June 23, 2019

Cycling with the Count

Cycling with the Count
Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sofia (and bike).

In his day, Leo Tolstoy was known as a trendsetter, always interested in the latest European novelties. So, when bicycles were becoming massively popular following the introduction of pneumatic tires in the late 1880s, Tolstoy jumped on the bandwagon (bandcycle?), ordering an English-made Rover bicycle in 1895, a few months after he and his wife Sophia lost their youngest son Ivan.

Tolstoy learned to ride the bicycle (actually called бицикл rather than велосипед in the early years of its appearance in Russia) at the age of 67, likely made easier thanks to his extensive horse-riding experience.

In many diaries from 1895, Tolstoy wrote that cycling was one of few things that he enjoyed, though he felt guilty engaging in something that he felt was socially improper for a man of his standing.

"I continue to be idle and bad. I have neither thoughts nor feeling. A spiritual hibernation. When I have feelings, they are the most base and egotistical: bicycling, freedom from family life, etc. Am I tired from things I lived through recently, or have I gone to another age category, entering the clear, elderly age which I have dreamt of for so long?"        – 14 April, 1895

"I began to learn how to ride the bicycle at the [Moscow] Manege. It's very strange that I am attracted to this. Yevgeny Ivanovich has advised me against it and was upset that I ride, but I don't feel ashamed. On the contrary, I feel that this is a form of natural idiocy, that I don't care what people think, that it is sinless and fun in a childlike way."                               – 25 April, 1895

At the time, in 1894, once the Moscow government allowed bicycles on city streets, it was required that each cycle have a license plate. Riders needed a permit to operate them, and had to pay a special tax for the privilege. In fact, at first bicycling was an elite activity, and many early competitors hailed from upper-class or wealthy merchant families. Tolstoy received permit No. 2300 from the Moscow authorities after demonstrating that he could ride safely.

Tolstoy's Permit
Tolstoy's bicycling license, displayed at Tula's Machine Tool Museum.

The author's daughter Tatyana, in her memoirs, wrote that, even though the count was a fast learner, he nevertheless had a few comical incidents while making his first strides on his Rover at the Manege in Moscow:

"I am experiencing an interesting phenomenon," he told her. "If I imagine an obstacle, I feel an insurmountable pull toward it, until a collision happens. This is especially true regarding one fat woman, who is, like me, learning to ride the bike. She has a hat with feathers, and as soon as I look at them trembling in the wind, I feel my bike being pulled toward her. The woman yelps and tries to flee, but there is no use. If I don't dismount from the bicycle in time, I end up hitting her. This happened several times. Now I try to visit the Manege when I hope she is not there."

Though Tolstoy learned to ride in Moscow, he also had a bicycle at Yasnaya Polyana, and made cycling trips to Tula, about 18 kilometers away. Tula, as it happens, is considered one of the cradles of Russian cycling, as the first cycling track was built there as early as 1896, and Tolstoy made an appearance there at least once. The cycling track, commissioned by the local bicycling association, remained Russia's only such sports facility until 1924, when a dirt track was built in Moscow. The Tula track even held the national cycling championship competition in 1909.

Tula Cycling Track
Soviet bicycling enthusiasts at the Tula cycling track in 1929 (tulainpast.ru)

Today the cycling track still exists, having gone through four restorations, and is located near Tula's football stadium Arsenal, just outside the city center. 

As for Tolstoy, he is said to have enjoyed his hobby just briefly, also passing on the cycling excitement to two of his daughters, who had to have bikes custom retrofitted with a female frame. Today, cycling tours are one of the options for tourists visiting his Yasnaya Polyana estate.

Tolstoy Estate
A couple near a spring on the large grounds of the Tolstoy estate

The museum's guide Igor takes groups on small or larger loops around the sprawling grounds, telling them about places where Tolstoy went horseback riding, where he kept bees, or where he swam in the local river. 

Yasnaya Polyana
Tourists in front of Leo Tolstoy's house in Yasnaya Polyana

If you happen to pass by Yasnaya Polyana Museum, phone Igor and ask for a tour: +8-953-438-03-07


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