Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 19th Century)

0111201595-Tolstoy.jpg(Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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, Tolstoy resolved to make amends by placing his talent and means at the disposal of the poor. In consequence, he actively challenged what he perceived to be the hypocrisy of Russia’s ruling institutions. Since the Russian Orthodox church worked closely with the conservative czarist government to maintain the status quo, it too became a target of Tolstoy’s dissatisfactions. After publication of the strongly anticlerical Voskreseniye (1899; Resurrection, 1899), Tolstoy found himself excommunicated, an action he dismissed lightly, having over the years developed a personal Christianity which became the basis of much of his nonfictional writing. His spiritual anxieties and search for an acceptable faith are chronicled in Ispoved (1884; A Confession, 1885). Both Tolstoy’s literary style and his subject matter underwent extreme changes during this time. The works became shorter, using more succinct and simpler language, and became decidedly more opinionated. Fiction largely gave way to social and philosophical commentary, and even the remaining fictional pieces were intricately shaped to transmit Tolstoy’s moral messages. Thus, Smert Ivana Ilicha (1886; The Death of Ivan Ilich, 1887) presents Tolstoy’s view of the proper attitude toward death and dying, and the play Vlast tmy (1887; The Power of Darkness, 1888) warns of the grim consequences engendered by evil thoughts and deeds. Tolstoy justified the political nature of this type of fiction by challenging the very morality of aesthetic detachment. Since even his polemical commentaries adhered to respectable literary standards, he never lost his readership. On the contrary, people of all persuasions debated his works with interest, even fascination.

Tolstoy’s efforts to use his name and fortune in support of favorite causes gave rise to severe disharmony within the Tolstoy family. For long years, the spouses battled over property and copyright privileges. These quarrels led Tolstoy to replace his earlier emphasis on family unity with issues of personal salvation and questions of ethics. He returned to the theme of family in one of his most controversial narratives, Kreytserova sonata (1889; The Kreutzer Sonata, 1890). In this work he denies that marriage is a valid social institution by defining its main purpose as the gratification of lust, detrimental to women and destructive of personal integrity. The major character, Pozdnyshev, murders his wife in a bout of jealousy and proposes the abolition of all sexual acts, even at the expense of humanity’s extinction.

Not all Tolstoy’s later views express such absolute negatives, but most of his mature output was disputations in nature. For example, his treatise Chto takoye iskusstvo? (1898; What Is Art?, 1898) sets forth his revised opinion on the nature and role of literature. He dismisses most art, including his own earlier writings, as immoral and undemocratic, suggesting instead that all art forms be morally instructive and executed in simple, guileless fashion accessible to the multitudes.

Throughout his long life, Tolstoy continued to espouse peaceful settlement of international conflicts. In time, his advocacy of nonresistance made him into a prominent spokesman against war and the death penalty. His regard for the impoverished masses and his many controversial stands brought him worldwide fame. The image of the revered, bearded, aged “repentant nobleman,” holding court and expounding his position on national and global topics while dressed in homemade rural attire, drew diverse crowds from far and wide. His very renown prevented an angry czarist government from treating him harshly. To prevent the total dissolution of his domestic bonds, Tolstoy permitted the family to remain at the imposing country estate, but he himself withdrew to a humble corner of it to observe a rigorously modest life-style. At the age of eighty-two, he decided to cut even these ties and secretly left home to live henceforth entirely according to his convictions. Illness almost immediately forced him to abandon the train journey, and he died at the stationmaster’s house a week later, surrounded by dignitaries and reporters. He lies buried in a distant corner of his estate. His simple, unadorned grave and the mansion, converted into a Tolstoy museum after the Russian Revolution, are a favorite stop for countless visitors and tourists.

Summary

Leo Tolstoy’s impact as both artist and moralist continues undiminished. His fictional works, especially his earlier ones, retain a charm that is proof of his enormous descriptive powers. Yet even these works express personal preferences and values, which the author elucidates at every opportunity. Thus it is, in the final analysis, Tolstoy the teacher, moralist, and public commentator who dominates. Through his doctrine of nonresistance, which he based on the words of Jesus and through which he resisted many inequities of the state, he set examples for similar movements in India under Mohandas Gandhi and the United States under Martin Luther King, Jr. While his pronouncements on behalf of the poor often assume an overly shrill tone, he backed these convictions with solid action. Not only did his income and efforts facilitate great humanitarian projects, from famine relief to resettlement of religious dissenters, but also he himself found no peace until he had adjusted his life-style to fit the humblest. His deliberations on death and ideas on how to cope with it cut through the stilted social conventions of his time to find universal appreciation and application in the twentieth century.

Closely linked to Tolstoy’s thoughts about death and dying was his quest for a new religious attitude. By examining the doctrines and practices of the Russian Orthodox church as well as other religions and finding them incompatible with Jesus’ words, he pointed to alternative approaches, advocating a way of life based on the Gospels, not church dogma. In this, too, he anticipated certain twentieth century movements toward a personal fundamentalism.

