Tolstoy, Alexandra (1884–1979)

views updated

Tolstoy, Alexandra (1884–1979)

Daughter and secretary of Leo Tolstoy who tried to perpetuate his ideas through lectures, writing, and as president of the anti-Communist Tolstoy Foundation which aided Russian refugees coming to the United States. Name variations: Sasha Tolstoi or Tolstaya; Alexandra Tolstoj. Pronunciation: TOLE-stoye. Born Alexandra Lvovna Tolstoy on July 1, 1884, at the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in Russia; died at her Tolstoy Foundation estate, Reed Farm (an American Yasnaya Polyana), near Valley Cottage, New York, on September 26, 1979; daughter of Count Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy (the author) and Sophia (Sonya) Andreyevna (Behrs) Tolstoy (1844–1919); aunt of Vera Tolstoy (1903–1999, who worked with the Voice of America); mostly educated at parents' Moscow home; never married; no children.

Secretary to Leo Tolstoy (1901–10); edited Tolstoy's posthumous works (1911–14); during World War I, served as nurse, Chief Medical Detachment (1914–17); founded Society for the Dissemination and Study of Tolstoy's Works (1918–28); became curator of Yasnaya Polyana Museum (1921–29); founded six schools (1921–29); arrested five times by Soviet government and spent one year in prison (1920–29); was a writer and lecturer in Japan (1929–31); entered U.S. (1931); served as president of the Tolstoy Foundation (1939–79).

Selected publications:

Tragedy of Tolstoy (Yale, 1933); I Worked for the Soviet (Yale, 1934); Tolstoy: A Life of My Father (Harper, 1953).

Alexandra Tolstoy devoted her life to her father Leo Tolstoy and his literary career. Working as his secretary, she even refused marriage offers so that she could remain with him. When Tolstoy died in 1910, Alexandra realized that she had no life or interests that were purely her own. She had so idolized her father that his death left a deep void, an emptiness which she had no idea how to fill. She described the brief time between her father's death and the outbreak of World War I as the most difficult in her life. And yet, this remarkable woman served with distinction in wartime, openly opposed Communism, survived a prison camp, and immigrated to the United States where she established a humanitarian resettlement center for displaced persons and orphans.

Alexandra Tolstoy was the youngest daughter and 12th of 13 children of Sonya Tolstoy and Count Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy, the celebrated Russian author. She was born on July 1, 1883, at her parents' Russian estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in Tula province, about 130 miles south of Moscow. Shortly before her birth, Leo had almost stopped writing novels and had passionately turned to a study of religion and nonviolence. His writings described his search for God, his ideas about the Gospels, and the futility of war, and condemned the violent nature of the army, government, and Russian Orthodox Church. In one short novel, he even wrote of the immoral hatred that developed within marriage. In an already strained marriage, his efforts to put his religious theories into daily practice in his home led to a deep, emotional conflict within the Tolstoy family. As disciples, known as "Tolstoyans," came in steady streams to Yasnaya Polyana, Alexandra's mother Sonya remained loyal to the rituals and traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. She never shared nor accepted his religious views.

Alexandra received most of her education at home from governesses who chided her for being a roughneck who loved nature and sports. With the exception of an Englishwoman, Miss Walsh, the other governess-teachers pulled her by the hair and gave her harsh penalties. Alexandra was in such despair that she once ran away with the intention of drowning herself in the Moscow River. Often ignored by her siblings, she was a plain little girl who grew closer to her eccentric father. She wrote that life was never easy in their family because they always had to choose between two lifestyles: either the life of an aristocrat or the life of a peasant who toiled on the land as her father advocated. Although she tried, she believed it was impossible to emulate those "peasant qualities" on a large estate, with sumptuous meals and 12 servants.

