“My life came to a standstill,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in his 1882 conversion memoir A Confession, “I could not breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things.” So Tolstoy’s described his “arrest of life,” a period of severe depression that led to a very deep, personal brand of faith in his late middle age. The towering Russian novelist renounced worldly desires and came to identify with the poor, the former serfs of his aristocratic class. Tolstoy’s radical religious anarchism in his final years spread his fame far among the peasantry just as his literary achievements had brought him worldwide renown among the reading public. So famous was Tolstoy, William Nickell tells us, that Russian critic Vasily Rozanov wrote that “to be a Russian and not have [seen] Tolstoy was like being Swiss and not having seen the Alps.”
Nickell describes the occasions that Tolstoy appeared on film, the new medium that allowed the author’s millions of adoring fans to get a glimpse of him. Just as his life was punctuated by a radical departure from his earlier attitudes, his medium was in for a shock as film forever changed the way stories were told.
In those early days, however, it was very often simply a means of recording history, and we should be glad of that. It means we too can see Tolstoy, at the top on his 80th birthday. We see him vigorously sawing logs and piously giving alms to the poor. Also included in the initial footage are Tolstoy’s wife Sofya, his daughter Aleksandra, and aide and editor Vladimir Chertkov. Then, at 1:04, the scene shifts to Tolstoy’s deathbed and scenes of his funeral. The remaining 11 minutes give us some unidentified footage of the author. (If you’re able to read the title cards in Russian, please let us know!).
Just above, see a more complete film of Tolstoy’s death and funeral procession. The author died at age 82 after he abruptly decided to leave his wife, taking only a few possessions and his doctor. Read the dramatic story of Tolstoy’s last ten days in this translated excerpt from Pavel Basinsky’s award winning Leo Tolstoy: Escape from Paradise.