Tolstoy also generated opposition. His dogmatic and frequently cantankerous method of conveying his beliefs alienated many potential adherents. In the manner of all prophets, he brooked no contradiction of his scheme of universal ethical improvement. Even so, his many achievements and contributions as major writer, social activist, and moral philosopher remain universally acknowledged.

Bibliography

Benson, Ruth Crego. Women in Tolstoy: The Ideal and the Erotic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. Concentrates on Tolstoy’s changing vision of the role and importance of family life. Suggests that Tolstoy struggled most of his life with a dichotomous view of women, regarding them in strictly black-and-white terms, as saints or sinners. Analyzes the female characters in the major and several minor works in terms of such a double view. An interesting and provocative piece of feminist criticism.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Leo Tolstoy. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of critical essays, encompassing the years 1920-1983. The views expressed give a very good sampling of the wide range of opinions about Tolstoy prevalent among Western critics. Many of these critics assign a prominent place in literary history to Tolstoy, comparing him to, among others, Homer and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Some of the articles deal with specific works; others define Tolstoy’s contributions to nineteenth century European intellectual movements. Limited bibliography.

De Courcel, Martine, Tolstoy: The Ultimate Reconciliation. Translated by Peter Levi. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987. A detailed biography, annotated with selected bibliography, which relies heavily on the notebooks and diaries of Tolstoy and those of his wife, Sophia. Concentrates on Tolstoy’s domestic life but has extensive references to his general public activity. Posits the unique notion that Tolstoy left home at the end of his life in order to return to aesthetic literature.

Greenwood, E. B. Tolstoy: The Comprehensive Vision. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975. For Greenwood, Tolstoy’s diverse strivings were attributable to his belief that art and life could be brought together under one philosophical tenet. Greenwood detects a search for such a unified vision in most of the major writings. Stresses Tolstoy’s contribution to philosophy and religion.

Rowe, William W. Leo Tolstoy. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Concise introduction to Tolstoy’s life and work, with special emphasis on the major novels and later didactic writings. Discusses, briefly, most of Tolstoy’s major concerns. Excellent treatment of individual characters in the major novels. Selected bibliography.

Simmons, Ernest J. Tolstoy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973. Extensive chronological account of Tolstoy’s public activities. Includes social and cultural background on Russia during Tolstoy’s time and discusses the importance of Tolstoy’s theories on religion, society, morality, and literature. Adds comments on Tolstoy’s relevance to the twentieth century and on his international stature. Selected bibliography.

Tolstaia, Andreevna S. The Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy. Edited by O. A. Golinenko et al. Translated by Cathy Porter with an introduction by R. F. Christian. New York: Random House, 1985. Illustrated. This massive personal record of Tolstoy’s wife, detailing their life together, spans the years 1862-1910. Sophia Tolstoy kept an almost daily account of her husband’s opinions, doubts, and plans concerning his literary activity and social ventures as well as of his relationship with other writers and thinkers. The diaries often portray Tolstoy in an unfavorable light, since the spouses were temperamentally incompatible, and she chafed under his domination. She collaborated closely with Tolstoy for many decades, however, and her notes give a fascinating and intimate view of the Tolstoy family and of the extent to which this family served as background for many of the literary episodes.

Wilson, A. N. Tolstoy. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988. A long but immensely readable biography, breezy, insightful, and opinionated, by a prolific and highly regarded British novelist. Illustrated; includes a useful chronology of Tolstoy’s life and times as well as notes, bibliography, and index.

Leo Tolstoy Biography (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

0111201595-Tolstoy.jpgLeo Tolstoy (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 under secret police surveillance from the time of Confession’s publication until his death in 1910. Moreover, the regime tightened its censorship of Tolstoy’s publications. Although it remained relatively easy to control his literary works, most of his political and philosophical tracts were banned outright for many years. Some of his manuscripts were smuggled outside Russia, published abroad, and then smuggled back into the country. Others were circulated through underground presses.

Tolstoy’s sympathies always remained with the peasants and the poor. For them cost and accessibility, more than government, stood in the way of their reading high-quality Russian literature. To remedy this, Tolstoy helped establish a successful publishing house that produced inexpensive booklets by Russian and foreign authors. This effort typified the charity and sense of mission that characterized his later years.

Many aspects of Tolstoy’s philosophy fit within the Marxist-Leninist ideology that was being promoted by the Bolshevists in the early twentieth century. With the success of the Russian Revolution in 1917, seven years after Tolstoy’s death, the new government debated whether to embrace his work or to revile it as bourgeois. On the one hand, Tolstoy’s criticism of the Orthodox church and the czarist regime, as well as his treatises against private ownership of land, put him squarely in line with Marxist doctrine. On the other hand, his preaching of “nonresistance to evil” conflicted with the Bolshevist self-image as a “revolutionary party.” Tolstoy’s deeply held religious beliefs were also rejected by the atheistic state that deemed religion the “opiate of the masses.”

