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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Emigres Return Tolstoy's Letters to Moscow




A fragile elderly couple who, half a century ago, fled Stalin's persecution and went to Argentina have returned to Moscow with a unique gift: letters written by the classic novelist Lev Tolstoy to their grandfather.


In a touching ceremony Friday, Constantino Jendreievski, 81, and his wife Maria Sheerman, 75, handed over to the Lev Tolstoy State Museum in Moscow letters that their family had treasured through three generations.


Surrounded by a throng of press and visibly excited officials from the Russian Culture Ministry and the Tolstoy museum, the Argentinean pensioners could barely believe the attention they had attracted.


"Look, we might even be shown on television," Jendreievski told his wife.


The three letters, worth tens of thousands of dollars, have traveled across continents, oceans and generations before making their way back to Moscow.


According to Sheerman, the letters have been kept in her family ever since Tolstoy wrote them in 1906 and 1909.


Her grandfather, Vladimir Sheerman, was a wealthy young landlord and the owner of coal mines in Ukraine at the turn of the century. But influenced by progressive social philosophy, especially Tolstoy's social anarchism, he gave away his land to his peasants and set up a commune.


The correspondence began when Sheerman wrote to Tolstoy, then in his late 70s and a controversial icon of Russian culture, asking his advice on setting up the commune. In one of the letters on display Friday, Tolstoy wrote back, advising Sheerman to think carefully about his decision to give away his fortune because he might regret it later.


Sheerman's devotion to Tolstoy's altruistic ideas earned him little favor with the tsarist regime. He was exiled for two years, and upon his return to Russia in 1909, was refused permission to live on his former land.


As his granddaughter recounted Friday, the Sheerman family remained in Russia after the 1917 Revolution but, despite his record as an opponent of the tsar, the Bolsheviks treated the family as class enemies.


Sheerman was forced to wander across the Soviet Union to avoid official persecution. He finally died in 1939 in the North Caucasus, having already lost one daughter and two sons-in-law in Stalin's repressions.


In 1942 when Nazi Germany occupied parts of Southern Russia, the family, including the young Maria Sheerman, finally emigrated to Germany as laborers for the fascist war machine.


"I remember my mother said at the time, 'let it be worse, but at least it will be different,'" Maria Sheerman said.


After the war the surviving members of the family finally settled in Argentina, where Maria worked most of her life as a nurse and where she met her husband, a former Russian prisoner of war, who chose not to return to the Soviet Union from German camps because he was afraid of political repression.


"And for all this time and through all these troubles and misfortunes, members of my family carried these papers. For a while I couldn't understand why they even bothered," Maria Sheerman said.


She said that various members of her family had handed down the letters before her mother finally handed them over to her.


"Once when my mother was seriously ill, I was tempted to sell them to pay for her treatment. But then somebody helped us and the letters remained untouched," she said.


A couple of years ago, a friend in the United States sent Sheerman a clipping from Novoye Russkoye Slovo, an emigre Russian language newspaper published in New York, which mentioned the existence of the Lev Tolstoy State Museum in Moscow. Sheerman wrote to the museum and offered to donate the letters.


"I remember my life and those around me. All of them were unselfish, all thought of what was really important in life. And yes, we are in need of money, but money is not an ultimate goal. Life is short. ... And we should act according to the gospels, regardless of where we are or what position we are in," said Sheerman, who lives on the pension she earned by working as a nurse all her life.


It took some time for the Russian Culture Ministry to organize the donation but, thanks to a free return flight provided by Aeroflot, they finally arrived Thursday night to fullfil their century-old mission.


Both Argentineans are expected to stay in Russia for at least two months during which they will stay in Moscow and visit St. Petersburg and Yasnya Polyana, Tolstoy's country estate, about 200 kilometers south of Moscow.


Sheerman also said that, during her visit to Russia, she was hoping to find out more about her grandfather Vladimir, who after the revolution spoke very little of his life. She already has one lead. Museum officials will close the circle by showing her the other half of the correspondence -- her grandfather's letters to Tolstoy.