Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 16, 2020

The Tolstoy Estate (2020), by Steven Conte

Steven Conte’s brilliant new novel The Tolstoy Estate recreates the brief WW2 German Occupation of Yasnaya Polyana outside Moscow before they were forced to retreat.

As I said the other day in discussion about historical fiction at Whispering Gums, I know a fair bit about this extraordinary event because in 2012 The Spouse and I had a private tour to Yasnaya Polyana when we were in Russia, and our guide was an expert on the battlefield history of the area, tours of which he more commonly led. So en route, on the two-hour journey from Moscow, he gave us a bonus history of the German onslaught and how it was repulsed.  It was only our second day in Russia, and we were yet to see evidence of the scorched earth policy of the Germans, so we were not then really aware that the survival of this historic estate, the home of one of the world’s greatest writers, was an anomaly.  But as we subsequently visited palaces and cathedrals and museums in what had been occupied territory, we saw photos documenting the way the Germans expressed their hatred of all things Russian by looting and destroying these buildings and cultural artefacts.   It really is a remarkable experience to wander through an exquisite palace and then come across, in a small corridor, B&W photos of that same palace in ruins.  As the before-and-after photos at this website at Russia Beyond show, not all restoration work is complete, even now.)

Yasnaya Polyana (Wikipedia)

But Yasnaya Polyana escaped this fate because it was strategically useful.  The Germans were advancing on Moscow, but were halted on the southern flank at the city of Tula just under 200k from the capital.  They used the Tolstoy estate, about 12k southwest of Tula, as a hospital for casualties, and occupied it for about six weeks.  In Conte’s novel, the occupiers discover the significance of the building when they find tourist maps, and the central character military surgeon Paul Bauer is a bookish type who has read War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  So for him, it’s a bit like the literary pilgrimages I like to do, feeling a sense of reverence for the site where a great work of literature was penned.

Plus, he speaks Russian albeit with mediocre skill.  (Which I can understand because I learned it for six months before travelling to Russia and it’s not an easy language to learn.)  So it’s just as well that Katerina Trubetzkaya, Acting Head Custodian of Yasnaya Polyana, speaks fluent German, starting with a smart put-down to the battalion’s CO, Lieutenant Colonel Julius Metz: ‘Any half-decently educated person can speak the five or six main European dialects.’ Metz is monolingual, never really discovering that he is at the mercy of those who interpret for him.  Bauer doesn’t tell him that Katerina has imprudently ignored his quiet advice not to identify herself as Tovarishch i.e. Comrade, and Katerina switches in and out of German whenever it suits her.  But since her hostility is reckless, she delivers most of her insults in German, so that the enemy can understand her.

One aspect that I noticed repeatedly in Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, was how passionately the Soviet women spoke of their land and their desire to defend it no matter the cost.  Over and over again Alexievich quotes their disbelief and outrage: how dare anyone set foot on their land? So Conte’s representation of Katerina is absolutely authentic: she is livid, and she is also utterly confident that Germany will be defeated.  In this respect she has Tolstoy on her side: because War and Peace is framed around Napoleon’s humiliating retreat from Moscow in 1812, with 27,000 soldiers the only remnant of his massive army after the loss of 380,000 men in the bitter Russian winter.

‘It’s only a matter of time until Tula falls, gnädige [gracious] Frau, and when it does the whole Soviet centre will collapse.  By Christmas, I assure you, we’ll be well ensconced in Moscow.’


‘Let’s say you’re right, she said, ‘though I strongly doubt it.’ Bauer guessed what was coming, and she didn’t disappoint. ‘In 1812 Napoleon held Moscow for most of September and October, and yet by November his Grande Armée was — how shall I put it? — in headlong retreat.’

‘Madam, warfare is no longer a matter of rag-tag armies chasing one another about the countryside.  It’s total, and our strength is the greater.’

‘Russia remains large, its winters cold’.

Metz gave her a supercilious smile. ‘You seem like an intelligent woman.  Don’t you know that history never repeats itself?

‘Ah, but there you’re wrong.  Herr Oberstleutnant. 1707, the Swedes.  It was in Russia they learned neutrality.  If you’re smart enough, you Germans will learn the same lesson — though somehow I doubt it. (p.29)

Well, we all know what happened, and Bauer with his mediocre Russian already knew it too, from a brief conversation with a hostile babushka…

what the High command, with Abwehr spies and Russian linguists at its disposal, had apparently overlooked: in October the roads essential to the German strategy were impassable by definition.  (p.5)

Rasputitsa, (Sea of Mud) by Savrasov (1894) (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia tells is that this is called the rasputitsa: a Russian term for two seasons of the year when travel on unpaved roads or across country becomes difficult, owing to muddy conditions from rain or melting snow. It is applied to both spring and autumn.  Savrasov’s painting at right is beautiful, but the photos at Wikipedia give a better idea of the defensive advantage that halted the German offensive.  After that came the turning point of the war with the defeat at Stalingrad which showed that the Germans were not invincible, and paved the way for D-Day at Normandy.

