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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