November 01, 2018

Looking for Tolstoy

My Russian tutor, Dina, believes in teaching her students “monologues,” verbal islands from which we can paddle out and demonstrate our conversational and grammatical range. While I read Russian daily, I almost never speak it – out of shyness and fear of making mistakes. Dina’s goal is to get me comfortable enough to not fuss over mistakes, believing it is better to have listeners smile at my mistakes than to shake their heads in frustration as I clench up. Here is the monologue (more or less) that we crafted before I set off for Samara last summer:

I always wanted to go to Samara, for the simple reason that Tolstoy went there several times (more precisely seven times) in the 1970s of the century before last.

Tolstoy adored this place, that is, the farm on the steppes. He loved the Bashkirs and Kirghiz. At that time, they often had it very hard, because there was a famine. Tolstoy helped them as much as he could. He bought horses from them, bustled about for them, and spent a lot of time with them.

How else did Tolstoy occupy himself at that time? We know that while in Samara, he wrote almost not a single word. He enjoyed a simple kind of life, he relaxed. It’s said that he walked naked on the steppes. He loved drinking kumis, a drink from mare’s milk.

One point I didn’t make in the monologue is that I had just finished writing a biographical study of Tolstoy about the four years he was writing and procrastinating about writing Anna Karenina – my book of books, the reason I had learned Russian. And now I wanted to see the place Tolstoy went when he determinedly did not want to work on that novel.

What did I think I knew about his farm on the steppes? That both farmhouses where he and his family had stayed were gone, that there was just empty farmland. There seemed to be a museum in the tiny village of Patrovka, but there was no website or information about its location. I decided that if I showed up with a driver from Samara, of course someone would know where the Tolstoy farm had been and exactly where the monument that I had seen in the pictures was.

July 17

It was raining in Samara. The World Cup had ended the Sunday before, and I was glad to follow and not be among the international visitors to Russia. My driver, Anton, spoke no English, but in the hour’s ride to the local Holiday Inn, I spun out my conversational chat. I told him about Tolstoy and probably recited half of my monologue.

The only part of the monologue that I never recited to anybody was about the great writer walking naked on the steppes. Tolstoy’s wife Sofia, remembering their first family vacation there in 1873, wrote: “Lev Nikolayevich would drink quantities of koumiss and then walk or ride far into the steppes, walking completely naked, as he said, in the sun. He didn’t write anything, he read practically nothing, and lived a purely animal life, building up his strength and health.”*

At the end of our drive through the city, I asked Anton if he would be interested in driving me to Tolstoy’s place in the steppes the next morning. It was two hours each way, according to the web, I said, and I would need a couple of hours to walk around. He said that he couldn’t do it on Wednesday or Thursday, but maybe on Friday. He then looked up the weather on his phone and said there was rain forecast for all three days (the weather forecasts while I was in Russia turned out to be consistently wrong). He said he could “Messenger” me – on an app I had never used and didn’t know I had until he spotted it on my phone.

July 18

Wednesday morning I walked around “old Samara” and along the embankment, and visited the Alexey Tolstoy Museum, which I had thought would be a kind of regional literary museum, but it wasn’t. I had imagined I might find there a museum official who would eagerly roust up an expert who would want to escort me to the real Tolstoy’s farm. The “fake” Tolstoy, Alexey (1883-1945), was a Soviet writer who hacked out patriotic novels on demand and was rewarded by Stalin with fame and life. The fake Tolstoy’s father was a very distant relative of the real Tolstoy; his mother, Alexandra Leontiyevna Turgeneva, on the other hand, was a close relative of Ivan Turgenev. Pregnant with Alexey, with three children at home, Alexandra ran away with her lover, Alexei Bostrom. She wrote children’s books as a Bostrom. The boy grew up thinking his mother’s lover was his biological father and so didn’t take the Tolstoy name until late adolescence.

In the lonely house-museum, I found myself too shy to solicit help about my Tolstoy, and I left feeling anxious. Was this as close as I was going to come to Lev Tolstoy?