Ultimately, the Soviet authorities permitted publication of Tolstoy’s literary works, and even some of his political ones. By the time of World War II the regime had embraced Tolstoy as a patriot whose words might rally the public to the country’s defense. However, the Soviet regime always made certain to keep a distance from the ideologically incompatible aspects of Tolstoy’s philosophy.

Leo Tolstoy Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

0111201595-Tolstoy.jpg(Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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 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.

Life’s Work

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 that 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 that 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 (1875-1877; 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, Tolstoy resolved to make amends by placing his talent and means at the disposal of the poor. In consequence, he actively challenged what he perceived to be the hypocrisy of Russia’s ruling institutions. Because the Russian Orthodox Church worked closely with the conservative czarist government to maintain the status quo, it too became a target of Tolstoy’s dissatisfactions. After publication of the strongly anticlerical Voskreseniye (1899; Resurrection, 1899), Tolstoy found himself excommunicated, an action he dismissed lightly, having over the years developed a personal Christianity that became the basis of much of his nonfictional writing. His spiritual anxieties and search for an acceptable faith are chronicled in A Confession.

Both Tolstoy’s literary style and his subject matter underwent extreme changes during this time. The works became shorter, using more succinct and simpler language, and became decidedly more opinionated. Fiction largely gave way to social and philosophical commentary, and even the remaining fictional pieces were intricately shaped to transmit Tolstoy’s moral messages. Thus, Smert’ Ivana Il’icha (1886; The Death of Ivan Ilyich, 1887) presents Tolstoy’s view of the proper attitude toward death and dying, and the play Vlast’ t’my (1887; The Power of Darkness, 1888) warns of the grim consequences engendered by evil thoughts and deeds. Tolstoy justified the political nature of this type of fiction by challenging the very morality of aesthetic detachment. Because even his polemical commentaries adhered to respectable literary standards, he never lost his readership. On the contrary, people of all persuasions debated his works with interest, even fascination.

Tolstoy’s efforts to use his name and fortune in support of favorite causes gave rise to severe disharmony within the Tolstoy family. For years, the spouses battled over property and copyright privileges. These quarrels led Tolstoy to replace his earlier emphasis on family unity with issues of personal salvation and questions of ethics. He returned to the theme of family in one of his most controversial narratives, Kreytserova sonata (1889; The Kreutzer Sonata, 1890). In this work, he denies that marriage is a valid social institution by defining its main purpose as the gratification of lust, detrimental to women and destructive of personal integrity. The major character, Pozdnyshev, murders his wife in a bout of jealousy and proposes the abolition of all sexual acts, even at the expense of humanity’s extinction.

Not all of Tolstoy’s later views express such absolute negatives, but most of his mature output was disputational in nature. For example, his treatise What Is Art? sets forth his revised opinion on the nature and role of literature. He dismisses most art, including his own earlier writings, as immoral and undemocratic, suggesting instead that all art forms be morally instructive and executed in simple, guileless fashion accessible to the multitudes.

Throughout his long life, Tolstoy continued to espouse peaceful settlement of international conflicts. In time, his advocacy of nonviolent resistance made him into a prominent spokesperson against war and the death penalty. His regard for the impoverished masses and his many controversial stands brought him worldwide fame. The image of the revered, bearded, aged “repentant nobleman,” holding court and expounding his position on national and global topics while dressed in homemade rural attire, drew diverse crowds from far and wide. His very renown prevented an angry czarist government from treating him harshly. To prevent the total dissolution of his domestic bonds, Tolstoy permitted the family to remain at the imposing country estate, but he himself withdrew to a humble corner of it to observe a rigorously modest lifestyle. At the age of eighty-two, he decided to cut even these ties and secretly left home to live henceforth entirely according to his convictions. Illness almost immediately forced him to abandon the train journey, and he died at the station master’s house a week later, surrounded by dignitaries and reporters. He lies buried in a distant corner of his estate. His simple, unadorned grave and the mansion, converted into a Tolstoy museum after the Russian Revolution, are a favorite stop for countless visitors and tourists.

Influence

Tolstoy’s impact as both artist and moralist continues undiminished. His fictional works, especially his earlier ones, retain a charm that is proof of his enormous descriptive powers. Yet even these works express personal preferences and values, which the author elucidates at every opportunity. Thus, it is, in the final analysis, Tolstoy the teacher, moralist, and public commentator who dominates. Through his doctrine of nonviolent resistance, which he based on the words of Jesus and through which he resisted many inequities of the state, he set examples for similar movements in India under Mahatma Gandhi and the United States under Martin Luther King, Jr. Although his pronouncements on behalf of the poor often assume an overly shrill tone, he backed these convictions with solid action. Not only did his income and efforts facilitate great humanitarian projects, from famine relief to resettlement of religious dissenters, but also he himself found no peace until he had adjusted his lifestyle to fit the humblest. His deliberations on death and ideas on how to cope with it cut through the stilted social conventions of his time to find universal appreciation and application in the twentieth century.

Closely linked to Tolstoy’s thoughts about death and dying was his quest for a new religious attitude. By examining the doctrines and practices of the Russian Orthodox Church as well as other religions and finding them incompatible with Jesus’ words, he pointed to alternative approaches, advocating a way of life based on the Gospels, not church dogma. In this, too, he anticipated certain twentieth century movements toward a personal fundamentalism.

