Monday, 3 September 2018

A Tourist in Tula, or Yasnaya Polyana 2018

Yasnaya Polyana archive with unknown child

It has been, astonishingly, six years since my first jaunt to Yasnaya Polyana for the 2012 International Tolstoy conference. Although last month marked my fourth event (it’s biannual), I see I haven’t blogged about it since that first exciting convention. I was remiss not to write up the Great Heine Scandal of 2016, in which thirty middle-aged Russian scholars almost rioted when a German academic attempted to explain Heine’s poetry in a paper misleadingly entitled “Heine and Tolstoy” – it mentioned Tolstoy once (although we did learn that Goethe liked playing with model engines). Or the Great Escape of 2016, in which another delegate and I daringly skipped a panel and walked (Tolstoy would have approved) three miles to the historic train station of Kozlova Zaseka. (I remember less about 2014, as I spent most of that visit in the archives taking notes on Tolstoy’s collection of classical literature, and minding my hatchling, who came too). When the 2018 conference came round, I felt quite the old hand. 

The organizers, Galina Alekseeva and Donna Orwin, created a full schedule in spite of last-minute cancellations; the Tolstoy bus ran on schedule to and from Moscow; we were treated to a retired American general (Rick McPeak, formerly of West Point) as well as an American colonel (Mary Olea), both paper-givers; there was a welcome meal and a lavish farewell spread, and the once-onerous process of hotel passport registration was actually painless. The peaceful birch forest around the hotel was flooded with sunlight every day, and Yasnaya Polyana itself – where Tolstoy spent most of his life – was accessible to delegates by the front gate, although sadly the “hole in the fence” that offered delegates the illicit thrill of out-of-hours access in past years, had been stopped with some rather unTolstoyan-looking barbed wire.

Galina Alekseeva & Donna Orwin
There were some splendid papers at this conference, all given in Russian. I particularly enjoyed Anna Gorodetskaya on the evolving relationship between Tolstoy and Turgenev; Alexei Vdovin on how Tolstoy’s writings were integrated into the Soviet school curriculum; and Sergei Kibal’nik on Tolstoy’s Resurrection as a rewriting of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Kibal’nik claims that Resurrection is Tolstoy’s most Dostoevskian novel, although also informed by readings of Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island and the landscapes of Isaak Levitan’s art. My own paper cunningly followed the tried-and-trusted model of “Tolstoy and X”, where X is an obscure Anglophone author. This plan was designed to flatter Russian Tolstoy scholars (tolstovedy) by demonstrating Tolstoy’s ubiquity abroad, while simultaneously evading difficult questions by making sure no-one had heard of X. I think it worked. When presenting in Russian, not my native language, I feel even sorrier for my hearers than myself, so I gave them a nice handout with colour pictures to look at. Papers were supposed to last strictly twenty minutes, but the panel chairs were not equally strict and each panel had up to seven speakers. This led to serious overruns and much audience frustration. Just as my turn came (I was fourth or fifth), someone demanded a break (pereryv) in a tone which did not brook refusal. Everyone rushed out. My chair was anxious about time, so she tried to re-start my panel on schedule; but it takes quite a while to get thirty mostly Russian academics back in a conference room, even if the tables are piled with fresh apples from Tolstoy’s orchard. I resisted starting my paper before we were quorate, but possibly as a result of this delay, all too soon I heard the chair’s gentle throat-clearing. A scrap of paper with a five-minute warning, rapidly reducing to minus numbers, began undulating in my peripheral version. (I’ve been on both sides of this infraction before – I’ve been the badly behaved speaker picking up speed in extra time begged from the chair, and I’ve been the chair wondering if a heavy book to the skull is the only way to shut the speaker up – but as I forgot to time myself on this occasion, I have no idea whether I got my lawful twenty minutes or not). Poor X, the writer I’d picked as Tolstoy’s straight man, sank into even greater obscurity when five minutes into my paper, one of the senior tolstovedy present took the first of two mobile phone calls. A groundswell of whispering started up at the same time in the audience. I’ve never felt so demoralized mid-paper than I did during the second phone call, nor come closer to pointedly giving up and walking away, but Russian conferences are not like other conferences, and Yasnaya Polyana conferences are a law unto themselves, so I persisted. Apart from my slightly fraught experience, I would say this conference actually lacked the scandals – and here I really mean skandal, or dispute – which, when conducted in a humorous and respectful spirit as they always are, make Yasnaya panels so rich (I am not, of course, referring to the 2016 discussion on the bra sizes of Tolstoy’s heroines). But this unwonted peacefulness was because certain regular conference-goers, who can always be relied upon for an intelligent heckle, were absent. It was also a minor shame we didn’t have a conference outing to a local Tolstoyan site, although I compensated for this by skipping half a day to see Tula, the nearest city.

