“I Feel That You Are All My Friends”: Alexandra Tolstoy in Winter Park

Alexandra Tolstoy, the daughter of author Leo Tolstoy, speaking at the Rollins Animated Magazine in 1940

Sometimes it is surprising what one finds–or in this case, doesn’t find–in the archival record. Although Alexandra Tolstoy, the youngest daughter of Leo Tolstoy, spoke at Rollins twice, we have found very little information about her in our holdings. Though we have a good deal of material for many of the other speakers who visited Rollins, for Alexandra Tolstoy the record is slight, without any correspondence or other personal documents.

The records we do have indicate that Countess Tolstoy first spoke at the College’s Animated Magazine in 1937. (The Magazine was an annual event at which contributors read their pieces before an audience, rather than having them printed.) The subject of her talk was “The Relation of Leo Tolstoy’s Philosophy to Communism.”  Since we don’t have a transcript of her speech, what we know of this visit comes mainly from a Sandspur article with the promising headline, “Countess Tolstoy Gives Interview to Student,” (available at http://bit.ly/2bau4rE, page 3). The piece never quotes the Countess, however, and so has an impersonal feel, seeming mainly to summarize events recounted in her 1934 memoir I Worked for the Soviet.

An Animated Magazine audience, circa 1930s. Due to a rainstorm, the event was held indoors during the Countess’s first appearance in 1937.

On that same visit, Countess Tolstoy also spoke at the Congregational Church and gave a talk to “a full house” at the Woman’s Club of Winter Park, where she presented “A True Picture of My Russia” (Winter Park Topics, 2/27/1937). Afterwards, she joined Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and several other Animated Magazine authors at the Bookery, where they autographed copies of their works.

It was most likely at this book signing that she inscribed a copy of I Worked for the Soviet to Prof. Edwin Grover, the College’s Professor of Books.  Prof. Grover later gave this volume to his neighbor, Max A. Weissenburger, a teacher at Winter Park High School. In more recent years, Mr. Weissenburger passed the book on to Dr. Gordon Howell, Associate Professor Emeritus of Physical Education at Rollins. We thank Dr. Howell for generously donating this historic work to the College Archives, where it is now held in the Rollins Collection.

The dust jacket of Alexandra Tolstoy’s memoir, I Worked for the Soviet (1935 edition)

Countess Tolstoy’s inscription to Prof. Edwin Grover

In 1940, Countess Tolstoy made another appearance at the Animated Magazine, speaking on the topic of “Finland and Russia.” The next day, an article with the same title appeared under her name in a local newspaper, with presumably the same content. In this piece, she addressed the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland in 1939 and called “the Red invader” “the first and greatest enemy of civilization and democracy” (Orlando Evening Star [?], 2/26/1940).

Countess Tolstoy devoted the rest of her life to relief efforts for international refugees and was an early advocate for human rights. In 1939, she co-founded the Tolstoy Foundation, created to aid Soviet refugees. During World War II, the activities of the foundation expanded, as the organization offered assistance to European refugees, prisoners of war, and many others. Alexandra Tolstoy would serve as president of the foundation until 1976, just a few years before her death in 1979.

Though she did not return to Rollins after 1940, we do have correspondence indicating that the College was interested in having her appear in another edition of the Animated Magazine. In 1951, Horace Tollefson (Executive Assistant to Pres. Paul Wagner) contacted the Lee Keedick organization (“Manager of the World’s Most Celebrated Lecturers”), which by that time represented Alexandra Tolstoy and collected fees for her appearances. We don’t know why she did not participate in the program again, but we do know that the Animated Magazine did not pay its contributors.

A flyer promoting Alexandra Tolstoy as a lecturer, circa 1951. She had given up her title after becoming a U.S. citizen in 1941, which may be why it is shown in parentheses. Newsreel footage about Oksana Kosenkina and the Tolstoy Foundation, an international incident mentioned here, may be viewed at https://youtu.be/BJgPEAIcnvQ.

We have few words or images from our archival records to share, but Alexandra Tolstoy can be seen relating highly personal memories of her family in this 1970 documentary footage from the National Archives. For our part, we can say that in 1937, Countess Tolstoy said of her visit, ‘After the way in which you have received me here, I feel that you are all my friends'” (Winter Park Topics, 2/20/1937).

~ by D. Moore, Archival Specialist

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