That afternoon I looked up ride services on the web. Nothing doing. No rides available. One site replied that they couldn’t process my request without a precise destination address. I didn’t have one.

July 19

After breakfast at the buffet in the lobby I returned to my room and fussed. I hadn’t heard from Anton. I looked through my travel folder and brought two pieces of paper with me downstairs to reception. Two clerks were there, a young guy and young woman. Though they spoke English, I greeted them and told them in Russian about my situation:

“I am in Samara because I want to see the places on the steppes where Lev Tolstoy spent his summers in the 1970s of the before-last century. Can you help me get a driver to take me there?”

I showed them my Google map marked with the route from the hotel to Patrovka, and a xeroxed photo of the Tolstoy monument.

They seemed perplexed by either my request or my grammar. A moment later, an older woman, Irina, came out of her office to help. She looked at my papers and switched the conversation to English. She tried to clarify exactly what I wanted and needed.

“This,” I pointed at the picture. “I want you to help me get a driver to take me to this monument – today or tomorrow. I leave Saturday morning. I came to Samara just for this.”

She told me she would find out what was possible, and that she would call me within the hour.

I went upstairs and paced and wrote and drew in my journal, resigning myself to the fact that I would fail to find Tolstoy in Samara.

Forty-six minutes later she called. She explained that the trip would cost R15,000 ($300!). I must have exclaimed aloud, because she said, “The price is necessary because it is essentially an all-day excursion.”

I hesitated, remembering the advice of a young Russian woman in the New York office that helped me get my visa: “Whatever they ask, don’t pay more than fifty dollars.” She and one of her co-workers implied that the Transvolgan “hicks” would or should be grateful for any tourist dollars that came their way.

But if I didn’t do this, why was I here? “Okay, okay,” I replied.

“He will pick you up at ten.”

Early that afternoon I received a Messenger text from Anton! He said he could drive me into the steppe tomorrow.

I fretted over his offer for an hour or so before I wrote him to thank him, saying I already had other plans.

July 20

I woke at five. The sun had been awake since four and from my sixth-floor room on the hillside, I could see the Volga and its boats and barges. Closer, between my room and the river, birds swooped. A sign in my room warned against opening the windows due to the risk of mosquitoes.

Today was the day, but I was sure that it wasn’t going to work out.

Why did I need to fret this way?

I ate a big breakfast at the hotel buffet, then packed my backpack with a pocket notebook, a thermos of water, three apples, and a book in Russian about Tolstoy and Samara.

At the reception counter I told an attentive young woman at the counter that someone had set up a driver for me to go to Tolstoy’s place on the steppes.

Da, da!” she acknowledged, and she escorted me outside.

There, standing among a few other drivers by the entrance, she introduced me to Alexander Bezuglov, who immediately reminded me of the large, ungainly British comedian Greg Davies. Unlike Davies, however, Alexander wasn’t rude or funny, and he knew no English.

As we made our way out of the city and to the suburbs, for conversation I worked through some of my monologues (family, children, teaching, studying Russian, Tolstoy).

I could have told him that it normally took the Tolstoys a week to get to the farm: a train from Yasnaya Polyana to Moscow, a train to Nizhny Novgorod, and a long steamboat ride from there on the Volga to Samara, the river’s easternmost city.

I never surprised any Russian with anything I knew about Tolstoy; they were just surprised that I was so interested in him.

For the first hour we were in the Samara “greenbelt.” I had been expecting the steppes to appear immediately outside the city, but it wasn’t until I wasn’t expecting it that the trees suddenly peeled away to the folds and ridges in the landscape, and the steppes became evident.

Alexander had grown up in Samara. He was fifty, married with two kids, both still in school, the older one studying English. His wife was a child psychologist. He had studied engineering, and cab driving was not his real job. By profession he was a photographer and documentary filmmaker, a graduate, he said, of a prestigious, old film school.

His films were usually historical, full of old images.

Could I watch his films somehow? Maybe on YouTube? I asked.


They’re in Russian, of course?

There was no text, no narration, he said.

How about music? Was there a soundtrack?