Tolstoy also generated opposition. His dogmatic and frequently cantankerous method of conveying his beliefs alienated many potential adherents. In the manner of all prophets, he brooked no contradiction of his scheme of universal ethical improvement. Even so, his many achievements and contributions as major writer, social activist, and moral philosopher remain universally acknowledged.

Additional Reading

Bayley, John. Leo Tolstoy. Plymouth, United Kingdom: Northcote House, 1997. Criticism and interpretation of Tolstoy’s work.

Benson, Ruth Crego. Women in Tolstoy: The Ideal and the Erotic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. Concentrates on Leo Tolstoy’s changing vision of the role and importance of family life. Suggests that Tolstoy struggled most of his life with a dichotomous view of women, regarding them in strictly black-and-white terms, as saints or sinners. Analyzes the female characters in the major and several minor works in terms of such a double view. An interesting and provocative piece of feminist criticism.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Leo Tolstoy. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A collection of critical essays, encompassing the years 1920-1983. The views expressed give a very good sampling of the wide range of opinions about Tolstoy prevalent among Western critics. Many of these critics assign a prominent place in literary history to Tolstoy, comparing him to, among others, Homer and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Some of the articles deal with specific works; others define Tolstoy’s contributions to nineteenth century European intellectual movements. Limited bibliography.

De Courcel, Martine. Tolstoy: The Ultimate Reconciliation. Translated by Peter Levi. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987. A detailed biography, annotated with selected bibliography, which relies heavily on the notebooks and diaries of Tolstoy and those of his wife, Sophia. Concentrates on Tolstoy’s domestic life but has extensive references to his general public activity. Posits the unique notion that Tolstoy left home at the end of his life in order to return to aesthetic literature.

Orwin, Donna Tussing. Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847-1880. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Reconstructs the personal, philosophical, and historical contexts of the first three decades of Tolstoy’s creative life.

Pinch, Alan, and Michael Armstrong, eds. Tolstoy on Education: Tolstoy’s Educational Writings, 1861-62. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982. Pinch provides an introductory essay on the historical context of Tolstoy’s writings on education, and Armstrong contributes a long essay outlining Tolstoy’s theories on education and mental development.

Rowe, William W. Leo Tolstoy. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Concise introduction to Tolstoy’s life and work, with special emphasis on the major novels and later didactic writings. Discusses, briefly, most of Tolstoy’s major concerns. Excellent treatment of individual characters in the major novels. Selected bibliography.

Tolstaia, Sophia Andreevna. The Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy. Edited by O. A. Golinenko et al. Translated by Cathy Porter with an introduction by R. F. Christian. New York: Random House, 1985. Illustrated. This massive personal record of Tolstoy’s wife, detailing their life together, spans the years 1862-1910. Sophia Tolstoy kept an almost daily account of her husband’s opinions, doubts, and plans concerning his literary activity and social ventures as well as of his relationship with other writers and thinkers. The diaries often portray Tolstoy in an unfavorable light because the couple were temperamentally incompatible, and she chafed under his domination. She collaborated closely with Tolstoy for many decades, however, and her notes give a fascinating and intimate view of the Tolstoy family and of the extent to which this family served as background for many of the literary episodes.

Wilson, A. N. Tolstoy. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. A long but immensely readable biography, breezy, insightful, and opinionated, by a prolific and highly regarded British novelist. Illustrated; includes a useful chronology of Tolstoy’s life and times as well as notes, bibliography, and index.

Bibliography updated by William Nelles

Leo Tolstoy Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 ancestors and that gave him commanding knowledge of the ways of the landowners and peasants who dominate his writings.

Tolstoy’s mother died when he was two, his father when he was nine. He was lovingly brought up by an aunt, Tatyana, who became the model for Sonya in War and Peace, just as his parents sat for the portraits of Nicholas Rostov and Princess Maria in that novel. Aunt Tatyana both built the boy’s confidence and indulged all his wishes, inclining him to extremes beginning in childhood. He largely wasted several years at the University of Kazan in drinking, gambling, and wenching, then joined an artillery unit in the Caucasus in 1851. That same year, he began working on his first, short novel, Childhood, to be followed by Boyhood and Youth. These works are thinly disguised autobiographical novellas, which unfold a highly complicated moral consciousness.

As a writer, Tolstoy is an inspired solipsist, identifying all other humans in examining his flesh and spirit. His art is essentially confessional, representing the strenuous attempt of a complex and exacting man to reconcile himself with himself. His diary, which he began in 1845, reveals what was to be an inveterate thirst for rational and moral justification of his life. It includes a list of puritanical Rules of Life, which he would update during the tormented periods of guilt that followed his lapses. The biographer Henri Troyat called him “a billy-goat pining for purity.” The demands of his senses, mind, and spirit were to contest one another in his character as long as he lived.

