How Alexei Tolstoy traded the Nobel Prize for life in the Soviet Union

Aspiring to know all the joys of life, Tolstoy could not stand melancholic people.  Photo: Mikhail Ozersky / RIA Novosti

Aspiring to know all the joys of life, Tolstoy could not stand melancholic people. Photo: Mikhail Ozersky / RIA Novosti


The most famous books by Alexei Tolstoy are “Walking through the torments”, “The Golden Key, or the Adventures of Pinocchio”, “Peter the Great”, “Nikita’s Childhood” and “Aelita” with “Engineer Garin’s Hyperboloid”. And now try to find something in common between their stories. The tragic story of the revolution. A children’s fairy tale adored by many generations. The story of the king-reformer. A wonderful autobiographical story about childhood. And two sci-fi novels, one about Mars and one about lasers.

He was an incredibly versatile writer. He started as a poet, became the author of dozens of plays, composed, in addition to Pinocchio, many children’s fairy tales. For not such a long life – only 62 years – he wrote a monstrous amount. After all, there were a lot of novels and stories – for example, “The Viper” or “Count Cagliostro” (the latter later turned into the “Formula of Love”), the picaresque novel “The Adventures of Nevzorov, or Ibikus” (which many, including the writer’s granddaughter Tatyana Tolstaya, consider it a masterpiece). And an incredible amount of newspaper articles.

And, by the way, there was Vyrubova’s Diary – a scandalous, “yellow” book, supposedly written by the maid of honor of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna; it tells in detail about the depravity of the royal court. Tolstoy did not advertise that he had composed this fake (in co-authorship with Pavel Shchegolev), but many modern literary critics are convinced that they did it. The unfortunate Anna Vyrubova (who in reality, apparently, did not experience any erotic adventures, remaining an old maid) had to be indignant and justify herself. But Alexei Nikolaevich was hardly worried about this.

Tolstoy was openly disliked by many. Whole crowds of emigrants could not forgive him that, having left post-revolutionary Russia, he nevertheless went over to the side of the Bolsheviks. But many quite sincerely admired both his talent and his nature. “Everywhere he went then (in the 1910s. – Ed.), He was greeted with smiles, cheerful exclamations. In general, it was a major sanguine. He always longed for joy, like a small child, he longed for laughter and celebration, ”wrote Korney Chukovsky. He also recalled the colossal capacity for work of Alexei Nikolaevich, who, it seems, was terribly sorry that he could not write ten books at the same time with ten hands.

Alexander Blok wrote: “There is a lot of blood, and fat, and lust, and nobility, and talent in Tolstoy.” Alexey Varlamov, author of an excellent biography of Tolstoy, calls him “a Soviet Gargantua, a hedonist and an epicurean.” Tolstoy terribly disliked melancholic people. But he himself could irritate those who, one way or another, were offended by life to the point of horror.


Tolstoy was called the “Red Count” or, even more spectacularly, the “Workers’ and Peasants’ Count”. He was both a nobleman and a Soviet writer. This has always given rise to many jokes: a lackey enters Tolstoy and says: “Your Excellency, it’s time for a party meeting!”

Moreover, some (for example, Ivan Bunin) suspected that he was not a count by blood – his mother allegedly gave birth to him not from her lawful husband, but from her lover. Today, biographers believe that, after all, Tolstoy is genetically a graph. But you won’t really understand, because Mexican passions were in full swing in this family. As a girl, her mother was inflamed with passion for Count Nikolai Tolstoy, she herself decided to marry him, and after a while she got tired of his bad temper. At first she tried to treat depression with morphine, then with the same reckless ardor she went to the landowner Alexei Bostrom, already pregnant with the future classic of Russian literature. The scandal was huge. The legal husband begged her to return.

