We have Thomas Edison to thank for these recordings of Lev Tolstoy! After Edison sent Tolstoy a phonograph that the writer received in January 1908, Tolstoy sometimes recorded his voice on wax cylinders, saying it was easier and faster to answer letters by speaking into the phonograph than to write on paper. Tolstoy also made special recordings for Edison, at Edison’s request, in multiple languages, though, according to RIA Novosti, it appears that most of the cylinders did not survive.
Though very brief, the ten clips we’ve posted here—all recorded in 1908 and provided to us by archivists from Gosteleradiofond—capture a surprisingly broad range of Tolstoy’s life and thought. Tolstoy speaks about art, law, and moral issues, touching on his moral crisis, activity the government saw as subversive, and poverty. There is also an excerpt from “I Cannot Be Silent,” a well-known tract about nonviolence and capital punishment that was censored, as well as a brief speech to a group of boys who studied at the Yasnaya Polyana school. He tells them to behave.
A bit more background: Edison sent the phonograph after Stephen Bonsal of The New York Times visited Tolstoy in 1907, offered to get him a phonograph, and made the order through a friend. Edison, though, refused payment.
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- Tolstoy’s thank you note to Edison (scroll down)
- RIA Novosti’s article about Tolstoy, Edison, and the mysterious missing wax cylinders
- 1908 New York Times brief news item about Edison’s gift
- Tolstoy’s daughter on the phonograph’s learning curve (New York Times)
- The Moscow Times on Tolstoy, Edison, and the Phonograph
- Intro to Stephen Bonsal’s trip report about visiting Tolstoy
- Russian version of the story of the phonograph gift
- Background (in Russian) on the recording about art, civilization, and ideals, with the complete text
- Tolstoy on “What Is Art?” (tr. Aylmer Maude)
- Russian text, letter to Dudchenko
- Russian text of “I Cannot Be Silent”
- Part 1 English translated text of “I Cannot Be Silent” (tr. Louise and Aylmer Maude)
- A PDF of “I Cannot Be Silent,” in the New York Times, dated June 13, 1908
- Background (in Russian) on the letter to Davydov, text included, and the case, from Pavel Biriukov’s biography of Tolstoy
- Further background on the letter to Davydov in The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy (tr. Cathy Porter)
Photograph: Lev Tolstoy, taken by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, via Wikipedia.
Lev Tolstoy (Briefly!) on Art, Civilization, and Ideals
In less than 30 seconds, Lev Tolstoy sums up his thoughts on art and civilization: he says art should be based on ideals and he decries the lack of true art works in his time, believing there is only play of words, sounds, and imagery. Nikolai Guseev, Tolstoy’s secretary, wrote in his diary on February 9, 1908, that he transcribed Tolstoy’s words in this recording.
Lev Tolstoy’s “About a Man”
Lev Tolstoy tells a brief story about a man who is rich but becomes poor when his house burns and he isn’t paid for his work… but he later realizes his life isn’t so bad.
Lev Tolstoy’s Letter to Sheierman
Lev Tolstoy reads a letter to Vladimir Sheierman, a Kharkov landowner who was exiled in 1906 after he was arrested for instigating an incident in a neighboring village; he returned in 1907. Tolstoy and Sheierman corresponded about issues related to land and peasants. At the end, Tolstoy says he regrets the two have never met.
Lev Tolstoy’s Letter to Mitrofan Dudchenko
Lev Tolstoy reads a fragment of a letter, dated April 7, 1908, to Mitrofan Dudchenko in which he says he is unable to follow Dudchenko’s advice, though he says he will be grateful to whomever helps him find the way to do it. Dudchenko had previously written to Tolstoy, advising him to live his live in accordance with his convictions. Dudchenko and his brother Tikhon were both followers of Tolstoy.
A Chunk of Lev Tolstoy’s “I Cannot Be Silent”
Lev Tolstoy reads a small excerpt from his 1908 “I Cannot Be Silent,” in which he decries capital punishment for 20 peasants accused of making “an attack made with intent to rob, on a landed proprietor’s estate in the Elizabetgrad district.”
Tolstoy’s letter to Nikolai Davydov
Lev Tolstoy reads the text of a letter to Nikolai Davydov, asking Davydov for advice regarding a person close to him accused of a book-related offense: the person was Vladimir Molochnikov, who was accused of distributing Tolstoy’s books. Davydov advised Tolstoy against traveling to St. Petersburg to defend Molochnikov, who was subsequently sentenced to one year in prison, making Tolstoy regret his decision.
Tolstoy Addresses the People of Russia
This clip of Lev Tolstoy’s advice to Russians, recorded in August 1908, also criticizes the government, blaming it for poverty and lack of freedom, and concluding, before cutting off, that the state of affairs is such that the very worst is considered the very best.
Tolstoy Speaks to Boys Studying at the Yasnaya Polyana School
In a brief bit of advice to boys studying at Yasnaya Polyana, Lev Tolstoy thanks them for coming to see him, says he’s happy when they do well in school, and tells them not to misbehave.
Lev Tolstoy’s Letter to Loskutov (1)
Lev Tolstoy, in a small chunk of a letter to a student named Mikhail Loskutov, speaks of art and decadence. Tolstoy’s letter is an answer to Loskutov’s question about whether decadence is a form of decline or rebirth.
Lev Tolstoy’s Letter to Loskutov (2)
Lev Tolstoy, in a small piece of a letter to a student named Mikhail Loskutov, once again speaks of art and decadence, saying that decadent art appeals only to a small circle of people. Tolstoy’s letter is an answer to Loskutov’s question about whether decadence is a form of decline or rebirth.
Lev Tolstoy’s Letter to Voronov
In yet another brief letter, Lev Tolstoy thanks Pavel Voronov for a package (not yet received) from a journal. He promises to read the journal. Voronov edited the journal Русская старина (Russian Old Times).