Tolstoy served bravely in the Crimean War until 1856, also writing his Sebastopol stories as well as a number of other military tales. When he returned to European Russia, he found himself lionized as his country’s most promising young author. He passed the years 1856-1861 shuttling between St. Petersburg, Moscow, Yasnaya Polyana, and foreign countries. His two trips abroad disgusted him with what he considered the selfishness and materialism of European bourgeois civilization. In 1859, he founded a school for peasant children at Yasnaya Polyana; in 1862, he launched a pedagogical periodical there; both followed a Rousseauistic model that glorified children’s instincts, ignored their discipline, and insisted that intellectuals should learn from the common people, instead of vice versa.

In 1862, the thirty-four-year-old Tolstoy married the eighteen-year-old Sophia Andreyevna Behrs. Family life became his religion, and the union was happy for its first fifteen years, producing thirteen children. He dramatized the stability of marriage and family life in War and Peace (written 1863-1869), which his wife was to copy out seven times. Sophia efficiently managed Yasnaya Polyana, often served as Tolstoy’s secretary, and nursed him through illnesses. She never recovered from the shock she received, however, a week before their wedding, when he insisted she read every entry of his diary, which recorded not only his moral struggles but also seventeen years of libidinous conduct.

Unhappy times followed the composition of War and Peace: the deaths of Aunt Tatyana, a favorite son, and several other relatives; quarrels with Sophia; illness; and depression. Anna Karenina (written 1873-1877) is a more somber and moralizing book, with the certainty of death hovering over it, and with sexual passion both given its due and dramatized as destructive to happiness. The male protagonist Levin’s search for faith is a pale outline of Tolstoy’s own spiritual journey, which next led him to write, between 1879 and 1882, an account of his emotional and ethical pilgrimage entitled Ispoved (1884; A Confession, 1885).

Shortly after finishing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy suffered a shattering midlife crisis that brought him close to suicide. Even though he had much to value—good health, a loving wife, family, fame, wealth, genius—life nevertheless seemed to him a cruel lie, purposeless, fraudulent, empty. For answers, he turned to philosophers, to educated people, and finally to the uneducated but religious peasants whose faith made their lives possible, and he decided to become a religious believer, although rejecting most ecclesiastical dogma.

A Confession is the best introduction to the spiritual struggle that Tolstoy was to wage for his remaining thirty years, which he spent in a glaringly public retirement. Trying to live up to his principles of purity and simplicity, he stripped his personal demands to the barest necessities, dressed and often worked as a peasant, published doctrines of moral improvement in both tracts and tales, signed over to his wife the right to manage his copyrights as well as his property, and renounced (not always successfully) almost all institutions, his title, concert-and theater-going, meat, alcohol, tobacco, hunting, and even sex. He became the high priest of a cult of Christian anarchy, professing the moral teachings of the Gospel and Sermon on the Mount while rejecting the divinity of Christ and the authority of the Church, which excommunicated him for blasphemy in 1901.

Some typical titles of Tolstoy’s didactic last years are V chom moya vera (1884; What I Believe, 1885), “Gde lyubov’, tam i Bog” (“Where Love Is, God Is”) and “Mnogo li cheloveku zemli nuzhno?” (“How Much Land Does a Man Need?”). His best-known narrative was the tendentious three-part novel Resurrection, which is as long as, but far inferior to, Anna Karenina. Its protagonist, Nekhlyudov, experiences remorse after having seduced a peasant woman and expiates his transgression by adopting a moral life. Of greatest interest to literary critics is the book-length essay, Chto takoye iskusstvo? (1898; What Is Art?, 1898), in which Tolstoy rejects all art based on other than gospel ethics and concludes that only the Old Testament’s story of Joseph and primitive popular art will satisfy his standards.

Even in his doctrinaire phase, however, Tolstoy managed to produce great stories and novellas, particularly The Death of Ivan Ilyich, “Khozyain i rabotnik” (“Master and Man”), The Kreutzer Sonata, and Hadji Murad. He also wrote a powerful naturalistic tragedy, The Power of Darkness, which featured adultery and infanticide in a somber peasant setting. By contrast, The Fruits of Enlightenment is a satiric, farcical comedy revolving around the foibles of the gentry and the land hunger of the peasantry.

Tolstoy’s last years were often mired in squabbles with his wife and some of his children, intrigues concerning his legacy, and bitter enmity between Sophia Tolstoy and his chief disciple, Vladimir Chertkov, who became Tolstoy’s close confidant. By 1909, the marriage had become extremely stressful, with Countess Tolstoy repeatedly threatening suicide. On November 9, 1910, Leo Tolstoy, driven to distraction, fled his wife and family; on November 13, he was taken ill with what became pneumonia, at the rail junction of nearby Astapovo, and died in the station master’s bed there on November 20. His death was mourned as a loss in every Russian family.

Leo Tolstoy Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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, especially hunting. He was a gifted linguist, and when he went to Kazan University, he entered as a student of Far Eastern languages but left without a degree. A voracious reader, he inclined toward moral dissatisfaction and self-analysis even as a young man; his diary, which he began on March 17, 1847 (he was then eighteen years old), reveals a constant battle between his reason and his soul.