Terrible scenes played out in this love triangle: the husband and his happy rival rushed at each other in a frenzy, Bostrom bit Count Tolstoy on the hand, who in response pulled out a revolver and wounded him … And all this in front of a deeply pregnant woman. As a result, a divorce followed, and the church forbade the countess to remarry. And most importantly, Count Nikolai Tolstoy refused to recognize the child. I didn’t want the count title to pass to him (that Alexei eventually got, but when he was already a young man).

However, the boy’s childhood, apparently, was happy. He felt his calling early – and in his youth he began to compose. In his memoirs, Chukovsky almost recalls with horror how he once saw 12 plump notebooks on the table of the young Tolstoy, and on the cover of each there were dates: “1901”, “1902” … “It was a complete collection of unpublished and still unknown to anyone youthful works of Alexei Tolstoy, written by him almost from the age of fourteen! There were “verses”, and prose, and stories about student life – everything in a row, and everything is quite naive.

But then he abandoned poetry, switched to prose, and his talent grew stronger. And he became famous, and also made friends with great writers and poets of the Silver Age. Once – and not a single story about Tolstoy can do without this – he became Maximilian Voloshin’s second in a duel with Nikolai Gumilyov (it happened because of the poetess Elizaveta Dmitrieva, who wrote under the magnificent pseudonym Cherubina de Gabriak). The duelists were lucky – they managed not to kill each other.

Alyosha with his mother.  Approximately 1900.

Alyosha with his mother. Approximately 1900.

A photo: RIA News


Spy in the eyes of Stalin

The most dramatic event in his life, probably, was emigration and the years spent abroad – in Turkey, in France, in Germany … Over these few years, he managed to write a lot. And Alexey Varlamov believes that if he had stayed in Paris or Berlin, in the 30s he could have received the Nobel Prize instead of Bunin. But he returned, for which many cursed him. It was often said that he came to the USSR only for the sake of money and fame, in order to become the first writer in Russia. But Chukovsky, who knew him better than many, said that in exile Tolstoy “seemed to have forgotten how to joke and laugh.” And the return was given to him with great difficulty. Tolstoy himself wrote: “June 4, 1923, on the first day of my arrival in Petrograd, on the day of my lecture, half an hour before it, with cockroach legs from the fear of meeting what I still do not know and do not feel.”

But he quickly fit into Soviet life – and this life was luxurious by the standards of that time. He was released abroad. He moved to Tsarskoye Selo, and the guests were astonished by the splendor of his house. Mikhail Prishvin recalled: “The owner is luxurious in his good nature, the hostess is very kind, the boys are free and educated, the walls are not bad copies, but the originals of all kinds of masters, carpets, precious furniture, delicious glassware … This is probably the only relic of the Moscow lordly life…”. Mikhail Bulgakov ridiculed him in Theatrical Novel, and many treated the “worker-peasant count” with irony. Tolstoy rolled royal receptions, ate and drank deliciously and a lot, and this affected his health: in 1934 he suffered two heart attacks in a row, and the doctors were afraid that he would not survive. But, as soon as he recovered, he began to write “The Adventures of Pinocchio” based on “Pinocchio” by Carlo Collodi. And laughed: “Excellent story! It is necessary to write before Marshak does it.

It also gives the impression that he was Vasya Vasya with Stalin: he constantly wrote letters to him and generally enjoyed the great favor of the leader. But Alexander Fadeev recalled that in the winter of 1945 Stalin called him and said: “You, Comrade Fadeev, are the head of the Writers’ Union, and you don’t notice that big international spies are sitting next to you.” And he named several names of writers – Pyotr Pavlenko, Ilya Ehrenburg … And then he added: “Do you not know that Alexei Tolstoy is an English spy?”

Maybe at that moment a great danger hung over the count. But in the end, both Pavlenko and Ehrenburg were not arrested – they died a natural death. And a cloud has already formed over Alexei Nikolayevich, even worse than Stalin’s anger. He had terminal lung cancer, from which he died in February 1945. Remaining in history, if not the main Russian writer of the twentieth century, but, of course, one of the most interesting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button