At a 3 May 2010 Kennan Institute Lecture, Leah Bendavid-Val, Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, presented photographs taken by the Countess Sophia Tolstoy, wife of famed author Lev Tolstoy. Almost all were taken at Yasnaya Polyana, the estate where Lev and Sofia lived with their many children and grandchildren.

Bendavid-Val discovered the photographs languishing in the Tolstoy Museum in Russia, where they were stored in candy boxes and slowly deteriorating. She explained that the photographs of Lev and the Tolstoy family were thought to be of only minor interest in light of the museum's primary mission to study and preserve the work of Lev Tolstoy. Funding was also sorely lacking for preserving these pictures, of which there are about one thousand.

In 1885, twenty-three years into her marriage, Sophia began taking pictures of Lev to document him for posterity. Although at the time she was considered an amateur photographer, Bendavid-Val stressed that the word amateur should not be conceived of in modern terms; back then it took a great deal of time and skill to master, even on a beginner's level, the art of photography and amateur photography was taken seriously.

The Countess became quite adept at picture taking, even if she has not been historically recognized for it (which probably contributed to the lack of care taken to preserve her pictures). Lev was not the only figure upon which she turned her camera. "Sophia was greatly ahead of her time in terms of self-portraiture," said Bendavid-Val. She noted that it was difficult to distinguish between the staged pictures Sofia took, and the ones that were simply documentary. The two are seamlessly blended.

Although Lev Tolstoy considered photography to be a frivolous activity, he did sometimes express pleasure in certain pictures Sophia took of him. Indeed, the Countess made a point of photographing the two of them every year on their anniversary, with the last one taken less than two months before he died.

By Larissa Eltsefon
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute