Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana
by Celina Colby
When I first began to plan my trip to Russia, visiting Tolstoy’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana, was a top priority. The estate is located in a small village of the same name about 3-3.5 hours outside of Moscow. The estate has been in the Tolstoy family since the 18th century. It’s where Leo Tolstoy was born, where he wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina and where he’s buried. Although he did have an apartment in Moscow, he hated the city. Yasnaya Polyana was his true home. I booked a day trip to Melikhovo, Chekhov’s estate (about an hour from Moscow) and then on to Yasnaya Polyana.
Chekhov’s estate features a small museum with artifacts from his original home (like the writings and glasses above) as well as the buildings where he and his family lived. Though I’ve read quite a bit of his work, I didn’t know much about Chekhov as a person, so it was fascinating to learn about him.
The cost of the tour covers transportation from your hotel to the literary sites and back by a knowledgeable tour guide, as well as English speaking guides on-site at each location, and lunch. My guide Oleg was a dream. He had so much knowledge about everything Russian, from Tolstoy and Chekhov to the Tsars, to the Soviet Era, which he lived in. He was extremely friendly and happy to field hours of my eager questions.
You can see here in Chekhov’s study the picture of Tolstoy in the upper left hand corner. Tolstoy and Chekhov were friends and visited each other at their estates a number of times. It was nice having Oleg on deck to supplement the tours given at each site. He provided the wonderful historical gossip that wasn’t always included in the official tour.
I also have to give Oleg a shoutout for taking pictures of me during the tour. I was nervous to ask him and thought I might get one or two. He went all out, it was a full on photoshoot. We did different poses, different locations, he was awesome. I should also note that I was traveling alone as a young woman and I felt totally comfortable and safe with him.
From Melikhovo we drove to Yasnaya Polyana where we had a traditional Russian lunch at the small restaurant across from the property. It was a Sunday during peak tourist season but the other visitors were almost exclusively Russians. Because it’s such a hike from Moscow, only the most dedicated of literature lovers make the trek.
This sounds sentimental but when I stepped through the entrance to Yasnaya Polyana a wave of calm washed over me. I’ve never felt anything like it. I can’t say whether it was the peaceful natural setting, the fulfillment of a decade-long dream, or both. But I felt more at peace during the three hours on those grounds than I ever have.
The estate produced and sold apples, which was the trade that sustained the family. This meant that Tolstoy didn’t have to work and could focus solely on his writing.
The building where Tolstoy was born was demolished during his lifetime. But you can tour the house he lived in (pictured above) and the guest house on the property which hosts exhibitions. While I was there it was a fascinating exhibit on War and Peace and the parts of his life reflected in the novel. His wife was the inspiration for Natasha (not sure that’s a compliment) and his parents were the inspiration for Marya and Nikolai (which is ADORABLE).
His grave is on the property about a mile from the house down a lovely woodland path. The property is extensive, you could spend days there and not have walked everywhere. Tolstoy was excommunicated from the church for taking issue with their institutional practices. As a result he couldn’t be buried in a cemetery.
His parents died when the children were still fairly young and it was Tolstoy’s oldest brother that helped raise the other children. He would tell Tolstoy a story about a magic wand that was buried in a special spot on Yasnaya Polyana next to a ravine. Whoever found that magic wand would have eternal happiness. Tolstoy is buried where that wand is supposed to be. You can see why I spent this whole day crying.
Yasnaya Polyana the village is known for a number of things including delicious flat cakes and handmade pine boxes like the one pictured above. Historically these boxes have been made to store food in because of the preservative qualities of pine. There’s no gift shop at Tolstoy’s estate, there’s something better. An outdoor (at least in the summer) market of local artisans from the village. They sell cakes, boxes, and other handmade art objects. Make sure you have rubles on you, it’s a great place to buy gifts.
Seeing Yasnaya Polyana was an emotional experience because of my connection to Tolstoy. But it also provided another much-needed perspective to my time in Russia. The trip allowed me to see more of the countryside of both Tolstoy’s time and of contemporary Russians. I saw the dachas (country cottages) and the churches of the everyday Russian experience. I’m eternally grateful to have a more well rounded vision of Russia as a result. Spending 14 hours with Oleg also taught me a lot about Soviet Russia, which I have limited knowledge of, and about the political attitude of contemporary Russians. It was invaluable to have so many candid conversations with a local.
Of course I recommend visiting Yasnaya Polyana and Melikhovo. But in a broader sense, I encourage you to pursue the experiences that you’re infatuated with. Even if it takes a decade of learning and saving and planning, like it did for me.
Tolstoy wrote “We’re asleep until we fall in love,” and I fell in love with that very first page. It’s been ten years since the great intellectual passion of my life was awoken in me by those translated prose. And I will forever remember that moment of tranquility when I first stepped through Yasnaya Polyana’s gates.
About the Author
Celina Colby, a born-and-bred New England bibliophile living in Boston. Celina has a great love for Russian novels and attended our Art Lovers' Tour this summer in Russia.
Celina's blog – Trends & Tolstoy