War and Peace on the Tolstoy Estate

A Russian Paragon

This verdant estate where Leo Tolstoy wrote his classic Russian novels and pursued his social ideals is still a picture of tranquility.

Artists stroll around the wooded grounds to paint the house where he wrote "War and Peace." Lovers of literature pay silent pilgrimages to his unmarked grave in a fern bed. The estate's name, Yasnaya Polyana, or Bright Clearing, seems a worthy sobriquet.

Things are not as peaceful as they seem, however. The estate, 110 miles south of Moscow, is the object of a nasty feud between the author's great-great-grandson, Count Vladimir Tolstoy, and officials of the local Tula government.

Count Tolstoy is trying to restore Yasnaya Polyana to the idyllic past, tearing up asphalt roads and fixing up the museum dedicated to his aristocratic ancestor.

His aim to make it economically viable has even caught the eye of financier-philanthropist George Soros, who sees it as a pilot project for privately run museums in the new Russia. "He has vision. That is a rare thing," says Mikhail Gnedovski, head of the Soros Foundation's culture program in Moscow.

But as director of the estate, Tolstoy claims that local authorities who want to seize the ground's management are withholding state funds and smearing his name in the press. He says that they want to cash in on his economic success and that their plans for a casino and five-star hotel are not fitting for Tolstoy's legacy.

"We want to create an oasis of culture and calm and restore the atmosphere when Leo Tolstoy lived here," the count says. "But they have other ideas. I believe that the harassment campaign stems from their desire to have more control. This kind of official mentality is one of the biggest barriers to progress in Russia and insults the prestige of the Tolstoy name," he says.

The dispute dates back four years when Tolstoy moved to Yasnaya Polyana after being invited by the Culture Ministry to run the museum on the property where his famous ancestor was born and lived most of his life.

Because of the writer's social experiments - he freed serfs before it was obligatory and gave them part of his land - he was revered by the former Soviet state. Busloads of citizens were trucked in to pay homage to this paragon of 19th-century enlightenment.

Tolstoy's dream is to make Yasnaya Polyana self-financing, with the development of a hotel, restaurant, and souvenir shop just outside the estate. But he also wants to use the place as a base for cultural projects. He has already begun by holding writers' conferences and editing a literary magazine.

But a recent report in the Moscow-based Vechernyaya Moskva newspaper accused the count of misusing more than $1 million in state funds. The newspaper implied that he had done so for his own gain.

Tolstoy says it neglected to emphasize a crucial point - that he had simply bought up a small house formerly owned by the trade unions for use by the museum. His alleged crime was to use funds earmarked for management rather than development.

The count links the negative press to what he says was an intimidation campaign by hard-line leftist officials of the Tula regional government.

He says they tried to pressure him to hire their own more expensive workers for repairs on the estate. They threatened to withhold funding and cut off electricity if he didn't cooperate with their plans for a five-star tourist complex complete with casino.

This is nonsense, says the governor's spokesman, Maxim Artmiev. "Mr. Tolstoy's way never crossed ours. All his enemies are in Moscow," Mr. Artmiev says.

In the meantime, Tolstoy insists local prosecutors are trying to set up a case against him. But he hopes the authority of his family name will ultimately scare opponents off.

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