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by Bamber Gascoigne

Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoi (1883-1945) - pseudonym Acton Bell


Novelist, playwright, historian, and short story writer, a former nobleman who immigrated to western Europe after the Bolshevik Revolution. Tolstoi returned to Russia in 1923. Nicknamed "Comrade Count" he was a supporter of Communist Party and honored artist receiving three Stalin Prizes. His two-part historical play on Ivan the Terrible Tolstoi wrote clearly to please Stalin. The Nobel writer Romain Rolland admired the power of Tolstoi's novels and said to him:

"What particularly impresses me about your strong and truthful art is the way you mould your personages in their particular surroundings. They seem to constitute an inalienable part of the air, earth, and light which surround and nourish them, and you have the knack of expressing the finest tints of the environment with one stroke of the brush."

Aleksei Tolstoi was born in Nikolaevsk (now Pugachyov), in Samara Province, into an aristocratic family distantly related to Lev Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev. He grew up in Sosnovka without knowing his real father, Count Nikolai Aleksandrovich Tolstoi, who was a member of the elite of Russian society and a wealthy landowner. His mother, Alexandra Leont'eva Turgeneva, was a minor literary figure. She  was a grand-niece of Nikolai Turgenev, a leader of the Decembrists, who organized the uprising of 14 December 1825. While pregnant with Aleksei, she left her husband and three children, and moved with Aleksei Apollonovich Bostrom, Tolstoi's stepfather, to a farm in the Samara region. Bostrom brought Tolstoi as his own child. There, out in the wilds, he learned to love the vast spaces of Cenral Russia, and heard folk legends and old songs. 

Count Tolstoi, who died in 1900, never saw his son, but acknowledged paternity and left provision for him in his will. Until the age of 13, Tolstoi was educated at home. After his stepfather sold his property, the family moved to the Volga town of Samara, where Tolstoi attended a secondary school (1894-1901). He then studied at St. Petersgurg Technological Institute (1901-08). In 1902 he married Julia Rozhansky; they had two children. While in Germany, he met  Sophia Dymshits. After leaving Julia, she became his common-law wife.

Tolstoi's first literary experiments were born under the influence of the Symbolist movement, but from poetry he soon turned to prose. In 1907 he published a collection of symbolist poems, Lirika. Among his early works were some realistic short stories depicting his childhood. As a writer Tolstoi made his breakthrough with a series of novels exploring the historical process of the impoverishment of the nobility's country estates and the spiritual decline of their owners.

Between the years 1914 and 1916 Tolstoi served as a war correspondent for the liberal newspaper Russkie vedomosti, sided with the Whites. He made several visits to the Front line, and travelled in France and England. "I saw ruined cities and villages, fields gashed by trenches and covered with little crosses, peasants silently rooting about among the embers of fires," he recalled. ('Foreword' by V. Troitsky, in Peter the Great, Volume 1, 1982, p. 9) Tolstoi's war experiences formed the background of Na voyne (1914-16), a collection of stories. In 1917 Tolstoi worked for General Anton Denikin's propaganda section. Though he welcomed the February revolution he was unable to accept the Bolshevist October Revolution, and emigrated in 1918 with his family to Paris. A few years later he went to Berlin where he joined a pro-Communist émigré group and became the editor of the Bolshevik newspaper Nakanune. With the introduction of the New Economic Policy in Russia and a change in his political beliefs, Tolstoi broke with the emigre circles and returned with his family to his homeland. From West Tolstoi brought with him to the novel Syostry (1922), the first part of his trilogy Road to Calvary (1922-42).

After an uneasy period, when he was suspected because of his aristocratic origins, Tolstoi established himself among the leading Soviet writers. During the 1920s Tolstoi wrote several plays, including adaptations of works by Eugene O'Neill and Carel Capek. He participated in the anti-fascist congress in Paris and London in 1935-36 and took part in the 2nd International Congress of Writers in Madrid during the Spanish Civil war (1936). In 1936 he was elected Chairman of the Writer's Union and a deputy to the Supreme Soviet in 1937. Two years later he was elected member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences for his historical fiction and works on Russian folklore. During World War II he served as a journalist and propagandist. His patriotic articles were collected in Chto my zashchishchayem (1942) and Rodina (1943). Tolstoi died in Moscow on February 23, 1945.

