Voices from Russia

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Rare Recording from 1909: Leo Tolstoy Reads From His Last Major Work in Four Languages

Ivan Kramskoi. A Portriat of the Author L N Tolstoy. 1873

A Portrait of the Author Graf L N Tolstoy

Ivan Kramskoi




Earlier this week, we brought you rare recordings of Sigmund Freud and Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges speaking in English. Today, we present a remarkable series of recordings of the great Russian novelist L N Tolstoy reading a passage from his book, Wise Thoughts for Every Day, in four languages… English, German, French, and Russian. Wise Thoughts For Every Day was Tolstoy’s last major work. It first appeared in 1903 as The Thoughts of Wise Men, and was revised and renamed several times before the author’s death in 1910. The Soviets banned it, only to reappear in 1995 as a bestseller in Russia. In 1997, Peter Sekirin translated it into English and published it as A Calendar of Wisdom. The book is a collection of passages from a diverse group of thinkers, ranging from Lao-Tzu to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Tolstoy wrote in his diary, “I felt that I was elevated to great spiritual and moral heights by communication with the best and wisest people whose books I read and whose thoughts I selected for my Circle of Reading”.

As an old man, Tolstoy rejected his great works of fiction, believing that it was more important to give moral and spiritual guidance to the common people. He wrote, “To create a book for the masses, for millions of people is incomparably more important and fruitful than to compose a novel of the kind which diverts some members of the wealthy classes for a short time, and then is forever forgotten”. Tolstoy arranged his book for the masses as a calendar, with a series of readings for each day of the year. For example under today’s date, 9 May, Tolstoy selected brief passages from Immanuel Kant, Solon, and the Koran. Underneath he wrote, “We can’t stop on the way to self-perfection. As soon as you notice that you have a bigger interest in the outer world than in yourself, then you should know that the world moves behind you”.

The audio recordings above were made at the writer’s home in Yasnaya Polyana on 31 October 1909, when he was 81-years-old. He died just over a year later. Apparently, Tolstoy translated the passage himself. The English version sounds a bit like the King James Bible. The words are hard to make out in the recording, but he said:

That the object of life is self-perfection, the perfection of all immortal souls, that this is the only object of my life, is seen to be correct by the fact alone that every other object is essentially a new object. Therefore, the question whether thou hast done what thou shoudst have done is of immense importance, for the only meaning of thy life is in doing in this short term allowed thee, that which is desired of thee by He or That which has sent thee into life. Art thou doing the right thing?

Tolstoy made several voice recordings in his life, dating back to 1895 when he made two wax cylinder recordings for Julius Block. Russian literary scholar Andrew Kaufman collected three more vintage recordings (all in Russian) including Tolstoy’s lesson to peasant children on his estate, a reading of his fairy tale The Wolf, and an excerpt from his essay I Can’t be Silent. You can listen to them on Kaufman’s website.

9 May 2012

Open Culture


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