The music from his phone, which he played through the car speakers, became the soundtrack of my search for Tolstoy in Samara: muzak instrumentals with saxophone, among which I detected “Feelings,” “Oops, I Did It Again” and “Hotel California.”

Though there was a route marked out on his phone and on my printed Google Map, he stopped three times for directions. Russian men do not have the American shame of asking strangers for directions. On a dirt road next to a chicken coop, he stopped and waited until a woman who was driving and bumping along behind us reached us.

“She said we have to go back,” he gestured, “to the turn-off.”

The problem with the first couple of detours, he said, was that there were two nearby towns called Alekseyevka. Though he squeezed my knee in assurance (which he probably didn’t realize made me jump), I nodded, then fretted.

Soon after that we stopped at a small store off the two-lane highway, where he asked for directions from a couple of workmen.

As he got back in the car, Alexander announced: We’re going the right way. Within forty kilometers.

I was sure now that we would never ever find Tolstoy.

“Is there a toilet here?” I asked.

“You need a toilet? I’ll find a place.”

Ten minutes further on, Alexander stopped along the side of the road. Down the embankment was a cluster of trees. “This okay, Bob?”

Of course.

And of course I took one step and slipped five feet down the bank to the bottom.

“You all right?”


After I peed, as I climbed back up, he offered me a hand. Then from a container in the trunk, he took out a package of hand-wipes and offered me one.

On the road again, I offered him one of my apples, but he politely refused.

I ate mine thinking, “At least I tried to get to the Tolstoy monument. And we did get to the steppe!”

I told Alexander that I wished there were a documentary about Tolstoy in Samara.

He tapped me on the shoulder and nodded enthusiastically. “There should be,” he said.

He wouldn’t eat an apple, but he began to chew on that idea.

I told him that the first time Tolstoy got the whole family to come to Samara was in June of 1873, and there were sixteen in the party: he and Sofia, six children, Sofia’s little brother, a cook, tutors, and a former nanny.

They had left the city of Samara in carriages on dirt roads. How did they not get lost?

Shortly after noon, we pulled off a busy, truck-filled highway and wound down to a little country town, Alekseyevka.

There were a few stores and a bank, and Alexander pointed out across the street, hanging off a lamppost, a poster on which Tolstoy’s face was printed.

Okay, that was as close as we would get. I immediately regretted not asking to stop so that I could take a picture of this public acknowledgment of Tolstoy’s presence here.

Alexander pulled into a deserted town square. It was bracketed on two sides by government buildings and on the far side by a wooden fence.

After Alexander got out of the car with the Tolstoy monument Xerox, which now also had a pink Post-it on it with Irina’s handwriting, he told me I should wait. I obeyed for a full minute before getting out and walking over to the fence. There hung about a dozen framed, formal photos of the Alekseyevka region’s “Best.” Among the color portraits were two women.

There were puddles in the square. Across the square was a grand statue of Lenin, and across the street from him was a white and blue Orthodox church that looked new. I took a picture and drew a sketch.

I noted the time: 12:17.

Alexander was lost again.

Then across the square came Alexander accompanied by a bustling, cheerful, middle-aged woman in a coordinated outfit and make-up. She was not, apparently, just a stranger helping us get back on the road. Alexander introduced us, I as an important professor from a university in New York (at which I squawked “Nyet!”) and she as a somebody of the region, but I didn’t understand what kind of a somebody she was. Her photo hadn’t been on the wall. She held my hand and was effusive in welcoming me to Alekseyevka, the long ago county home of the great writer and humanitarian Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy!

Just as I had started to wonder if she was going to come along with us, Alexander thanked her and nodded to me. She wished me well in my pursuit of Tolstoy, held my hands again, and walked off.

What a great stop! I thought. To go out of our way to be encouraged to keep looking!

Why did Alexander seem satisfied with that?

I was glum as we drove back through the town and up the rise out of town. At an intersection, he pulled off the road behind a shiny black car. The driver in that car put his hand out the window, and Alexander waved his, and the driver pulled onto the road and we followed him.

“Who’s he?” I asked.


“Friend of that woman?”