Tolstoi's major works include Nikita's Childhood (1922), a lyrical story with autobiographical elements of a childhood in a Russian village, and Road to Calvary, about the life of four people, sisters Dasha and Katia, and Telgin and Roshchin, from the eve of World War I to end of the Russian Civil War. It covered the same period as Sholokhov's Quiet Flows the Don (1928-40), but from the viewpoint of the progressive intelligentsia. Before beginning to work on his novel on the history of the life and reign of the Czar Peter the Great, he wrote the short stories 'Obsession' and 'Peter's Day,' in which the ruler was  portyrayed as a tragic figure, alone with his reforms. Tolstoi was dissatisfied with these stories but they formed a kind of preliminry study to his masterpiece. At the same time he was busy on writing the  trilogy Ordeal, which focused on the revolutionary upheaveals, that gave rise to the Soviet Union.

Peter the First (1929-45, book 1-2) was hailed as the best Soviet historical novel ever written – also in West it was received with praise mostly due to its vivid portrayal of the Petrin era. Moreover, the historical novel made a new  comeback in the 1930s and contributed to the rise of historical films.  Tolstoi never managed to finish the third part of the book before his death. Events break off at the moment when the Czar takes Narva from Sweden. During WW II, Peter I was serialized in the literary magazine Novyi Mir from March 1944 through January 1945.

Originally Tolstoi planned to take the story to the Battle of Poltava in 1709, "or perhaps up to the Prut campaign. I don't know yet. I don't want people to age in it– what can I do with them when they are old?" ('Foreword' by V. Troitsky, in Peter the Great, Volume 1, 1982, p. 17) Tolstoi followed the myth of Peter the Great as a progressive ruler who made Russia strong, while also having a heart for the people. Above all, Peter is a man of action, "inflexible and ruthless where matters of state were concerned," as he wrote in one of the notes to the novel. (Ibid., pp. 14-15)Tolstoi did not try to interpret history in a new way but used traditional material. Among his sources were works by the novelist Dmitry Merezhkovasky (1865-1941) and Daniil Mordovtsev, and the historians Vasily Klyuchevsky and Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900). Tolstoi's screenplay for the lavishly produced film version from 1937-39, directed by Vladimir Petrov, justified Peter's interest in imperial expansion. The script underwent several revisions. Before being arrested, the deputy director of the Central Committee's Department of Cultural and Educational Work recommended to stop the whole project.

Tolstoi's historical drama Na dybe (1929) was about the czar, too, but Peter was characterized as a tyrant. Stalin attended a preview of the play, regretting that "Peter was not drawn heroically enough."  Owing to changes in the regime's policies, its second version, Pyotr Pervy (1938) presented the tsar in a more sympathetic light. Nevertheless, one critic stated in a review that "This play by Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoi – a former count, in past years a bard of the bankrupt aristocracy, and currently numbering among the petty bourgeois "fellow travelers" – is the malicious, maddened sortie of a class enemy, covered over with the artful mask of "historicity."" (Afterimage: Aleksei Tolstoi's Many Returns to Peter the Great' by Kevin M.F. Platt, in Epic Revisionism: Russian History and Literature as Stalinist Propaganda, edited by Kevin M. F. Platt and David Brandenberger, 2006, p. 55)

Following Stalin's urge to present himself as a modern-day Peter, the czar become a builder-ruler in the history writing.  In 1937 Tolstoi said to his friend, the painter Yurii Annenkov: "I rewrote it again, in conformity with the revelations of the Party, and now I'm writing a third and hopefully final version of the thing, since the second version also didn't satisfy our Joseph."

"When a man's at war and constantly facing death he rises above his ordinary self. All the trashy stuff that doesn't matter peels off him, like dead skin after sunburn, and only the kernel, the real man, is left." (in 'The Russian Character', 1944)

Tolstoi's political novels include Chornoe zoloto (1932), which painted uncharitable caricatures of Russian émigrés, and Khleb (1937), in which history was crudely falsified to denigrate Trotsky. In his last plays, Oryol i orlitsa (1942,. The Eagle and Its Mate) and Trudnye gody (1943, The Difficult Years) Tolstoi idealized Ivan the Terrible and then drew parallels between him and Stalin – an idea that the film director Sergei Eisenstein developed in his monumental film production, Ivan the Terrible (1945-46). Stalin disliked especially the second part, in which Ivan Groznyi was portrayed as a disturbed Hamlet-like figure, but the first part won a Stalin Prize. Trying to save his film, Eisenstein acknowledged the errors and asked in a letter to Stalin permission to revise the work.

