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

 

You Might Also Like

Tolstoy's Art
  • August 01, 1998

Tolstoy's Art

One of the great novelists of Russia and of the world was born 170 years ago. We explore his art and life, and the impact he made on Russian literature.
Tolstoy's Message
  • August 01, 1998

Tolstoy's Message

In the second half of his life, Tolstoy foresook his "frivolous" literary pursuits and sought The Truth about Life. We asked a renowned Tolstoyan to explain why this turned the world against Lev Tolstoy.
A Prophet and His Country
  • November 01, 1997

A Prophet and His Country

Thirty-five years ago this month, a little book was published that changed Russia forever. On the anniversary of the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, we asked two esteemed observers to offer their views on the great writer's legacy.
Looking for Tolstoy
  • November 01, 2018

Looking for Tolstoy

An American writer consumed by Anna Karenina goes in search of the great writer’s little-known refuge beyond the Volga, near Samara.
Leo Tolstoy
  • June 15, 2007

Leo Tolstoy

Learn about the varied life of this Russian writer, born to nobility and author of "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina".
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.
Woe From Wit (bilingual)

Woe From Wit (bilingual)

One of the most famous works of Russian literature, the four-act comedy in verse Woe from Wit skewers staid, nineteenth century Russian society, and it positively teems with “winged phrases” that are essential colloquialisms for students of Russian and Russian culture.
Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas

This exciting new trilogy by a Russian author – who has been compared to Orhan Pamuk and Umberto Eco – vividly recreates a lost world, yet its passions and characters are entirely relevant to the present day. Full of mystery, memorable characters, and non-stop adventure, The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas is a must read for lovers of historical fiction and international thrillers.  
Murder at the Dacha

Murder at the Dacha

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin has a problem. Several, actually. Not the least of them is the fact that a powerful Soviet boss has been murdered, and Matyushkin's surly commander has given him an unreasonably short time frame to close the case.
Okudzhava Bilingual

Okudzhava Bilingual

Poems, songs and autobiographical sketches by Bulat Okudzhava, the king of the Russian bards. 
White Magic

White Magic

The thirteen tales in this volume – all written by Russian émigrés, writers who fled their native country in the early twentieth century – contain a fair dose of magic and mysticism, of terror and the supernatural. There are Petersburg revenants, grief-stricken avengers, Lithuanian vampires, flying skeletons, murders and duels, and even a ghostly Edgar Allen Poe.
93 Untranslatable Russian Words

93 Untranslatable Russian Words

Every language has concepts, ideas, words and idioms that are nearly impossible to translate into another language. This book looks at nearly 100 such Russian words and offers paths to their understanding and translation by way of examples from literature and everyday life. Difficult to translate words and concepts are introduced with dictionary definitions, then elucidated with citations from literature, speech and prose, helping the student of Russian comprehend the word/concept in context.
A Taste of Russia

A Taste of Russia

The definitive modern cookbook on Russian cuisine has been totally updated and redesigned in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Layering superbly researched recipes with informative essays on the dishes' rich historical and cultural context, A Taste of Russia includes over 200 recipes on everything from borshch to blini, from Salmon Coulibiac to Beef Stew with Rum, from Marinated Mushrooms to Walnut-honey Filled Pies. A Taste of Russia shows off the best that Russian cooking has to offer. Full of great quotes from Russian literature about Russian food and designed in a convenient wide format that stays open during use.
Survival Russian

Survival Russian

Survival Russian is an intensely practical guide to conversational, colloquial and culture-rich Russian. It uses humor, current events and thematically-driven essays to deepen readers’ understanding of Russian language and culture. This enlarged Second Edition of Survival Russian includes over 90 essays and illuminates over 2000 invaluable Russian phrases and words.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955