“Driver of that woman.”

We drove a couple of miles and entered Patrovka (I saw the sign), and then the driver pulled into a rocky driveway that led to a dilapidated brick building standing in back of a long slope. Was he lost too?

There were a few people on the scruffy grassy slope, in the middle of which were paving stones, a table with power tools next to it, and next to the table a six-foot gray pillar with polished black facings.

A monument.

An etched image of a bearded man?


To Tolstoy!

But it was definitely not the monument I had seen in the photos. It looked brand-new.

The driver of the other car maneuvered to turn around and Alexander parked along the grass beside the driveway. We got out of the car to be greeted (in Russian, of course; English was no use here) by two women, one younger and one older than I, and a short, tan, shirtless man. A tall man in white with a white beard and wearing a white cap remained working near the monument.

I was presented to him last of all; he was the sculptor.

I gawked as I examined the monument.

“To hero!” I said. “To my hero, new monument!”

The short man said, “It’s almost done.”

On the opposite side to Tolstoy was the etched image of his third son, Lev. Lev Lvovich was four years old when he first came to Samara with his family. It was in 1891 when a terrible famine struck the area again that Lev Jr. became a savior, organizing relief. On one side of the four polished black facings were two quotations, one from Tolstoy and one about Tolstoy.

I read them quickly:

“Тайна в том, что всякую минуту другой и все тот же.” Л. Н. Толстой.

On the spot, excited, I couldn’t untangle it. “The mystery... that every moment... other... all like that”?

The older woman asked in an encouraging way if I understood it, and I lied and said I did. (Only later did I get it: “The mystery is that every moment is different and yet the same.”)

Below that quote was an etched image of a quill (Tolstoy did not use feather pens, as far as I know) and a fat book, parted in the middle.

Then the other quotation, which I actually did understand:

Толстой родился не в Заволжье, но степ была в его судьбе.

– Ф. С. Востриков.

Tolstoy was not born beyond the Volga, but the steppe was part of his Fate.

– F. S. Vostrikov.

I took photos of the monument from each side.

The dedication to son Lev was impressive:

Л. Л. Толстой, живя в 1891-92 г.г. в Патровке, спасал население края от голода.

L. L. Tolstoy, residing in Patrovka in 1891-92, saved the region’s population from famine.

On the other side was a carved list of several sponsors.

I knew they were working and that I was in the way. But the topless man, whom I nicknamed “Jim” to myself, because I had lost his name and everyone else’s in the shuffle, moved the work-table in consideration of my taking photos of the monument, and their taking photos of them and me with the monument.

Jim poured tea into a tin cup from a thermos on the table and offered it to me, patting me on the shoulder. I declined the tea, but he insisted, so I took a sip. It was warm and sweet. “Tasty!” I announced, and then we took more photos together in front of the monument, because Alexander, who was talking to the older woman, had come over and wanted to take some himself with his “professional camera.”

I’m sure that I was told by Jim and the younger woman, who I understood to be the librarian, that the village jubilee was in eight days, and that the completely finished monument would be unveiled then to the public.

I was fortunate, they told me, to have a “preview.”

“Da, mne ochen povezlo!” (I’m very lucky), I agreed. So lucky! … And yet, I admitted to myself, this was not the monument that I had come looking for.

The librarian led me to the wall of the shaky-looking building and pointed to a plaque:

Патровская сельская библиотека основана как народная 18.12.1893 г. По просьбе Л. Н. Толстого

The Patrovka Village Library was founded as a people’s library at the request of L. N. Tolstoy, December 18, 1893.*

“Let’s go, Bob,” Alexander called out. I thanked the people for their time and kindness, and bid them farewell and congratulations.

As I approached the car I saw that the older woman was getting in the backseat. I supposed we were going to give her a ride somewhere.

We rolled away down the driveway and the woman told Alexander to turn in at the next road and in about a minute she got him to stop in front of a small building.

Alexander told me to get out to take a photo of the plaque on this wall:

На этом месте стояло здание волостного правления, в котором 19 июля 1881 года на волостном суде присутствовал Л. Н. Толстой

On this site stood the volost* office building, where on July 19, 1881, Leo Tolstoy attended a volost regional court.

