Tula and Tolstoy

Stepping into Leo Tolstoy’s world.

Whenever a bemused Russian has asked me “why Russia?”, my eyes light up and I respond eagerly: “I have dreamed of visiting Russia in the Winter since I was a little girl because of the art, the history, the literature and the movements which intertwine them: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Catherine the Great, the Trans-Siberian, Repin, Fabergé, Blok, the Winter Palace… you name it”. If I was to ever be exact with my response and narrow it down to one thing, it would be due to my great love for realism and the philosophies of my most beloved teacher, Leo Tolstoy. He, himself, beautifully encapsulates the intricacies of this nation’s identity.

Because of the actual beauty Tolstoy infused in his writing and teachings, I knew there was a deep beauty within Russia I was very curious about. A beauty hardly any Westerner bothers to explore. While living in Moscow the first time, I befriended a quiet, inquisitive man named Dmitriy. We shared similar values and a common intellect, so a bond easily formed. Dmitry’s family lives in Tula, the province where Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana estate is situated. Tolstoy called this place his “inaccessible literary stronghold” where he produced his most notable works from and his family lived there for generations. I was invited to stay at Dmitry’s family home and thus, this allowed me to visit Yasnaya Polyana. I, of course, happily accepted. For Dmitry’s generosity and the opportunity he provided me with, I am deeply humbled. This is something I will never forget.

Retreating to the grand estate of where Tolstoy was raised, I greatly respected and appreciated the magic and intimacy it possessed. With the snow laden ponds, the expanse of symbolic white-trunk birch trees, the authentic wooden huts, little children giggling as they pass you on horse and sleigh, the naked apple orchards and the serenity of nature. Being there felt sacred as well as completely and utterly surreal. Yasnaya Polyana has a soul and an energy you feel with every fibre of your being. To have immersed myself in the energy and awe of this place, of Tolstoy and the atmosphere, takes my breath away and fills me with adulation.


In the last few years of his life, Tolstoy dictated to his secretary, N.N. Gusev, he wanted to be buried at Yasnaya Polyana: “there should be no ceremonies while burying my body; a wooden coffin, and let anybody who will be willing to take it to the Old Zakaz forest, to the place of the little green stick, by the ravine. At least, there’s a reason for selecting that and no other place”. As Tolstoy said this, Gusev observed there were tears in his eyes. The mythology of the little green stick seems very fitting for a place like this. Deep in a soft, snow-filled forest at the end of winter, the enchanted tomb lies silently before a cascading, snow-capped ravine enclosed by an interstitial network of trees. Both romantically idyllic and elegiac, it resonates with the mesmeric poignancy of a nostalgic reminiscence or a lucid dream.


It was Tolstoy’s most beloved eldest brother, Nikolai, who narrated the story of the little green stick to him and his siblings as a child. When Nikolai was 12 years old, he once told his family he held a great secret that could make all men everlastingly happy. If it could be revealed, nobody would die any more, there would be no wars or illnesses and nothing untoward in the world. Everyone would love one another and become “Ant Brothers”. The catch was one needed to find a little green stick, buried on the edge of the ravine in Old Zakaz, as the secret to cure ills of man was inscribed.

Playing the game of the “Ant Brotherhood”, the five Tolstoy children settled under armchairs covered with shawls, sitting there and snuggling up together, tenderly discussing the necessities for happiness and how they would love others if they were to find the magic stick. When he was over seventy years of age, Tolstoy reminisced about the world which they created: “it was so very good, and I am grateful to God that I could play like that. We called it a game, though anything in the world is a game except that”. “The ideal of Ant Brothers clinging lovingly to one another, only not under two armchairs curtained by shawls, but of all the people of the world under the wide dome of heaven, has remained unaltered for me. As I then believed that there was a little green stick whereon was written something which would destroy all evil in men and give them great blessings, so I now believe that such truth exists among people and will be revealed to them and will give them what it promises.”


