Song Without Words: The Photographs and Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy

May 03, 2010 // 12:00pm1:00pm

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

Event Speakers List: 
    Back to top

    Experts & Staff

    Kennan Scholars

    For a complete list of current scholars in residence, click here.

    Contact the Kennan Institute

    Tel: (202) 691-4100
    Fax: (202) 691-4247

    Kennan Kyiv Project

    Україна, Київ
    вул. Еспланадна 20, офіс 629
    Проект КЕННАН
    тел/факс: (+380 44) 461 99 20

    Wilson Center Photo Gallery

    Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

    To Attend an Event

    Unless otherwise noted:

    Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

    To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.