In 1901, Alexandra became a secretary to her father, chiefly copying his manuscripts and typing his correspondence. She was a rebellious young woman who defied her family's spiritual values by smoking, by slipping away to visit Gypsies (Roma), and by indiscriminately flirting. But nothing could keep her away from her father and quell her love for working on his manuscripts. Once he suggested that Alexandra marry a certain young man, but she refused, accusing him of offering her to a man of lesser quality. Leo warmly embraced her, and she swore to him that she would never put anyone in his place or marry. During those years, Alexandra also worked in a village clinic, a local school, and learned farming techniques. She blamed her mother for the depressing atmosphere of their home and wished to protect her aging father from the constant squabbles. Leo Tolstoy's death in a remote train station in 1910 resulted from pneumonia that he possibly contracted while, with Alexandra's help, he was attempting to flee from his wife and a sorrowful family life.

Under the terms of her father's will, Alexandra became the executor of his estate. In accordance with Leo's wishes, she prepared an edition of his unpublished works and negotiated an agreement for a complete edition of his writings. Also acting on his wishes, she used the proceeds of the literary contracts to purchase Yasnaya Polyana, which in the will had been divided among Tolstoy's widow and children, so that it could be transferred to the peasants. This transaction helped favorably settle Alexandra's relationship with her family. Her mother had blamed Alexandra for her complicity in Tolstoy's final trip, and she had been at odds with her brothers and sister Tatyana Tolstoy Sukhotina over Tolstoy's will.

In the difficult years following her father's death, Alexandra bought a farm, Novaya Polyana, about three miles from the Tolstoy estate. She obtained a herd of pedigree cattle and raised some purebred Orlov carriage horses. She studied and taught the peasants crop rotation and agronomy methods on the Tolstoy estate.

When her father was still alive, Alexandra had developed enough interest in medicine to study anatomy and physiology and to open a dispensary in the local peasant village. At the outbreak of World War I, she took short nursing courses and passed the nursing examinations while working at Zvenigorod Hospital near Moscow. Wishing to serve on the front, Alexandra became a nurse on a hospital train which provided emergency care while transporting wounded soldiers to hospitals. In 1914–15, she served in the All-Union Zemstvo Medical Service, a detachment of the Russian Red Cross, sent to fight an outbreak of typhus, typhoid, and malaria among the troops fighting the Turks on the Caucasian front. She was awarded the Medal of St. George, fourth class, for her service. After recovering from a bout with malaria, Alexandra served in an executive position running emergency schools and dining halls for thousands of children on the northwestern front. She then organized and commanded a military medical unit with three detachments. While establishing one of the detachments in Smorgon, Alexandra and her staff heroically treated thousands of soldiers while wearing gas masks during a chlorine gas attack. For her courage and valor, she was one of six to receive medals; hers was the Order of St. George, third class. She spent several months hospitalized while recovering from pyemia and recurring malaria and was released from the hospital shortly after the Russian Revolution in February 1917. Alexandra rejoined and reorganized the remnants of her medical unit which had been decimated by the war and lacked discipline as a result of the revolutionary collectivism being instilled by the new Communist government. She received a final medal of St. George for her efforts and her service against the Germans at the Battle of Krevo in 1917.

When her service was completed, Alexandra returned to her home in Moscow in November 1917 and then went to Novaya Polyana, only to find that it had been confiscated as government property. She returned to Yasnaya Polyana where her mother and sister Tatyana were living. The Tolstoy estate had been spared because of the esteem the Russian people held for Leo Tolstoy. They struggled through the Russian famine of 1917–18 caused by the Red Communist Army's plundering during the Civil War. In 1918, the Yasnaya Polyana Society was formed by intellectuals in Tula to protect the Tolstoy estate and educate the estate peasants. When the society director became dictatorial and rude to the Tolstoy family living on the estate, Alexandra convinced the commissar of education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, to appoint her commissar of Yasnaya Polyana. She then fired the arrogant director and instituted a program transforming the estate into a national museum.

If you don't let me go, I shall have to telegraph Japan that you're frightened to let me go abroad.

