Tolstoy, Alexey Konstantinovitch

Tolstoy, Alexey Konstantinovitch (1817–1875)

(pop culture)

Alexey Konstantinovitch Tolstoy, the nineteenth-century Russian writer who introduced the vampire into Russian literature, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. Tolstoy was educated at home and, at the age of 16, entered government service at the Moscow Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While in Moscow, he was able to study at Moscow University where he absorbed German idealistic philosophy. He received his diploma from the university in 1835.

At the beginning of his literary career, influenced by E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tales, Tolstoy wrote several fantastic/horror stories, the first of which was “Upyr” (“The Vampire”). “Upyr” was the story of a young couple, Runevsky and Dasha. The story opened in nineteenth-century Moscow with a group at a ball. Runevsky conversed with a pale young man, Rybarenko, on the subject of vampires. He predicted that if Dasha went to visit her grandmother she would die. Eventually, after a series of adventures and some visionary experiences, Runevsky learned the truth. The problem in Dasha’s family stemmed from previous generations, to an unfaithful wife who killed her husband. As he was dying, he pronounced a curse of madness and vampirism upon her and their heirs. She eventually went insane and committed suicide. Dasha’s grandmother inherited the curse. As a vampire, she had already killed Dasha’s mother and was prepared to kill Dasha. In the end he became a believer in the supernatural, although Dasha dismissed everything that happened and believed a more naturalistic explanation.

Tolstoy first read the story at one of the local salons and then, after passing a censor, had it published under the pseudonym Krasnorogsky in 1841. It was followed by a second supernatural tale, “The Reunion After Three-Hundred Years,” a ghost story. Tolstoy returned to the vampiric theme in his third story, “The Family of the Vurkodlak”. (The vurkodlak was the vampire of the southern Slavs.) Written in French, it began with the Congress of Vienna in 1815 where the Marquis d’Urfé entertained some aristocratic friends with his story. While traveling through Serbia, d’Urfé stopped for the night. The family he stayed with was upset as the father had left to fight the Turks. Before he left, d’Urfé told the family to beware if the father returned in less than ten days—it was a sign that he had become a vurkodlak and should be impaled with an aspen stake. Almost ten days passed before the father returned. The older son was about to kill him but was overruled by the family, although the father refused to eat or drink and otherwise behaved strangely. The father then attacked the family, including the daughter to whom d’Urfé had been attracted. D’Urfé continued on his journey but returned to the village some months later. He was told that the entire family had become vampires. He sought out the young girl but soon discovered that, in fact, she was now a vampire. He barely escaped from the family.

After writing “The Family of the Vurkodlak,” which was not published during his lifetime, Tolstoy wrote a fourth supernatural story, “Amena.” These four stories formed a prologue to his formal literary career that was really thought to have begun when he started writing poetry in the late 1840s. The high point of his career as a poet came in the late 1850s, the period after his service in the Crimean War (1855–1856). In 1861, he resigned from the Imperial Court and devoted the rest of his life to his writing. Tolstoy has been hard to classify, as his works do not readily fit into any of the major schools of nineteenth-century Russian writing. A loner, he rarely participated in the literary circles of his time, and, after leaving the court, settled on his estate in the Ukraine. Tolstoy approved of some Westernization but did not like the more radical activists. He did inject the vampire theme into Russian writing, a theme that would later be picked up by Nicol Gogol and Ivan Turgenev. In 1960, Italian director Mario Bava brought “The Family of the Vurkodlak” to the screen as one of three Russian stories in his La Maschera del Demonio (released in the United States as Black Sunday). Boris Karloff, who narrated the breaks between the stories, also played the father who had become a vurkodlak. English editions of Tolstoy’s stories were published in 1969.

Sources:

Dalton, Margaret. A. K. Tolstoy. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972. 171 pp.
Ingham, Norman W. E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Reception in Russia. Würzburg, Germany: Jal-Verlag, 1974: 244–250.
Tolstoy, Alexis. Vampires: Stories of the Supernatural. Translation by Fedor Nikannov. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1969. 183 pp.