Seldom are a topic and an author as well matched as in ''The Tolstoys'' by Nikolai Tolstoy, heir to the senior line of that illustrious Russian family. He is a practicing historian, with an MA from Wellington College in Dublin and several books to his credit.
Though he was born in England in 1935, his family was part of the post-World War I exodus of White Russians. He grew up absorbing that unique cultural atmo-sphere the Russian emigres created in Belgrade, Prague, Paris,and London.
He confesses that he was ''most consciously affected by those melancholy and evocative Russian homes. In these, (his) elders, for the most part people of great charm and eccentricity, lived surrounded by the relics - ikons, Easter eggs, portraits of Tsar and Tsaritsa, family photographs, and emigre newspapers - of that mysterious, far-off land of wolves, boyars, and snow-forests.''
''The Tolstoys'' is a fortuitous combination: Russian history, spoon-fed to the reader through the colorful figures of the Tolstoys - and a capricious and fascinating bunch they are. The American Adamses - much as they have also served their country throughout generations and exhibited a goodly number of enfants terribles - pale in comparison with this flamboyant family.
The author takes us across the Tolstoy tapestry, interwoven as it was with the history of Russia from the 14th to the present century. The documented origins of the clan go back to 1353. Within about 300 years, the Tolstoys had become inextricably connected with the Miloslavskys, and through them, with the ruling house of the Romanovs. This happened when Andrei Tolstoy, son of Vasily, defender of Moscow against the Poles, married Solomonida Miloslavsky just a few years before Maria Miloslavsky became the first wife of Tsar Alexei in 1648. Thus the Tolstoys rode to glory and prominence on the coattails of the well-connected Miloslavskys.
But the Miloslavskys' meteor dazzled for only a short while before fizzling out in the bloodbath of 1689. That was the year of the rise of the most famous member of the rival Narishkin branch of the Romanov dynasty, Peter the Great.
The Tolstoys, however, survived and continued to flourish. By skill, shrewd calculation, and luck, they moved with the times on the political chessboard of intrigue into Peter the Great's camp. His contemporary, Peter A. Tolstoy (1645- 1729), served his Tsar well as a diplomat in Turkey, perhaps to expiate his earlier Miloslavsky connections. Later, he played a key role in the devious abduction of the Tsarevich Alexei, whom he lured back from Italy to Russia and death. For this accomplishment Peter A. Tolstoy was showered with honors, estates, serfs, medals, and the title of count of the Russian Empire. After the death of Peter the Great, he was exiled to the bleak Solovetskiye monastery in the North Sea. In fact, he deserves a biography of his own in English, with a wider tableau of the Russia of his days.
So does Gen. Alexander Osterman-Tolstoy (1770-1857), eccentric and courageous , the only Russian ever to command British troops. He lost his left arm fighting Napoleon and dined with liveried bears in attendance. Another striking figure was Feodor I. Tolstoy (1782-1846), who was described by contemporaries as a dangerous madcap and the wildest man in all Russia.
Among the best-known members of the family during the 19th century, were Alexei C. Tolstoy (1817-1875), the poet, novelist, and playwright, and Leo N. Tolstoy (1828-1910), author of ''War and Peace'' and ''Anna Karenina.'' Less known is Feodor P. Tolstoy (1783-1873), the medalist, painter, and silhouettist.
The black sheep of the dynasty was Alexei N. Tolstoy (1882-1945). His mother, a Turgenev, left her Tolstoy husband and three children (while pregnant with Alexei) for a Marxist. Thus removed from the clan, Alexei, a talented writer, eventually threw in his lot with the Soviets, despising the bourgeoisie, yet calling himself count. He got away with it, because he glorified Stalin and, in his writings, provided a genealogical justification for the revolution.
Nikolai Tolstoy, the author of this family history, recaps the lives of his ancestors in a smoothly flowing style. He gives us vivid descriptions of Moscow winters and of the pomp and splendor of a tsar's wedding. Yet, while Tolstoy leads us to believe his family had a ''deeply-engrained sense of Russianness,'' the book reflects only the Russianness of the higher classes. The history of the common people is ignored, a failing common among the Russian nobility.
From the purist's point of view, there are other blemishes. Quotations are not always documented. And in the sources, authors' names are in the Western alphabet, yet titles of books are in the Cyrillic alphabet - a touch of linguistic snobbery? There are errors in the genealogical table.
Illustrations in the book are copious and interesting, consisting of paintings, photographs, and superb silhouettes by Feodor P. Tolstoy. But the reader must keep alert in the maze of names, especially in the short flashbacks, which tend to confuse the uninitiated.
For the devotee of the Russian past, the book is a delight, a ''sonorous procession of a golden past.'' History lovers should keep it close at hand; it will bring renewed pleasures with each rereading.