Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: During the first half of his long and active life, Tolstoy brought universal fame to Russian literature through his fiction. In later years, he achieved worldwide renown as a pacifist, social activist, and moralist. He is equally significant as a novelist and moral philosopher.
Leo Tolstoy traces his aristocratic origins back to the founding of the Russian state in the ninth century. His ancestors, at times faithful servants, at times opponents of the Crown, amassed fame as well as respectable wealth over the centuries. Thus Tolstoy, though orphaned at age eight, grew up in comfort under the care of relatives at the various Tolstoy residences. He subsequently shaped a vague memory of his mother, who died when he was two, into an idealized portrait of the perfect woman and featured such a paragon in many of his major works. His first published narrative, Detstvo (1852; Childhood, 1862), re-creates a boy’s tender relationship with and painful loss of his mother.
A flamboyant lifestyle, filled with carousing and gambling, prevented Tolstoy from completing university study, but he revealed an early talent for writing and meticulously recorded daily details, from purest thoughts to debauched acts, in his diaries. He continued keeping such journals until old age, providing future literary historians with rich source material for every stage of his life. His elder siblings and relations, dismayed at the young count’s irresolution and wantonness, sent him in 1851 to the Caucasus, where Russia was engaged in sporadic military operations with hostile natives.
Tolstoy’s subsequent participation in the Crimean War put an end to the unstable years of his youth. Active service during the siege of Sevastopol motivated him to set down his impressions of the carnage in a series of sketches, “Sevastopol v dekabre,” “Sevastopol v maye,” and “Sevastopol v avguste” (1854-1856; collected in translation as Sebastopol, 1887). His original and above all truthful accounts pleased a public that had grown tired of the prevailing vainglorious, deceitful war reports. So convincingly did Tolstoy chronicle the horror of battlefield life and communicate his disillusionment with war that czarist censors moved to alter his exposés. Tolstoy’s later devotion to nonviolence stems from these experiences. His perceptions about the ineptitude of military commanders juxtaposed to the courage and common sense of foot soldiers resurface in his major work, Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886). Moreover, his dispute with the authorities over his forthright reporting set the stage for a lifelong confrontation with the imperial autocracy.
Tolstoy’s long literary career followed several distinct directions. The labors of his younger years belong to the field of aesthetic literature, though he embarked on that course only after lengthy deliberation. When he returned to St. Petersburg in 1855 following military service, high society lionized the young hero and for a time drew him back into the swirl of its carefree amusements. His strong didactic bent and quarrelsome nature did not, however, endear him to the literary establishment. He soon antagonized writers on all sides of the social and political spectrum and in the end thought it best to develop his talents without the help of contemporaries. The deaths of two brothers and an execution witnessed in Paris in 1857 led him to approach life in a more serious vein. He opened and directed a school for peasant children on his estate, using pedagogical methods which he himself established, and entered into lively journalistic polemics with other educators over his scheme of placing moral teachings above the acquisition of knowledge. These and other controversial public exchanges brought renewed government interference which impelled Tolstoy to turn to less antagonistic activity. In 1862, he married Sophia Behrs, sixteen years his junior, became a country gentleman, and settled down to a life of writing.
The 1860’s were almost wholly devoted to the composition of the epic War and Peace, which went through so many revisions and changes of focus, even as it was being serialized, that no clearly definitive version of the novel exists. Among the diverse issues embedded in the finished product are Tolstoy’s own interpretation of the Napoleonic Wars, a richly drawn panorama of early nineteenth century Russian upper-class society supplemented by many biographical details, a firm conviction that the values of close-knit family life are far superior to social rituals, and a wealth of sundry philosophical observations. War and Peace owes its immense success to the author’s vast descriptive talents, which manage to neutralize his lifelong tendency to sermonize.
Reflections on the importance of stable domestic existence also dominate Tolstoy’s second major work, Anna Karenina (1875-1878; English translation, 1886), in which he chronicles the fates of three aristocratic families and demonstrates that the title figure’s insistence on personal happiness to the detriment of family duty engenders tragedy for all concerned. The novel also develops Tolstoy’s pet notion that Russian peasant mores are morally superior to high society’s ideals. Ideas about the meaning of death and the validity of suicide also represent an important strain in Anna Karenina, reflecting Tolstoy’s own frequent contact with death, as he lost several children and other close relatives in the 1870’s during the composition of the novel. The themes of these two major works are echoed in the many shorter pieces produced by the prolific Tolstoy during the same period.
The late 1870’s represent a watershed for Tolstoy, a time when a prolonged spiritual crisis forced him to evaluate both his privileged life and his literary endeavors. A drastic reorientation evolved from this period of introspection. No longer able to justify his considerable wealth in the face of millions of illiterate, destitute peasants and laborers,...
(The entire section is 2519 words.)
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Tolstoy is closely identified with the Russian character and conscience. Born into a wealthy and respected family, he became a prolific writer of both fiction and nonfiction. His novel War and Peace (1869) is almost universally counted among the greatest works of world literature. Tolstoy’s fiction often portrayed Russian elites in an unflattering, critical light, but it was his nonfiction writings—essays and pamphlets on moral and political issues—that provided Russian censors with the most work.
As a champion of the Russian peasantry, Tolstoy agitated against the institution of serfdom. His efforts became the subject of a file kept on him by the czar’s secret police. In 1862 the police conducted a destructive and intimidating (but nonetheless fruitless) search of his home for an illegal printing press. This only bolstered Tolstoy’s opposition to the government. By the 1880’s he had become a permanent antagonist of the czarist regime.