Leo Tolstoy’s grave seems simple: a mound on the edge of the ravine, neither tombstone nor cross. But this grave, as well as the peace and quiet of the old forest and the tranquility of the entire estate, can tell us a lot about Tolstoy and his understanding of life and death. His undying loyalty to the little green stick is a tribute to his entire character.

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The pathway leading towards Tolstoy’s grave and the little green stick.

You Are Here

It was Hemingway who introduced me to an honest life. And it is art which offers me depth and beauty simultaneously. My dreams fill me with hope. But you are the only one who harmonises my spirit, my heart, my conscience, with the softest poetry and deepest sincerity.

Even in suppression you selflessly hand me acceptance, empowerment and profound love. You are here.

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Jamie Wyeth

Yet my mind and soul are elsewhere, chasing dreams; dreams which you light up for me. And maybe your mind and soul are elsewhere too. We are not to blame. There is nothing wrong with the intimate world between you and I. That world which encapsulates Van Gogh’s Starry Night, the philosophies of Alain Badiou, the smell of roses, the sound of waves arriving on the shore. Everything that is beautiful on this Earth. You are here.

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Robin Eley

I think of you. I think of my love for you even now and a torrent of awe overflows. I cannot escape the overwhelming rawness of emotion that exudes. I cannot escape. My heart still thanks me for having touched your hand, for having kissed your lips, for having looked into your eyes, for having adored your smile. Push aside the temporary pain and feel my hand in yours. You are with me, locked away, on my journey. You are here.

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James Tissot

All around me I will find you: in the brushstrokes of a painting, during quiet reflection, in the dreams and writing which bring me solace. You smile at me and reach for my hand. I close my eyes and feel your touch. You are here.

Love That Never Leaves

To forgive but not to forget.

Back in the 14th century, Persian poet Hafiz advised us to “stay close to anything that makes you glad you are alive”. Today, British poet and philosopher David Whyte explains how heartbreak is “an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is [an] essence and emblem of care… Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going”.

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Hussam El-Sayed

I like to talk to my ex: the one who taught me reciprocated love and left me in pieces. I remain fearless and vulnerable. I have no desire to internalise and disregard the truth in it. I seem to suffer more if I suppress my inner workings as opposed to forgetting ego and just being truthful.

I like to tell him the feelings I had back then, still ascend, and I sob as I cover myself with an invisible blanket of fragility and sincerity. I like to tell him the warmth of his smile and loving gaze, of his hands holding my body and of his unshaven skin up against my face keep me warm at night. I thank him for making me feel as alive as I had ever felt at a time where my world was numbing. I find it humbling I am interwoven in his very fabric and he in mine.

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My love for him fills the room with radiating light and comforts me in solidarity when traveling. He spoons me in bed, in my Moscow apartment; even though he is living his life separately in Melbourne. I never feel alone and I no longer seek to be accepted and understood. These days, I get so much from imparting my perspective, my loving nature and lively spirit to people who have not discovered such things within themselves. I love the self-gratitude I get from sharing my life with others. It is no longer only about what I need and want. I speak of fulfillment, not of this dark emptiness which I once drowned in.

Even if he did not stay, I cannot punish him for helping me find the value myself and my choices. I cannot forget how we would naturally become something so fucking beautiful, it was beyond comprehension. Think about it: the inception of no longer knowing your feelings, your logic, what is real, what is important; when Dali’s imagination becomes more real to you than this.

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Salvador Dali

Irrespective of the heartbreak he caused me, he gave me this positive outlook from the deep love we shared. I could easily escape the past and close the gates on our story and on him being a part of me; but this would be deluding the joys that came with it. Joys that you can still carry with you which are used as miracle cures. Why would I not thank him every day for being the most precious gift?

When you love someone, there is nothing to forgive. Nothing to be bitter about. To love them is to accept their imperfections and accept the reasons why you cannot be together. When we each find another love, I will still thank his Mother for creating something so unbelievably divine. I will still thank the crappy situation in which we met. I will still thank the heartbreak for what it has given me.

