Leo Tolstoy

Start Free Trial

Leo Tolstoy Biography

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.”

Facts and Trivia

  • 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 customs. 
  • Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi were inspired by Tolstoy’s philosophy of nonviolence.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 2516 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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.


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.


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.


Critical Essays