Count Vladimir Tolstoy
Grandnephew of the author Leo Tolstoy, and long-time resident of Washington, D.C.
Vladimir’s mother, Princess Helene Wolkonsky, was a lady in waiting to the last Empress of Russia. She was able to flee Russia in 1922, after spending several years imprisoned by the Soviets, to Czechoslovakia, where she met and subsequently married her husband, an officer in the White Army, Sergei Tolstoy-Miloslavsky. They spent time in Germany before finally settling as displaced persons in Nice, France. Vladimir was their second son and was born in 1927.
During World War II, Vladimir and his mother were living in Dresden, Germany and narrowly escaped the firebombing by the British RAF in which, ironically, his elder brother Michael served. In the late 40’s, Vladimir’s mother was recruited by Alexandra, Leo’s daughter, to help manage the Tolstoy Foundation in Nyack, NY. Vladimir followed after completing his degree at the St. Sergius Theological Institute, a recognized arm of the Sorbonne. While in Paris he was a regular at the home of future French President Valery Giscard-D’Estaing and his brother Olivier, with whom he traveled to Russia in the mid 50’s.
Once in the United States, Vladimir attended and graduated from Hobart College with a degree in Philosophy and received a Master’s Degree in Theology from Columbia University. A serendipitous encounter with the Russian wife of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt led to his appointment as a professor in Russian and French language, culture, and history at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. He taught there for 29 years and launched the Academy’s International Ball to teach midshipmen how to behave socially as officers and gentlemen and to expose them to foreign cultures. He often hosted midshipmen at his home in DC and even gave them personal waltzing lessons in Bancroft Hall. Professor Tolstoy also studied and taught linguistics at Georgetown University, History and Russian at American University, and was instrumental in establishing the Russian Department at Howard University. He hosted the first Russian Language instructional TV show on WTOP for which he received an Emmy Award.Vladimir also did interpreting and in 1959 he was one of the interpreters at the so-called “Kitchen Debate” between then Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow at the American National Exhibition. During the early 60’s his summers were spent teaching at the Institute for Russian Studies in Munich, Germany. It was there he met his future wife, Suzanne Bolasco. They were married in 1975 at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Tuckahoe, NY.
Perhaps in his eyes, his most significant accomplishment was the care and nurturing of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral on Massachusetts Avenue where he served as Sub-Deacon. Although it started out as merely an underground bunker and some dreams, Vladimir worked tirelessly to collect funds for the cathedral’s construction and aided in the selection of the architect and making design decisions. Many decades after the construction, he helped spearhead the effort to bring several iconographers from Russia to hand paint the frescoes which make the interior so striking. These icons, he would often explain, are windows into the soul—a fact he would repeat when he taught at the church’s Sunday School which he and his mother founded.
While very proud to have become an American citizen, Vladimir’s core beliefs were firmly entrenched in all things Russian. He was a great supporter of the Russian community in both Washington and abroad. Whether it was the idea of holding Maslenitsa—Russian Mardi Gras—at the Russian Embassy for 22 years to collect funds for the needy, or being a founder and Governor of the Russian Cultural Center, he used his social position as well as his vocation as a teacher and mentor to cultivate and expand the awareness of all things Russian. He even partook in the clandestine dissemination back into Russia of Pasternak’s manuscript for Dr. Zhivago by means of hot air balloon.
His joie de vivre made it easy for him to befriend people of all walks of life—including the likes of Mstislav Rostropovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vladimir Ashkenazy—and his home became a center of Russian culture, history and art.
For his efforts he was officially recognized by the Russian Foreign Ministry under the then Ambassador to the US Yuri Ushakov.
He died on March 6th 2020 at the age of 93 of pneumonia, aggravated by congestive heart failure. Professor Tolstoy, as he preferred to be called, is survived by his wife Suzanne, and sons Nikolai and Alexandr.