To say Alexandra Tolstoy has lived a colourful life is somewhat of an understatement. The self-described “Anglo-Russian adventurer” has travelled by horse and camel (yes, you read that right) for nine months on the Silk Road across central Asia to China, hosted a BBC TV series, written a book about her adventures, spent time rediscovering her family heritage in Moscow (she’s distantly related to famed author Leo Tolstoy), and raised three children in three years. Sound exhausting? That’s only the beginning…
“I have a lot of projects going on at the moment, including launching a website, running and leading riding escapes to Kyrgyzstan, designing a Russian inspired jewellery collection for Loquet London, and doing a couple of big media projects, all on top of being a single mother, so I feel under a lot of pressure but I try and do as much as possible during school hours so that I can focus on the children after school.” To add to the pressure of single parenting, Alexandra is also set to lose her family home to the Russian government soon as a result of her relationship with oligarch Sergei Pugachev, a former billionaire and the father of her children who has fled the UK and currently resides in France, providing no financial support to Tolstoy or their family. If you’re beginning to think there’s more to Tolstoy than an enviable sense of style (that somehow blends Russian folklore with a distinct English sensibility), and a rich family history, you’re not wrong. In our interview, she gets real, raw and romantic about the life she is trying to restart with her three greatest assets by her side, and thanks to her unwavering sense of hope and optimism, we get the feeling she’s exactly where she needs to be right now. Website: www.alexandratolstoy.co.uk Instagram: @alexandratolstoy Photography: Helene Sandberg
Can you tell us about some vivid memories of your childhood in the UK - where did you grow up, what was it like?
I grew up first in Somerset. We lived in a huge, eccentric Regency house (later Alice Temperley bought it), which had a bear pit and was the scene of secret meetings between Churchill and Eisenhower in 1944. I remember my father’s circular library and a wood where we played, covered in a carpet of bluebells in spring, as well as our two donkeys. When I was eight we moved to an old farmhouse in Oxfordshire – again very much a country experience. My father is a historian and read to us a lot in my childhood – all the classics from ‘Wind in the Willows’ to ‘Just William’ to ‘The Rose and the Ring’. We never watched television and I was an avid reader from an early age. In Oxfordshire I was lent a pony which lived in my parents’ field; I loved some aspects of being in the countryside like riding and hunting but I am the oldest of four children and by the age of ten I felt gauche and awkward compared to my siblings and wanted to get away so I begged to go to boarding school. I think I also relished the idea of an adventure.
You studied at an English boarding school – what are your memories of these days? Did you enjoy it?
Yes, I absolutely loved it. I think I felt quite repressed at home and boarding school gave me freedom. I made great friends and remember above all having so much fun and laughing until my face and stomach hurt! I also adored the academic side of school and was very fortunate to have inspiring teachers at a time when many girls’ boarding schools were still effectively finishing schools. The Brontes, Jane Austen, Balzac, Stendhal, Tolstoy and Trollope formed a huge part of my teenage experience. I also loved the mental challenges of the sciences and mathematics and ended up doing the unusual combination of English literature, mathematics and history for my A levels.
In 1999, you undertook a 5,000-mile ride by horse and camel across central Asia and China and this adventure resulted in a book – if you were telling (or have told) your children about this adventure, what would you say?
Yes, I have told them and last summer took them riding in Kyrgyzstan to give them a taste of my adventure! They know I rode the Silk Road, and that I spent six months in 2002 riding through Mongolia with only pack horses as support, and I also told them recently of how I retraced a historic journey from Ashgabad in Turkmenistan to Moscow on Akhal Teke horses in 2006. They have watched the television series I presented for BBC2 (‘Horse People with Alexandra Tolstoy’) on societies that revolve around horses, where I spent time living with horse herders in the depths of Yakutia (Siberia), bull fighters in Andalucia, and cowboys and Native Americans in Montana. They adored our trip to Kyrgyzstan last summer and this year are excited to help me host trips for clients – we shall be taking families riding and camping for trips of ten days through some of the most breathtakingly beautiful spots of the Tien Shan Mountains. I think they can sense how happy and free I feel in the mountains and I hope I have conveyed to them that happiness does not depend on material things. We are going through a stressful period in our lives, losing our home, but I would hope I show them what huge pleasure we can find in life from simple things and the beauty of nature. I would like to tell them that life can be full of adventure and excitement but this involves risks and we have to be happy to take the downs with the ups. I haven’t mastered this so well myself, but it is a help to look back at the incredible and extraordinary adventures I have had – particularly by looking at photos I get a rush of the feeling of happiness, freedom and exhilaration I experienced in these remote places and tough conditions, and this is a great aid to struggling through the low moments.