I got back in the car. As the woman directed Alexander back onto a road leading away from the village, I only then realized that she was here to guide us. I whispered to Alexander, “She’s taking us to the other monument?”

“Right,” said Alexander. “Understand, Bob, she is the expert.”

She began a lecture on Tolstoy’s life in Patrovka, based, I would see later, on a chapter from her book about Patrovka. I thought I knew everything about Tolstoy in Samara, but she knew everything as an insider. She spoke clearly and swiftly – ideal for a native listener.

I, on the other hand, had a slow ear and only caught the occasional gist. I heard familiar words (horses, the whole family, Bashkirs, Sofia, grass, cattle, milk, the children’s names, farm, famine, God, Anna Karenina) and dates (1871, the year Tolstoy bought the land; 1873, the entire family’s first vacation there; 1875, the entire family’s second and last summer there, during which Tolstoy hosted an all-comers horse race; 1881, when Tolstoy sold off his horses; and 1891-92, the region’s worst famine), and for a while to show her that I was paying attention, I repeated familiar words and dates, but she didn’t slow down or veer from the lecture no matter what I said or whether I nodded or not. It seems to me that Russians can lecture without needing responses or questions.

At one point when I thought I should take notes, I took out a tiny notebook. I listened and decided that what I really wanted was her name and the sculptor’s. I turned and asked her if she could write down her name and his in the notebook. She used my pencil and wrote in that straight, correct, and uniform style that many of my female students who grew up in Russia still use. Men do not. Her name: Valentina … Petrovna. The sculptor: Vladimir Smagin.

In the midst of the lecture Valentina directed Alexander, and we took a dirt road and then entered a fallow field and drove through it, along ruts and rises and avoiding ditches: “Further to the left — the left!”

About a half mile across the rutted land, it dawned on me that we were at the farm site. There was a sky-blue, 30-inch high metal fence surrounding a rectangle.

We stopped and got out. This was not the tall marker I had seen in the photos and that was on the Xerox at Alexander’s feet, but it was the site of the first ramshackle farmhouse that Tolstoy bought with the property. It was too small to sleep the entire group that first year, so Tolstoy, the boys and the boys’ tutor slept outside in a shed or in a Bashkir felt tent.

The house marker was like an old gravestone with worn-down, washed out letters.

На этом месте стоял дом
ЛН Толстого. Здесь написано знаменитое
Письмо к издателям о Самарском голоде. 1873

On this place stood the home of LN Tolstoy. Here the famous Letter to the Editor about the Samara famine was written.


True! From right here, having surveyed the county to determine the people’s preparedness for the famine and to document the dire conditions, Tolstoy did indeed do some writing, composing an essay in the form of a letter describing the region’s droughts and bad harvests, the help the people needed, and their religious resignation to their fearful fate. Writing was the thing that he said he never wanted to do on vacation, but this, he acknowledged, was an emergency:

In the villages, in the farmyards where I went, everywhere it’s one and the same: not absolute famine, but a situation close to it, all signs of a coming famine. There are no peasants anywhere, they’re all leaving to look for work, homes of skinny women with skinny and sick children and old people. There’s still bread, but just barely; dogs, cats, calves, chickens are hungry, and beggars, non-stop, come up to the windows and they’re given crusts or are refused.*

He and Sofia’s teenage brother Styopa visited farms as far as forty-five miles distant, and Tolstoy wrote up his findings as dispassionately as possible, then had the article published in a Moscow newspaper. Donations poured in and the federal government investigated the regional governor’s lack of assistance to the farmers.

Meanwhile, Tolstoy’s children were frolicking, avoiding lessons, enjoying themselves, and almost everyone, tutors and servant included, was drinking koumiss – except for Sofia, who detested the stuff. They were on the farm for two months that summer of 1873.

A detail that had always intrigued me and that I only became convinced was true through writing a biography about him, is that Tolstoy hadn’t wanted to think about Anna Karenina, the novel that he had begun that March. He didn’t forget it exactly, rather he was letting it hibernate.

