A Woman of Some Distinction

She's the great-great-granddaughter of Tolstoy, living outside Be'er Sheva; meet Ilaria Stiller Timor, who will be lecturing in Tel Aviv this fall on her noble forebear.

In the farthest place imaginable from the snowy Russian steppes, and on an especially steamy day in August, I went to meet the great-great-granddaughter of Leo Tolstoy. Ilaria Stiller Timor, today an Israeli resident of Omer, near Be'er Sheva, was born in a place that does not recall the appearance of Yasnaya Polyana, the spacious estate of the writer-cum-guru of an entire generation of his countrymen. The man who dreamed of the liberation of the serfs and worked for the education of the children of illiterate villagers, and left his entire property, including his literary rights, to the entire Russian people in his will.

Stiller Timor, 42, was born in Milan but grew up in Rome; her mother, Tolstoy's great-granddaughter, was also born in Italy. Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy and his wife Sophia had 13 children, "and apparently he also had others, he was very active in those areas," says Stiller Timor. "Five of the children died in childhood. The eldest daughter, Tatiana, married a guy named Sukhotin, and they had a daughter named Tanya, my grandmother, who had three children, including my mother, Marta.

Ilaria Stiller Timor.
Ilya Melnikov

"When the revolution began, they were of course 'white,' because they were considered landowners and nobility, but they were treated reasonably because of their family connections. And still, their existential situation changed overnight, and it was hard for them to survive during the Bolshevik era. My grandmother's father died, and part of the family was exiled. So my great-grandmother and my grandmother simply decided to leave Soviet Russia with fake passports, and arrived at their final destination: Paris.

"In Paris, there was a large community of Russian exiles. My great-grandmother started a hotel for exiles there and my grandmother began to make a living from acting in the theater. They knew all the French intellectuals, but were starving, which is why they thought it would be a good idea for my grandmother to marry someone rich. Through friends they met an Italian family, the Albertinis, and Tanya married Leonardo Albertini, who was one of the founders of the newspaper Corriere della Sera. She moved to Italy and settled in Rome, and there they had three children, among them my mother. She is Italian from birth, and she also married an Italian named Giuseppe Gadda Conti."

Literary connections

Gadda Conti, as his name implies, has an aristocratic title. His family, like his wife's, also had a famous writer in it - in this case Carlo Emilio Gadda, who was an engineer and novelist who lived 1893-1973. Stiller Timor's father was a journalist for La Stampa, a literary critic who specialized in American literature. That means that from all sides, Tolstoy on her mother's side and Gadda on her father's, Stiller Timor has literary connections and could also be considered an aristocrat.

She doesn't place too much stock in that status. "As you know, you inherit the title of nobility according to your place in the family, and quite a number of people have to die in order for me to inherit the title, and I really don't want them to die," she says. "Incidentally, both my families on both sides were anti-fascists, and my father and mother had to go into hiding because Corriere della Sera was also anti-fascist."

Although she grew up in an Italian-speaking home ("Russian was the language of secrets for Mother and Grandmother" ), Stiller Timor was constantly reminded of her connection to the great writer, although she notes that, "they didn't make a big deal of it." Her grandmother, she explains, "was a very dominant personality on the cultural scene. There was a very small community of Russians in Rome and they all admired her, because she was the granddaughter of Lev Tolstoy and had known him personally, because she was 8 years old when he died. My grandmother was very charismatic, and also a bit different, because she spoke Italian with a foreign accent. Like Tolstoy, she was a vegetarian, and she had all kinds of exotic habits."

What did you hear about Tolstoy's relationship with Sonya [as his wife was known]? Historians have said that they had a difficult relationship.

"Tolstoy died at the age of 82 [in 1910]. She was about 20 years younger than he, and married very young. Their relationship gradually deteriorated over the years. He was a very passionate person and apparently in the early years they had a tempestuous relationship. But in the 1870s he began to leave the material world and to turn to mysticism and Christianity, and she didn't join him. She as a woman was more concerned with the estate and the children's needs, and didn't understand how he wanted to divide the wealth and not to maintain his copyright. After all, that was the source of their livelihood.

"During the final years, their relationship was very tense, with quarrels and threats of leaving; in the end he really did leave the house in the middle of the night. He wanted to travel to his sister, who was in a convent, but it was the dead of winter. He left with his private physician because he was already ill, and his condition deteriorated suddenly. They traveled by train to Astapovo and the doctor said: 'You can't continue.' The station manager gave him one of the rooms in his house and he stayed there in the home of the station manager, where he died, apparently from pneumonia."

But you didn't know him at all. How did you find out about his relationship with his wife and the way he died?

"My mother was very attached to her grandmother, and she used to tell us about her, that she was very diligent and knew how to sew but didn't know Italian, and also family stories that Grandmother used to tell her, and somehow we heard about these things too."

Have you ever met relatives, descendants of Tolstoy's other children?

"A year ago, on the 100th anniversary of his death, we went to a family get-together. It was the first time; there were previous ones in which we didn't participate. But I had connections with several family members, probably those who were geographically closer to me: Tolstoy's sons from Paris. I always knew that there was also a large branch in Sweden, but I never had a chance to meet the blondes. And I knew that we had a big family in the United States, because Alexandra, one of Tolstoy's daughters, had left Russia for America. Those are the larger branches, and there are some in Switzerland too.

"In 1985, at the beginning of perestroika [the Soviet economic reforms of that decade], my mother and I and the French branch of the family traveled to Russia. I was 15 years old and that was my first time with the Russian part of the family... From Moscow, we traveled to Yasnaya Polyana, which is now a museum and a national park. There is no entrance fee for the park and people have picnics there. There are lots of apple trees, and for the Russians it's an opportunity to visit Tolstoy's amazing grave. The grave is amazing because of its simplicity: a grassy hill. Very modest and very fitting for what he wanted people to think of him."

