LEO TOLSTOY (September 9th, 1828 – November 20th, 1910)
Russian novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, and philosopher
- His two longest novels, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877) are considered to be literary masterpieces.
- A social reformer, he inspired scores of disciples to follow his teachings about morality, religion, and pacifism.
Generally recognized as one of the greatest writers of all time, Leo Tolstoy led a life that was largely uneventful outwardly, while inwardly it was marked by deep emotions and a constant quest for meaning. This ferment was reflected not only in his journey from a privileged member of the nobility to a pacifist and ascetic, but also in his writing, which includes two of the world’s best-known novels.
Leo Tolstoy was born in Tula Province, Russia, the fourth son of Princess Maria Volkonskaya and Count Nikolay Tolstoy. They lived south of Moscow in an ancestral estate in Yasnaya Polyana. In 1830, a fifth child was born, a daughter named Mariya, but Princess Maria died giving birth. A distant cousin of Count Nikolay, Aunt Tatyana, took over childrearing duties, as she had already been living with the family.
Leo, Mariya, and their brothers, Nikolay, Sergey, and Dmitriy, grew up in the luxury of a high-class household; surrounded by gardens and orchards, they had many games, events, books, visitors, and horses to teach and entertain them. The siblings had German and French tutors until 1836 when they moved to Moscow for education.
In 1837, their father passed away as well, and Aunt Tatyana became their guardian. However, she too died soon after, and the boys were passed on to Aunt Aline, their father’s sister. These deaths, which also included Tolstoy’s grandmother Pelagaya, caused young Leo to question his spirituality. In 1841, after Aline passed away, 13-year-old Tolstoy and his brothers moved to the city of Kazan to live with their Aunt and Uncle Yushkof.
At 16, Tolstoy began studying at the University of Kazan, enrolling in an Oriental languages program. He studied Latin, Arabic, Turkish, English, German, and French, along with geography, history, literature and religion, but eventually switched to Law. He wasn’t, however, a good student. Leo moved out of his uncle’s house to live with his brothers, and the siblings became frequent participants at social events, balls, and galas. They also drank, gambled, and visited brothels. In 1847, Leo dropped out of university.
Tolstoy moved back to his parents’ estate but pursued no occupation other than society events and drinking. He kept a diary, which included details of his sexual misconducts and the illegitimate child born to one of his servants. He attempted to set the estate affairs in order and become a farmer, but he was too often away on social trips to Tula or Moscow.
In 1851, Leo joined his brother Nikolay in the army. They traveled around from the Caucus Mountains to the Ukraine, where they fought in the Crimean War in 1855. During his time as a soldier, Tolstoy produced his first work, an autobiographical novel Childhood (1852), which was published in a literary journal, The Contemporary. He also began working on The Cossacks(1862) and The Sevastopol Tales series. Childhood became very popular, and during the Crimean War Tolstoy composed its sequel, Boyhood (1854), completing the final piece of the trilogy, Youth, in 1857.
When the war was over, Tolstoy moved to St. Petersburg. Active in literary circles, he corresponded with Russian intellectuals such as Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Nekrasov, and Ivan Goncharov, and attended lectures by Gertsen and Charles Darwin in Europe. He lived in Paris for a time, gambling. When he ran out of money, he went home to Russia where he began writing his 12-part series, Yasnaya Polyana.
In 1862, Tolstoy married Sofya Bers, the daughter of a doctor. They were reportedly in love, even though Tolstoy showed his new bride the diary documenting his long list of prior sexual encounters. Eventually, the marriage soured and, according to those who had known the couple, they developed a love-hate relationship, which nevertheless lasted nearly half a century. (It is not known whether Tolstoy’s famous opening line from Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” was based on his own personal life).
Still, despite their turbulent relationship, Sofya acted as her husband’s literary secretary and contributed to War and Peace (1863-69) and Anna Karenina (1873-77). She organized rough drafts, copied manuscripts, and helped schedule events. Tolstoy also worked on Confessions (1879), his first piece about Christianity, socialism, and spirituality—principles he embraced after a religious awakening he experienced in the 1870s. It centered on the Sermon on the Mount and an interpretation of Jesus’ ethical teachings. The book was banned in Russia, as was a number of Tolstoy’s later works.
Tolstoy’s religious and philosophical doctrines, which stressed a simple, ascetic life and a passive resistance to autocracy, led to the formation of a like-minded social movement called Tolstoyism, He worked with immigrants, denounced his aristocratic roots, and became a farmer. Pacifists praised his non-fiction work, The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894), which describes his thoughts about a society based on fundamental principles of Christianity; the book reportedly influenced Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent stance.
By 1900, Tolstoy was publishing criticisms of the Tsar that demanded the separation of Church and State. He was expelled from Orthodox Christianity, which led to severe depression and suicidal tendencies. In 1902, he wrote to the Tsar demanding social justice as the only prevention for civil unrest, and two years later, during the Russian-Japanese War, he composed a condemnation of war. In 1910, he left home to pursue asceticism, but caught pneumonia on the train and passed away that same year.