Remembering him keeps me expressing the rawness of my emotions, keeps me from finding the solidarity discomforting and it sensitises me to the present. I am fulfilled with a kind of simple living. Any scratch of selflessness received I appreciate tenfold. I constantly find strength in my abilities. All of this from what people view as trauma and a closed door.

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John Green says “what a treacherous thing it is to believe that a person is more than a person”. I find him an idiot: a man who does not see the true value in relationships from the people that form them. Then again, he seems to religiously follow the joy of suffering over just joy, as many of us do. People cry in despair realising that love and associated heartbreak never leaves them. And I ask, why would you want it to? Have you realised the joys you can put on repeat, instead of the sorrows? Do you acknowledge what you have gained and learnt? Have you really loved and been loved?

The Revolution of Artistic Expression

Divulging the artistic and philosophical breakthrough of the late 19th century in Russia.

The late nineteenth century was a period of tremendous change as political empires broke up, nationalism arose, the power of the middle class replaced that of the aristocracy, and colonialism flourished. Literature emerged as the artistic medium that best expressed the social, economic, and philosophical concerns of the day, moving away from the issues and styles associated with Romanticism earlier in the century. Russian writers moved toward a new style called “realism” practiced by the major players Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov. Realists sought a truthful portrayal of contemporary life, a “slice of life,” from an objective viewpoint.

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The Peredvizhniki aimed to create art that represented contemporary Russian life and to bring art out of the capital and into the countryside- to the people- to create an art for the nation.

The symbolist movement in Russia is known as the Russian Silver Age (1892–1917), inspired by Baudelaire’s writings protesting that poetry become known as “symbolism.” Russian writers were strongly influenced by other Western exemplars such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Poe and Mallarmé. The writer Valeri Briusov was instrumental in introducing these Western works to the Russian audience. Rejecting positivism and materialism, Russian writers experimented with literary form and valued suggestion, intuition, and musicality in their work. Russian symbolists rejected the didactic depiction of the empirical world and conceived of a truer reality hidden by phenomenal experience. They believed that intuition was more important than objective knowledge.

The first symbolist movement cultivating both literature and artistic performance, thus broadening the spectrum, was via the Moscow Art Theatre. The Moscow Art Theatre or MAT was the first modern art theatre in Russia that united ethics and aesthetics on a sophisticated artistic level. At the end of the 19th-century, founders Konstantin Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko both wanted to reform Russian theatre to high-quality, expressive art that everyday society could access. It was paramount they endorsed free artistic expression and therefore were to eliminate the chances of the theatre being subservient to government control.

The pair set about creating a private theatre where Stanislavski managed the production process and Nemirovich concerned himself over the literary, intellectual decisions. Their differences proved to be complementary, and they agreed to initially divide power over the theatre, with Nemirovich in charge of the literary decisions and Stanislavski in charge of all production decisions. The theatre housed Chekhov’s first play, The Seagull, in 1898. The play successfully imitated an intimate portrayal of everyday life.


The MAT became the hub for the Moscow intelligentsia- a status class of educated people engaged in the complex mental labours that critique, guide, and lead in shaping the culture and politics of their society—where the audiences would stay on after premieres for a lecture on the play by a critic. After the lecture, lively topical discussions continued outside the theatre. They debated with particular passion. A reviewer in 1905 wrote “People with a deep spiritual wound go to the theatre. The theatre is the only place where a Russian citizen feels like a citizen, where he meets others like himself in the formation of public opinion”.

The Moscow Art Theatre continued to support the symbolist movement through its Chekhovian ceremonies and acclaimed Stanislavski productions. The movement was seconded by the likes of Bely, Kandinsky and Blok with whom presented art that expressed the inner self in a language of its own.

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Kandinsky’s Composition VII, 1913