Sergei Tolstoy, the great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy, hopes to pen his tale

BOHEMIAN? Sergei Tolstoy, the great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy, jokes he lives like one.
BOHEMIAN? Sergei Tolstoy, the great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy, jokes he lives like one. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 26, 2010

As a vestige of Russian aristocracy and heir to a literary legacy, he is an unlikely resident of St. Mary's Court, a low-income assisted-living facility in Foggy Bottom.

The 87-year-old with the wispy silver hair bounces about his humble efficiency, cluttered with bottles of antibiotics, stacks of medical records and old newspaper clippings. He's looking for a book.

"I have something I want to show you," he calls to me over the blaring television.

Here, on the top floor of St. Mary's Court, lives Count Sergei Tolstoy, great-grandson of the "War and Peace" novelist Leo Tolstoy.

Not so long ago, he reveled in the luxuries his last name and aristocratic status afforded him. He dined with dignitaries in Washington's finest restaurants. His taste was so exquisite and his style so extravagant that a cigar company named a Cohiba for him.

Now he says his only income is a $213 monthly check from Social Security. His monthly rent at St. Mary's Court, where he has resided for 19 years, is $64. After utilities, what's left he spends at the nearby convenience store on magazines and licorice.

"I'm living like a bohemian," he jokes with a rascally grin. "I beg, borrow and steal."

According to people who have known him for more than 30 years, Tolstoy's money is gone, vanished, lost at the betting windows of the Laurel, Bowie, Timonium and Pimlico racetracks he used to roam six days a week.

"I made my bread and butter at the track," he says. "Many rich ladies wanted to marry me and become Countess Tolstoy. It is too late now, but I could have been a millionaire."

The book he wants to show is a Tolstoy encyclopedia sold at the museum of his great-grandfather's Russian estate, Yasnaya Polyana.

This August, Tolstoy says, he hopes to travel to Yasnaya Polyana to mark the 100th anniversary of his great-grandfather's death. It will be a celebration of the writer's life and works and a reunion of the Tolstoys.

Before Leo Tolstoy died at age 82 in November 1910, he had 13 children. During the Bolshevik Revolution, the Tolstoy family fled Russia seeking refuge across Europe. Today more than 200 descendants are spread across four continents; the Yasnaya Polyana estate keeps a record of all members of the vast family.


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