Once he inherited the family estate, Tolstoy attempted in vain to help the peasants through social reform: He was always at war with the conventions of the world around him. Frustrated by his failure as a reformer, he went to St. Petersburg, then to Moscow, leading the dissipated life of the young noble he was. Despite his considerable social exploits, he managed to earn a degree in literature and philosophy from the University of St. Petersburg. His first work, written in 1851 but not published until many years after its completion, was “A History of Yesterday,” an attempt to re-create in verbal detail a simple day in his life. It illustrates the central preoccupation of his literary existence: How can one transform the reality of events and the fantasy of dreams into words? This initial effort began an outpouring of fiction and nonfiction that dwarfs in volume the writing of any other Russian to this day.

In 1851, Tolstoy entered the army and traveled in the Caucasus—for him, as for many other Russian writers, a paradise on earth. Having become an officer, he became preoccupied with war and the behavior of the soldier during battle; he is said to have looked into the eyes of a soldier firing a gun to attempt a reading of his soul. After the siege of Sebastopol and the fall of the city late in 1855, Tolstoy’s active military career was effectively at an end, although he did not officially resign his commission until September, 1856.

By the time of his marriage in 1862, Tolstoy had already achieved a substantial reputation in Russian literary circles. His wife was Sophia Andreyevna Behrs, the daughter of a court physician; at the time of their marriage, Tolstoy was thirty-four, Sophia only eighteen. Their first son was born in 1863; they were to have thirteen children in all. Happy and inspired, Tolstoy began thinking of a great cyclic novel, which was to become War and Peace. No sooner was it finished, however, than Tolstoy suffered a letdown: He plunged into a reading of the pessimistic German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and he began to moralize on the great issues of life and death. This produced his second great novel, Anna Karenina, clearly a much more pessimistic work than War and Peace. Both books were immensely successful and made him world-famous.

As early as 1870, Tolstoy had begun to study Greek. In the years that followed, he read the Gospels as if for the first time. He began to believe that the Orthodox Church—and Christendom in general—had misinterpreted and distorted the teachings of Christ, and he advanced a revolutionary interpretation of Christianity based on his reading of Christ’s own words. A Confession made him more than a literary figure; he became a prophet of sorts, preaching a religion the kernel of which is nonviolent resistance to evil. His passion for reform led him to visit slums, provide food for starving peasants, and appeal to the czar for mercy for condemned terrorists. He openly associated with social outcasts; his family and relatives came to feel that he had betrayed them, and he was placed under police surveillance.

Concluding that the impulse to do good is killed by civilization and modern culture, Tolstoy asserted the sanctity of the Russian peasant. His outspoken views attracted a following of disciples, among the most prominent of whom was Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov, who was soon managing Tolstoy’s literary affairs. This led to bitter and prolonged conflict between Chertkov and Tolstoy’s wife over the copyrights to Tolstoy’s books. Sophia Andreyevna wanted them for the children, while Tolstoy wished to give them up entirely. Meanwhile, Tolstoy sought to practice what he was preaching: He dressed as a peasant, worked in the fields, and gave up wine, meat, and tobacco, although not sex—despite his assault on sexual love in The Kreutzer Sonata.

Tolstoy’s last full-length novel, Resurrection, was written to raise money to send a pacifist sect, the Dukhobors, to Canada. In the novel, Tolstoy continued his criticism of the Orthodox Church, which finally excommunicated him in 1901. His greatest artistic work of his final years, Hadji Murad, took Tolstoy back to the Caucasus he so loved. When the Revolution of 1905 shook Russia, he publicly condemned both sides. Angry at his wife, he willed control of his literary estate, without his wife’s knowledge, to his daughter Alexandra. His last years were troubled: He had become a sort of world-conscience, and he was tortured by the fact that his life did not live up to his ideals; the almost constant hysteria of his wife added to his misery. Still, he retained a surprising vigor; he was planning a new novel shortly before his death. The manner of his death was indeed characteristic: Sick with pneumonia and confined to bed, he escaped, ostensibly to reach his beloved Caucasus, only to die in the Astapovo railroad station on November 20, 1910.

Leo Tolstoy Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201595-Tolstoy.jpgLeo Tolstoy Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 he was able to establish his own family at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy dreamed of the lost days when his four brothers and sister lived in happiness, following the old Russian traditions. Throughout his life, his estate became an ideal in his mind.

After the death of his parents, Tolstoy lived with his aunt and attended school in Kazan. Aspiring to be a diplomat, he entered the department of Oriental languages at the University of Kazan; the following year, he changed his mind and entered law school. Diplomacy and law were not to be his future careers, however; instead, Tolstoy had begun writing a diary, an activity that he would continue until his death. Boris Eikhenbaum calls the diaries the laboratory in which Tolstoy perfected his writing craft and investigated moral concerns that troubled him. Tolstoy also began a rigorous reading program that included Russian classics, French novels, Charles Dickens, the New Testament, Voltaire, and his favorite, Rousseau.