You’ve said your children have grown up on a diet of Pushkin fairy tales and both Leo and Alexei Tolstoy’s stories for children but have not been able to visit the country since they were born because of their father’s conflict with Putin – what have you taught them about the good side of Russia and her rich culture and history? Can you elaborate on how their Russian heritage incorporated into their lives on a daily basis?
Last summer in fact I finally took the children back to Russia. We attended a Tolstoy reunion for relatives from all over the world, which took place at Yasnaya Polyana, Leo Tolstoy’s estate. Virtually unchanged since the nineteenth century, it encapsulates the Russian rural life we know from novels and the children had so much fun, fishing in the lake, running in the orchards, riding ponies in the woods and playing with their distant Russian cousins. Then in December we visited St Petersburg, which the children adored. I think they suddenly realised what a wonderful country Russia is, and what a fascinating and rich history she has had. We spent three days visiting the Hermitage and many other museums and Aliosha, my eldest son, announced at the end that he is proud to be Russian – he has been through a phase of protesting that he is completely English! In London I have many Russian friends and we go the Russian Orthodox Cathedral near us most Sundays, so the children have constant exposure to the culture. We have a Russian nanny who has been with us since my daughter was born six years ago and, although she is not with us all the time, when she is the children only speak Russian. She reads them all the Russian classics, as well as the lives of the Russian saints, and is now beginning to read to them about Russian history.
How do you raise multi-lingual children?
When my children were very little we spent a lot of time in France – their father has a beautiful chateau on the Cote d’Azur and holds French citizenship despite being Russian. I thought it would be wonderful for the children to speak French, particularly as the Russian, French and English languages work very harmoniously together – the Russian aristocracy until the late nineteenth century predominantly spoke French and Russian literature was heavily influenced by both that of England and France. I managed to find a French nanny and register the children for a bilingual school in London, despite only speaking basic French myself! At the school there are many multi-lingual children so mine are not unusual but I am proud of their level of Russian in particular. The French comes naturally as they are studying in it all day long but it requires an effort to keep the Russian developing. I think many people make the mistake of not reading books to their children, and in this way a language can slip away. We use such limited vocabulary in our everyday lives but my children are fortunate to listen to the most sophisticated language and literature from their nanny, and so they remain truly multi-lingual.
How does the Russian way of parenting differ to the British?
The Russians are more like the Americans – very strict and ambitious for their children. Children for instance will often do ten hours of ballet or gymnastics a week whereas my daughter is tired after her forty-minute ballet lesson! I think I’m more of an English mother – I prefer to be relaxed about academic and sporting achievements but I put a strong emphasis on imagination which I feel is gained through playing, nature, literature, and history.
Leo Tolstoy lived by the mantra: ‘One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken’. Is this something that you, too, live by?
Absolutely! In fact I wrote an article for Tatler about our visit to Yasnaya Polyana and used this quote to finish it! I am passionate about nature and feel at my best and most peaceful on the back of a horse up a Kyrgyz mountain. My children have inherited this love of nature and, as well as our riding trips to the Tien Shan, adore the weekends we spend at my cottage in Oxfordshire. In a tiny hamlet, surrounded by fields and not far from the River Thames, they spend their time playing outside, making camps, riding their bicycles and digging holes! I can see how free they feel and how important it is for them to have this release after school and city life. It also, I believe, allows their minds to develop and think more laterally (being multi-lingual has also been proved to help with this) and they learned to play independently from a young age. But most of all they are so happy in nature, and what more can a mother want for her children?
You’re passionate about putting Russian designers on the style map – who are some of your favourites and why?
