Tolstoy at 80: “No party for me.”

This blog’s regular likely would not expect me saying “no” to a birthday party. So, you can imagine my surprise reading about revered author Leo Tolstoy’s reluctance to be celebrated.

In 1908, as the Russian author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina (and other works) approached his 80th birthday, plans were afoot to organize several big shindigs. There was even talk of erecting a monument, drafting a bill to declare the day a national holiday, and establishing a university in his name to mark the day.

Tolstoy was far from receptive. He wrote to M.A. Stakhovich, a family friend who was spearheading the efforts, rejecting the celebrations. The letter, later published in the “Ogonyok” magazine (1908, No. 14, April 6) and also partly reproduced in many newspapers, stated: “Here is my great request to you…do whatever you can to abolish this jubilee and set me free. I will be very, very grateful to you forever.”

In his diary later that year, he is said to have written, “what must I do? I must go far away from all this, but go where? To God? To death?”

Even though the event was officially cancelled, family members still feared many would come. According to the Tolstoy homestead museum, his daughter offered to hide her father away and “take him to Pirogovo on that day,” while his wife “wanted to block the entrance and have gate wards not to let anyone in on the 28th.”

An 80th to remember

What happened on the actual day varies by the source. A video claiming to show his 1908 birthday sees him in a wagon surrounded by hordes of children. Another source speaks of a brass band and hundreds of people outside his home property until he at least came out to make some grateful remarks.

Yet, the Yasnaya Polyana museum reports there were “not so many people” at the property where Tolstoy lived: “only a few reporters and photographers” and “only family members and friends in the house.” Apparently, the recently ill didn’t even leave the house and worked as usual.

One wonders how much he could have accomplished, though, with the interruption of receiving six hundred telegrams and about one hundred letters. Within a week of the August 28 birthday, several hundred letters and two thousand telegrams signed by fifty thousand people were received.

There were gifts too:

  • a samovar (so very Russian) inscribed with signatures of many admirers
  • 21 pounds of bread
  • one hundred scythes, which were given to local peasants (all except the one he kept for himself in his study)
  • A box of chocolates from St. Petersburg, picturing views of Yasnaya Polyana, for each of the peasant children.

Despite his disinterest in celebrating, Tolstoy was grateful for the outpouring of affection. In a letter in the newspapers he said, “… I ask you to accept this statement of mine as the expression of my sincere gratitude to all the people who expressed their kind feelings to me, for the joy they gave me.”

See, even authors who would rather their big day go unnoticed are moved by the kind feelings that come with birthdays!