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Tolstoy: British, Irish and American visitors to Yasnaia Poliana

“The Englishman or American who wishes to know what the man was like in the environment  - how he saw himself and was seen by those who shared it, cannot do better than read the long and detailed biography of the great Russian which was prepared by Paul Birukoff from material furnished by Tolstoy himself and often written by him.”

The New York Times on 25 February 1912

The book referred to in the above quotation is Leo Tolstoy: his life and work: autobiographical memoirs, letters, and biographical material / compiled by Paul Birukoff and revised by Leo Tolstoi. London: William Heinemann, 1906 (held by the British Library at shelfmark 010795.ee.70 and another copy at W15/3092).

Of course, some Englishmen and Americans were prepared to travel a long way to be able to see Tolstoy and speak to him. It should not be surprising at all, if we remember that from the mid-1890s Tolstoy’s articles were very frequently published in major British newspapers (e.g. ‘A Russian Religious Sect’, in: The Times, Wednesday, Oct 23, 1895; p. 4; Issue 34715; col A; ‘Count Tolstoy On The War’, in: The Times, Monday, Jun 27, 1904; p. 4; Issue 37431; col A; "A Great Iniquity", in: The Times, Tuesday, Aug 1, 1905; p. 3; Issue 37774; col A; and many more, please see the full-text newspaper databases available in our reading rooms, and the British Library Newspaper Collections). The majority of his essays, both in Russian and English, first appeared in England as a result of the publishing activities of Tolstoy’s friend and supporter Vladimir Chertkov (1954-1936). The British Library also has a good collection of these essays.

One of Tolstoy's visitors was Sir Charles Theodore Hagberg Wright (1862-1940), Secretary and Librarian of the London Library from 1893 until his death. He was interested in African studies, translated Tolstoy and had the reputation of being a liberal Russophile. Wright visited Tolstoy four or five times from 1890. On 13 September 1908, Sofia Andreevna noted in her diary (see: The diaries of Sofia Tolstaya / translated by Cathy Porter. London: Jonathan Cape, 1985; shelfmark 85/24964) that Mr Wright was among the guests on one of those busy days of Tolstoy’s 80th jubilee. Wright presented Tolstoy with a letter signed by more than 700 English admirers. Apart from books on the London Library, catalogues, and translations from Russian, Wright wrote an essay ‘Books for Russian prisoners of war in Germany’ (published in: Koch, T. W. Books in camp, trench, and hospital. London: Dant, 1917; held by the British Library at shelfmark 2719.x.10867, and another copy at 011904.aaa.34), French lessons for soldiers. London: Country Life, 1914 (held at 12954.a.38), and an introduction to C.E. Vulliamy’s selection of Russian state papers and other documents relating to the years 1915-1918, published in English under the title Russian Archive (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1929; held at shelfmark 09455.ff.55).

Books in camp, trench and hospital

Books in camp, trench and hospital by T.W. Koch. BL shelfmark: 2719.x.10867. Copyright ©The British Library Board

The American author Ernest Howard Crosby (1856–1907) was also very much influenced by Tolstoy and visited him in Yasnaia Poliana in 1894. From that time the two men were in correspondence, and although Crosby was only one of nearly seventy Americans who wrote to Tolstoy a total of 1800 letters (see: L.N. Tolstoĭ i SShA : perepiska / sostavlenie, podgotovka tekstov, kommentarii, N. Velikanova, R. Vittaker. Moskva: IMLI, 2004; shelfmark YF.2005.a.18966), he was the most devoted among Tolstoy’s American correspondents. 

Tolstoy and the USA

Tolstoy and the USA. BL shelfmark: YF.2005.a.18966. Copyright ©The British Library Board

In America, Crosby did a lot to promote Tolstoy's ideas, and his relations with Tolstoy turned into friendship. In 1903, Crosby published a book Tolstoy and his message (The British Library has two copies of the 1903 edition at shelfmarks 012203.e.7/1 and 8285.075000 (No 1), as well as a later one), and a year later Tolstoy as a schoolmaster (also two copies at shelfmarks 012203.e.7/10 and B.6.b.31).

In the book Interv’iu i besedy s L’vom Tolstym (first published in 1910, and later in 1987; the British Library holds the later edition at shelfmark YA.1991.a.19569) we can find a short essay ‘U L.N. Tolstogo’, reprinted from the newspaper Rech’  (1907, 9 September, No 213; a set of this newspaper is held in the Newspaper Collections at shelfmark F1225). The essay was signed by one “A. Vergezhskii”, a pseudonym of Ariadna Tyrkova-Williams, a Russian liberal politician, journalist, writer and feminist, whose collection is also housed in the British Library. In this essay, Tyrkova described her visit to Tolstoy on 7 October, 1903. Tyrkova recalled, that among other things, they discussed Shakespeare, because at that time Tolstoy “was writing a preface to a book of a certain American, who wanted to destroy Shakespeare’s authority”. Here, we are talking about the book Tolstoy on Shakespeare translated and published by V. Chertkov in England in 1907 (the British Library has three copies of the same edition at shelfmarks 011765.e.12, 20098.b.5, and 11761.ee.1), where Crosby’s work was also published, and that “certain American” is definitely Crosby.