My passions in aesthetic terms are pattern, colour and texture – I love mixing them in unpredictable ways. Russia has such a wonderful folk tradition of prints and embroidery that it is easy to indulge my tastes! Vilshenko is for sure my number one! Olga, the designer, is passionate about all the same aspects of Russian culture that I love – fairytales and their illustrators such as Bilibin and Mavrina, folklore, fabrics etc – and has created a brand that has so much identity and yet is accessible for anybody to wear. She is not only a designer but also a trained seamstress and pattern cutter so the clothes always sit beautifully too. I also love Ulyana Sergeenko – she creates the most incredible silhouettes and luxurious tailoring and again uses incredibly imaginative inspirations. For jewellery I love Axenoff – he uses pre-Revolutionary Russia as his inspiration but often with a touch or humour or irony which makes the pieces light and modern.
What are your time management tips – how do you get everything done in a day?
I’m not sure I’m the best person to advise on this as I always feel I’m never on top of everything! I’m not very organised and always seem to be in a last minute rush but I am also a great risk taker so maybe the two go together! I have a lot of projects going on at the moment, including launching a website, running and leading riding escapes to Kyrgyzstan, designing a Russian inspired jewellery collection for Loquet London, and doing a couple of big media projects, all on top of being a single mother, so I feel under a lot of pressure but I try and do as much as possible during school hours so that I can focus on the children after school. I take them to school – we all scoot – and try and collect them as often as possible and generally don’t work after they’ve gone to bed as I find sleeping difficult anyway and need to wind down before bed.
What’s your approach to exercise and health – do you exercise/eat well?
Hmm, not always! I had a year or two without doing much sport after an auto immune virus that destroyed the nerves in my arms but now I work out two or three times a week with a wonderful trainer (girl!) who comes to my home. We chat as we train and it makes the time fly by! I do a lot of skipping and strengthening exercises and when I’m in the countryside I go running and cycling. I cook for my children and adore baking and making ice cream, but I’m lazy about cooking for myself so generally eat very simply but try to be healthy.
What’s your biggest indulgence?
It definitely used to be clothes! But now I’m trying to purge my wardrobe and am selling off lots of stuff. Because of my Instagram feed I’m also incredibly lucky to get given beautiful things – recently I received the most delicious parcel from Horrorvacui, one of my favourite new designers.
How do you approach getting dressed each morning – describe your closet to us…
I never plan the night before but usually pick something I haven’t worn for a while and then make an outfit around it. I always wear a lot of colour and at the moment generally wear skirts and dresses – I find them so much more comfortable than jeans to wear.
Your house was originally two artists’ studios – can you share some memories you’ve made in your home since your children arrived?
This is a heart-breaking question to answer as we have lost our home to the Russian government, who are selling it to pay off a ‘debt’ to them from my children’s father. We don’t know when we will be evicted and don’t know where we’ll live… We initially rented one of the houses just before I gave birth to my first son. After the arrival of our second son we bought that house and the house next door and joined them together. They are unusual houses for London as they are lateral and have huge windows, due to being former studios. I used the decorator Emma Burns to help me do it up in the way I love – lots of colour, textures, antiques etc. It is so much more than a house and quite different from the characterless beige houses you often encounter nowadays; the children’s bedroom and playroom are full of antique paintings and objects I have collected for them over the years, and the house is generally covered in toys and full of friends passing in and out. The children have lived here all their lives so the house is full of memories of them as babies, as well as the many parties we have hosted.
What motivates you each day?
My children – they only have me so I need to get on with it!
Do you ever feel overwhelmed/anxious- and if so, how do you deal with these feelings?
Absolutely! Until my thirties I was a very relaxed and confident person who grabbed every opportunity and adventure that crossed my path. I never got overwhelmed by life and seemed to be able to take on any challenge. But as life got more complicated I started experiencing the most intense anxiety, which gave me horrific insomnia. I’ve realised retrospectively that I was having a lot of panic attacks but I didn’t understand them at the time and felt paralysed, alone and vulnerable. The circumstances of my life then changed – ostensibly for the worse as I was left as a single mother and we are losing our home to the Russian government but I keep reminding myself that despite the terrible stress I feel much better mentally. I don’t get panic attacks anymore and sleep much better. Hard work, being creative, sport and nature are all great for combatting anxiety and I feel so grateful that I have access to these tools and have never succumbed to medication. I am a religious person too and truly believe that everybody is only given the cross they can bear so I use this to reassure myself with this if I’m in a particularly stressful moment.
