Visit the great writer’s country estate at Yasnaya PolyanaStart and end: car park near the entrance to the estate Distance: about 3km
Leo Tolstoy, author of ‘War and Peace’, died a hundred years ago this year. Summer is a great time to make a pilgrimage to the fields and woods where he spent so much of his life. Tolstoy was born and buried at Yasnaya Polyana and lived most of the intervening 82 years there too. This walk follows him through flowering meadows, orchards and birch trees.
Yasnaya Polyana is 200km south of Moscow and the special weekend train that used to run there is not running at the moment. If you haven’t got access to a car, the museum website (www.yasnayapolyana.ru/english) recommends that you travel by bus from Domodedovskaya metro to central Tula and there change onto marshrutka 114, 117 or 280. An alternative is to get the train from Kursky Vokzal to Tula and get a taxi the last 15km. There is a log café opposite the gate if you need refreshments when you arrive. The white gateposts (1) at the entrance to the estate are one of the landmarks that remain from its earliest days. Prince Sergei Volkonsky, Tolstoy’s maternal grandfather, bought the land in 1763 and built his manor house at the top of the hill. Tolstoy’s Prince Bolkonsky in ‘War and Peace’ is modelled on his grandfather and the estate itself crops up in numerous works in a variety of guises. The ticket office is inside to the left of the gate. A ticket for the park costs just 20 roubles, but if you want to go into the buildings, it is compulsory to take a tour during the summer months, which costs 150 roubles. Last entry is at 3pm and the museum is closed on Mondays and towards the end of the month for cleaning. The big pond was used for fishing, skating and toboganning. The avenue of birch trees that leads up the hill towards the main house is still known as the “Preshpekt” (2). Tolstoy was particularly fond of this avenue and wrote to his wife about the “play of light and shade” and abundance of wild flowers, all “just as it was sixty years ago when I noticed its beauty for the first time and fell in love with it.” Passing between the orchard and the remains of the formal gardens, at the top of this avenue you reach Tolstoy’s house (3) with its vine-covered veranda. The atmosphere of the house is powerful with reminders of the writer’s life. There are portraits, books and clothes that create that special house-museum illusion the writer has simply popped out for a walk and might be back for tea. The final room on the tour is the downstairs library or guestroom, which Tolstoy used as a study in the 1870s. It was here that he wrote ‘Anna Karenina’. There is a marble bust of Tolstoy’s much-loved brother, Nikolai, in the room. Nikolai died of TB aged 37 and Tolstoy wrote in his diary “all my best memories are connected with him”. Nikolai invented the family myth of a “green stick” on which was written the secret of human happiness. The young Leo searched endlessly for the stick in the ravine where his brother had said it was buried (and where Tolstoy was later interred himself). It was a quest that was to continue in metaphorical form throughout his life and work. Turning left at Tolstoy’s house, you reach the 19th century Kuzminsky House (4), which houses temporary exhibitions. Both this and the writer’s house were originally wings of a larger mansion between them, where Tolstoy was born. Going on beyond the Kuzminsky House, turn right at the junction and then left to reach Tolstoy’s simple, unmarked grave (5). Ignore the less well-trodden path at the fork.
Returning to the junction where you turned left, turn left again along a sloping grassy track leading past woods to the river. The meadows here are full of purple cranesbill, golden buttercups and delicate speedwell. If you have time, you can wander for hours through this area of the estate, but this route, designed for those on a day trip from Moscow, gives you a flavour of the landscape while still getting you back to town before night fall. Shortly before you reach the river, in the valley ahead, follow the main track right through the trees past a wooden-sided well (6). Turn right again along the far side of the pine forest, enjoying views across the rolling countryside. You will pass a replica of Tolstoy’s favourite bench (7), made of slender silver birch branches. Turn right once more at the next major junction to return through woods to the crossroads you set off from forty minutes or so earlier. Turn left down the hill, past granaries and threshing barns and the thatched coachman’s cottage and left again past the green-roofed Volkonsky House (9). The horses, geese and cats that wander near the stable buildings opposite complete the rural atmosphere. Returning to the Preshpekt, you may be tempted to take one final turn around the gardens on the far side of the avenue. At the other end of the weed-covered lower pond, closest to the car park, you will find a stilted summerhouse (10) with steps. Tolstoy’s mother used to sit here and watch for her husband coming home. The beauty of these grounds is as evident today as it was in Tolstoy’s time. One evening after returning home at sunset, Tolstoy wrote in his diary: “this world… is fine and joyful… We must make it even more perfect and happy for all the human beings living with us and for those who will live afterwards.”
Landmark of the week – The Volkonsky House (9), Yasnaya Polyana Tolstoy’s grandfather lived in this elegant house, the oldest building on the estate, in the late 18th century, when it also housed weaving and leather-dressing workshops. In Tolstoy’s lifetime, it served as a laundry, servants’ quarters and a studio for Tatiana, Leo Tolstoy’s eldest daughter, who was an artist.