Thomas Edison’s Recordings of Leo Tolstoy: Hear the Voice of Russia’s Greatest Novelist


Born 187 years ago today, Russ­ian nov­el­ist Leo Tolstoy’s life (1828–1910) spanned a peri­od of immense social, polit­i­cal, and tech­no­log­i­cal change, par­al­leled in his own life by his rad­i­cal shift from hedo­nis­tic noble­man to the­olo­gian, anar­chist, and veg­e­tar­i­an paci­fist. Though he did not live to see the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, the nov­el­ist did see Tsar Alexan­der II’s sweep­ing reforms, includ­ing the 1861 Eman­ci­pa­tion order that changed the social char­ac­ter of the coun­try. Near the end of his life, Tol­stoy saw the com­ing of new record­ing tech­nol­o­gy that would rev­o­lu­tion­ize the direc­tion of his own life’s work—telling sto­ries.

Near the end of his life, Tol­stoy appeared in the new medi­um of film, which cap­tured his 80th birth­day in 1908, and his funer­al pro­ces­sion two years lat­er. He was the sub­ject of the first col­or pho­to­graph tak­en in Rus­sia (top) also in 1908. And that same year, Tol­stoy made sev­er­al audio record­ings of his voice, on a phono­graph sent to him per­son­al­ly by Thomas Edi­son. You can hear one of those record­ings, “The Pow­er of Child­hood,” made on April 19th, 1908, just above.

You’ll note, of course, that the great author reads in his native lan­guage. Most of the record­ings he made, which he intend­ed for the edi­fi­ca­tion of his coun­try­men, are in Russ­ian. Below, how­ev­er, you can hear him read from his last book, Wise Thoughts For Every Day in Eng­lish, Ger­man, French and Russ­ian. The book col­lects Tolstoy’s favorite pas­sages from thinkers as diverse as Lao-Tzu and Ralph Wal­do Emer­son. As Mike Springer wrote in a pre­vi­ous post on this record­ing, “Tol­stoy reject­ed his great works of fic­tion” as an old man, “believ­ing that it was more impor­tant to give moral and spir­i­tu­al guid­ance to the com­mon peo­ple.” To that end, he made a series of short record­ings, which you can hear at this site, on such sub­jects as art, law, moral­i­ty, pover­ty, non­vi­o­lence, and cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment.

The sto­ry of how Tol­stoy came to make these record­ings is a fas­ci­nat­ing one. Inter­est­ed in the new tech­nol­o­gy, Tol­stoy made his first record­ing in 1895, when, writes The Moscow Times, “an Edi­son rep­re­sen­ta­tive came to Yas­naya Polyana, Tol­stoy’s estate, to record the author’s voice. Those record­ings were tak­en over the bor­der to Berlin, where they lay in an archive until they were brought back to the Sovi­et Union after World War II.” When Stephen Bon­sal, edi­tor of the New York Times learned of Tolstoy’s inter­est in record­ing tech­nol­o­gy in 1907, he promised to send the nov­el­ist an Edi­son phono­graph of his own. Edi­son him­self, hear­ing of this, refused to accept any pay­ment, and per­son­al­ly sent his own machine to Tolstoy’s estate with the engraved mes­sage “A Gift to Count Leo Tol­stoy from Thomas Alva Edi­son.”

Edi­son asked Tol­stoy for many mul­ti-lin­gual record­ings, request­ing “short mes­sages” in Eng­lish and French, “con­vey­ing to the peo­ple of the world some thoughts that would tend to their moral and social advance­ment.” Tol­stoy dili­gent­ly made sev­er­al record­ings, some of which were then shipped to Edi­son in 1908. On Feb­ru­ary 21 of that year, the New York Times pub­lished an arti­cle on the exchange titled “Tolstoy’s Gift to Edi­son. Will Send Record of His Voice—Edison Gave Him a Phono­graph.” The world eager­ly await­ed the world-famous author’s mes­sage to its “civ­i­lized peo­ples.” It seems how­ev­er, that the mes­sage nev­er arrived. Accord­ing to Sput­nik News, the fate of that leg­endary record­ing “has yet to be found out.” Nev­er­the­less, thanks to Edi­son, we have sev­er­al oth­er record­ings of Tolstoy’s very well pre­served voice, the record of a life lived to the end with fierce con­vic­tion and curios­i­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leo Tol­stoy Reads From His Last Major Work in 4 Lan­guages, 1909

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

Leo Tol­stoy Cre­ates a List of the 50+ Books That Influ­enced Him Most (1891)

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

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