Celebrated author, historian and conscientious campaigner Nikolai Tolstoy, reflects on his personal protracted crusade against Bolshevism, ironically resulting in his arrest by the British Police and what it means to carry the Tolstoy legacy
any eyes have been cast on Russia this October, the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Next year, too, at home and abroad Russians will commemorate the massacre of the Emperor Nicholas II, together with his wife and children. Historians will pose and seek to answer questions relating to Russia’s century-long chapter of horrors, as well as speculating on what many fear may prove a troubled future.
Although I was born in England fifteen years after my father’s escape in 1920, I was brought up in a Russian-speaking household, Orthodox by baptism, inclination and very conscious of my Russian roots. My father’s flight had been a terrifying experience. His mother had died in 1916, after the Bolshevik capture of our home city of Kazan when he was seven years old, his life was preserved throughout two years’ concealment by his valiant English nanny, Lucy Stark. My great-aunt Lily, who also remained with him, described to me how Lucy would exclaim scornfully, on witnessing some brutal crime perpetrated in the streets by drunken Bolsheviks: ‘of course, it could never happen in England!’ She was of course right, even though Mr Corbyn might wish it otherwise.
When Britain and the infant Soviet Union made peace at the Treaty of Copenhagen, brave Lucy persuaded the Rev F.W. North, former British Embassy chaplain in Moscow, to register my father as liable to ‘repatriation’ on the pretty transparent pretence that he was her illegitimate son. Travelling to England via Finland, he was more fortunate than most émigrés in possessing wealthy English relations to welcome and protect him.
Brought up on such vivid tales, I espoused at an early age an entrenched antipathy to the bloodstained regime established by the Bolsheviks after three years’ civil war. To many today, these events must appear to belong to an all but forgotten era. In fact, it is not so very long ago. Ten days ago I was invited by the Ataman of the Semirechensk Cossack Host to visit them in distant Almaty in Central Asia, to be presented with a glittering Cossack sabre. Among my hosts was a splendid-looking veteran, whose vigorous curly hair and beard made him appear like a figure from one of Repin’s paintings. I learned to my astonishment that he is 112 years old! (Lest any reader nurture suspicion, I would point out that the Russian Government encountered no difficulty in providing me with a copy of my father’s birth certificate from 1912) Thus he was born at the time of the 1905 Revolution, and was twelve when the Bolsheviks seized power.
Although a mere juvenile in comparison, I was enabled to gain from my older contemporaries many glimpses of the pre-Revolutionary era. In our church I admired the magnificent moustaches of a former Tsarist policeman, who proudly described how he had arrested the future Soviet Marshal Voroshilov during a street riot in 1905. I also knew Sir Thomas Preston, British Consul in Ekaterinburg in 1918, who lamented to me that with further effort he might conceivably have been able to save the Imperial family. Another remarkable survivor of that troubled era whom I encountered was Baron Erik Palmstierna, who had in vain urged his colleague the Swedish Prime Minister of the day to inform Kerensky of the imminent arrival of Lenin in Petrograd in 1917. He urged that Lenin should be immediately incarcerated: how much misery might Russia and the world have been spared, had his advice been heeded! Regrettably, nothing suggests that the posturing Kerensky was capable of such decisive action.
My own knowledge of life in Imperial Russia derived principally from my two much-loved great-aunts Maroussia and Lily, who were born in 1881 and 1882. From them, I learned details of life at the court of Nicholas II, where my great-grandfather Pavel Sergeievich was one of the Emperor’s chamberlains and also of our country estate in the province of Kazan. Neither of these formidable ladies ever fully accommodated themselves to life in emigration, both speaking with the strongest of Russian accents and never quite understanding life in twentieth-century Britain. Not long after our marriage, Aunt Lily came to stay with us in the country. I had just bought my first stereo gramophone set, on which to entertain her I played a Strauss waltz. Tears welled up as it recalled for her the great ball in the Winter Palace commemorating three centuries of Romanov rule over Russia. Suddenly she appeared puzzled, and asked me where the music was coming from. I pointed out the twin speakers, but she interrupted my explanation: “We had nothing like this in Russia, but my father had a chorus of slaves who sang to us in our theatre”.
My own contributions to the protracted and seemingly futile crusade to overthrow Bolshevism were more modest. As a hot-headed youth in 1956, I appeared at Victoria Station to mount a lone protest against the arrival of Bulganin and Khrushchev. “KEEP THE RED BEASTS OUT!” read my hastily unfurled poster. It was torn from my hands by a rough-looking group of men whom I took for Bolshevik agents. They proved in fact to be the British Railway Police, who were not pleased when I punched their leading figure on the nose. Off I was taken in a Black Maria to a police station, where an amiable sergeant expressed sympathy for my stand. That evening the BBC news reported that “a man calling himself Tolstoy has been arrested”.