But in Conte’s novel Stalingrad is yet to come, and there is bitter fighting at the front in the battle for Tula.  Even as the relationship between Katerina and Bauer thaws, the casualties come into the hospital suffering not just from battle wounds but from frostbite.  Conte vividly evokes the brutal weather when the temperature drops to minus sixteen degrees Celsius and Bauer wakes to a layer of snow over his blankets because he left the window ajar.  The army has not been supplied with winter uniforms, and although Bauer wears almost all his clothing, he is cold even indoors. He thinks of the troops — on both sides — out there in the blizzard:

under canvas or in foxholes; of their having to rise and feed themselves, visit latrines, tend to horses and vehicles, see to their weapons and to dozens of other mundane duties in order to prepare themselves for combat. (p.52)

Tolstoy’s Grave. (Wikipedia) When we visited, people had placed red flowers around the mound.

That morning when he gets to the hospital, Katerina is enraged that Tolstoy’s burial grove has been desecrated by its designation as a German military cemetery for the fallen.  ‘I’d rather see your troops in Soviet soil than on it,’ Trubetzkaya said, ‘just not anywhere near Tolstoy.  I want them disinterred.’  Metz palms her off onto Bauer, who goes with her into the bitter weather to see the grave.

If anything the wind felt harsher than before, an ice-spiked gale all the way from the tundra.  Big clouds flew fast and low overhead, their edges frayed, wild and unstable.  Trubetzkaya led him into the wind, and enviously he glanced at her clothes: a grey cape over her quilted jacket, fur-lined boots and mittens and her ushanka, the flaps of which she’d tied underneath her chin. His own cloth cap did little to fend off the wind and left his earlobes cruelly exposed.  His wrists stung where his gloves didn’t reach.  Already his face was stiffening.  (p.56)

If not for Katerina teaching him how to fend off the early effects of frostbite, he would have lost his nose, and he becomes acutely aware of the misery of the men at the front.

Conte doesn’t spare his readers the horrors of  conflict and the way the casualties suffer, and he also shows human endurance put to the test.  Bauer and his team work for 36 hours straight, until he can hardly think about what he is doing.  When he finally makes his way toward bed, he is accosted by Metz, who is becoming more and more unhinged, partly because Drexel is experimenting on him with amphetamines to enhance his performance and stamina, and partly because he can’t face the impending defeat of their objective to take Moscow.  But The Tolstoy Estate is also a bittersweet love story, when two intellectual soulmates meet in this most unlikely set of circumstances.

I loved their conversations about books and writing, and Katerina’s impassioned argument that the novel is a force for good in the world.

‘To be clear, I’m not saying that the novel as a form will disappear, any more than poetry has disappeared since it lost its status as the most prestigious branch of literature. But its importance will fade. Everything fades, I suppose, certainly everything made by human hands, and yet I can’t help feeling bereft to witness this diminution of the novel, which for all its inadequacies has trained us to see the world from others’ points of view. To borrow a Stalinist idiom, the novel is a machine, a noisy, violent thing whose product, oddly enough, is often human understanding, perhaps even a kind of love. I daresay some might look at the last one hundred years and say, ‘Nonsense, what love?’ but if so they are naïve because the terrifying truth is that it could have been worse. Hitler could have won. Kennedy and Khrushchev could have blown us all to hell. And who knows what other horrors we’ve evaded because someone, or someone’s teacher, or someone’s mother or grandfather, once put down a novel and thought, ‘My God, I am like that stranger’ or ‘That stranger is like me’ or even ‘That stranger is utterly different from me, and yet, how understandable his hopes and longings are.’ And in the future, as fewer and fewer people use these engines of empathy, what horrors will we not avoid?’ (p.355-6)

It’s been a long time between books for Steven Conte.  He won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for The Zookeeper’s War back in 2008, but The Tolstoy Estate is well worth the wait.

Highly recommended.

You can find out more about Steven Conte at his website.  There are also questions for book groups.

Theresa at Theresa Smith Writes reviewed it too — and by coincidence, but not surprisingly since we share a love of the novel, has quoted the same excerpt as above. See also Jennifer’s review at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large. 

Image credits:

Author: Steven Conte
Title: The Tolstoy Estate
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2020
Cover design by Catherine Casalino
ISBN: 9781460758823, pbk., 410 pages including Acknowledgements
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Readings $27.99

Available at Fishpond: The Tolstoy Estate or your favourite indie bookstore.


  1. I am so glad you loved this too. It’s going to be on my list of favourite books for this year for sure. And how lucky are you to have had that experience. We were talking about doing Russia next year but I don’t think that will happen now

    You’ve reminded me that I have a quote fro. Thus books saved to post on a rainy day. Will have to check the weather ;-)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Not only does this sound wonderful, but I am very jealous of your visit….


  3. What a wonderful review. I’m envious that you have been there and for how that must have enhanced the reading experience.
    That quote we share is one of the best I’ve come across. I just love it.


    • Thank you!
      It’s a beautiful thought, and I think it’s true that reading fiction enables empathy. I used to see it all the time when I read books to my students.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m so thrilled and delighted that you loved this. I have this waiting in the wings to read soon (possibly for AusReading Month if I can get myself more orgainised). Given I’m rereading War & Peace this year, it seemed like the perfect book pairing (although not as good as pairing it with a real life visit !!)


    • Well, I forgot to say in my review that having a working knowledge of W&P is a bonus. Which translation are you reading? I ask, because I tried reading W&P twice and gave up, and then the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation and loved every word of it.


      • My first attempt was with Princess Alexandra Kropotkin – we didn’t gel. I’m now reading the Penguin edition with Anthony Briggs translating. A much happier experience.


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