Pen and pictures no. 7 – Leo Tolstoy


Our series on literary figures and silent film has seen each confront the upstart medium of moving pictures in their own particular way. Thomas Hardy saw his works strangely adapted for the screen, yet welcomed the royalty cheques. J.M. Barrie and Evelyn Waugh, at different ends of their literary careers, both dabbled in filmmaking, one to challenge ideas of theatrical realism, the other as a testing bed for his brand of mocking satire. John Buchan unexpectedly found himself in charge of British film propaganda during the First World War and incorporated the experience in his fiction. Bernard Shaw critiqued the new medium, intrigued yet wary of letting his own works be filmed for fear of losing control of them. Now we turn to Leo Tolstoy, to see the man of letters pursued by cameras anxious to capture something of his fame.

Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) enjoyed a reputation as an author and thinker unmatched in his time, and perhaps at any other time. Known worldwide as the great man of Russian literature, chiefly on the basis of his monumental novels War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), he was revered (or feared) just as much as a political thinker. His advocacy of a form of Christian anarchism, of pacifism and non-interventionism disturbed the Russian authorities but encouraged fanatical belief among some and helped inspire the later actions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

The peak of Tolstoy’s fame coincided with the emergence of the modern media. Newspapers, photographs and motion pictures could capture one’s essence and distribute it to the masses, across the world. Tolstoy was plagued by enthusiasts, advocates, disciples, fanatics, hangers-on, mendicants, lunatics, artists, reporters and photographers, all anxious to gain something from the great man. As the end of his life came near, there was an immense urge to record something of the great man while he was still breathing – and to take one’s own place alongside him in that record.

Motion pictures had come to Russia in 1896, and Tolstoy certainly knew of them by 1903, because he mentioned his adversion to them when a friend V.V. Stasov tried to organise the recording of Tolstoy in sound and motion pictures, an act which received this angry response by letter, dated 9 October 1903:

I have just read your letter to Sofya Andreyevna (she is in Moscow) and was horrified. For the same of our friendship, drop the business and save me from these phonographs and cinematography. I find them very unpleasant, and I most certainly do not agree to pose and speak.

Sofya Andreyevana was Tolstoy’s wife, and as many biographies have recounted, Tolstoy’s private life in his latter years was tumultuous and unhappy, chiefly on account of his deteriorating relations with his wife, a situation exacerbated by the malign influence of his chief disciple, Vladimir Chertkov, who drove apart the idealist husband from his supposedly materialist wife, sending the latter into a kind of madness. Sofya Andreyevana was the victim of Tolstoy’s complete failure to maintain his principles of pacifism and non-authoritarianism into his private life. She battled to maintain control, not least of her reputation come Tolstoy’s death, partly because of what her husband said about her in his all too frank diaries. Some of this personal battle involved her working with the press, and particularly the motion picture cameramen, to manage the image of Tolstoy and his family.


And so into the Tolstoy’s life in 1908 came Aleksandr Osipovich Drankov (left). The founding father of Russian cinema was the former owner of a dancing school and then a successful photographer with a network of studios. In 1907 he took up cinematography, shooting numerous topicals on Russian life and events but also some of Russia’s first dramatic films, starting with an abortive Boris Godunov (1907) but then success with Sten’ka Razin in October 1908. As films grew in popularity in Russia, there was increased competition among production companies, both native (chiefly Drankov and Khanzhonkov) and foreign companies eyeing the huge Russian market, among them Pathé, Cines, Urban and Gaumont. Rashit Yangirov, in Silent Witnesses, gives us this less than flattering picture of Drankov, culled from impressions provided by his contemporaries:

… a repellent caricature of a plump but extraordinarily familiar and restless character with red hair, always dressed in pretentious lack of taste, a vainglorious man of considerable ambition always invovled in various dubious schemes.

The Russian film industry was viewed with great suspicion by the authorities (the Russian authorities viewed practically everything with great suspicion). A smart move would be for the industry to ally itself with Russia’s literary greatness. Many films culled for the classics would soon follow, but the same impetus led Drankov (with the connivance of Sofya Andreyevana) to join the throng of reporters and still photographers trying to capture something of the great man on the occasion of Tolstoy’s eightieth birthday, 28 August 1908. Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra (in The Tragedy of Tolstoy, published 1933) describes the scene:

The precursors of every memorable event – the photographers – began to make their appearance at our house. I remember father sitting, exhausted, on the porch with his ailing leg stretched out, and mother coming in to ask him to consent to being photographed for the moving pictures. He made a grimace of pain and started to refuse, but the camera men swore that they were not going to disturb him and would not ask him to pose. They tried to photograph him from the lawn and from the verandah, while father sat motionless, looking before him with a melancholy stare.

