Tolstoy in Film

The early days of cinema were marked by strong competition for viewers. In its developing stages the film quality was often poor, and shooting techniques were primitive. Still, the new medium offered the opporunity to see things that would never otherwise have been seen by the majority of viewers.

The Russian critic Vasily Rozanov wrote that to be a Russian and not have Tolstoy was like being Swiss and not having seen the Alps. Cinematographers recognized that images of Tolstoy would be a big draw, and would also lend a certain legitimacy to their work. They were preserving the image of the greatest living Russian for the ages.

Tolstoy was filmed on a number of occasions, though he never invited the cinematographers himself. That duty was performed by his wife and by Chertkov, who, as one might expect, worked with competing cinematographers.

Tolstoy giving alms to the peasants. Though Tolstoy did not think much of the films he saw, he did see the potential for the cinema to convey useful information and moral messages. Perhaps that is why he allowed the cameras to roll as he distributed money to poor peasants below. Was this a demonstration of how one ought to live, or a great photo op to build up his image as a benefactor?

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Tolstoy’s Funeral. Footage of Tolstoy on his death bed at Astapovo, of the translation of the body to Yasnaya Polyana, and the funeral became a sensation throughout Russia. In the footage below we can see Tolstoy on his deathbed at Astapovo, followed by the removal of his coffin from Ozolin’s home. The coffin is carried by his sons, followed by his wife, and is loaded onto a baggage car. We then see the funeral procession at Yasnaya Polyana.

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When the government and church refused to allow religious services to be performed for Tolstoy, cinema houses replaced churches as places where the public could gather for these commemorations. When the images were shown, the audience would stand in silence to demonstrate their respect. On some occasions, speeches were made. This eventually led the authorities to prohibit screenings of this footage.