Losing Oneself in Tolstoy’s Woods

Non-fiction by Bob Blaisdell

There are pleasures I could seemingly have anywhere but especially have when I know I’m in the same place as Tolstoy once was.

I tell myself it’s just an illusion, that I could (and do) walk the paths and hills of Central Park in New York City and see birds and trees and mud there just as well.

But it’s different. I’m not religious. I’m not mystical. But knowing I’m there, at Tolstoy’s place!, is as close as I come to having a Mecca.

The first thing I did last summer after arriving at Yasnaya Polyana was try to eat at the café next to the entrance. All the tables were full, so I set out on a walk. It had started to rain. It had rained every day since I’d arrived in Moscow four days before. I told myself it wouldn’t rain much, though. It couldn’t!

In my light sweatshirt, baseball cap, travel pants (those kind you can zip off the legs and turn into shorts) and running shoes, I would walk the perimeter of his 1.6-square-mile estate, as I hadn’t quite done on my two previous visits.
I had strolled through and crisscrossed it so many times–in reality, in memory and in his writings! I knew its dimensions, I told myself, and I could feel

It started to pour soon after I reached the woods on the far side of Tolstoy’s burial place. Out on the muddy trail the rain was streaming. Under the trees I was relatively dry, but the air was a fine mist and even though the trees served as an umbrella, the water still had to fall and it was all around me. I ate some peanuts and dried apricots I had carried in my squeaking day-bag. As soon as the rain let up after about 30 minutes I set out again, downhill, only occasionally skidding, proud of myself for not sliding into any deep puddles. On a streamlet I spotted a thatched bathing hut–for women. I had read about them. How quaint! And yet it was so sturdy and freshly thatched, I figured it must have been put up as a historical project.

I crossed a bridge beyond it and passed over soggy patches that some kind soul had laid boards or logs across for the next walker. That’s when I thought of the verb “to translate”: perevodit’. Literally, “to lead across.” It’s not a reflexive verb, but it could be! When you translate for yourself, you are leading yourself from one language across to another. When you translate for someone else–you are simply nice! You are kind!

Some of the kindest people in Yasnaya Polyana that I never met set out those boards and contrivances over the mud. I love walking the paths and along the Voronka River beside Tolstoy’s estate–and at every muddy, soggy bog, a kind soul has laid a bridge for me. But not for me! For some human soul that would follow. Who knows who you’ll be helping? That’s why I should always try to be grateful for translations and not sneer at them. Even rickety translations give me enough to get over.

Anyway, I also met kind Russians in person. I walked and walked, knowing I would soon find my way back. I climbed a hilly field, my bag squeaking. The rain started again and I ducked over to the forest path. I was sweating, though it was cool and I was wet. I felt something of what Robinson Crusoe felt when he encountered a footprint when I continued my slog and spotted a candy-wrapper atop the lush grassy middle of the trail! People! I stopped and listened. The wind was sighing in the trees.

Finally, after about an hour of my squeaking bag as my only company, I saw ahead a tall rangy bearded man wearing headphones; he had on camouflage pants and a vest and had at his booted feet what looked, at a distance, like a vacuum cleaner.

I never so surprised a Russian that he would say hello.

I now imagine I could be walking in a desolate countryside miles from anywhere and if I ran into a Russian he would walk on by and pretend he hadn’t seen me.
But I stopped right beside him and that surprised him. He had long hair and looked like a roughneck version of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow.

I nodded and he nodded. I said, in Russian, pointing ahead, “That way to Tolstoy’s house?”

He looked ahead.

I said, louder, “His house?”

He said, “Yes.” He took off his headphones.

“Good. I have been walking a long time. I am staying at the hotel in Yasnaya Polyana.” My Russian is clunky, and I don’t usually chat, but I was so relieved to run into someone that I thought I should explain my circumstances.

“Yasnaya Polyana? That way!” he said pointing the other way.

“Tolstoy’s house?”

“Museum of Tolstoy, yes. But I was saying it was my house — the other way.”

“Oh.” I now needed a break. I was more lost than I’d thought. I nodded at his metal-detector, “What are you looking for?”

“Coins.”

Beside a shovel were three shoe-box shaped holes.

“Coins? Money? Out here? Why?”

“Very old. Some are silver and rare.”

“Rare,” I repeated, recognizing the last word in my usual slow-motion way and then backtracking for the previous one. “Silver!”

He wiped his right hand on the grass and then reached into one of his vest pockets and pulled out a tiny zip-lock bag. He extracted a coin from it, which he offered to let me examine. “Lenin,” he said, indicating the face. “Very valuable.”

I turned it over; it was stamped 1924. I made sounds indicating I was impressed and handed it back.

“Another,” he said. “This I did not find today.” He pulled out another coin in a tiny bag.

I oohed.

“Khobbay,” he said, as if embarrassed.

“Hobby!” I said in English. “Yes, I understand. Very good. Thank you.” I bade him farewell and headed back down the path.

I was tired. Within a couple of minutes I slid into a mud puddle. My right leg was soiled up to my thigh. My right shoe was squishing.

I marched on.

Oh, if I had only eaten at the café!

I found the bath-hut and marched past. I heard the highway in the distance. Couldn’t I just walk to the highway and head for Yasnaya Polyana? No, I was committed, for now, to the sloppy earth.

I walked up a ridge beside a pine wood and saw a pond. Meanwhile, a hundred yards away, a car approached. Then it slowed and turned back around, its wheels sliding in the mud. Another car was parked by the road. I walked toward it. A bald man standing by the water was drinking from a two-liter bottle. A fishing-pole beside him was standing in the grass, its line out.

I called to him, “Yasnaya Polyana?” I knew I was on the right track, but I needed reassurance.

“What?”

He climbed up the bank. He was red-faced and seemed woozy.

I asked again, and he said, “No, no. That way.”

“Back the way I came?”

“No, through the pine wood. Very far.”

“Okay.”

“I have a car, but … it’s too muddy. I’m sorry.”

“Not at all. Thank you for the directions. I lost (Ya poteryal) in the woods.”
He was bleary-eyed but cocked his head at that. “Poteryal-SA,” he corrected me. (“I got lost.”)

“Right!” I said, appreciating the free Russian lesson. “Right, poteryal-SA. Thank you.”

Twenty minutes later I was back on the familiar parts of Tolstoy’s estate.

The sun peeked out. Near the entrance-exit of the estate, I found a bench and zipped off the muddied legs of my pants and put them in a plastic bag in my squeaky bag. I looked at my hands and then wiped them on some grass. I went down to the café and had a seat and ordered big.

Bob Blaisdell teaches English in Brooklyn. He has translated and published stories, poems and essays by Tolstoy, Isaac Babel and Alexander Pushkin.
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