—Alexandra Tolstoy to Soviet authorities

Alexandra spent most of her time at her home in Moscow and commuted to Yasnaya Polyana. In 1919, she was suddenly arrested and held for five days as a counter-revolutionary suspect. She was arrested again in March 1920 because she had permitted an organization, which unknown to her was made up of White Army subversives, to use the society office a year earlier. After two months in the notorious Lubyanka Prison, Alexandra was released along with several others until their trial. She was eventually sentenced to three years in the Novospasky Monastery, converted by the Communists into a prison camp. In the prison, she started a school and organized a chorus, astonishing her jailers with her spirit and her ability to adjust to the harsh conditions and common criminals incarcerated with her. After a year of imprisonment, she was released without explanation.

In late 1921, Alexandra was appointed curator of the national museum and educational center at Yasnaya Polyana. During her eight-year tenure, she founded a hospital, a clinic, a dispensary, four elementary schools, a nine-year agricultural high school and a seven-year industrial high school on the Tolstoy estate. Because no revolutionary politics were taught in schools, the Yasnaya Polyana estate was persecuted after 1924 by newspaper articles, government inspections, and critical evaluations. Communists from Tula began to influence the political and religious thinking of students, peasants, and employees of the estate. In desperation, Alexandra arranged to meet with Joseph Stalin in 1926 to enlist his support for a Tolstoy Jubilee in 1928 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her father's birth. She hoped this would demonstrate the work and importance of the Yasnaya Polyana program. The Tolstoy Jubilee was held and foreign guests were impressed but only criticism appeared in Soviet newspapers. The Yasnaya Polyana complex was swept along in the wave of Stalin's reorganization program. As Communist doctrine and anti-religious dogma filtered into the schools and teaching ranks, Alexandra resigned her position and, in October 1929, applied for government permission to travel to Japan to lecture on her father's literary career. Because of government opposition to granting her a passport, Alexandra threatened to telegraph Japan that the Soviets refused to let her travel abroad. She was then permitted to leave. For nearly two years, she lectured and wrote articles under the sponsorship of Japanese newspapers. In February 1931, she was ordered to return to the Soviet Union but chose instead to sever relations completely with her native land and embarked for the United States.

After spending some time in San Francisco, Alexandra traveled to Chicago where she stayed briefly with Jane Addams at Hull House. She worked on a biography of her father and read to some of the elderly women there. Her time at Hull House was pleasant and restful, but she did not sympathize with Addams and her intellectual friends' academic views of Communism as social progress for the Russian people. When Alexandra expressed an interest in moving to New York, Addams recommended her to Lillian Wald ; thus, Alexandra stayed at the Henry Street Settlement House for a short time. She continued to write and to support herself with occasional lectures, and was also briefly reunited with her elder brother Ilya, who had been in the United States since 1916.

To support herself, Alexandra obtained a manager and went on the lecture circuit. Eventually, she was able to obtain a farm through the Neighborhood League at Newtown Square near Philadelphia. She and Olga and Maria Kristyanovich , who had accompanied Alexandra from Yasnaya Polyana to Japan and then to America, repaired and improved the dilapidated farm. Soon, Alexandra divided her time between lecturing about her father and anti-Communism and raising vegetables, chickens, and cows.

In 1933, Yale University accepted her biography of her father, The Tragedy of Tolstoy, for publication. (It had actually been published earlier in Japan and would eventually be published in several languages.) Though it was not her first book, it did establish her reputation in America. As the Great Depression deepened, Alexandra and her friends could not meet increased rental demands on the farm that they had worked so hard to improve. Just as things looked bleakest, Jane Yarrow , an American journalist who had met Alexandra in Armenia during World War I, appeared from nowhere to help. Yarrow had a friend with a small farm for sale in Haddam, Connecticut, for $1,000. With the $1,400 she received from The Tragedy of Tolstoy, Alexandra purchased the Haddam farm and moved there, accompanied by Olga and Maria.

Alexandra continued to speak to civic groups, women's clubs, forums and even the Society of Friends (Quakers) on the evils of Communism. She was disappointed in the lack of interest and faulty perception on the inhumane treatment of the Soviet people that pervaded the U.S. She even tried unsuccessfully in 1933 to interest President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Jane Addams in the human-rights issue.