The Tula Armour Museum

Tula is a Second World War hero-city – a gorod-geroi – and it never lets you forget this. The broad squares, impressive kremlin, handsome eighteenth- and nineteenth-century frontages in the centre (many of which are being restored by the city), and steep, seemingly endless streets are magnificently Russian, and hundreds of posters, slogans affixed to buildings, and video screens in various places all summon the visitor to due appreciation of local and national patriotism. Tula is famous for manufacturing samovars, priyarniki (or gingerbread cakes), and armour. The latter industry (based at a factory founded by Peter the Great) is celebrated today by not one but two military museums, old and new; the latter is designed to look like a gigantic medieval Russian helmet, and the very modern interior included a floor-to-wall screen spooling extraordinary propaganda videos like this. It’s easy to forget Russia’s military heritage in pacifist Yasnaya Polyana, but in Tula it is unavoidable; the scars of the Great Patriotic War are everywhere. They remain a source of great and justifiable pride; and also of dangerous nationalism. I tried to debate this point with a Russian tolstoved on the bus back to Moscow, but it turned into a (very interesting) one-sided lecture on the production of Russia’s Panzer-beating T-34 tanks. In this ideological climate, it’s important that the Yasnaya Polyana organizers host speakers like Rick McPeak, who teaches Hadji Murat to American servicemen in the hope that Tolstoy’s words will feed their empathy with Russian soldiers, as he described in his talk. And it was a triumph of multiculturalism at the post-paper party when the same American general broke into a rendition of “Kapitan, kapitan, ulybnites’” (“Smile, my captain!”), which caused the stately Olga Slivitskaya, dowager conference queen, to tell him firmly that he was a russkii chelovek.

Tolstovedy in conference, August 2018. Dinosaur not in shot
I might add that the only way to travel the 15 miles from Yasnaya Polyana to Tula is by marshrutka, a kind of minibus where you tell the driver your destination, pay a token sum, squash in next to the other passengers, and then shout “Stop at the next one!” when you’re nearly there. To reach the marshrutka halt, you have to follow a winding paved track from the conference hotel through the les, or forest, for about 800 metres, constantly intersecting with even narrower paths leading between the trees. I had just emerged onto the motorway when an old lady hailed me. Which way to the hospital, she wanted to know? I still get paralyzed with anxiety about revealing myself as a foreigner, and a Jurassic, cold-blooded one at that; so even though I knew very well from previous visits how to get to the village hospital, I stuck to monosyllabic words to hide my accent. I told her to turn right along the paved road, and right again, to reach her destination. “Thanks!” said the frail old lady, and dived into the les

The les at Yasnaya Polyana
Now there was a path through the les to the hospital, but it was long and twisting, and I worried she might get lost. I yelled at her to wait. To my relief I saw a young man approaching. “Young man!” I shouted (this mode of address is quite normal in Russian). “Please tell that old lady how to get to the hospital!” “Of course!” he said, helpfully, and leapt over to where the old lady was still hesitating dubiously. And then – they both disappeared into the les, like mythical creatures. The last glimpse I had of either of them was the bright pattern on the babushka’s headscarf. On the way to Tula, I had no idea where to stop; my hope the driver would remember that I’d asked for the Kremlin evaporated when he drove on past it. I squeaked, “Next one!”, escaped, and backtracked a kilometre or two (Tula is built on a Brobdingnagian scale, with gaps between bus stops to match). On the homewards journey, I caught my marshrutka without accident and looked out carefully for Yasnaya Polyana. When I saw it coming up, I opened my mouth, but I suddenly suffered an intense attack of what you might call marshrutka mutism. (My panel chair might have wished I’d been afflicted earlier). I somehow couldn’t open my mouth in that squishy minibus, betraying myself as a foreigner in front of all these peaceful Russian shoppers and commuters. I devoutly hoped someone else would get off at my stop. But they didn’t. Nor at the next one. Or the next. And the les closed in around us again. Perhaps five miles later we stopped in a town called Pervomaiskii (First of May), where I promptly crossed the square and hopped on the next marshrutka in the opposite direction. This time, for fear of being carried back to Tula and ping-ponging across the district until someone else finally chose my stop, I forced myself to speak up – too early, as it turned out; I had to walk two stops back to the Yasnaya Polyana gates. 

But, for future reference, I found the local supermarket and the Tolstoy family graveyard. Time to plan 2020’s adventure, if I am lucky enough to join the tolstovedy in conference one more time.

Lenin in Tula
One final shout-out: My week in Yasnaya Polyana and Moscow gave me much-needed me-time to remember why I love Russian literature. I rediscovered the wonderful Phalanstery (Falanster), a bookshop hidden on a staircase off a courtyard off a side street in central Moscow, where I found a new translation passion (more soon). I refreshed my contemporary Russian writing collection, and in so doing I revisited some pages by my fellow bloggers who keep alive (in a much more dedicated way than I manage to do) their excitement for Russian books and writers. Among my favourites: here’s to the inimitable Lizok of Lizok’sBookshelf, my go-to book critic for that it’s-all-got-to-fit-in-carry-on shortlist; to Languagehat, who is unique; to the lovely Boris Dralyuk and his long-standing blog (and whose guest-edited edition of Cardinal Points is up next on Russian Dinosaur). Thank you all for sharing your knowledge – and long may you blog!

The Great Pond at Yasnaya Polyana