Valentina touched my arm and pointed out the view: the trees down the slope along the streambed, and up there, see!, was the “pinecone” shaped hill that Sofia mentioned in her memoir, the Shishka.

“Yes, yes! I had read about the Shishka,” I told her.

I wanted to walk to the Shishka. I’ll bet Valentina had done so. I wanted to get a view of the landscape and figure out how far off Tolstoy would have had to go to get out of sight so that he could strip off his clothes and stride along naked.

Happy to be here, I didn’t want to leave. One could see why a house on this site would have been pleasant, even if there had been, apparently, fewer trees back then.

“Valentina says we have to continue,” said Alexander.

I sighed, tried to inhale the sights and sounds, and got back in the car.

Driving off the field, finding the ruts and planes that did not lead to ditches, was trickier than on the way in.

When we got back to the farm road, Valentina had directions for Alexander: “At this main road, turn left.”

I guessed that Valentina was guiding us to the second farmhouse, to the marker!

After a couple of miles of driving south on a regional road that had no traffic, we crossed a dip on a low bridge, to either side of which was a sweep of trees. At the low point between the trees must be a stream.

I said, turning in my seat to Valentina: “I can’t remember the name of the river.”

“Lev Nikolayevich called it the Tananyka,” she said. She told Alexander, there, there, and he pulled onto the side of the road.

We got out.

Alexander explained that the marker was over there, across the hills, across the road, a couple of kilometers, but that it was not possible to drive to it.

Oh! I was disappointed.

“Valentina Petrovna wants to know,” said Alexander, “because it’s up to you, if you want to walk to it?”

“Yes! Let’s go.”

Alexander stayed with the car.

Valentina and I set off. There were no fences, just grass, steppe grass, two primary kinds, she showed me. She broke off a stem and we smelled it.

“In the spring,” she said, inhaling deeply, “in the spring it is more fragrant.”

And now we talked. The lecture was over. She strode with her hands behind her back. The grass was light and didn’t prickle or catch in my sandals. We were at peace on our pilgrimage.

I told Valentina of my love for Tolstoy, that I had read Anna Karenina at eighteen and had read it in English twenty-five times, and that a dozen years ago I had started to learn Russian specifically in order to read it in the original, and that I had now read it twice in Russian. I told her of my community college students back in Brooklyn, many of whom were foreign-born, some of whom were native Russian-speakers. I told her of my children, my wife.

Obviously I wanted Valentina to understand, if she didn’t already, that I wasn’t a casual tourist, that I so adored Tolstoy and so sought out every fact about him that it amused and embarrassed my family and friends. This really is a pilgrimage for me, I tried to say to her. And she, in her seeming enjoyment of my pleasure, in her vigor and encyclopedic knowledge of the region and Tolstoy’s relation to it, reminded me of my late mother, who for decades had been known as an expert in San Francisco historical photos.

Valentina had lived in Patrovka her whole life, and her grandparents on her father’s side had also. She quoted a folk saying: “Где родился, там и пригодился.” (“Where you’re born is where you need to be.”) Her husband had been an engineer. She was a retired Russian language and literature teacher. This is what she did now, volunteered telling the story of the region. She had two children. I had told her I was fifty-eight. She told me she was seventy; her older child, a daughter, was forty-seven. She too was a Russian teacher.

“There is a saying,” she said, “that if you haven’t walked on the steppe you can’t understand the steppe.”

“And now I understand!” I boasted.

Valentina indulgently nodded.

Birds flew out of the high grass as we crossed the slopes. Sometimes we walked in the grown-over track of a car or truck, but usually just across the untracked grass. Snakes slithered out ahead of us, insects hopped.

We walked and walked. New vistas opened as we rounded the hills. We were not at the top of the hills, but midway between them, and the trees that were along the Tananyka. We detoured uphill around a ravine. It looked as if someone in the last month had crossed the bushy spot where we crossed, as there was a cracked piece of board across a now muddy rivulet.

