Vintage Footage of Leo Tolstoy: Video Captures the Great Novelist During His Final Days


“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.

Related Content:

Rare Recording: Leo Tolstoy Reads From His Last Major Work in Four Languages, 1909

The Complete Works of Leo Tolstoy Online: New Archive Will Present 90 Volumes for Free (in Russian)

Study Finds That Reading Tolstoy & Other Great Novelists Can Increase Your Emotional Intelligence

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (9)
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  • Dumitru says:

    Thank you for this rare footage. I can help with the translation of the title cards.

  • Milan Miflonides Sedlák says:

    Oh, those Russians. See

  • Milan Miflonides Sedlák says:

    I must tell you. Tolstoy is the greatest writer ever never. His work is embodiment of Slavic soul. Slavic not slave, you see?

  • Boris Vitkin says:

    I could translate it:
    1. The last visit of Tolstoy to Moscow
    2. Leo Nikolaevich departs to Moscow from estate of [Che]rtkov
    3. Countess Sofia Andreevna Tolstaja
    4. L. Tolstoy, Chertkov and the famili of the great writer
    5. Arrival to Moscow
    6. On the Bryansk station
    7. Leo Tolstoy arrives to his house in Khamovniki, which will become the museum of Tolstoy
    To be continued in next comment…

  • Boris Vitkin says:

    8. Departure of Leo Nikolaevich to Yasnaya Polyana
    9. Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana
    10. His family
    11. Leo Nikolaevich gives alms to poor peasants
    12. Horseback riding with accompaniment of Dr. Makovetsky
    13. Stroll at 5am
    14. Leo Nikolaevich and his spouse countess Sofia Andreevna
    15. Grandchildren of Leo Nikolaevich
    16. Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy at work
    17. Count Tolstoy on the balcony with his family
    18. Sick Count L.N.Tolstoy on his balcony in the day of his [80th] anniversary
    19. L.N.Tolstoy on his deathbed
    (Not a title card, but just a title on the wagon, where they put the coffin: “Luggage”)
    (Again not a title card, but just a inscription on the banner, that carry people:
    “Leo Nikolaevich, memory about your kindness will not die in us, orphaned peasants of Yasnaya Polyana”

  • Josh Jones says:

    Fantastic, thanks Boris.

  • Tim Shey says:

    Great footage.

    Did you know that Tolstoy’s grandson, Major Ilia Tolstoy, worked for the OSS during World War II?

  • Rama Reddy Ganta says:

    Thanks for preserving and passing the great visuals to the posterity.

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