Drankov captured only few feet of film of Tolstoy, seated in a chair on a balcony at his Yasnaya Polyana home, staring like some trapped creature at the camera trained upon him. The brief footage needed much padding out with footage of the family and grounds, but it made Drankov’s reputation. Happily, it survives today.

Drankov’s 1908 film of Tolstoy. The film shows relatives and friends in a carriage, then Sofya Andreyevna picking flowers. Vladimir Chertkov distributes alms at the “tree of the poor”. Chertkov and Tolstoy’s sons leave the main house. The camera looks up at a first-floor balcony where Tolstoy can just be glimpsed, sitting. He is then seen in medium close shot on the balcony, seated in a wicker chair, with Sofya Andreyevna standing beside him. Information from Andrew D. Kaufman’s Tolstoy site, which has better quality versions of the film available, in Windows Media Player and QuickTime versions.

This was not the end of the motion pictures camera’s pursuit of Tolstoy, nor the last time that Drankov would film him. Jay Leyda, in his authoritative Kino: A History of the Russia and Soviet Film (1960), provides the fullest account. With the further support of Sofya Andreyevna, anxious to control the family image, more films were taken of him, in a series of events recalled again by Alexandra Tolstoy:

On September 3, 1909, father, Dushan Petrovich, Ilya Vasiliyevich, and I went to visit the Chertkovs at the estate of their relatives, the Pashkov family, at Krekshino. Father wanted to see Vladimir Grigoriyevich and to rest awhile from the life at Yasnaya Polyana. But people dogged his every step. Several days before our departure, a moving picture company requested permission to photograph his departure from Yasnaya Polyana. Mother liked being photographed and made no objections, but for father it was annoying.

“What for?” he said. “It’s so disagreeable, so embarrassing! Couldn’t we arrange it so that they would not come?”

“Let’s send them a telegram, very simply,” I said. “Why should we have any compunctions about them?”

“That would not be right at all,” mother argued. “Why should we hurt people’s feelings? They will come and photograph, and it won’t be any trouble whatever.”

But Aunt Marya Nikolayevna, who was visiting us just then, supported father so energetically that mother had to give in. I sent a telegram in father’s name asking them not to come. But to our amazement and indignation, on the eve of our departure, the camera men nevertheless made their appearance.

“You are asking my consent to be photographed,” father said to them, making an effort to control his irritation. “I cannot give this consent. and if you do it without permission.”

“Our firm would never permit itself to do that!” one of the men replied.

Next morning, as we drove to the station, the photographers were waiting for us at the gates of the estate. We reached the station just ahead of them. The railroad gendarme forbade their photographing on the railway premises, but they telephoned to the authorities at Tula and received the necessary permit. Again their cameras buzzed.

The cameraman on this occasion was Joseph Mundviller, Pathé’s chief operator in Russia at this time. The Tolstoys were going to see relatives at Kriokshino, and having learned of Pathé’s coup, Drankov followed after. With inside information provided by Tolstoy’s driver, he learned that the author could be found walking alone in morning before breakfast at five o’clock. According to Drankov (as reported by Leyda), Drankov cornered Tolstoy, who was not unwilling to be filmed, but then Drankov tripped over his camera equipment, ruining the film which spilled out of the magazine. He returned to the fray a day or so later, at first chased off by Chertkov, but then capturing film of the Tolstoys at the railway station, even filming the party in their railway carriage.

This film also exists. Parts of it can be found in footage libraries around the world, and happily what looks to be most of the film can be seen (though not embedded here) on the ITN Source site, as part of its remarkable Trinity Bridge collection of Russian and Soviet film. The relevant film is called Russian 1900-1949 Compilation (clip 34), and we see Tolstoy and Sofya Andreyevna at the railway station, Tolstoy with family friends out in woodland, the party getting onto a train, Tolstoy walking alone with walking stick, Tolstoy and Sofya walking in the garden at Yasnoya Polyana, and most remarkably Tolstoy and another man sawing wood (the latter scenes come from September 1910, when Drankov was shooting Krestyanskaya Svadba – see below). The high degree of co-operation with the camera operator is obvious.


Tolstoy and Sofya Andreyevna in Drankov’s 1909 film, from

Alexandra’s version of these encounters shows her mother’s point of view, imagining that the motion picture record might confirm her status as Tolstoy’s confidant which rumours and her enemies were assiduously undermining.

