The Tolstoy museum


Back in 1978 I spent a few days with a tour group in Moscow. The guides got tired of us after a while, and let us go off on our own. I noticed that some of the classic authors – Gorky, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy – had small museums dedicated to them around the city, and I decided to visit the Tolstoy museum.



It took me forever to find it; it was an inconspicuous door on a side street. I rang, and two old ladies ushered me in, babbling in Russian (I knew only a few words in Polish, which is close to Russian, but not close enough for me to fake it most of the time.) They showed me the house, which was small but magnificent; it was Tolstoy’s pied-a-terre in Moscow, full of beautiful furniture, and manuscripts displayed everywhere.



Finally the old ladies brought me into the library. There were at least fifteen or twenty folding chairs set up, and I was the only visitor; they sat me down in the front row, and got out an old Edison cylinder machine, and got it set up, and –  well, I didn’t know what to expect.



Finally, from the Edison cylinder, I heard something: a man’s voice, scratchy, evidently reading from something. The two old ladies were staring at me, waiting for my response.




Aha. This was a recording of Tolstoy himself, reading (presumably) from one of his own books. And the museum ladies were waiting for my response.



I gave them everything I had. I told them it was good, in Polish (which they may or may not have understood). I smiled.



And they seemed to be very happy, having shared their museum with me.



This is one of my best memories from my trip to Russia. It seems like a dream now, of course; I barely remember the details of the house, or of the sound of Tolstoy’s voice, or what the old ladies looked like.



But I do remember how lovely I felt as I left.


Moscow! Moscow! Moscow!


I went to the USSR in the summer of 1978. The only way into the country in those days was through one of the state-sponsored agencies, Intourist or Sputnik. Mine was a Sputnik tour, for college students, staff, and faculty. We were very international – Danes, Spaniards, Americans. We were also very independent, and rebellious. Our tour leader was a pale nervous Ukranian named Viktor, and he couldn’t keep up with us; we kept getting away from him. (We scared him almost to death by singing the Russian Imperial Anthem in front of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in Leningrad.) By the time we arrived in Moscow (our last stop), Viktor had given up. He just wouldn’t plan activities for us anymore. We had lots of free time in Moscow as a result.



This was not a bad thing. Moscow, like most large cities, is full of interesting things to see. (Naturally you have to see the Kremlin and the GUM department store and St. Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s tomb, but it’s full of other things too.) One day I traipsed over to Novodevichy Convent, a beautiful run-down Orthodox structure with an overgrown churchyard/garden, where an elderly priest and an elderly nun drowsed together on a park bench. It took me a while, but I finally found the grave I was looking for: SERGEI NIKITICH KHRUSHCHEV. It was unmown and untended.



Another day, I wandered through old winding streets looking for Leo Tolstoy’s house, which (according to the guidebooks) had been turned into a museum. I found it at last, almost unmarked, a nice house with an old-fashioned door. An old lady let me in (Russian museum attendants in those days seemed always to be old ladies), scolded me when I tried to go through the EXIT turnstile (ENTRANCE and EXIT are very similar in Russian, and I still get them mixed up), and brought me inside.



I was the only visitor. Another old-lady docent came swooping out of a side room, and the two of them grabbed me and dragged me through the house, showing me everything, giving me the two-dollar tour in machine-gun Russian (which I barely speak). The house was nineteenth-century and lavish and full of books and rich wood paneling and manuscripts and photographs. The old ladies brought everything out of the cases, showed me books and photo albums, insisted that I touch things, argued with one another, and generally had a very good time.



Finally they brought me into a small drawing room set up with folding chairs. One sat me down and stayed with me in the audience area; the other went up front, put a cylinder on an old Edison machine, wound it up, and let it play. It was an old man’s voice, scratchily recorded, speaking slowly and carefully in Russian, either reciting or reading aloud. The two old ladies fell silent and watched my face closely. At last the nickel dropped in my head. “Graf Tolstoy?” I asked, pointing at the cylinder player.



They grinned and nodded.



It was an ancient recording of Count Leo Tolstoy reading aloud.



That, children, was one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had, and I barely understood a word of it.



It just goes to show you.




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