Why didn’t Sofia love it here? The Tolstoy children all wrote fondly of the place. Sergei, the oldest son, remembered:

The rich, deep black earth was covered with thick grass, various herbs, feather grass, spear grass, wormwood and oats. Brown buzzards as large as turkeys flew over the steppe, large white-beaked eagles and hawks soared everywhere, reed-sparrows fluttered about noisily, and the air was filled with the prattle of grasshoppers. In spite of the intense heat, it was easy to breathe on the steppe; the air was dry and even on the hottest days there was a breeze.*


AFTER FIFTEEN MINUTES Valentina pointed out the hill beyond the next hill as the site. I glimpsed the top of the marker.

Tolstoy had vacationed here and strode through these hills. True, the land rolled out mostly flat beyond, forever and forever, but this, the gentle hills and slopes was something I could only compare to the land I had seen off the freeway in eastern Nebraska: long vistas, dry-grassed slopes, trees lining the folds between the slopes.

I felt as if I were beaming.

To Valentina, I think, it was only right to revel in Tolstoy’s delighted appreciation of the place. To her, I hope, there was the feeling that her time and energy had not been wasted on me.

To walk Tolstoy’s steppes! What had I fantasized about for the last couple of years? Just this.

Valentina never lost her breath or slowed down. It was not hot, and the sky was gray.

We arrived.

I took photos from all sides, Valentina offered to take photos of me. In all of them she managed to cut off the upper half of the monument and in a couple of them she stuck her finger into the frame. She hadn’t taken pictures with a phone before, perhaps, and yet she had had in her left hand, the whole time, a yellow-cased cell phone.

When I stopped to take a photo from the site, through my camera lens the Tananyka and beyond looked like an over-rounded, over-softened painting.

What never happened to Tolstoy on the steppes happened now: Valentina got a phone call. She answered it and said: “We’re on our way back.”

I felt like a boy who had found a treasure he had believed was there all along. I continued to survey the grassy hills. Probably I would never be here again.

The way back seemed too short.

At the car Alexander offered us both hand-wipes. I wanted to keep the steppe-grass on me and under my nails. In my pocket I had samples of the grass that Valentina had broken off for me.

Alexander was eager to get going. It was 2:53.

We drove back to the library and the new monument.

I began thinking up sentences with which to thank Valentina and the others and to say goodbye, but before I could sputter it all out, I was invited into the library.

Like a lot of buildings in Russia that look abandoned or ruined, this one was still being used. Inside, on the first floor, was a play area for little kids (who weren’t there), and upstairs was a two-room library. I was invited to have a glass of water and sit on the couch with Valentina and Jim, who was now wearing a tank-top. Then Valentina presented to me, one by one, three books. The first was a memoir by a nineteenth-century religious objector, a Patrovka resident who became a Molokan. The second was Tolstoy’s son Lev’s memoir of 1891-1892, В Голодные Года (“In the Famine Years”) and the third was a fat history called Здравствуй, Патровка! (“Greetings, Patrovka!”) by Valentina Petrovna Salazkina, her full name on the front cover.

She signed the inside and then so did the librarian, Galina Geraskina, and finally “Jim,” who was actually Pyotr Viktorovich Polovinkin. I would discover only later that Pyotr was the primary sponsor of the sculpture.

After a few more minutes of leave-taking by the car, we waved goodbye to the sculptor, Vladimir Smagin, who was still working away.

Basking in the wealth of their kindness and an over-fulfilled dream, three monuments!, I offered Alexander an apple again.

“No, thank you, Bob. ”

He had been musing.

He wanted to talk about this movie we would make. Fifty-fifty profits.

“Of what?”

“You just have to write the scenario.”

“What scenario?”

“Of this! Of what you did and saw.”

“When? Just now?”


“That’s not possible.”

“Of course it is. Write the scenario.”

“In Russian? I can’t write very well in Russian.”

“In English.”


Alexander knew somebody at NBC. NBC was in New York, he said. Yes, I agreed it was. He insisted that I just had to contact his contact and then the funding would come and the movie would be made, and it would be shown in film festivals and on TV.

