Simply Tolstoy

by Donna Tussing Orwin
Simply Tolstoy


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. In Simply Tolstoy, Professor Donna Tussing Orwin introduces us to both Tolstoys—the towering author and the spiritual seeker—and helps us to understand the monumental nature of his achievement.


Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was born at Yasnaya Polyana, his ancestral estate located about 120 miles from Moscow. While he would live and travel in other places over the years, he always considered this family residence in the Russian heartland as his home. His lifelong quest for truth and meaning began while he was a university student. Subsequent experiences as an artillery officer in the Caucasian and Crimean Wars, and time spent in St. Petersburg and Europe, broadened his perspective and profoundly influenced him.

In Simply Tolstoy, Professor Donna Tussing Orwin traces the author’s profound journey of discovery and explains how he mined his tumultuous inner life to create his great works, including War and Peace, Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilych. She shows how these books, both fiction and nonfiction, are not autobiographical in the conventional sense, but function as snapshots of Tolstoy’s state of mind at specific points in his life. The story she tells is, inevitably, intertwined with the story of Russia, a country also in constant search of its identity.

Mixing biography, literary analysis, and history, Simply Tolstoy is a satisfying read for those already familiar with the author’s work, as well as an accessible and thoroughly engaging introduction to a literary giant who was also a tireless and uncompromising seeker of truth.

About the author

Donna Tussing Orwin is Professor of Russian Literature in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847-1880 and Consequences of Consciousness: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. She also edited The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy and Tolstoy Studies Journal. A member of the Royal Society of Canada and recipient of the Pushkin Medal for her work in disseminating Russian culture, Orwin has helped organize conferences in Russia, Canada, and the United States.

About the series

Simply Charly's Great Lives Series offers brief, but authoritative introductions to the world's most influential people—scientists, artists, writers, economists, and other historical figures whose contributions have had a meaningful and enduring impact on our society. Each book, presented in an engaging, accessible and entertaining fashion, offers an illuminating look at their works, ideas and personal lives, and the legacies they left behind.

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“No title could better suit Donna Orwin’s wise and riveting biography than Simply Tolstoy. For the actual man was contradictory and immensely complex; he only dreamed of simplicity. On this massive life, the erudite and compassionate Orwin trains a meticulous lens that keeps out none of the dark but lets through all the light.”

—Caryl Emerson, A. Watson Armour III University Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Princeton University

“This is a little gem, the best introduction to Tolstoy I have ever encountered, and it is more than that. The most accomplished scholar will find important new insights, the sort that one immediately recognizes as both true and profound. Orwin brings Tolstoy to life as a person and as a writer, and she also shows beautifully how the two are linked. The discussions of Tolstoy's views on psychology and the nature of art are especially illuminating.”

—Gary Saul Morson, Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Northwestern University

“Tolstoy’s life, work and thought in 100 pages? It can’t be done! But in Simply Tolstoy, Donna Orwin does it. Providing concise overviews of Tolstoy’s most important literary work in the context of his biography and intellectual historical background, this brief book will appeal to a wide range of readers curious to understand Russia’s great novelist and thinker.”

—Andrew Wachtel, President, American University of Central Asia

“Donna Tussing Orwin’s Simply Tolstoy is both a personal essay and fact-packed critical biography of Tolstoy. Readers are fortunate that Orwin, one of the foremost scholars of Tolstoy, distils her knowledge into an accessible encounter with this giant. She describes her youthful curiosity about Tolstoy’s sincerity and moral goals, concluding that he was a post-Kantian romantic ‘who relied on feeling rather than reason for access to . . . truth,’ and a pacifist who was the ‘greatest war writer of modern times.’ Orwin shows how Tolstoy’s estate Yasnaya Polyana, ‘his little homeland,’ shaped his experience. Reading War and Peace as a ‘founding myth of modern Russia,’ she argues that war is its dominant theme. ‘Horrible as it is war has charm.’ Simply Tolstoy raises questions relevant today, about war, marriage, intimacy, or how to live a moral life, questions that play out against the canvas of actuality: ‘No author,’ writes Orwin, ‘has more thoroughly recreated the interplay between circumstance and free choice than Tolstoy.’”

—Robin Feuer Miller, Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities, Brandeis University

“This engaging and readable little work is an introduction worthy of the master. Donna Orwin, the foremost Western Tolstoy scholar, has spent a lifetime immersed in the writer’s works. She brings to the task a formidable knowledge of philosophy, Russian literature, and history, and a biting critical intelligence. Authoritative, thorough, and stimulating, this book brims with original insights that seasoned readers, as well as Tolstoy’s novices, will appreciate. Take a couple of hours, curl up under your beach umbrella, and read Simply Tolstoy. Then go back and read your Tolstoy, with this powerful little book at your elbow.”

—Carol Apollonio, Professor of the Practice of Slavic and Eurasian Studies, Duke University




Biography, Literary criticism



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Simply Charly


July 25, 2017

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