Tula and Tolstoy

Stepping into Leo Tolstoy’s world.

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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.

Why We Need Loneliness

Freeing yourself of personal imprisonment through loving, trusting and relying on oneself.

Oscar Wilde proclaimed “it’s very healthy to spend time alone. You need to know how to be alone and not be defined by another person”.

It seems to be the standard to believe we require companionship to complete who we are, emphasising on the security it provides. It is also less unpleasant than the constant inner conflict we endure when alone. I have drawn the conclusion, you can never be truly fulfilled by companionship or yourself, until you embrace discovering oneself alone. As Alain de Botton once said, “the best guarantor of ending up in a good relationship is the capacity to be alone”.

Ion Doboşariu
Ion Doboşariu

Loneliness is not easy  to endure and it never fully leaves you, making you restlessly long for connection, communal intimacy or escape. It is burdensome and suffering, where “one’s inner scream becomes deafening, deadening, severing any thread of connection to lives”, as  Maria Popova puts it.

After a failed relationship, British Author Olivia Laing relocated to the USA and found herself at the mercy of daily, bone-deep loneliness that was all-consuming:

“Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise. Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person, as much a part of one’s being as laughing easily of having red hair. Then again, it can be transient, lapping in and out in reaction to external circumstance, like the loneliness that follows on the heels of a bereavement, break-up or change in social circles.”

“Mortality is lonely. Physical existence is lonely by its nature,stuck in a body that’s moving inexorably towards decay, shrinking, wastage and fracture.Then there’s the loneliness of bereavement, the loneliness of lost or damaged love, of missing one or many specific people, the loneliness of mourning.”

Daniel F Gerhartz
Daniel F. Gerhatz

“Like depression, like melancholy or restlessness, it (loneliness) is subject too to pathologisation, to being considered a disease. It has been said emphatically that loneliness serves no purpose… Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think any experience so much a part of our common shared lives can be entirely devoid of meaning, without a richness and a value of some kind.”

Experiencing such turmoil attached to loneliness is unproductive, which society has linked to failing at a fulfilling life. Yet the restlessness and anguish associated with being alone can trigger great creativity and presence, discovering what it is to be alive.

To break free of that personal imprisonment (thus bringing about societal change) through loving, trusting and relying on oneself, we are then able to achieve solitude instead which liberates the spirit: “loneliness might be taking you towards an otherwise unreachable experience of reality”. Simply put, solitude is reached when you accept “the fact that loneliness, longing, does not mean one has failed, but simply that one is alive”. Laing adds:

“I don’t believe the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. I think it is about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted”.

Erik Jones
Erik Jones

“Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each other. We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.”

Unfamiliar Territory

Discussing what self-exploration via travel is really, honestly like.

Travel is no dreamlike existence. It is beautiful, liberating and full of wonder. Yes, the people, the places, the experiences are ones which are beautifully unique. But you are completely alone and the outer world is separate from you: impenetrable, shallow and limited in scope. With this loneliness comes both solitude and the deepest sorrow. It will never be what you imagined it to be; the predefined outcomes you expect; the perceived “lightness” associated with wandering from place to place.

Choi Mi Kyung
Choi Mi Kyung

There are no distractions any more. As soon as you are alone and isolated, you drown in raw emotions and baggage. Heartbreak that you thought you left behind returns in full force. Travel like this is fucking difficult. Hence, there is a cliché returned countrymen use: “I thought travel would help me solve my problems but instead I found out it was a mere escape”. Such individuals return home and expect answers there, through people or situations. They have always known full well they will go back home, as certainty and limitations are comforting. They know there is obligation waiting for them. I personally think it is a cop-out.

Audrey Kawasaki
Audrey Kawasaki

The sheer power of ridding yourself layers of distraction and exposing all there is of you, is enough to drive you mad. Do you know what it’s like? It is like being that guy in the true story film Into the Wild. Well, this is surely the wild. The deep connections of absent lovers and friends keep you from breaking down completely, whether it be for guidance or company. Not to mention the pressure of getting a steady income flow to keep you from cutting your journey short gives you really shit anxiety. It is a daily battle. You know though, deep down, this is what you need. You no longer want to feel conflicted all of the time. So tired. So accommodating. So used. So full of nothing. In a state of constant recovery.

Roman Tolici - Accident in Amzei Square
Roman Tolici

I admit, I spend most days indoors healing wounds. I have a daily cry. I do not know if I will be able to overcome my issues or if I might overthink and over-feel, until I slip into an abyss of insanity. But I know I don’t want to cover myself up. I am shattered and vulnerable. But with pure intention. Even if I drive myself into a hot sticky mess, I know one day I will awake; I will be alive and OK. I believe I do not have limits. The thing that would drive me insane is the fear which tries to take over. When do we ever give ourselves the time we need to be completely honest and accepting on our own, without influence? When are we not influenced?

