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...
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