How do you make time for reading? What are your literary loves?
Not so much time for it these days so I feel grateful I read so much in my younger years – I think every book changes and forms you in some way. Now I read more biographies than novels, although I love re-reading old classics. I recently re-read ‘Wuthering Heights’ and am about to embark on ‘Vilette’ – it feels like visiting old friends!
What has been the most challenging part of motherhood for you and how have you overcome any challenges?
Being a single mother for the last three years has been very difficult. I have no support from the children’s father and the responsibilities often feel overwhelming. But my parents adore my children and we stay with them often in the home that I grew up in, where my children have an idyllic time playing with and being read to by their grandparents. I also have wonderful girlfriends who are always there for me and it is such a consolation just to be able to talk and be heard. I do worry a lot about my children – their childhood is dreamy in many ways but they have also had a lot of trauma – they haven’t seen their father for three years – and I get upset thinking what an impact this has on them and their happiness. But a little adversity never goes amiss and I see many children being too protected which can also cause problems in later life.
What do you love most about life in London?
I’m a bit of a contradiction; although I could not live without the peace and openness of the mountains I also could not live without the city. I love the feeling of life around us – we are lucky to live at the moment in beautiful Chelsea with the Kings Road nearby. I adore going to museums with the children and of course being near all my friends. A lot of people have suggested we go and live in our cottage when we lose our home but I couldn’t sacrifice the children’s education – they are in the French system which is very specific to London – and although I love the country I would wilt away if we lived there all the time. I am an energetic and proactive person and need to constantly be thinking of new projects – interaction with others is crucial and I find the energy of city life inspiring and motivating.
What’s your approach to TV/iPad/iPhone in the home with children?
My children have no access to ipads or iphones or computers but (unlike in my childhood!) they do watch films and cartoons. They adore the old Soviet cartoons, some of the best in the world, and watch films in English and French. My sons are 9 and 8 and I find it sad that they are among a small group of children in their school who don’t have access to computer games. They have stayed very innocent as a consequence and are proud to play with their lead soldiers and Playmobil but I worry about how long they will be able to resist peer group pressure.
You’ve said you and your children live a very different life from the one you had some years ago – can you elaborate on this?
The children’s father, Sergei Pugachev, is a Russian oligarch and in the children’s young years we had a life of private jets, yachts, the best house on St Barth’s, summers in the Cote d’Azur etc. Now I don’t have any financial support at all and it’s a very different life with many financial struggles. Psychologically for me it was not difficult to adapt – I had after all lived in tents for much of my twenties and thirties! And for the children too; they were young and I never spoiled them, always putting an emphasis on nature and culture so it was easy to adapt.
What are your thoughts on money bringing happiness?
I lived for some years in great luxury but I was deeply unhappy; the relationship was very abusive and I lived in fear so I know well that money does not bring happiness. But it is also true of course that a lack of it creates stress!
What brings you the most happiness in life and why?
My children! I adore them and we are a team – one of the only advantages of being a single mother is that we do everything together. I had three children in three years and now they are a bit older we have so much fun together, be it riding in Kyrgyzstan, cycling at my cottage or playing a game.
Can you tell us about the riding holidays you have created?
After riding the Silk Road I spent six years leading riding holidays through the Tien Shan, one of the most breath-takingly beautiful mountain ranges in the world and home to the nomadic Kyrgyz people. After a gap of a decade I am returning to leading the holidays this year, this time with the help of my children. I’ll take one trip for adults in June, and then one or two family trips during the summer holidays. We ride and camp for ten days through valleys filled with wild flowers, yurts and herds of horses. A support team including cooks and grooms goes ahead of us to set up camp. These escapes are a chance to truly escape the bustle of the modern world, and their simplicity and proximity to nature are restoration for the soul.
What would people be most surprised to know about you?
Not sure – maybe that I don’t drive! It’s awful but I’ve never learned although I’m trying now but however many lessons I have, I never seem to get there…
What does 2019 have instore for you?
I have no idea but I hope it’s good! My life has taken so many unpredictable twists and turns so I never know what lies ahead…