The Pilgrimage to Yasnaya Polnaya

From the point of view of the woman selling ice cream from a cart, I am just a traveler who has found a strange and uncomfortable standing position in which to wait for his train. Little does this woman know that I am standing in the perfect spot to steal Wi-Fi from the nearby Burger King. Maybe she doesn’t notice anything, I’m sure she sees thousands of people everyday from her little perch in the basement of the Moscow Kurski train station, and yet despite it all, she looks as if she has never once been privy to anything interesting. Her face looks washed with a certain ennui that is only reserved for those who have such low expectations that they would even realize if something terribly fascinating was happening right before their eyes. This passes through my mind as I send some Snapchats and check Tinder, but it doesn’t really make me sad, I mean she has access to ice cream.

My platform number flashes on the screen and so I check Facebook one last time and make my way down the damp frigid corridor toward the platform. The train is a night train, but I will only be on it till midnight. Much to my dismay I realize many of the other passengers are on it for the long haul and as soon as we leave the station, they begin disrobing and stretching out around me like feral cats around a can of tuna. Perhaps I say tuna because the gentlemen to my left, a rather portly fellow who I later learned was from Omsk, began eating not one, but two cans of tuna. The four children with whom I was sharing the table with, promptly turned it into a stage for their dolls. After having battled and won a small amount of table space, I pulled out my laptop in hopes of reading some articles I downloaded. I lost interest quickly but I left my laptop out as a matter of principle. The dolls continued to dance around my laptop, often bumping into it, truly shattering my belief that Russian dancers were among the best. As the last light went out and the seats were turned down into beds, I lost my seat to a young mother and her surprisingly cute and bubbly baby. I spent the last hour of my train ride walking up and down third class, looking at all of the sleeping Russians, like a macabre watchman.

I have arrived at many small town train stations in the middle of the night and the feeling of seeing your train continue rolling down the track as you are left alone at your destination is the most liberating feeling I have experienced. Small town train stations at night usually host the same small cast of characters. A homeless person or two, a taxi driver, perhaps one or two other passengers from your train, but if you are truly lucky, it is just you.

As the party people across Europe start to go to bed, I rise with the sun in Tula. In most instances, the act of waking up in a town that you weren’t able to see when you went to bed is an exciting experience. I had quite the opposite experience. It is hard to believe that this is the nearest real town to what Tolstoy once called home, and I blame a lot of that on the USSR. Its buildings are so drab and derelict, it looks more like Chernobyl than a town of 500,000. The streets are dirty and the people, perhaps in solidarity with the city, have become quite decrepit looking themselves. Every few blocks there is an expansive memorial to the many victories of socialism, which seem to be the best taken care of. The sort of place you want to shower after every time going outside, but then you worry even the water in the shower might have come from some radioactive lake. Tula is truly Russia having fallen into its greatest clichés… supported by the fact that the towns main exports are weapons and samovars.

It makes its neighbor, the small nature preserve of Yasnaya Polyana feel something of an oasis. Perhaps that is what Leo Tolstoy saw there, perhaps he just liked looking at the many peasants that lived in the surrounding hills. We will truly never know.

To get there I took the local mini-bus that drops one off about 1 mile down the road from the entrance. It is no easy mile, meandering down unpaved farm roads and through old school yards. Luckily an older, good hearted Russian woman managed to communicate that she too was headed my direction and I should follow her. I followed her in silence for most of the mile apart from her questions in Russian to which I could only answer Da (yes). Halfway through the walk we realized we could communicate in French, at which I point I managed to convey that I am a student of literature from New York, however she soon switched back to Russian and I followed by smiling and nodding. We passed through a school yard and by a massive statue of Vladimir Lenin, which she told me was erected by Stalin, and no one knows quite why… she laughed.

Yasnaya Polyana is essentially one giant estate, missing only its owners. The orchards and gardens are still cared for, the horses are still tied to the peach trees for mowing, and the houses are kept clean. Yet this all seems to be purely for the visitors delight and it felt far more genuine than colonial Williamsburg. I wandered the orchards for a bit, having meaningful moments with some horses and read Tolstoy’s The Cossacks in the tall grass.

Lunch was served across the street in a little café that serves recipes from Sofya Tolstoya’s (Tolstoy’s wife) recipe collection. Mushroom soup and chicken with mushrooms…I suppose they ate lots of mushrooms. I then continued through the estate, relishing in my relative solitude. I spent time by the ponds, walking through the wildflower meadows, and traversing the small ravines. By late afternoon I had stumbled upon a site which I considered avoiding; Tolstoy’s grave.

It is a little unmarked green plot at the edge of the ravine and yet I knew exactly what I had come upon. Tolstoy’s eldest brother who died in his adolescence once told young Leo of a green stick that was by the ravine. This stick, Tolstoy’s brother said, was said to have written on it, the meaning of life. Although Tolstoy never found the stick, he specified in his rather meticulous will that he wanted to be buried by the ravine…perhaps in case he got bored and wanted to keep searching.

As I walked through the Ravine, I couldn’t help but keep my eye out for a green stick. It then dawned on me that the text on it would be in Russian or at least in the Cyrillic alphabet, so I gave up my search.

Upon seeing Tolstoy’s grave I couldn’t help but be struck by how small it was. This giant in my head, the man responsible for War and Peace and Anna Karenina was most likely shorter than I was. He was a frail man and from his pictures seemed incredibly meek. What I am trying to get at, is that as I take the train back to Moscow, I am renewed by the fact that, though I couldn’t have bested Tolstoy in an argument, I could have certainly taken him out in a fist fight.


One thought on “The Pilgrimage to Yasnaya Polnaya

  1. Another movie recommendation comes to mind: The Last Station, about Tolstoy and with very intense wife. Fabulous film –
    Your journey is extraordinary – I love reading your posts.
    Xx, Sj


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