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22 May 2016

‘All happy families are alike…’? The memoirs of Ilya Tolstoy (1866-1933)

On 22 May 1866 a third child and second son was born to Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sophia. The little boy, christened Ilya, joined his elder brother Sergei and sister Tatyana in the nursery at Yasnaya Polyana, and was followed by ten more siblings, five of whom survived to adulthood.

Ilya Tolstoy family picture
The Tolstoy family in 1884; Ilya is kneeling on the left. From Ilya Tolstoy, Moi vospominaniia (Moscow, 1933) British Library X.989/28774

In a letter to a relative, written in 1872, Tolstoy described the characteristics of his six eldest children with objective frankness and unsparing attention to detail. He notes six-year-old Ilya’s robust good health, inventiveness and tender-hearted sensitivity, but also his indolence (‘fond of eating and lying still doing nothing’), hot temper and poor performance in the schoolroom. He records with foreboding, ‘Everything forbidden delights him; he recognizes it at once… If I die Ilya will come to grief, unless he has some stern guardian whom he loves to lead him by the hand.’ Tolstoy’s comments on his son’s lack of ability may well have arisen from his own efforts to teach him mathematics, Latin and Greek; later the Tolstoy children were also educated by tutors until 1881, when the family took a house in Moscow and Ilya was sent to a private gymnasium. His father had refused to sign the declaration of Ilya’s loyalty to the Tsar which was mandatory for admission to a state-run school, and his premonitions were fulfilled when Ilya left without graduating.

In fact, for the rest of his life Ilya Tolstoy proved to be something of a rolling stone, trying his hand at one career after another. After military service as an officer in the Sumy Dragoon regiment and marriage in 1888 to Sophia Filosova, he worked in a bank and then for an insurance company to support his family of five children before going in for journalism and founding the newspaper Novaya Rossiia in 1915. His assistance with his father’s relief work during the famine of 1891-92 developed his social and humanitarian conscience, and during the First World War he worked for the Red Cross. However, it was after leaving Russia for the USA in 1916 that he developed the new career for which he was to be remembered – as a writer and lecturer on his father’s life and writings.

Ilya Tolstoy and father
Ilya and his father in 1903. From Moi vospominaniia

After an initial lecture tour he went back to Russia, but quickly left again when the Bolsheviks gained power in 1917, divorced in 1918, and returned to the United States by way of Paris, settling in Connecticut with his second wife Nadezhda Perchina. Despite the popularity of his lectures, he was never solvent, and was reduced to pawning family heirlooms to keep afloat. However, he was in demand as a literary consultant and adaptor when in 1927 a film was made of Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection,  in which he even made a cameo appearance in the character of the Old Philosopher.

Tolstoy had died in 1910, and the bizarre circumstances of his death in the railway station at Astapovo after fleeing the family home in a final act of rejection, together with the unhappiness which marred his 48-year marriage, might lead readers to expect a chronicle of bitterness and discord from his son’s memoirs. In fact, though he includes descriptions of less than idyllic episodes from his childhood and adolescence, Ilya balances these with memories of his father performing as a dancing bear at a Christmas party, disguised in a coat with a fur lining turned inside out, taking his children riding and fishing, getting left behind by the steamer on a visit to Kazan, training his horses and dogs, and compiling case notes on the ‘patients’ at the ‘Yasnaya Polyana Lunatic Asylum’. He comments on the relatives and friends who provided features of various characters in Tolstoy’s novels, and describes the devotion with which his mother repeatedly copied out her husband’s frequently illegible manuscripts.

Ilya Tolstoy X.989-28774 coverCover of the 1933 edition of Moi vospominaniia

The memoirs, Moi vospominania, first appeared in 1914, and were translated shortly afterwards by George Calderon as Reminiscences of Tolstoy (London, 1914; 010790.g.50), the first of several versions in the British Library’s collections, which also include an edition of the Russian text published in Moscow in 1933, the year of Ilya’s death. He died in poverty on 11 December in New Haven, perhaps fulfilling some of his father’s misgivings about his lack of staying-power and application. However, he left behind an absorbing account, remembered when his other writings had lapsed into obscurity, which counterbalances Tolstoy’s claim in Anna Karenina that ‘all happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’, and recalls scenes from family life like those of many other parents and children, less famous than the Tolstoys but united by similar experiences and emotions.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities and Social Sciences), Research Engagement

20 May 2016

Seminar on Textual Bibliography for Modern Foreign Languages, Monday 6 June

The annual Seminar on Textual Bibliography for Modern Foreign Languages will take place on Moday 6 June in the Eliot Room of the British Library Conference Centre. As ever, we have a varied programme covering a range of countries, themes and periods. The full programme for the day is:

11.00   Registration and Coffee

11.30  CARLO DUMONTET (London) Some thoughts on format identification, or Cataloguers vs Formats.

12.15  Lunch (Own arrangements)

1.30  CARMEN PERAITA (Villanova), War of Readers: Territorial Licensing and Printing of the First Editions of Quevedo’s Política de Dios (1626)

2.15 ALESSANDRA PANZANELLI (London) Illustrations in Early Printed Books From Perugia: Imitation, Re-Use and Original Production.

3.00 Tea

3.30 DAVID PAISEY (London) Peasants, Fragments of the Reformation in Germany and England, and Peter Schoeffer the Younger, Printer in Mainz, Worms and Strasbourg 1512-1538

4.30 KATYA ROGATCHEVSKAIA (London) ‘A Beautiful Tremendous Russian Book and Other Things Too’: An Overview of Rare Russian Books from the Diaghilev-Lifar Collection in the BL

The Seminar will end at 5.15 pm.

The Seminar is free and open to all, but please notify us if you are planning to attend.