Tolstoy’s academic career was cut short at age nineteen, when he gained legal control of Yasnaya Polyana. Returning to the family estate, he tried to help the peasants by opening a school for children. His efforts failed because he was spending his time in debauchery. His brother, in an attempt to save him from ruin, convinced him to accompany him to the Caucasus. Tolstoy volunteered to serve in the Russian army and was stationed in a remote Cossack village. Far from his favorite distractions—wine, women, and gambling—he devoted himself to writing and composed his first work, Detstvo (1852; Childhood, 1862), whose publication attracted the attention of the famous Russian novelists Ivan Turgenev and Fyodor Dostoevski. When the Crimean War broke out, Tolstoy fought in the Fourth Bastion at Sevastopol in 1855. Out of his wartime experiences, he wrote Sevastopolskiye rasskazy (1855-1856; Sebastopol, 1887), which depicted war in such realistic, bloody detail that Czar Alexander II gave orders that Tolstoy’s life be protected.

Returning home after the Crimean War, Tolstoy found himself a military and literary hero. At Yasnaya Polyana, he tried to resume his old way of life by improving the lot of his peasants and teaching their children. He also decided that he wanted to marry and found a suitable candidate on a neighboring estate. Sophia Andreyevna Behrs (Sonya) was an eighteen-year-old girl, who, as a child, had memorized passages from Tolstoy’s Childhood and Otrochestvo (1854; Boyhood, 1886). They married on September 23, 1862. In the early days of his marriage, Tolstoy wrote to his Aunt Alexandra, “I didn’t think it was possible to be so much in love and so happy.” After the honeymoon was over, however, the marriage, which lasted forty-eight years and produced thirteen children, nine of whom survived, was tumultuous.

Tolstoy’s greatest literary works, Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) and Anna Karenina (1875-1877; English translation, 1886), were written during the first decade and a half of the marriage. Sonya proved to be a valuable partner in this enterprise. Between childbirths, she not only copied War and Peace seven times but also functioned as a critically astute reader.

After laboring so long on War and Peace, Tolstoy was near collapse by the time its serial publication was completed in 1869. His state of mind was further worsened as he began working on his next novel, Anna Karenina. He was distressed by the theme of the novel, the dissolution of a family, and struggled to finish the work. When the book’s final installment appeared, the work as a whole met with great critical and popular acclaim. Unfortunately, Tolstoy was unable to enjoy the book’s success. During this period, his beloved surrogate mother, Aunt Toinette, and two of his children died. At the age of fifty, at the height of his powers, he entered the darkest period of his life, filled with religious doubts, the fear of death, and spiritual emptiness. Fearing that he might commit suicide, he avoided guns, ropes, and knives.

Ispoved’ (1884; A Confession, 1885) documents his search through philosophy, religion, and the sciences for some answers to his spiritual malaise. He found some solace in the example of simple Russian peasants, who lived a rough, hardworking life close to nature. He also turned to Christianity and devised his own pragmatic five commandments: avoid anger, avoid lust, never take an oath, never resist evil, and love even your enemies.

In 1881, Tolstoy and his family moved to Moscow in order for his children to receive a formal education. Tolstoy was deeply moved by the poverty that he saw in the slums of Moscow and attempted to ameliorate the conditions of the poor. When famine devastated Russia in 1891 and 1892, he organized relief efforts and established centers that fed sixteen thousand people daily. Beginning in 1880, Tolstoy devoted nearly all of his efforts to social, religious, and political causes outside literature. As he became world-famous for his moral stances, disciples were drawn to Yasnaya Polyana. Sonya deeply resented these intruders, whom she called “the dark people.” Sonya’s dissatisfaction with her husband’s withdrawal from family life increased in 1883 when Tolstoy met Vladimir Chertkov, who shared many of his social beliefs and encouraged him in publishing ventures that included producing books cheaply so that the poor could afford to buy them. The publication of Smert’ Ivana Il’icha (1886; The Death of Ivan Ilyich, 1887) briefly convinced Sonya that Tolstoy had not abandoned literature, thus assuring her that he would continue to provide for his family. Nevertheless, in 1891 Tolstoy renounced all the rights to his works published after 1881 and gave away all of his property to his wife and nine children. Sonya was still not satisfied and wanted more of the proceeds from his works.

Tolstoy was also contending with religious and political authorities. In Voskreseniye (1899; Resurrection, 1899), he attacked the Russian Orthodox Church and its leading official, who subsequently excommunicated Tolstoy. In a letter to Czar Nicholas II, titled “Dear Brother,” Tolstoy urged reforms, warning that the Russian people were on the verge of rebellion. In “The Significance of the Russian Revolution,” Tolstoy recommended that Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin abolish the private ownership of property.

The end of Tolstoy’s life was marred by the struggles of Sonya and Chertkov over his will and diaries. Wakened one night to hear his wife rifling through his papers in his study, Tolstoy decided to flee his home. He wrote his wife a letter thanking her for the forty-eight years of married life that they had shared and asking for mutual forgiveness. In his flight, pneumonia forced him to halt at the railroad station at Astapovo, Russia. He died in the stationmaster’s house on November 20, 1910.