In my more mature years, I turned to the pen as my weapon, and wrote books exposing crimes perpetrated by the Soviets – regrettably, in a notorious instance in 1945, with duplicitous British collaboration. One or two of my books were passed about behind the Iron Curtain in samizdat – until eventually a memorable day arrived in the early 1990s when a genial Russian general informed me at a Moscow gathering that he had ordered my book Victims of Yalta to become compulsory reading at the Russian Staff College. (It was in England that its sequel was officially censored, being the first book to be banned in Britain for two centuries – its predecessor being Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Life can be strange at times).
The censorship, which was implemented by a forged legal document circulated to all public and university libraries in Britain, arose from my exposure of the late Lord Aldington (born Low) as a war criminal. As Chief of Staff of the British 5 Corps in Austria, he issued orders for the handover of some 70,000 Russian and Yugoslav prisoners-of-war and civilian refugees to be massacred or enslaved by the savage regimes of Stalin and Tito. Rather than counter my charges by reasoned argument based on evidence, he looked to the English courts to silence me. He was not disappointed. Judge Michael Davies, who selected himself to hear the case, also concealed the fact that he lived six miles from Aldington, where they belonged to the same small private golf club. Davies duly persuaded the jury to find me guilty and I was fined a record-breaking £1.5 million (afterwards condemned by the European Court of Human Rights). Aldington’s defence depended throughout on an alibi, whose veracity was blown apart a few months after the trial, by discovery of an official message recording the true date of his departure from Austria. Following the trial, the Imperial War Museum enterprisingly recorded for history the testimony of witnesses gathered in London for the trial. All involved – save one – have permitted public access to the tape recordings.
The exception was Lord Aldington, who on 26 August 1993 instructed the Director of Sound Recordings: “I cannot agree that the recordings or transcripts of the interview with me be made available for public review or copying for the time being… I do not want to complicate affairs by having on record for the public any statements different from those I made on oath in the courts.” Although Aldington has long ago departed to another world, his family has – possibly wisely – continued the ban.
From early days I had always trusted, although not I confess over-confidently, that I would live to see Communism overthrown. That magical day arrived when I was strolling one day in Washington. Coming round a corner, I thrilled as I saw our Imperial tricolour flying over the Russian Embassy. Great changes began in Russia, some of the more modest of which were dear to my White Russian heart. I was soon invited to become a patron of the restored College of Heralds in St Petersburg, while our daughter Anastasia’s first major social occasion in Russia was to attend the newly-revived Ball of the Nobility in Moscow.
Every other year the Tolstoy family assembles at Yasnaya Polyana, beloved home of Leo Tolstoy. Some are Russian-born; others come from Paris, Copenhagen, Rome and New York – in my case, rural Berkshire. All are united in their love of Russia, and play a part, modest but heartfelt, in furthering the restoration of our ravaged country.
At times I am almost inclined to feel that it was the Whites, who in the long run, won the Civil War. I recall English newspaper articles gently mocking my assertion that St Petersburg would one day reappear on the map. Deluded, too, appeared my expressed desire to hold a Russian passport – but only if it bore the Imperial two-headed eagle on its cover. It was President Yeltsin who personally intervened to grant me just such a passport, with the eagle proudly flaunted on its cover. He also decreed that I was to be enabled to inspect secret archives held by various ministries, which proved me right in drawing conclusions, which in Britain had earned me a fine of £1,500,000. Within the grim portals of the Lubianka, General Kandaurov of the KGB politely showed me where the White generals betrayed by the British in 1945 had been interrogated.
Sometimes these twists and turns of history appear to me something of a dream. When sour-faced Remoaners describe me – a committed Brexiteer – as hostile to Europe, I gently remind them that I am at least as cosmopolitan as they, being not only a British subject, but also a citizen of the biggest country in Europe – one which will never bow to the crumbling EU. As for the Crimea, it has been Russian since the time of Catherine the Great. It was there that my grandparents met on holiday in 1911, where they fell in love on the tennis courts.
Western grumblers would do well to abandon their dream of conquering it for the Ukraine. Or might they not redirect their attention nearer home – to France’s equally arbitrary recovery of Alsace-Lorraine in 1918?
On a lighter note, I am occasionally asked whether there be any particular advantage to being a Tolstoy. I fancy my greatest triumph in this respect occurred at school, when Picture Post carried an interview with Marilyn Monroe. When gorgeous Marilyn was asked what she considered the happiest moments in her life, she replied sweetly: “Being curled up in bed with Tolstoy”. Again, many years later when attending a reception at the House of Lords, I was introduced to an American lady who enthused over my name. To my embarrassment, I noticed beside me a distinguished-looking Englishman smiling gently. I felt a little foolish, until he too was introduced – his name proved to be Sir Geoffrey Shakespeare. Afterwards, Sir Geoffrey turned to me and said: “you know, Nikolai, I think you and I should go on a combined lecture tour of the United States!”