First love

Ilaria Stiller Timor is a beautiful woman, married to an Israeli doctor, and they have a charming son named Adam. The story of her arrival in Israel is not at all obvious. Her connection to the country began when she was still an elementary-school pupil in Rome: "It was an ordinary school, not Jewish because we weren't Jewish. But I had a Jewish teacher who spoke with us a lot about the Holocaust, and in the morning we used to sing 'Heveinu Shalom Aleichem.' We were 20 pupils, none of us were Jewish, and we didn't know the meaning of the words. Can you imagine?"

Stiller Timor says the teacher "had a great influence on me, because from that time I began to read and take an interest in, and also to look at, the synagogue from outside. The family thought there was something wrong with me. My interest was more historical than religious. When I was 9, Grandmother Tanya and her husband invited me and my brother on a Mediterranean cruise, and I asked them if we could stop in Israel. During that first time in Israel everything looked miraculous to me: the Jordan, the female soldiers, the writing, Yad Vashem. I said: Some day I'll marry a Jew and return here. That stayed with me over the years. I did a doctorate in ancient history in Montpelier, France, and during the final year I decided to learn some Hebrew.

"I arrived in Israel in September 1996, just at the time of the Western Wall Tunnel incidents [when Israel's opening of an underground passage near the Temple Mount led to violent incidents between the Palestinians and the Israel Defense Forces]. I studied at a Hebrew language ulpan in Jerusalem and was very enthusiastic about the language. Incidentally, Tolstoy also studied Hebrew, because, during his mystical period, when he became close to Christianity - primitive, pure Christianity, not that of the establishment or the Church - he wanted to study the Bible in the original."

Stiller Timor took a job at Jerusalem's Museum of Italian Jewish Art, and after her later attempts to find work in academia failed, she decided on a career change, and became a teacher of Italian.

One of her students was Liran Stiller Timor, at the time a young medical intern. They fell in love, got married and went to live together in the doctors' residence of Assaf Harofeh Hospital, outside Tel Aviv.

She is something of a polyglot: She speaks excellent Hebrew, and French on the level of mother tongue, a consequence of her studies in France. She learned Latin and Greek in school and for her doctorate; of course she knows English as well. One language she can't yet converse in is Russian, but she manages to read texts with a dictionary. She conducts an international lifestyle. Her mother lives in Italy, her sister in Paris, one brother in Basel and another in Lugano. Next year she and her family are planning to move to England where her husband, a head-and-neck surgeon, will do a residency in pediatric surgery.

To earn a living, Stiller Timor currently teaches Italian at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, art history and Italian at Sapir Academic College, near Sderot, "which is a wonderful place," and art history at Kaye Academic College of Education, a teachers college in Be'er Sheva. She also does translations. Registration is now beginning for the lecture series "Count Tolstoy," in which she will participate, at the Beit Ariela Library in Tel Aviv.

"What am I going to teach? I've always felt that there's something a little special in our family, mainly on the maternal side. They were people who lived a very modest lifestyle. Not that anything was lacking - there were servants and there was abundance - but without exhibitionism. It's related to Tolstoy's values; he was willing to give up all his property because he believed in that.

"What interested me most when I read and heard about him is that after he served in the army in the Caucasus, and met many people and prostitutes and lived it up and gambled ... he decided nevertheless to travel to the West. He traveled to France and met [Pierre-Joseph] Proudhon, a French anarchist, who by chance had written something called 'War and Peace.' They spoke about the importance of education, with an emphasis on the question of how to educate the masses.

"When he returned to Yasnaya Polyana, he opened public schools for the children of the farmers, and the czar's police persecuted him because they were afraid that he would give them rebellious ideas."

The authorities closed the schools, but Tolstoy continued teaching the children himself. "He had a 'court,'" Stiller Timor explains, "that was nothing like a feudal court, but was composed of his children and the farmers' children. In its wake, a community of Tolstoyans was founded, people who believed in sharing wealth and believed in free education, but on a Christian basis. A very pacifistic community.

"He had admirers, all kinds of people who were excited by the feeling that something was about to happen. I think that he himself sensed that there was change in the wind. I don't think that he anticipated the revolution, but something of the Russian people's need for change and dissatisfaction with the situation is expressed in his works. He corresponded with Gandhi, he instructed him about how to oppose the British in a nonviolent way. During that period, when he was exposed to the Bible, he was also exposed to Buddhism and Confucianism, and he made a kind of very original salad of that, which is far from established Christianity.

"He apparently had a captivating personality," sums up Tolstoy's great-great-granddaughter. "For me, what's attractive about him is the philosophical aspect, the need to scratch off the aristocratic hypocrisy and not to be satisfied with what there was, but to search for a solution."

Stiller Timor says she has no regrets about her decision to immigrate to Israel. "My mother, who has been all over the world and travels all the time, says that a large part of the country looks like a disadvantaged neighborhood in Istanbul, but [I believe] there are many good things here. And still, sometimes this ugliness hits me. Not only the physical ugliness, which is typical of the entire Middle East: That, I understand. The entire Middle East is neglected and ugly, and so is Israel, with the exception of Jerusalem, which is amazing, and Tel Aviv, which is an exceptional city. But it's also the people's ugliness and lack of taste, the midriff shirts and the miniskirts, the way people behave here."

But she, at least, will always have Rome and Paris and Russia, and the family vacation home in Switzerland.