Tolstoy explained his evolving religious beliefs in Confession (1882), a book highly critical of the Russian Orthodox church. Its text was banned in Russia until 1906, and it helped get Tolstoy excommunicated from the church in 1901. The czarist authorities further considered that Tolstoy’s writings made him a subversive, so he was placed...
(The entire section is 528 words.)
Biography (World Philosophers and Their Works)
Article abstract: Tolstoy, an accomplished novelist for the first half of his life, achieved worldwide renown as a pacifist, social activist, and moral philosopher in his later years. He worked alongside the peasants and wrote numerous works critical of war, injustice, and the church.
Leo Tolstoy traced his aristocratic origins back to the founding of the Russian state in the ninth century. His ancestors, at times faithful servants, at times opponents of the Crown, amassed fame as well as respectable wealth over the centuries. Thus Tolstoy, though orphaned at age eight, grew up in comfort under the care of relatives at the various Tolstoy residences. He subsequently shaped...
(The entire section is 2507 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born on September 9, 1828, to a retired army officer, Count Nikolay Ilyich Tolstoy, and a wealthy princess, Maria Nikolaevna Bolkonskaya, who was descended from Russia’s first ruling dynasty. His birthplace was a magnificent estate 130 miles south of Moscow, Yasnaya Polyana (serene meadow). Throughout his life, particularly from the late 1850’s, when he settled there, this beautiful manorial land, featuring an avenue of lime trees and several lakes, was a romance he kept reinventing, lodged at the center of his self. He disliked urban civilization and industrialization, instead preferring with increasing fidelity the rural simplicities and patriarchal order that had governed the lives of his...
(The entire section is 1220 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy’s life was long and eventful, at times even overwhelming his work. Born the fourth child of a noble family, at its estate of Yasnaya Polyana in 1828, he was reared by a nanny, an aunt, a grandmother, and a succession of tutors. Tolstoy’s mother—who, before her marriage, was Princess Marya Nikolayevna Volkonsky—died before his second birthday, leaving him only with idealized memories; his father, who died in 1837, left a much more distinct impression. Tolstoy’s father, Nikolay Ilyich, a retired lieutenant-colonel, was very much the country gentleman, with a passion for hunting and little interest in literature. From his youth, Tolstoy himself had an extraordinary appetite for physical exercise,...
(The entire section is 1000 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Leo Tolstoy (TAWL-stoy), also known as Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, was born at his family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, about 130 miles southwest of Moscow, Russia, on September 9, 1828. His parents came from illustrious, aristocratic families accustomed to spending time at the court of the czar. His mother, Princess Marya Volkonsky, was the daughter of Prince Nikolay Volkonsky, a son of the Enlightenment, who had encouraged her to learn French and read French philosophers, particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His father was Count Nikolay Tolstoy, who served in the Russian army when Napoleon I invaded Russia. Tolstoy lost both of his beloved parents by the time he was nine years old, thus ending his idyllic childhood at home. Until...
(The entire section is 1214 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Described by the Russian writer Maxim Gorky as “a whole world,” Leo Tolstoy incorporated his life, the past life of his family, and the destiny of the Russian people into his art. He tried to capture the varied facets of nineteenth century Russian reality, as well as discover a unifying truth that would explain the nature of humankind’s spiritual existence. In the process, he created two of the world’s greatest novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
Not satisfied with this accomplishment, Tolstoy in midlife abandoned art and turned his prodigious energies to social reform. He contributed to the intellectual ferment that ultimately led to the Russian Revolution, which occurred seven years...
(The entire section is 117 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Among the world’s greatest novelists, Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy (TAWL-stoy) also wrote an important body of nonfiction advocating pacifism and social justice. The fourth son of Princess Marya Nikolayevna Volkonsky and Nikolay Ilyich Tolstoy, a retired lieutenant colonel and gentleman farmer, Tolstoy was born on the family estate of Yasnaya Polyana, Tula Province, Russia, on September 9 (August 28 according to the Russian Julian calendar), 1828. His mother died two years later in giving birth to her fifth child; her death may explain why Tolstoy, who fathered thirteen children, developed a terror of childbirth and in his novels portrayed it as a harrowing experience. Although he could not have remembered much about his mother, he...
(The entire section is 928 words.)
IntroductionLeo Tolstoy is considered one of the greatest novelists of all time. He told sweeping stories of Russian history in War and Peace and focused on the confinements of society in Anna Karenina. Because of these novels, Tolstoy is praised for his realistic portrayal of life, a style that forged a new direction in storytelling. A compassionate egalitarian throughout his life, Tolstoy told stories through the perspectives of the people around him rather than writing through his own privileged experience. He even told one story, “Kholstormer,” through the thoughts of a horse. Toward the end of his life, he wrote The Kingdom of God Is Within You, which presented his ideas of pacifism. “If the world could write its own story,” one critic once said, “it would write like Tolstoy.”
- Tolstoy lost his mother when he was only two years old and his father seven years later.
- Tolstoy was sent to law school but soon returned home. His teachers found him completely unwilling to learn.
- Tolstoy loved to gamble and as a young man often found himself in debt due to his gambling habit.
- Tolstoy rarely hung out with the writers of his time. He found them too liberal and too fascinated with Western (European and American) living styles.
- Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi were inspired by Tolstoy’s philosophy of nonviolence.