I know it's been a while since I posted anything, but working on a website and new patterns is so much more work than I ever imagined. Anyhow, as it is still under construction - and as I am wholly tired of staring at a computer screen - I decided to actually do some sewing for a change! This little project was inspired by the recent BBC adaptation of War & Peace. Did you see it? It was totally wonderful and it reminded me of our Moscow days. We lived in Moscow for over four years, but as the years pass, our time in Russia seems ever more distant, and when I see something so evocative of 'Russian-ness' on the tv, it reminds me of all the wonderful textiles and patterns and folklore that I loved so much when I was there. The episode in War & Peace, when Natasha Rostova dances at her uncle's dacha, is meant to imbue the reader with the idea of the russian soul and all that encompasses. She has no experience of russian folk dancing, but once the scene presents itself - she cannot help but be drawn into the music and instinctively knows what to do. For me, when I think of those trips to the dacha's, the forests, the cooking over the fire and the hearty toasts and high spirits of russian country life, it seems a very natural scene. I was a fan of Leo Tolstoy, long before I ever went to Russia, but I think the day we went to visit his country estate 'Yasnaya Polyana' will always remain an epic day in our family's lives.
It takes some effort to get there as a stranger .... a few hours drive south of Moscow, close to a city called Tula, amidst a sweeping landscape of of undulating fields and great swathes of silver birch trees. There is no order here - just nature, calmly occupying the landscape, wary of intruders. Leo Tolstoy came from a wealthy family and grew up on this sprawling estate. Born in 1828, the fourth of five children, his mother died when he was just two years old and his father when he was eleven. Although the emotional impact of this was to stay with Tolstoy all his life, the loss of their parents did not interfere with the daily lives of the children, who continued to live at the house with an Aunt. As an isolated group of youngsters, the children became self reliant and in the beautiful surroundings of their home, developed lively games and a special club of their own called the 'ant brotherhood'. Perhaps because of their orphan status, their home became of paramount importance to them - something solid, that would always be there. A famous incident from this time stayed with Tolstoy all his life - one of his brothers claimed to have found the secret to eternal life and happiness and written it on a green stick, which he buried somewhere in the gardens of the house. Later in life, when Tolstoy wrestled so formidably with the heavy questions of religion, death and immortality - the green stick would come back to haunt him and sometimes, the issues it represented even threatened to consume him entirely. Before this though, was to come another life. In 1847 - Leo Tolstoy inherrited Yasnaya Polyana at the age of 19. He found himself master of 2000 acres of russian soil, a grand house with sweeping staircases and ornate balconies and over 300 peasants attached to the estate. He did attend Kazan University for a while, but then he chose to follow the well trodden path open to him, of aristocratic idleness and dissipation - amusing himself with the all consuming passions of a young man - gambling, drinking and womanising. He joined the army, he travelled and he began to observe. It seems to me that he was always a compulsive character. Around this time, in a marathon came of cards, which lasted two days and two nights - he lost his ancestral home. The victor, it is said, came to estate and removed the grand house - brick by brick - leaving him only some outbuildings and his land. As time passed - Tolstoy began to feel revulsion at his life of worldly pleasures and looked for a cure.... marriage it seemed to him....was the answer.
He married Sonia Behrs - the second daughter of long standing friends of the family in Moscow. It is thought that he was expected to marry the eldest girl, but instead, he felt himself drawn to the middle daughter. He claims that one evening he wrote a series of letters on a piece of paper - each one representing the first letter of a word. Sonia was able to complete the sentence and thus win his heart. If you have ever read Anna Karenina, you will recognise this scene, as played out by Lev and Kitty. He also, decided that to relieve himself of his guilt at his life of debauchery - he catalogued his sins and presented his bride to be with a diary of his past life, with seemingly no regard at all to her feelings. She was, apparently, still crying at the wedding ceremony the next evening in the Kremlin! You might think that all this did not bode well - but it seems that once established back at Yasnaya Polyana - in a new house, which Tolstoy had built alongside where the old once had once stood - all went well. A brood of children (9 to be exact) followed and Sonia worked diligently helping him with his work and copying and editing his stories. Tolstoy was a man of huge intellectual capacity, speaking languages, reading and translating great works of literature and in a more settled way of life, he had time to explore the ideology of his world. He wrote his masterpieces, which were immediate successes and found a celebrity of a kind at a time when communications were not as they are today. But spectres were lurking in the shadows and the message on the green stick, which languished in a far corner of his mind, came to the fore and began to torment him. It prompted battles with questions of morality, social values and the unjustness and inequality of life. His mind festered and the inevitable depression followed. Despite his new found celebrity status, he dressed like a peasant and even began making his own shoes. He worked on the land and tried sociological experiments, but still his days were peppered with fits of anxiety and some say, even a battle with sanity itself. He was a cranky, complicated old man by the end of his days - but nevertheless, on this day...we were happy to be guests in his house.
The house is wooden and is best described as a large family home. It is not like the grand english estates of Chatsworth or Blenheim - more of a country lodge, with a sort of 'make do and mend' feel about it. It could not be called pretentious by any stretch of the imagination. Almost everything has been preserved as it was the day he died. Books and paintings everywhere. An old leather sofa, on which Tolstoy had been born (and insisted his wife give birth to all of his children on) still sits in his study. A large family dining room table, set with blue and white china and a samovar still waiting to serve tea. A chess board, a card table, a piano.... the usual sorts of things that would have entertained the family at that time. It was not grand.... but it had a sense of something grander in the air. Heavy utilitarian furniture, colourful rugs and embroidered towels....winter furs and boots, his daughter's needlework, his wife's transcripts, family photographs.
After watching War & Peace and remembering all of this... I decided to make a small project in homage and it turned out to be the prettiest cushion, I could have imagined. I have been dying to use my Dresden Plate ruler and it worked a treat. Using half a dresden plate block, I created a colourful fan, reminiscent of the colours and patterns found on the beautiful folklore boxes you can still find in Russia today. I added a 'fussy cut' circle from a pretty print and a semi circular band, which I hand embroidered. I couldn't resist, the final touch of a tassle and I set it all on a black polka dot background to let it shine.
I have to say that I am rather inspired by this whole experiment and Natasha's Dance may well turn out to be a quilt pattern in the future. It has been my favourite kind of project - inspired by history and stories and travel, all mixed up to produce something that actually has meaning in our home.
Our family, will never forget our day at Yasnaya Polyana. After we had visited the house... we went into the gardens for a picnic. They were not formal gardens in any sense of the word - just chaotic woodlands bathed in crystal clear air. We wandered about and I remembered thinking about the merry band of the 'ant brotherhood' that had played there. We stumbled upon Tolstoy's grave along one of the pathways - marked by a simple stone coffin, now just covered in ivy. This place was his beginning, his anchor in life and his end. It was a very russian home and even though the house is not living anymore... it is simply a museum.....there is still the trace of the man himself, wafting through the rooms and I am sure, he will never let go.
See you soon.... Ruby x