To comfort father, I volunteered to accompany mother. We stayed a few days at Yasnaya Polyana. Without father, mother was much more calm. But as soon as we returned to Kochety her nervousness returned. A photographer from the Drankov moving-picture firm came and pressed us for a chance to photograph father. This was enough to upset mother. At any cost, she wished to be photographed with him, and she put as much emotion into the situation as if it were a question of life and death. “They printed in some paper,” she said, “that Tolstoy has divorced his wife! Let them all see now that it is not true!” During the photographing, she begged father several times to look at her.

Tolstoy had been to the cinema at least once, before he had the experience of witnessing himself on film when Drankov gave a screening at Yasnaya Polyana on 6 January 1910. He showed Tolstoy and an audience of local peasants all of the film of Tolstoy he had taken to that point. Tolstoy apparently expressed some interest in the potential of the cinema for recording Russian life, and this inspired Drankov to take a number of scenes of the Tolstoy family’s peasants, in national costume, including a village wedding, with the co-operation of Tolstoy family members. Cheekily, Drankov would issue this film in 1911 (shortly after the writer’s death) under the title Krestyanskaya Svadba (A Peasant Wedding), advertised as having been written and directed by Tolstoy himself.

Tolstoy’s last days have been much written about (practically everyone in the building was writing a diary). The poisonous atmosphere at Yasnaya Polyana, centered upon Sofya Andreyevna’s disturbed behaviour, led Tolstoy to flee his own home. First joining his sister in a convent, he journeyed on (with entourage) by train, being forced to stop at the railway station of Astopovo by ill-health. Housed in the station master’s cottage, Tolstoy’s health worsened, while the media flocked to the scene. His family joined him, but cruelly his wife was kept outside. Alexandra records the scene:

While we were engrossed in taking care of father, following his slightest ups and downs, now losing heart, now cheering up again, reporters milled around the walls of the house, catching every word. The telegraphers could not dispatch all the messages; there were so many that urgent telegrams went as ordinary ones. Every minute camera men were taking photographs of persons and places: my mother, brothers, our little house, the station. an old monk, Father Varsonofi, asked all the family to let him in to see father or order “to restore him, before his death, to the fold of the Orthodox Church.”

I heard of all this only from the conversations of those around me, but one time I nearly got into a movie film. Goldenweiser, who stood watch in the anteroom, called me saying that mother was on the steps and asked me to come out for a minute so that she could inquire about father’s condition. I stepped out and began to answer her questions, but she asked me to let her into the anteroom, swearing that she would not enter the rooms. I was on the point of opening the door when I heard a buzz and, turning around, saw two photographers grinding away. I waved my hands and shouted to them to stop photographing and then turned to mother and asked her to leave at once.

“You are keeping me from him,” she replied to my reproaches, “then at least let people believe that I have been with him!”


Leo Tolstoy died on 20 November 1910. Part of the battle between Tolstoy, his wife and Chertkov had been over the copyright in his writings, which Chertkov wanted him to hand over to the Russian nation and Sofya wanted to support their home and large family. She won that battle, Tolstoy only renouncing copyright in his recent writings, and it was the family that benefitted from the numerous screen adaptations of Tolstoy’s works that followed (a filmography of Tolstoyan adaptations from the silent era will appear in a follow-up post). However, she and Chertkov joined forces in their disgust at Yakov Protazanov and Elizaveta Thiman’s Ukhod velikovo startza (The Departure of a Great Man) (1912, illustrated above, from, a dramatisation of Tolstoy’s last days which made so bold as to show how tormented Tolstoy was, and even showed his wife’s attempted suicide by drowning (an event which occured). Banned from Russia, the film was only seen abroad – and survives to this day (it can be found on the Early Russian Cinema video series.

As noted above, the 1908 film taken by Drankov on Tolstoy’s eightieth birthday can be found on YouTube and Andrew Kaufman’s site, and the 1909/1910 films at ITN Source. Kaufman also has a 1909 sound recordings of Tolstoy’s voice (Tolstoy had his own phonograph, a gift of Thomas Edison, and would make recordings of interesting visitors).

The Tolstoy Studies Journal site has the 1908 film, a Tolstoy filmography, and an article supposedly giving Tolstoy’s views on the cinema in 1908 which probably had considerable embellisment from its source, one I. Teneromo.

Jay Leyda’s peerless Kino: A History of the Russia and Soviet Film is available to download from the Internet Archive.

Aleksandr Drankov left Russia after the 1917 revolution, moved to America, failed to find any foothold in the film world, ran a Viennese cafe for a while, then slipped back into the photography business. He died in California in 1948 or 1949.

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