A bright meadow speaks anew Home: The voice of Leo Tolstoy, a voice of love and nonviolence, is being heard again from Yasnaya Polyana, the estate that inspired him.

Sun Journal

July 09, 1996|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

YASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Deep in the Russian countryside, among the birch trees and pine forests that unfailingly stir the Russian soul, a resonant voice is being heard once more.

It is a voice that speaks of love and nonviolence, one that celebrates the simple life and the moral purity that comes with living close to nature. It is the voice of one of the world's greatest writers, Leo Tolstoy.

Tolstoy was born here, at his family's estate, in 1828 and wrote his greatest works, "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina," here. Yasnaya Polyana, which best translates as "bright meadow," is the name of his estate and of the adjoining village. This was the place that inspired, and nourished, him.

"War and Peace" is as instructive to Russians as ever. Its characters lead rich inner lives, examining their souls, suffering reversals, achieving epiphanies. The patiently good are rewarded. Evildoers are punished. But most of all, Russians endure -- death, poverty, cataclysm and near-destruction. Whatever history throws at them, they endure.

For Russians, the voice from Yasnaya Polyana was distorted during the Soviet years. The Communists were uncomfortable with Tolstoy, an evangelist for Christian love and nonviolence. They could, and did, admire his reputation as a writer and were able to celebrate him as a champion of the peasantry and a warrior in the great class struggle.

But since only part of his teachings were open to favorable comment, his heirs say, the authorities diminished Tolstoy as a great historical figure.

"During the Communist period, this place was changed from a place of world significance to a provincial literary museum," says Vladimir Ilyich Tolstoy, his great-great-grandson. "Just as the Soviet years gnawed at the heart, so did they erode the house and forests and ideas of Leo Tolstoy."

Vladimir Tolstoy has returned to Yasnaya Polyana as director of the museum that operates his great-great-grandfather's house and grounds. He lives in the village, which once housed his family's serfs, and wants to restore the name of Tolstoy to the place it held in the Russian imagination before the Bolshevik Revolution.

"Every government in power in our country tried to use Leo Tolstoy's heritage for its own profit," Vladimir Tolstoy says. "They tried to find in his heritage something to confirm their own ideals. His stories and art were so multisided that they could take part of him and diminish him in understanding and value. He was used to support every kind of idea. As for the museum, it was like a mirror, reflecting everything in society."

The "Great Soviet Encyclopedia" gives "War and Peace" a glowing review, and a smart salute to the class struggle, as seen through two of the main characters, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezukhov: "The spiritual quests of Bolkonsky and Bezukhov are filled with contradictions, but both heroes evolve toward overcoming their egotism and class insularity."

When Tolstoy died in 1910 his estate was attracting pilgrims from around the world, artists, philosophers, writers and dreamers. The estate became a museum the next year, and was run by various family members who tried to protect it from revolution and politics. A daughter, Alexandra, fled Communist pressures in 1929. Subsequent directors were often people very much opposed to Tolstoyan ideals. One was a former labor camp director.

A granddaughter managed to save Tolstoy's papers and furniture during World War II, when Yasnaya Polyana was occupied for 40 days by the German army. After the war, the estate was restored, but for the Tolstoy family its reputation only tarnished.

"Eventually it became a resting place for bureaucrats from the Ministry of Culture," Vladimir Tolstoy says. A chemical plant was built on one side of the estate. Later, wood was stolen from the forests for houses.

The young Tolstoy is 33, blond, blue-eyed and a creature of the present. His office, in the house built by his great-great-great-great-grandfather, is equipped with the latest computers. He has a car phone and an e-mail address.

He was a journalist until two years ago, when he became the director of the museum and began raising money to restore the luster of Yasnaya Polyana -- to make it the cultural center of Russia once more.

"Now Russians are looking for a place to restore their spirituality," he says. "We want to create a retreat here where that is possible."

The landscape, with its rolling fields, long rows of birch, and thick pine forests, is quintessentially Russian. It speaks as compellingly to Alexander Lebed, the nationalistic general who has joined President Boris N. Yeltsin's inner circle, as it does to Gennady A. Zyuganov, the nation's top Communist.

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