It is beginning to dawn on us that here in Moscow, Australians are exotic. It is standard operating procedure for us to announce our origins, lest anyone think we are Americans, and each time our announcement is met with surprise, a broad smile and an effusive welcome. Nobody really knows where Melbourne is, and they all think we must be missing the hot weather, but they are delighted we are here, and are even more delighted to show off their fascinating country. It’s very nice.
Anyway, today we made our pilgrimage to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate outside Moscow, and in the afternoon, to Chekhov’s. The tour was excellent, and even though it was rather expensive, it is probably going to be the highlight of our trip. It was a private small group tour in an 8 seater people-mover, but Tim and I were the only tourists so we had it all to ourselves. Perhaps the GFC is still affecting tourism, or perhaps it’s because it is coming to the end of the season, but there were none of the crowds I was expecting and it turned out to be a lovely day. (And great weather too, warm and sunny, about 20 degrees C.)
Our tour guide was Oleg, a genial and sophisticated man whose English was excellent. (He speaks four languages). Yasnaya Polyana is about 200k from Moscow along the dead straight M2 and apart from the occasional clusters of dachas, the landscape is flat and monotonous. But Oleg kept us interested with chat about all kinds of things, from the social and economic changes in Russia since the transition from the Soviet system, to the battlefields of World War II. He often takes people on battlefield tours as well, and, fresh from my reading of Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (both of which Oleg had read), it was more than a little chastening to look out across the fields and forests and hear him talk about the Germans encircling a city like Tolya (a.k.a. Tula) as we drove through it, or to imagine them only 30km from Moscow before their advance was stopped.
According to Wikipedia, the Germans did occupy Yasnaya Polyana, and turned it into a hospital, but fortunately the house contents had been evacuated to Moscow, and subsequently to Tomsk, and even more fortunately the Germans didn’t destroy it, as they destroyed so many other places, when they left. It was interesting that there was no mention of any of this by the local guide, Anna (ably interpreted by Oleg): it was as if they were not prepared to taint this most special of places with any mention of the interlopers.
The gardens and orchards are kept much as they were in Tolstoy’s day, as is the house. You can see the building that Tolstoy turned into a schoolroom for peasant children, and you can see the fields where he is said to have toiled with a scythe alongside the peasants. Inside the house there is the leather couch where generations of Tolstoys were born, the dining room where Sonya welcomed the guests, and not only the desk where Anna Karenina and War and Peace were written, but also Sonya’s study where she transcribed, (and some say, edited), the manuscripts from Tolstoy’s near-illegible handwriting. BTW the photo of the dining-room is from Wikipedia because you’re not allowed to take photos inside.
Yasnaya Polyana is showing its age, and I must admit that I wondered a bit about preservation issues. There are priceless original manuscripts, items of clothing, paintings and photographs that while sometimes stored in glass cabinets don’t appear to be in a temperature-controlled environment. On the other hand it is very special to wander through the rooms and see in situ the desk at which the great man wrote and the books he read. It reminded me a little of our visit to Ho Chi Minh’s house in Hanoi where there is a similar focus on the choice of a simple lifestyle and rejection of luxury on moral grounds. It might spoil the message that these men tried to share if their homes were altered in the name of preserving them. It is certainly very moving to meander down the pathway to the gravesite and find a simple raised mound without even a headstone. People bring flowers in tribute and place them along the border of the gravesite instead.
At the adjacent cafe we had a traditional Russian lunch – salad, borscht, grilled pork and potatoes – and then, running a bit late, we set off for Chekhov’s estate. Even though the road was sealed it was in very poor condition so we were bumped around a bit as we barrelled along, but it was no worse than many a country road in Australia, I suppose.
Chekhov wasn’t wealthy like Tolstoy was – he went into debt to buy the estate but wasn’t able to make a go of it. Even though the place is very beautiful I think the purchase was a bit of a mistake – he seemed to have had endless visitors and not much of the peace and quiet that a writer needs. Still he was able to produce The Seagull there, and in the building which he took over for himself, you can see a little plaque that says (in Russian) ‘My Home, where I wrote [Uncle] Vanya.
Our guide here was a lovely lady called Tatiana, who still gets emotional when she talks about Chekhov so I think he is much loved even today. She told us all kinds of interesting things about the Chekhov family, their visitors and even their household staff, and there’s more I could tell but I’m nearly out of battery so I must stop now!