Nathalie Seifeter
Nathalie Seifeter

If I hold on tight to the magic of truth, of my strength and curiousity to keep me opening up and taking it in, maybe hope will pierce through more of these holes. Maybe love will come aide me selflessly and effortlessly and I will have no need to depend on it. And self-sufficiency. And later, I may feel ready to move forward with my ambitions without feeling like I have to achieve a certain benchmark before truly living. Instead, being satisfied with my life and being present.

Felice House
Felice House

My biggest fear is to regret not pushing myself beyond the level of comfort. Of familiarity and of dependence. I refuse to be weak. I do not want it to be easy… I have had that already. If it takes a year… or two, so be it. I know this is the only path for me to take. I am not here for happiness and fulfillment. I am here to adapt; to cope; to confront my problems; to embrace my flaws; to discover peace in solitude. I am here to be myself. I believe that it will get clearer as I go. I carry with me hope, knowing the outcomes are beyond familiarity. I take this newfound hope with me, as I step over the edge.

How I Got Here

I speak the truth not so much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little more as I grow older.
– Michel de Montaigne

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Dirk Dzimirsky
Growing up in a five-person household where love and encouragement were aplenty but money, stability and staples were lacking, I was compelled to be a dreamer from an early age: a complete romanticist. I dreamed of being a ballerina, a superhero, an archaeologist, a writer, an artist, an Olympian. As an example, I enjoyed playing G.I. joes with my twin brother where the front-yard tap was located, pretending the running tap was a waterfall and the gush of water was a natural obstacle where few figurines survived. Not to mention the battle fought against the worms and the butchy boys. I remember watching the animation film Fern Gully and for days after at school, I attempted to grow beautiful gardens with nothing but a tree seed, my hands and belief!

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Danielle van Zadelhoff
Throughout all of my childhood, creativity was encouraged. Making mud pies, drawing up my own paper dolls, dancing six days a week, creating our own news reels. And wander: Dad and I would collect seashells; Mum would excitedly show me the city lights over the Westgate Bridge, calling them “fairy lights”. There was always magic and optimism and beauty and freedom of expression in everything around me. My imagination was unlimited and all consuming. I was happy making characters out of grapes and toothpicks; I was happy looking at art and seeing depth, colour and unknown endeavors.

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Henrietta Harris
As I grew up I kept romanticising, kept dreaming until it became an escape- an escape I never seemed to act on. Struggling with social pressures, I thought too much. I forgot patience. I then forgot how to create freely. I then forgot to accept mistakes and to appreciate failure. I forgot to waste time. The magic left me and I became no longer free. I had to prove who I was and what I was doing and why I was doing it. I traveled and was starving to be successful, trying to grasp the status I had worked so hard for. I wanted to prove myself so much in order to be understood.

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Flora Bursi
But I was a contradiction: hugely ambitious but transparent and not ego-driven. If I kept within social parameters, I was easily manageable. I struggled with false ideals, feeling more and more lost and inconsolable. I did not know what loving yourself was and I did not apply the notion of self-belief. Extremely confident and bubbly, passionate, curious, enthusiastic and intense. Yet that seemed to be the problem. Internally I was fighting anxiety, depression and insecurity, showcasing denial through a constant journey of “self-improvement”. I felt rejected and incredibly alone. I broke.

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Hussam El-Sayed
When I did, I realised I could not keep improving and searching for the next flaw to cure. There was no cure. I had to then break the mould. I learnt to be honest with myself. I would say it has been the most liberating aspect of my existence. From then on, I have stripped back the unnecessary layers of conditioning starting from my childhood through to intimate relationships through to current expectations and biases of a Western, 30 year-old corporate, single woman. Every day is a battle against comparison, conditioning, self-doubt and influence. It is exceptionally difficult to stay true to yourself, please note. It is a very lonely and confrontational journey, serving you more tears and joy than you would experience in a lifetime without it. You learn, however, to be present and to appreciate the simplest things. And you start to believe you are enough and discover exploration is interwoven in the fabric of living.

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James Jean
But it is an ongoing adventure of trial and error as you get closer and closer to being completely truthful. Recently, after twelve months of working for an income to support my start-up, it dawned on me more and more frequently that I had no time for living, for enjoying, for magic. I accepted I had lost all the freedoms which personify my character. Even though I was full of self-acceptance, my environment did not align with who I was. I was exhausted and miserable, living and breathing a societal norm that did not accept me (and I did not accept it). Feeling suppressed, I decided to return to the purest form of myself. I realised I was more than capable of fulfilling my dreams and enabling myself without any dependency. I taught myself to look outward and I changed my path: one which led me back to a more refined purpose consisting of wandering, connecting, immersing and absorbing. One where magic would reappear.

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Jeremy Miranda
This takes me now to the present. In two days, I leave for Moscow- a place exuding history, arts, philosophy and culture. The trip is indefinite and I hope to then move to Western Europe. Then possibly Eastern Europe. All I know is there will be an adventure of living and honesty. A whole cycle of emotions and thoughts to follow. Snow gently falling and haunting folk music and ornate, beautiful objects, and a new world full of people to meet. The harsh winters, the sometimes-not-so-great cuisines and the language barriers. I am returning to my authentic self. And it is a wonderful time to be curious.