In Tolstoi's Ivan the Terrible the czar was a democratic ruler, who worked for the good of Russia tirelessly and mercilessly. The first part dealt with his love for his Kirghiz wife, The Difficult Years focused on Ivan's activities as a statesman. The work, which won Tolstoi a third, posthumous Stalin Prize in 1946, had been commissioned as a result of instructions of the Communist Party concerning "the need for the restoration of a true historica image of Ivan IV in Russian history."

Besides works on history, Tolstoi also published two science fiction novels, both of which appeared in the experimental 1920s and which were revised during the following decades of Stalinist terror. Aelita (1923), a science-fiction fantasy in the manner of H.G. Wells, told the story of a Soviet expedition to Mars. The native Martians are in fact long-ago emigrants from Atlantis. The story was adapted into screen in 1924. Aelita's screen version, a big budgeted Hollywood style production, promoted the idea of interplanetary socialist revoliution. ('Cosmonaut Nostalgia in Soviet and Post-Soviet Film' by Cathleen S. Lewis, in Remembering the space age: Proceedings of the 50th Anniversary Conference, edited by Steven J. Dick, 2008, p. 254) The futuristic, Expressionistic sets were designed by Isaac Rabinovitch of the Kamerny Theatre; Alexandra Exter made the spectacular geometric costumes and set elements for the Martian scenes. Before returning to the Soviet Union, director Jakov Protazanov had worked in Paris and Berlin. A great part of the film's glamour can be credited to Yulia Solntseva (Queen Aelita), whose beauty stunned all audences ‒ many babies born in 1924 were named Aelita. However, the movie was repeatedly attacked in the Soviet press, and eventually removed from distribution. It has been claimed that its designs influnced the Flash Gordon space opera, created by the artist Alex Raymond in 1934. Aelita preceeded Fritz Lang's Metropolis by three years. 

Tolstoi's Giperboloid inzhenera Garina (1926, The Death Box) described an attempt of an unscrupulous inventor to use his death ray to conquer the world. He manages to rule a decadently capitalist USA for a short period. Bunt mashin (1924) was a play, based on Carel Capek's science fiction story R.U.R. With the journalist Alexander Starchakov, who died in one of Stalin's purges, Tolstoi wrote the libretto for Dmitri Shostakovich's satirical opera Orango (1932). The opera in three acts, which was rediscovered in 2006, portrays a "biomorph", half-man and half-monkey.

For further reading: Alexei Tolstoy by W. Stscherbina (1954); Aleksei Tolstoi - master istoricheskogo romana by A.V. Alpatov (1958); Put Alekseya Tolstogo: ocherk tvorchestva by M.B. Charny (1961); Aleksei Tolstoi - khudozhnik by L.M. Poliak (1964); Soviet Russian Literature by Marc Slonim (1967, rev. 1977); Russian Literature Under Lenin and Stalin by Gleb Stuve (1972); Aleksei Tolstoi by V. Petelin (1978); The Images of Peter the Great in Russian Literature by Xenia Gasiorawska (1979); 'Foreword' by V. Troitsky, in Peter the Great, Volume 1, translated by Alex Miller (1982); Aleksei Tolstoi by Sergei Borovikov (1984); 'Tolstoy, Aleksey Nikolayevivh (1883-1945)' by Laurence Senelick, in McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, vol. 5, edited by Stanley Hochman (1984); Reference Guide to Russian Literature, edited by Neil Cornwell (1998); A.N. Tolstoi, ed. by I.E. Kharitonov (1990); A.N. Tolstoi: Novye materialy i issledovaniia (1995); The Cult of Ivan the Terrible in Stalin's Russia by Maureen Perrie (2001); Epic Revisionism: Russian History and Literature as Stalinist Propaganda, edited by Kevin M. F. Platt and David Brandenberger (2006); 'Aelita / Aelita, the Queen of Mars' in European Silent Films on Video: A Critical Guide by William B. Parrill (2006); Aleksei Tolstoi by Aleksei Varlamov (2006); Aleksei Tolstoi: Dialogi so vremenem, edited by T.I. Radomskaia (2014)  - Note: Aleksei Nikolayevich Tolstoi is not to be mixed with Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy (1817-1875), who also was a writer.