In the meantime, the Russian émigrés lived happily and comfortably on the little farm in Haddam. Extra money was earned for incidentals during those Depression years by selling eggs at Wesleyan University fraternity houses in Middletown and at the Hamden farmers' cooperative. In 1933, she also spent time in New York City nursing her brother Ilya who died from cancer.

In 1934, Alexandra published I Worked for the Soviet which dramatically recounted the decade she spent in Russia following the Communist Revolution of 1917. On April 15, 1939, Alexandra, with the help of many Russian immigrants and prominent Americans, established the Tolstoy Foundation to assist victims of Soviet persecution. Among the foundation officers were aviator Boris V. Sergievsky, musician Sergei Rachmaninov, aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky, Countess Sophia V. Panin , and historian Mikhail I. Rostovtsev. Former president Herbert Hoover served as honorary president. Alexandra, unanimously elected president of the foundation, sold the Connecticut farm, placed the proceeds in the foundation treasury, and opened an office in New York City. Initially, the organization sent food, clothing, and Bibles to the 50,000 Russian prisoners held in Finland following the Soviet Union's disastrous invasion of that country in 1939. In early 1941, the Tolstoy Foundation obtained Reed Farm, a former children's sanatorium with 74 acres near Valley Cottage, as a donation from the Mary Stillman Harkness Foundation.

Under Alexandra's direction, Reed Farm became a temporary home for Russian exiles, displaced persons, and orphans trying to make a transition to a new life in America. She also built a hospital, dormitories, and a Russian Orthodox Church there. The Department of Immigration reported that the Tolstoy Foundation helped an estimated 3,500 people a year settle in the United States. Under Alexandra's guidance, the foundation sent assistance to displaced persons' camps in Germany, Austria, and Trieste. The foundation established branches in Chicago, Bridgeport, Washington, D.C., and on the West Coast. By 1953, it maintained 15 offices in Europe, primarily to assist people trying to escape from the Soviet Union. Under Alexandra's leadership, other offices were established in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. Although it was primarily formed to aid Russian immigrants, Alexandra convinced the foundation to accept all refugees following the Hungarian revolution in 1956. Since that time, Reed Farm has aided Czechs, Tibetans, Himalayans, Ugandans, Kalmaks, Armenians, and even "boat people" from Indochina.

Alexandra Tolstoy, who became an American citizen in 1941, preferred no political associations but remained a staunch anti-Communist and a devout member of the Russian Orthodox Church. She lived at Reed Farm and remained active as the foundation's president and as a writer and lecturer. Though she suffered a stroke in 1977 that left her bedridden and nearly blind, she continued to dictate letters until shortly before her death on September 26, 1979, in the Tolstoy Foundation nursing home at Reed Farm. She was 95 years old. Following services at St. Sergius Russian Orthodox Church, she was buried in the Russian cemetery on the grounds of her beloved Tolstoy Foundation farm which she called the "American Yasnaya Polyana."


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1953.

Edwards, Anne. Sonya: The Life of Countess Tolstoy. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

The New York Times. September 27 and October 2, 1979.

Simmons, Ernest J. Leo Tolstoy. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1946.

Tolstoy, Alexandra. I Worked for the Soviet. Translated by Roberta Yerkes. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1934.

——. Out of the Past. Edited by Katharine Strelsky and Catherine Wolkonsky. NY: Columbia University Press, 1981.

——. Tolstoy, A Life of My Father. Translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. NY: Harper and Bros., 1953.

——. The Tragedy of Tolstoy. Translated by Elena Varneck. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1933.

suggested reading:

Carroll, Sara Newton. The Search: A Biography of Leo Tolstoy. NY: Harper & Row, 1973.

Leon, Derrick. Tolstoy: His Life and Work. London: Routledge, 1946.

Tolstoy, Alexandra. The Real Tolstoy. Morristown, NJ: H.S. Evans, 1968.

Tolstoy, Nikolai. The Tolstoys. NY: William Morrow, 1983.

Troyat, Henri. Tolstoy. NY: Dell, 1967.

Phillip E. Koerper , Professor of History, Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Alabama