“I don’t think it’s so easy.”

“You just have to write the scenario, Bob.”

I tried to change the subject. Finally I just played dumb – my best, most convincing role.

Back on the main highway, to which he had received simple instructions from Galina, Alexander pulled over, got out and flagged down the car behind us.

“This is the way back to Samara?”

“Yes, yes – straight on.” The man pointed at a sign just ahead that said Samara on it.

I was tired and didn’t want to talk about the movie. I was happy about what I had just seen and done! So little, really, but I was as satisfied as when, in 2009, my friend Ross and I finally stepped on the grounds of Tolstoy’s home estate, Yasnaya Polyana. I closed my eyes while Alexander dealt with the stop-and-go traffic. There was construction on the highway, and we didn’t get back to the Holiday Inn until 7:00.

We arranged that he would drive me the next morning to the airport. I said he must be tired.

Alexander shrugged and said after dinner and sleep that he would be fit as a fiddle.


July 21

At nine I went outside with my bags to where Alexander was parked across the street in the sun.

When I got to the passenger door, he indicated that he didn’t want me to get in the car yet: “Photos, Bob. Film.”

He took my picture in front of the hotel and then from his breast pocket unfolded a sheet of lined paper with hand-lettered writing on both sides and gave it to me.

“Say this, please.”

It was a script. It was about me being a professor from New York (name the university in the blank there, he instructed) and that I loved Tolstoy and wanted to see where he had spent his summers in the years he was writing Anna Karenina.

“You want me to read this?”

“Not read it, say it.”

He saw my confusion: “Read, then say.”

I looked at it again.

He said, “Are you ready? – Don’t worry, we have time, we’ll get to the airport.”

He held up a camera in video mode.

“In Russian?”

“In Russian.”

The first take I got confused and self-conscious, and started gaping at the camera and shaking my head. He came over and, draping his arm over my shoulder, as I imagine Martin Scorsese might have to do to buck up an amateur actor, said: “Okay, no problem, relax. We’ll start over.”

On the second take, I did what Dina had trained me to do: I winged it, condensing a couple of my monologues. It was not his script. When I stopped I made a face and said, “Will that do, Alexander?” (What a prima donna!)

“Uh, sure.”

Before he let me get in the car he showed me that he had brought me something for my sore throat. (I was only having my usual runny nose allergies.) His home remedy in a pickle jar was what looked like chopped onions in a brine. I was to gargle with it, he explained, not eat it. He wrapped it over with foil and I pushed it into my carry-on.

On the way to the airport he told me that, as soon as I finished the scenario, I needed to send it to him and then we could get the movie made.

“Hm!” I said. Without Alexander, without the direction from the Holiday Inn to the Alekseyevka county administrator, I doubted that I could have found Tolstoy. I was grateful, so I didn’t want to say: Nobody is going to fund such a movie.

At the Samara airport, we exchanged goodbyes, and I promised him: “I’ll send you what I write, Alexander.”

A few minutes later the security people stopped my bag in the scanner. A young guy in uniform called out: “What is that?” A woman in uniform came over.

“This is yours?” She was holding the foil-wrapped jar. “What is it?”

I raised my hands, as if in surrender, explaining myself in Russian as best I could, “Don’t know! Driver gave to me – because to me my throat hurts.”

They smiled. “Where are you going?”

“I come from USA!”

I was jumpy, but they weren’t. I calmed down.

“Where are you flying right now?”

“Oh! To Moscow.”

They told me the pickle jar would be confiscated if I tried to fly out of the country with it.

Later, back home, I discovered from Russian social media postings that the Patrovka Jubilee took place on July 28, with the official unveiling of the new Tolstoy monument performed by the Alekseyevka county chief, Galina Alexandrovna, the woman who had welcomed me in the community square in Alekseyevka.

In the weeks since my return, Alexander has continued to write to me about the movie he calls “Tolstoy and I,” and has even offered me partnership in his film company for a measly $70,000.

I will send him this “scenario,” but not the money.

And the star of any movie about Tolstoy in Samara would have to be Valentina Petrovna Salazkina. 

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