Selected works:

  • Lirika, 1907 (Lyrics)
  • Doch' kolduna zakoldovannyi korolevich, 1908/09 (The Sorcerer's Daughter and the Enchanted Prince; dramatic tale)
  • Nedelia v Tureneve, 1910
    - A Week in Turenovo (translated by George Reavey, in Week in Turenovo and Other Stories, 1958)
  • Sochineniia, 1910-12 (2 vols.)
  • Nechayannaya udacha, 1911 (Unexpected Success; play)
  • Chudaki, 1911 (The Eccentrics)
  • Za sinimi riekami: stikhi, 1911 (Beyond the Blue Rivers)
  • Sochineniia, 1912-18 (6 vols.)
  • Povesti i Rasskazy A Tolstogo, 1912
  • Khromoi barin, 1912 (The Lame Prince)
  • Rodnye Mesta, 1912
  • Nasilniki, 1913 (The Ravishers; play)
  • Vystrel, 1914  (A Shot; play, early version of Kukushkiny slezy)
  • Molodoy Pisatel, 1914 (play)
  • Na Voyne, 1914-16 (At War)
  • Den Bitvy, 1915 (The Day of the Battle; play)
  • Dni voiny, 1915
  • Obyknovenny Chelovek, 1915
  • Nechistaya sila, 1916 (play, revised 1942)
  • Orion, 1916
  • Kasatka, 1917 (My Darling Girl; play)
  • Kukushkiny slezy, 1917 (Crocodile Tears; play, revised version of Vystrel)
  • Gorky tsvet, 1917 (Bitter Blossom; play)
  • Mrakobesy, 1917 (The Obscurantits; play, published 1940)
  • Mest, 1918
  • Na Povdvodnoy Lodke, 1918
  • Prekrasnaya Dama, 1918
  • Raketa, 1918 (The Rocket; play)
  • Navazhdenie, 1919 (Delusion)
  • Rozh, 1919
  • Smert' Dantona, 1919 (The Death of Danton; play, based on Georg Büchner's Dantons Tod)
  • Neobyknovennoe prikliuchenie, 1921
  • Sestry, Sovremennye zapiski, 1922 (Tour of Hell: Trilogy)
  • Den' Petra, 1922 [Peter's Day]
  • Liubov' - kniga zolotaia, 1922 (Love Is a Golden Book; play, written in 1918)
  • Khozhdenie po mukam, 1922-42 = Syostry, 1922; Vosemnadtsatyi god, 1929; Khmuroe Utro, 1942  (Stalin Prize)  
    - The Road to Calvary (translated by R.S. Townsend, 1923; Edith Bone, 1946) / Darkness at Dawn (tr.  Edith Bone and Emile Burns, 1935) / Ordeal: A Trilogy (translated by Ivy and Tatiana Litvinov, 1953)
    - Kärsimysten tie: trilogia (suom. I. Vahros, 1945)
    - FILMS: trilogy: Syostry, 1958; Vosemnadtsatyy god, 1958; Khmuroe utro, 1959; dir. by Grigori Roshal
  • Detstvo Nikity / Povest' o mnogikh prevoskhodnykh veshchakh, 1921
    - Nikita's Childhood (translated by Violet Dutt, 1944)
    - Nikitan lapsuus (suom.  M. J. Jääskeläinen, 1945; Alli Airola, 1956; S. Kuivala, 1963)
  • Aelita (Zakat Marsa), 1922
    - Aelita (translated by Antonina W. Bouis, introduction by Theodore Sturgeon, 1981) / Aelita; or, The Decline of Mars (translated by Leland Fetzer, 1985)
    - Aelita (suom. Vieno Zlobina, 1961)
    - FILM: 1924, dir. by Yakov A. Protazanov, starring Nikolai M. Tseretelli, Igor Ilinski, Yulia Solntseva, screenplay by Fyodor Otzep, Alexei Faiko
  • Bunt mashin, 1924 (The Revolt of the Machines; play, based on Carel Čapek's R.U.R.)
  • Golubye goroda, 1925 (Blue Towns)
  • Zagovor Imperatritsy, 1925 (The Empress Plot; play, with Pavel Eliseyevich Shchegolev)
  • Giperboloid inzhenera Garina, 1925-26
    - The Death Box (translated by Bernard Gilbert Guerney, 1936) / The Garin Death Ray (translated by George Hanna, 1957) / Engineer Garin and His Death Ray (translated by George Hanna, 1987)
    - Kuoleman säteen salaisuus (suom. Kaarlo Luoto, 1928)
    - FILM 1965, dir. by Aleksandr Gintsburg, starring Evgeni Evstigneev, Vsevolod Safonov, Natalya Klimova
  • Polina Gebl, 1926 (Pauline Gelb; play, with P.E. Shchegolev)