Leo Tolstoy Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 after his death.

Leo Tolstoy Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201595-Tolstoy.jpgLeo Tolstoy Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 drew on accounts of her to create Princess Marya in War and Peace. His father, who died when Leo was nine years old, served as the model for Nikolay Rostov in that work, and many of Tolstoy’s other relatives and acquaintances provided him with characters for his fiction, as he himself was the model for Levin in Anna Karenina.

Tolstoy’s youth was carefree and dissipated. In 1846 he enrolled in Kazan University to prepare for a diplomatic career but left after a year of studying Oriental languages. He would later become adept at Greek (which he claimed he taught himself in three months), Hebrew, German, French, and English, all of them represented in his fourteen-thousand-volume library. Despite a rigorous program of self-improvement that he established for himself after leaving the university, he spent the next four years as a typical Russian aristocrat (Tolstoy was a count), traveling between his country estate and the cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Though he eventually abandoned this social milieu, his experiences in high society allowed him to paint vivid portraits of its members.

Bored, in 1851 he joined the army and served in the Caucasus and in the Crimean War. He would reject this life, too, but he learned at first hand what war was like. In War and Peace, he presents the Battle of Austerlitz not as a grand panorama of clashing armies and heroic encounters but rather from the limited perspective of a soldier engaged in the action. As an officer, he would also have met characters like Count Vronsky and his circle, so well depicted in Anna Karenina. More immediately, he used his observations to create a series of sketches that appeared as Sebastopol; many of these stories contrast the quiet bravery of common soldiers with the vainglorious posturing of their officers.

Resigning his commission in 1856, Tolstoy turned his attention to improving the lot of the peasants who lived on his land, setting up a school, publishing textbooks, and traveling to Western Europe to observe teaching methods. In 1862 he married the eighteen-year-old Sofia Andreyevna Bers, sixteen years his junior. The next decade and a half, in which he created his two monumental novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, would be the happiest and most productive of his life. In his later years, he became increasingly concerned with religion, pacifism, and social issues, writing a large number of tracts attacking the established church, war, and injustice. Like his character Levin, he worked alongside the peasants. He also made his own shoes, became a vegetarian, and refused to allow others to serve him. He wrote his novel Resurrection to raise money for the Dukhobars, a group of pacifists seeking to emigrate to Canada. Like much of his writing in this period, the novel attacks the Russian Orthodox church, which excommunicated him in 1901. Several times he attempted to abandon the trappings of aristocracy. In November, 1910, he made the last of these efforts, dying in a railway station in Astapovo on his way to his beloved Caucasus.

Tolstoy not only produced two of the world’s greatest novels but also revolutionized the genre. In 1851 he tried in “A History of Yesterday” to re-create a typical day in his life. Rejecting the Romantic fiction popular at the time, he sought to describe life in all of its contradictions and complexity while at the same time depicting the psychological motivations of his characters as they revealed themselves through subtle gestures and simple expressions. From this literary experimentation came works of epic proportions and epic stature. War and Peace contains more than 550 characters, at least 50 of them significant; Anna Karenina treats 143, and again some 50 play important roles in the work. Both are social histories, the one of the period 1805 to 1814, the other of the 1860’s, and while Tolstoy focuses on the aristocratic world he knew so intimately, he shows a keen understanding of the common people as well. In his work, Tolstoy combines psychological probing with the novel of manners on a grand scale. Although he writes in the third person as an omniscient author, he allows his characters to reveal themselves.

Tolstoy’s preeminence as a writer of fiction is unquestioned. John Galsworthy and E. M. Forster are only two of the many who have called War and Peace the greatest novel ever written, and another critic has commented that if God wrote a novel, it would be Anna Karenina. More problematic is Tolstoy’s position as a reformer. Yet even here he has been influential. In his own day, he was regarded as the conscience of the nation as he pleaded for the lives of revolutionaries condemned to death, and Mahatma Gandhi found his works deeply inspirational. Though Tolstoy often adopted extreme positions, he has come to be recognized as a serious thinker, even if his religious and social tracts pale before the brilliance of his novelistic achievement.

Leo Tolstoy Biography

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Leo Tolstoy

Introduction

Leo 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.”

Essential Facts

  1. Tolstoy lost his mother when he was only two years old and his father seven years later.
  2. Tolstoy was sent to law school but soon returned home. His teachers found him completely unwilling to learn.
  3. Tolstoy loved to gamble and as a young man often found himself in debt due to his gambling habit.
  4. 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.
  5. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi were inspired by Tolstoy’s philosophy of nonviolence.

Leo Tolstoy Biography (Epics for Students)

Leo Tolstoy was born to an upper-class Russian family on September 9, 1828, at the family's estate in Tula province, Russia. His father was...

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Leo Tolstoy Biography (Short Stories for Students)

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), also transliterated as Lev or Lyof Nikolayevich Tolstoi, spent most of his life on his family estate near Moscow...

(The entire section is 537 words.)