Barry Taylor (; tel 020 7412 7576)
Susan Reed (; tel 020 7412 7572)


18 May 2016

Personal is Political: Eurovision 2016 and the Crimean Tatars

When Crimean Tatar singer Jamala  won Eurovision 2016  for Ukraine this weekend with a song about her people’s tragedy, she was following a tradition of telling the Crimean Tatar experience of exile through verse and story.

Jamala at a "meet & greet" appearance during the Eurovision Song Contest 2016 in Stockholm (From Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Albin Olsson License: CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Here is an earlier example:

Hey, swallow, swallow! Spread your wings wide!
If you get caught by the enemy on the ground,
You may be deprived of a homeland, like the Tatar!
Sorrowful people, great people! People with stunted lungs!
I was born amidst you, I am one of you. I am a weed in your garden,
I am a weed in your garden.
(From Kollar Demir, Bas Emen, Budapest, 1919)

The author, Bekir Çobanzade (1893-1937), was a Crimean Tatar linguist and academic who studied and taught in Crimea, Turkey, Hungary and Azerbaijan. His poems and stories express a lyrical, personal grief at the fate of the Muslim Turkic Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of Crimea. Under repressive Russian Imperial rule thousands emigrated to seek better lives. Soviet authorities, after a brief period of supporting national minorities, completed the exodus by forcibly deporting the entire nation in 1944 – the subject of Jamala’s winning song.

Coban-Zade portraitPhotograph of Çobanzade, first published in his poetry collection Boran (1928) From: D.P. Ursu. Bekir Choban-Zade (Simferopol, 2013), YF.2015.a.1408

Çobanzade did not live to see this final atrocity, which wiped out an estimated 46 percent of his nation. In 1937 he was executed for separatism, involvement in terrorism, and working as a foreign agent. He was rehabilitated in the 1950s.

The lyrics to Jamala’s song ‘1944’ begin:

When strangers are coming...
They come to your house,
They kill you all
and say,
We’re not guilty […]

Yaşlığıma toyalmadım
Men bu yerde yaşalmadım
[I could not spend my youth there/ Because you took away my land]

In the light of Eurovision rules that songs be apolitical, Jamala has said the song is not political but personal, telling the story of her grandmother who was deported. Every Crimean Tatar family living in Crimea at that time has this same story. When I was researching Dream Land (2008), my novel about the deportation and return home of Crimean Tatars almost fifty years later, I heard it again and again. I was fortunate to be able to interview many people who remembered the deportation, and Crimea before it – a land of roses and sunshine, but also of war and state-sponsored cruelty.

This generation is fast disappearing: one story recounted in Dream Land, of Seit-Amet who fought in the Russo-Japanese war and the First World War in place of his two brothers, was told to me by Seit-Amet’s son before he died in 2011. But the stories are passed on to those who were born in exile, or back in Crimea after Perestroika which allowed them to return. I was struck by the incredible vividness of this collective memory; often younger generations can recite their parents’ or grandparents’ experience as if they had lived through it themselves. Greta Uehling explores this phenomenon in her 2004 book Beyond Memory: The Crimean Tatars’ Deportation and Return.

The deportation, or Sürgünlik, was a nation-defining event. People were sent away on the basis of their national identity which the Soviet authorities then tried to obliterate, claiming that there was no such national group as the Crimean Tatars. During exile much Crimean Tatar culture and language was lost, but at the same time a campaigning National Movement was born, uniting a whole generation which defined itself by the determination to return to a lost homeland – and therefore, in opposition to Soviet authorities. Thus, while for every Crimean Tatar the deportation is a personal family story, it is also political, and the shared memory of this event informs current Crimean Tatar opposition to Russian annexation of Crimea.

Death Train-2.
Painting by Rustem Eminov (From

On 18 May 1944, when the bewildered Crimean Tatars – the majority women and children, as the men were fighting in the Red Army – asked the Soviet soldiers why they were forcing families from their homes, they reportedly replied “It’s not our fault – it’s Stalin’s orders.” The 2008 book and BBC series World War Two: Behind Closed Doors by Laurence Rees includes interviews with some soldiers who participated in wartime Soviet atrocities, including the deportation of the Crimean Tatars. Many repeat that they were just following orders. “I understand that it was cruel because I’m more experienced now,” says one now elderly man. “Now, we have democracy.” The implication is that they had no choice in or awareness of what they were doing, and thus what happened was not personal. It was political.

Writing in times of upheaval and repression reminiscent of Crimea today, Bekir Çobanzade’s ambitions for his works are touchingly modest. In a 1919 preface to a collection of poems unpublished in his lifetime he wrote “If history turns its attention to Crimea someday, and if one Crimean Tatar searches for another, my writings may surface. It is quite all right, if this does not happen. Crimean Tatars lost their flag, their glory, and their land. What if I were to lose a few nights without sleep and days in grief …”

Thanks to Russian annexation, history has indeed turned its attention to Crimea. And a Eurovision song is the unlikely vehicle whereby an international audience encounters the Crimean Tatar story, culture and threatened language which Çobanzade wrote “embodies my people's centuries-long sorrow, their anxious and yet brave voice.”

Lily Hyde, writer and journalist


Lily Hyde, Dream Land. (London, 2008) YK.2009.a.30188

Greta Uehling, Beyond Memory: The Crimean Tatars’ Deportation and Return. (Basingstoke, 2004) YC.2006.a.8885

Laurence Rees, World War II: Behind Closed Doors; Stalin, the Nazis, and the West. (London, 2008) YK.2009.a.30180

Ismail Otar, Bekir Sidki Çobanzade: Kirimli Türk Sair ve Bilgini. (Istanbul, 1999) ITA.2000.a.608 (English translations from the International Committee for Crimea.