  • Zagovor Imperatritsy, 1926 (The Conspiracy of the Empress)
  • Azef: orel ili reshka, 1926 (Heads or Tales; play, with P.E. Shchegolev)
  • Chudesa v reshete, 1926 (Miracle ina Sieve)
  • Na dybe: Istoricheskie p'esy, 1929 (On the Rock; play)
  • Vosemnadtsatyi god, 1929 (Tour of Hell: Trilogy)
  • Petr Pervyi, 1929-45 (Peter the First; Stalin Prize)
    - Peter the Great (translated by Chrouschoff Matheson, 1932)  / Peter the First (translated by Edith Bone and Emily Burns, 1936) / Peter the First (translated by Tatiana Shebunina, 1956) /Peter the Great 1-2 (translated by Alex Miller, 1982)
    - Pietari Ensimmäinen I-II (suom. E. Rautanen, 1935) / Tsaari Pietari I (suom. Juhani Konkka, 1939)
    - FILMS: 1937-38, dir. by Vladimir Petrov, starring Nikolai Simonov, Mikhail Zharov, Alla Tarasova, Nikolai Cherkasov; Yunost Petra, 1980, dir. by Sergei Gerasimov, starring Dmitri Zolotukhin; V nachale slavnykh del, 1981, dir. by Sergei Gerasimov, starring Dmitri Zolotukhin
  • Chernoe zoloto, 1931 (The Émigrés)
  • Patent 119, 1933 (Patent No. 119; play)
  • Khleb, 1937
    - Bread (translated by S. Garry, 1938)
  • Petr Pervyi, 1938 (Peter the First; play)
  • Chertov most, 1939 (The Bridge of the Devils; play)
  • Zolotoy klyuchik, 1939 (The Little Golden Key; play, based on Carlo Collodi's Le avventure di Pinocchio)
    - Pieni kulta-avain eli Buratinon seikkailut (suom. Inkeri Letonmäki, 1955)
    - FILM: 1939, dir. by Aleksandr Ptushko, starring O. Shaganova-Obraztsova, A. Shagin, Sergei Martinson
  • Put k pobede, 1939/40 (The Road to Victory; play)
  • P'esy, 1940 (Plays)
  • Russkie skazki, 1940
    - Russian Tales for Children (tr. 1947;  illustrated by K. Kouznetsov, translated by Evgenia Shimanskaya, 1944)
    - Venäläisiä satuja (suom. J. Tiinus, 1946)
  • Fyurer, 1941 (Führer; play)
  • Rodina, 1941 (in Pravda)
    - MyCountry (translated by D.L. Fromberg, 1943)
  • The Daredevils, and Other Stories, 1942
  • Khmuroe utro, 1942 (Tour of Hell: Trilogy)
  • Ivan Groznyĭ. Oryol i orlitsa, 1942 (Ivan the Terrible; play)
  • Chto my zashchishchayem, 1942 (What We Defend)
  • Khozhdenie po mukam, 1943 (Tour of Hell: Trilogy)
    - Road to Cavalry (translated by Edith Bone, 1945) / Ordeal (translated by Ivy and Tatiana Litvinov, 1953)
  • Ivan Groznyĭ. Trudnye gody, 1943 (play)
  • Nechistaya Sila, 1943 (play, written in 1916)
  • Rasskazy Ivana Sudareva, 1944 (Stories of Ivan Sudarev; in Povesti i rasskazy 1910-1943)
  • Povesti i rasskazy 1910-1943, 1944
  • Ivan Groznyi, 1944 (Stalin Prize)
  • Polnoe sobranīe sochinenīĭ, 1946-53 (15 vols.)
  • A Week in Turenevo, and Other Stories, 1958 (introd. by George Reavey)
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1958-61 (10 vols.)
  • The Great Big Enormous Turnip, 1968 (pictures by Helen Oxenbury) 
  • Vampires: Stories of the Supernatural, 1969 (coll., translated by Fedor Nikanov)
  • The Turnip: A Russian Folk Tale, 1970 (translated by Fainna Glagoleva, illustrated by V. Losin)  
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1972 (8 vols.)
  • Collected Works, 1982 (6 vols., translated by Ivy and Tatiana Litvinova)
  • Perepiska A.N. Tolstogo, 1989 (The Correspondence of A.N. Tolstoi)
  • The Marie Antoinette Tapestry, 1991
  • Emigranty: Roman, povesti, rasskazy, 1994
  • Pokhozhdeniia Nevzorova, ili Ibikus, 2001

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