Saturday, 5 November 2016

From Yasnaya Polyana To The Zoological Gardens: Tolstoy's Skating Legacy


In the village Yasnaya Polyana in Tula Oblast, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy penned "War And Peace", regarded widely by scholars and book lovers alike as one of the greatest novels of all time. It was published in 1869, six years after the formation of the Neva Skating Association in St. Petersburg. Owing to the newfound interest the noble class of Russians were paying to figure skating at the time, many Russian writers of note took to the ice to see what all the fuss was about. Years after Alexander Pushkin wrote of skating in his novel in verse "Eugene Onegin", writers like Vladimir Gilyarovsky were often found at the Patriarch's Ponds rink in Moscow passing the long, frosty winters by carving out eights on the ice in the company of the most influential Muscovites.

Tolstoy, a firm believer in the virtues of physical activity, also skated at the Patriarch's Pond rink with his family and quite often on a pond on his property in Yasnaya Polyana, the winters a time when he often took a break from writing. It was no surprise that this famous skating aficionado found room for his winter sport of choice in his 1877 book "Anna Karenina". The famous 'skating scene' from Tolstoy's acclaimed novel offers a backdrop to the chilly burgeoning romance subplot of Konstantin Dmitrievich Lëvin and Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya:

"At four o’clock, conscious of his throbbing heart, Levin stepped out of a hired sledge at the Zoological Gardens, and turned along the path to the frozen mounds and the skating-ground, knowing that he would certainly find her there, as he had seen the Shtcherbatskys' carriage at the entrance.

It was a bright, frosty day. Rows of carriages, sledges, drivers, and policemen were standing in the approach. Crowds of well-dressed people, with hats bright in the sun, swarmed about the entrance and along the well-swept little paths between the little houses adorned with carving in the Russian style. The old curly birches of the gardens, all their twigs laden with snow, looked as though freshly decked in sacred vestments.

He walked along the path towards the skating-ground, and kept saying to himself—'You mustn't be excited, you must be calm. What's the matter with you? What do you want? Be quiet, stupid,' he conjured his heart. And the more he tried to compose himself, the more breathless he found himself. An acquaintance met him and called him by name, but Levin did not even recognise him. He went towards the mounds, whence came the clank of the chains of sledges as they slipped down or were dragged up, the rumble of the sliding sledges, and the sounds of merry voices. He walked on a few steps, and the skating-ground lay open before his eyes, and at once, amidst all the skaters, he knew her.

He knew she was there by the rapture and the terror that seized on his heart. She was standing talking to a lady at the opposite end of the ground. There was apparently nothing striking either in her dress or her attitude. But for Levin she was as easy to find in that crowd, as a rose among nettles.

Everything was made bright by her. She was the smile that shed light on all around her. 'Is it possible I can go over there on the ice, go up to her?' he thought. The place where she stood seemed to him a holy shrine, unapproachable, and there was one moment when he was almost retreating, so overwhelmed was he with terror. He had to make an effort to master himself, and to remind himself that people of all sorts were moving about her, and that he too might come there to skate. He walked down, for a long while avoiding looking at her as at the sun, but seeing her, as one does the sun, without looking.

On that day of the week and at that time of day people of one set, all acquainted with one another, used to meet on the ice. There were crack skaters there, showing off their skill, and learners clinging to chairs with timid, awkward movements, boys, and elderly people skating with hygienic motives. They seemed to Levin an elect band of blissful beings because they were here, near her. All the skaters, it seemed, with perfect self-possession, skated towards her, skated by her, even spoke to her, and were happy, quite apart from her, enjoying the capital ice and the fine weather.

Nikolay Shtcherbatsky, Kitty's cousin, in a short jacket and tight trousers, was sitting on a garden seat with his skates on. Seeing Levin, he shouted to him -

'Ah, the first skater in Russia! Been here long? First-rate ice - do put your skates on.'  

'I haven’t got my skates,' Levin answered, marvelling at this boldness and ease in her presence, and not for one second losing sight of her, though he did not look at her. He felt as though the sun were coming near him. She was in a corner, and turning out her slender feet in their high boots with obvious timidity, she skated towards him. A boy in Russian dress, desperately waving his arms and bowed down to the ground, overtook her. She skated a little uncertainly; taking her hands out of the little muff, that hung on a cord, she held them ready for emergency, and looking towards Levin, whom she had recognised, she smiled at him and at her own fears. When she had got round the turn, she gave herself a push off with one foot, and skated straight up to Shtcherbatsky. Clutching at his arm, she nodded smiling to Levin. She was more splendid than he had imagined her.

When he thought of her, he could call up a vivid picture of her to himself, especially the charm of that little fair head, so freely set on the shapely girlish shoulders, and so full of childish brightness and good-humour. The childishness of her expression, together with the delicate beauty of her figure, made up her special charm, and that he fully realised. But what always struck him in her as something unlooked for, was the expression of her eyes, soft, serene, and truthful, and above all, her smile, which always transported Levin to an enchanted world, where he felt himself softened and tender, as he remembered himself in some days of his early childhood.

'Have you been here long?' she said, giving him her hand. 'Thank you,' she added, as he picked up the handkerchief that had fallen out of her muff.

'I? I've not long … yesterday … I mean to-day … I arrived,' answered Levin, in his emotion not at once understanding her question. 'I was meaning to come and see you,' he said; and then, recollecting with what intention he was trying to see her, he was promptly overcome with confusion and blushed.

'I didn't know you could skate, and skate so well.'

She looked at him earnestly, as though wishing to make out the cause of his confusion.

'Your praise is worth having. The tradition is kept up here that you are the best of skaters,' she said, with her little black-gloved hand brushing a grain of hoar-frost off her muff.

'Yes, I used once to skate with passion; I wanted to reach perfection'

'You do everything with passion, I think,' she said, smiling. 'I should so like to see how you skate. Put on skates, and let us skate together.'

'Skate together! Can that be possible?' thought Levin, gazing at her.

'I'll put them on directly,' he said.

And he went off to get skates.

'It's a long while since we've seen you here, sir,' said the attendant, supporting his foot, and screwing on the heel of the skate. 'Except you, there’s none of the gentlemen first-rate skaters. Will that be all right?' said he, tightening the strap.

'Oh, yes, yes; make haste, please,' answered Levin, with difficulty restraining the smile of rapture which would overspread his face. 'Yes,' he thought, 'this now is life, this is happiness! Together, she said; let us skate together! Speak to her now? But that’s just why I'm afraid to speak - because I'm happy now, happy in hope, any way... And then?… But I must! I must! I must! Away with weakness!'

Levin rose to his feet, took off his overcoat, and scurrying over the rough ice round the hut, came out on the smooth ice and skated without effort, as it were by simple exercise of will increasing and slackening speed and turning his course. He approached with timidity, but again her smile reassured him.

She gave him her hand, and they set off side by side, going faster and faster, and the more rapidly they moved the more tightly she grasped his hand.

'With you I should soon learn; I somehow feel confidence in you,' she said to him.

'And I have confidence in myself when you are leaning on me,' he said."


Tolstoy passed away in 1910, fifty four years before The Protopopov's won the Soviet Union's first Olympic gold medal in pairs skating. However, his romantic depiction of strained romance on the ice decades before in "Anna Karenina" continues to have a lasting influence not only on Russian pairs and ice dance teams but those worldwide. Knowing now that the author himself had great affection for the sport only makes the legacy of his words all the more interesting from a historical perspective.

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