his house is full of unities and opposites. Come and check this out for yourself.

The house at Spiridonovka street became a museum in 1987. The museum is hospitable to the same extent as it was when it was Tolstoy’s home. Literary parties are held in the museum, as well as meetings of modern painters and writers.

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