Tolstoy on film

December 30 2010

At the end of the centenary year of Tolstoy’s death, Kenneth Clark in the final episode of his BBC2 television series Civilisation (1969), Heroic Materialism:

I can think of several reasons why Tolstoy must have been a hero to Van Gogh, but on what does Clark base his assertion? The references in Van Gogh’s letters do not tell us much.

Tolstoy’s anarcho-pacifist Christian views had caused him to be excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox church in 1901.


Acton did not write his great book before reaching middle age, and so he never wrote it at all.

says Toynbee. Tolstoy wrote War and Peace in his thirties.

He had travelled around Europe in 1857 and 1860-61 (he visited London in 1861), but after his marriage in 1862 never left Russia. He would spend the winters in Moscow and the summers mainly at his birthplace and patrimonial estate, Yasnaya Polyana, 120 miles south of Moscow. His wife, Sophia, bore him thirteen children, five of whom died in childhood. She continued to live in Yasnaya Polyana after the revolution, in relative peace, and died in 1919.


A longer sequence. (The music is Tchaikovsky’s Grand Sonata, which I have already called “unloved”.) An explanation, as far as I can give it, is below.

The first part, up to 2:16, shows Tolstoy’s final visit to Moscow in (or beginning in) September 1909. If I am interpreting this correctly, he departs not from his own estate, but from that of his friend and assistant Vladimir Chertkov, which was further away, at Lizinovka, near what is now Ukraine. 1:34: arrival by train in Moscow. 1:43: Bryansk station (isn’t this out of sequence?, did he have to change there?). 1:51: arrival at his house in Khamovniki district. 2:16: departure from Moscow for Yasnaya Polyana.

In the scenes that follow, up to 7:22, he is at Yasnaya Polyana … with his family; giving alms to the peasants; riding in the snow with his doctor, Makovitsky, who would travel with him on his final journey. 4:57: taking a walk at 5 am. 7:13: on his balcony on his eightieth birthday. Were the preceding few minutes shot on that day?

7:22: deathbed in the station-master’s house at Astapovo; the funeral. Where was he fleeing to? He had stopped first at the Optina Monastery and had then visited his sister Maria at its convent dependency nearby. Do we know what final destination he had in mind? Chertkov, who was considered a thoroughly bad influence by Tolstoy’s family, arrived at Astapovo before Tolstoy died.


More. Tolstoy reading in 1908 from his Wise Thoughts for Every Day.

In 1848, aged 20

Cake at Yasnaya Polyana, c 1905. The group looking as much bürgerlich as aristocratic. Chertkov, I believe, is at Tolstoy’s right. Sophia is at the head. No doubt the others are easy to identify.

48th wedding anniversary, two months before his death

May 22 and 23 1908: Sergey Prokudin-Gorskii, whom we have met here several times already, visits Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana to take a (true) colour photograph of him. Correspondence and other material relating to this visit is here.

He takes this photograph of the grounds, which we can perhaps recognise from the film of the funeral

A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s