Our ancestors were giants of Russian literature – what would they have made of Putin’s war?

March 7, 2022
Anna Pasternak is the great niece of Boris Pasternak while Countess Alexandra Tolstoy is a relative of Leo Tolstoy 
CREDIT: Rii Schroer

Leo Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak are hugely important to Russia’s cultural history, but Ukraine’s struggle today would trouble them…

When Boris Pasternak was 20, his father – the Impressionist painter, Leonid – took him to Leo Tolstoy’s deathbed. Countess Tolstoy had summoned Leonid to draw the deceased literary tsar at Astapovo train station, in November 1910.

 Boris watched from the corner of the room as his father completed his pastel drawing in 15 minutes. Leonid later wrote: “Astapovo. Morning. Sofya Andreyevna at his bedside. The people’s farewell. Finale of a family tragedy.”

Over a century later, devastated by the international tragedy of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it feels meaningful to discuss with another Countess Tolstoy – the 48-year-old writer, equestrian and socialite Alexandra – how our famous forebears, giants in the Russian literary pantheon, would have reacted to what is happening today. 

Alexandra is a distant relative of the War and Peace author, Leo Tolstoy, while I am the great-granddaughter of Leonid, and great niece of Doctor Zhivago author, Boris Pasternak.

Similar in that we both have Russian fathers (she is the daughter of historian Count Nikolai Tolstoy) and English mothers, we were both raised in England. 

After university, Alexandra moved to Russia where she’s lived “for most of my adult life”. Now residing in London with her three children, she was in Moscow just two weeks ago to discuss plans for the 2028 bicentenary of Tolstoy’s birth.

“It was extraordinary,” says Alexandra today, as we sit together in her elegant sitting room, “that Putin, who has never mentioned Tolstoy, suddenly made a big public announcement that Tolstoy was to be publicly celebrated.” She says: “It wasn’t a suggestion – it was an order.”

Unlike me, Alexandra speaks fluent Russian and feels “half-Russian”; I didn’t fully connect with my heritage until I started researching my book Lara: The Untold True Love Story That Inspired Doctor Zhivago nearly 20 years ago. 

Travelling to Russia many times, meeting my Pasternak relatives and discovering Moscow, I developed a huge affection for and understanding of my great-uncle Boris. I may not feel Russian in a cultural sense, but I do in terms of my character. Emotionally, I have never felt British – but I feel a deep connection to the Russian in me.

Now, as I watch events unfold in Ukraine, I feel that the soul of Boris Pasternak mirrors the Ukrainian soul. Boris, who risked death under Stalin to tell his literary truth about the horrors of the Revolution, shared a similar visceral love of his country and fearlessness in fighting for it. 

His loyalty to the motherland never wavered, which is why he remains revered in Russia today. He renounced the Nobel Prize in 1958 in order to remain in Russia; Doctor Zhivago is his love letter to the Russian people. But I can imagine that if he were alive today, he would risk death under Putin to defy the propaganda and speak out about the mindless atrocities to good, innocent Ukrainians.

In Doctor Zhivago, he writes that “the whole of Russia has had its roof torn off” because of war, which feels exactly what Putin has done to Ukraine. “This is the most devastating thing that I have ever lived through,” agrees Alexandra. “I love Russia, but I don’t like Russians bleating about the hate that they are receiving when Ukrainians are being bombed in their homes.”

When she posted on Instagram a quote by Tolstoy – who, she says, “would have been horrified by what is happening, as he was such a pacifist” – she added her own plea: “Please do not politicise Russian culture, heritage and her wonderful people, many of whom are bravely opposing the war at great personal risk.” 

She was inundated with abusive messages and hate from Russian “bots” – individuals paid to troll her. They raged: “You are a traitor. You don’t love the motherland.” 

Alexandra lost 2,000 followers, and a decorative collaboration that involved antique Russian textiles was cancelled. Part of her travel business taking personalised trips to Tolstoy’s estates in Russia has been postponed, but her riding holidays to Kyrgyz are still running.

With an accelerating “Russiaphobia” in the UK, restaurants are refusing bookings from Russians, and people are turning on the estimated 73,000 expats here, many of whom fled communism and Putin’s regime. But this new, acceptable face of prejudice doesn’t deter Alexandra. She is more shocked by deluded friends in Russia – “even my most devout Christian friends” – who see Russia “on a mission to change the world, when it’s just war crimes”.

Does she worry that her children will be persecuted at school because of their Russian surname? 

“I’m not going to succumb to that. Putin wants that. My children are fine compared with children in the Ukraine. I can’t bear these celebrities who whine ‘What shall I tell my children?’ It’s insulting to the genuine suffering of the Ukrainians.”

Sitting in her south London home, with its eclectic Russian folk art, Alexandra has both spirit and style. Her first marriage was to a penniless Cossack named Shamil Galimzyanov, whom she met when travelling the Silk Road by horse in 1999. 

“He was a Tartar, so not ethnically considered Russian,” she explains. “He was a good person, and these are the people you now feel compassion for. Someone wrote to me yesterday and said: ‘All of us are so poor. We just want to live, and we don’t want our sons to fight this war.’”

Alexandra’s five-year marriage to Shamil broke down in 2009, after she met oligarch Sergei Pugachev, a member of Putin’s inner circle.

 “I went from one marriage to a man with a Russian soul, to a rich, soulless man.” She met Sergei when he requested her as an English teacher; her only other English student in Moscow was Alina Kabaeva, a former Olympic rhythmic gymnast who has long been linked to the Russian president.

“I was introduced to Alina before she met Putin,” says Alexandra, who has twice been in the same room as the Russian president. Yet she is fearless in her criticism of both Putin and Pugachev, who was once Putin’s banker.

“Sergei was obsessed by me,” Alexandra recalls. “I was intoxicated by him.” But life with the billionaire quickly soured, despite their three children together, now aged 12, 11 and 9, and she left him in their French chateau in 2015: “That world soon felt sordid, empty and dirty to me.”

Still, her relationship with Pugachev has, she insists, given her an insight into Putin’s mindset. “Sergei has identical psychological make-up to Putin. They both have a narcissistic personality disorder, and their ego is so fragile, they will go into a frenzy when cornered.

“Putin and Sergei have this endless need for recognition, but nothing is ever enough. They love to humiliate, punish and control. They are bandits, with no regard for human life, for women or for culture.” 

Now, she prays for a coup in Russia. “I want the Russian people to stand up and see this evil for what it is. You save Ukraine, you save yourselves. The longer this continues, the worse it will get.”

The anguish of Countess Tolstoy reminds me again of the words of my great-uncle Boris, who wrote in Doctor Zhivago: “And then there was the jump from this calm, innocent, measured way of living to blood and tears, to mass insanity, and to the savagery of daily, hourly, legalised, rewarded slaughter.”

How unbearable it is that we are living through this again – both Russians at home and in exile alike.

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