Crosby recommended to Tolstoy certain friends who also wanted to see the great man. One of them was Robert Hunter (1884-1942), an American sociologist, public figure and socialist, whose books Poverty ([S.l.] : Macmillan, 1904; shelfmark 339 *1211*), Tenement conditions in Chicago (Chicago: City Homes Association, 1901; available on microfilm at shelfmark Mic.K.3140), Violence and the labor movement / (New York: Macmillan, 1914; at shelfmark 331.88 *2473*, also available on microfilm at shelfmark Mic.A.16085, and later editions at shelfmark 08282.bb.42, and 75/20738) can also be read at the British Library. He visited Tolstoy on 12 July 1903 and left a detailed account of this visit, which is held among the British Library manuscripts, shelfmark Add.52772 (ff. 95-108). Hunter wrote down what Tolstoy said about the dilemma that he was preoccupied with at that time. Tolstoy felt that he should have disposed of his property and renounced all wealth and luxuries, but could not do so because of his wife and family. In the last decades of his life Tolstoy was painfully aware of the fact that his teaching was not in keeping with his family's life style. The thought that his inability to give away his material goods compromised his principles and beliefs brought Tolstoy a lot of suffering. Finally, it became the cause of his flight from home in 1910.

Hunter’s description of his visit to Yasnaia Poliana is kept among Sydney Carlyle Cockrell’s papers. Cockrell (1867-1962), a museum curator and collector, Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (1908-1937), visited Tolstoy in the company of “two American friends” (one of them was Hunter) and also left notes on this visit (Add.5277, ff. 80-87v.). As an art historian, he was particularly interested in Tolstoy’s article “What is art?” (“Chto takoe iskusstvo?”) and wanted to know Tolstoy’s opinion on the artist and writer William Morris (1834-1896) and the art critic, artist and poet John Ruskin (1819-1900). In Cockrell’s view, many of the things that Tolstoy had stated in his article had been already said by them. His file also contains photographic postcards of Tolstoy (may be viewed in our Catalogue of photographs), that were probably collected by these gentlemen (Add.5277, ff. 109-121). 

The first Irishman to visit Tolstoy was the journalist and politician Michael Davitt (1846-1906). He came to interview Tolstoy in June 1904, but also appealed to his support of Ireland against England. In 2001, his Collective writing (1868-1906) was published by Carla King in 8 volumes (shelfmark YC.2001.a.20465). Davitt visited Tolstoy again in February 1905, and this time he was accompanied by another journalist and translator, Stephen MacKenna (1872-1934), who interviewed Tolstoy about the Bloody Sunday (9 January 1905). MacKenna’s account of this visit was published in The Irish Statesman of 1 October 1927, but also quoted in Journal and Letters of Stephen MacKenna, London: Constable & Co., 1936 (held at shelfmark 010822.i.69, and another copy at W3/4849).

In his book Iasnopolianskie zapiski: 1904-1910 gody Tolstoy’s doctor Dushan Makovitskii noted that Tolstoy had called the Irishmen “lovely (slavnyi), vigorous and merry people” (the British Library has only vol. 1 of the 1922 edition held at shelfmark ZF.9.a.5897, but all four volumes were later published in the series Literaturnoe nasledstvo, 1979, vol. 90, in four parts, shelfmark 0098.062000).

In the entry of 19 November (2 Dec) 1907 Makovitskii wrote: “At 5.30 p.m. Mr Leslie arrived, a 22-year-old aristocrat and Irish nationalist. Wants to see a “simple life”. LN spoke to him in his study about important issues (ser’eznye voprosy)”.

Sir John Randolph Leslie, 3rd Baronet (aka Shane Leslie, 1885-1971) later became author of some 50 books (fiction, poetry, memoirs, biographies, journalism). He left accounts of his meeting with Tolstoy in his notes of conversations with him and a letter to his mother Leonie dated 4 December 1907 (both at the National Library of Ireland). This was also later reflected in his fictional and autobiographical books The Cantab (published by Chatto & Windus in 1926; held at shelfmark X14/7513 and another copy at YA.1987.a.14875), and Long Shadows, London: Murray, 1966 (held at shelfmark X.809/2348 and another copy at W32/2232). In both books Leslie gives fictionalised versions of his conversation with Tolstoy and sometimes he is slightly ironic. His protagonist “became a confirmed vegetarian and promised to learn to plough”. In real life, this episode had little influence on either of them: Leslie converted to Catholicism in 1908, never abandoned either nationalism or ‘worldly riches’, and embraced pacifism only after his brother’s death in World War 1.

The Cantab

The Cantab by Shane Leslie. BL shelfmark X14/7513. Copyright ©The British Library Board

Contact

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator, Russian Studies
European Studies
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Peter W. Hellyer, Curator, Russian Studies
European Studies
The British Library
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Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7582

E-mail: peter.hellyer@bl.uk