Leo Tolstoy - Great Russian Novelist

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Russian: Лев Николаевич Толстой)

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy or Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (September 9, 1828 - November 20, 1910) is widely seen as one of the greatest European novelists of all time. His "War and Peace" has been called the greatest novel ever written.

Leo Tolstoy was born in Yasnaya Polyana, his family estate in the region of Tula in Central European Russia. His parents died when he was a little child, so he and his siblings were brought up by relatives.

Tolstoy was educated at home by German and French tutors. In 1843 he entered Kazan University to study Oriental languages and later took up law. But he didn't enjoy the studies and his teachers described him as both unable and unwilling to learn. As a result, Tolstoy left the university in 1847 without taking his degree. He returned to the family estate and began spending a large amount of time in Moscow and St. Petersburg. During this time he first began making amazingly honest diary entries, a practice he maintained until his death. Inspired by the 13 virtues Benjamin Franklin spelled out in his autobiography, Tolstoy created a list of rules by which he aspired to live. He also kept an account of all his moral failures.

In 1851, Tolstoy joined the army together with his elder brother Nikolay and spent almost three years in a Cossack village. At that time he began writing and published his first short novel "Childhood." He sent his novel to the Contemporary, the most popular literary journal of his day. When the novel was published Tolstoy immediately became popular. He then began writing The Cossacks (finished in 1862), an account of his life in the outpost.

In 1853 the Crimean War against the Ottoman Empire began. Driven by patriotism and dreams of battlefield glory, Tolstoy volunteered to the frontline. As he directed fire from the Fourth Bastion, the hottest area in the conflict for a long while, Tolstoy managed to write Boyhood, the second part of his autobiographical trilogy. His description of the horrors of war in "The Sevastopol Sketches"; earned him further popularity.

After leaving the army in 1857, Tolstoy traveled to Europe. He became interested in the European educational system. Upon his return, Tolstoy founded a school for peasant children in Yasnaya Polyana, where he himself taught.

In 1861, the serfdom was abolished in Russia. Tolstoy took the post of conciliator in Yasnaya Polyana but was soon fired because he tended to take the side of the peasants in all disputes. The following year he married Sophia Andreyevna Bers, a woman 16 years younger than him. The first decade of their marriage was very happy. Sofia bore him thirteen children and became his personal secretary. For example, she rewrote the complete manuscript of "War and Peace" 8 times, often using a magnifying glass to decipher Tolstoy's handwriting on every bit of space on the page, including the margins.

Tolstoy's major work, "War and Peace," appeared between the years 1865 and 1869. It is an epic tale of several families who lived at the time of Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia. Balls and battles, birth and death, all were described in amazing detail.

His other masterpiece, "Anna Karenina"; (1873 - 1877), also created a sensation upon its publication. The novel was based partly on events that had occurred on a neighboring estate, where a nobleman's rejected mistress had thrown herself under a train. The novel is a true quest for love, family happiness and the meaning of life. Tolstoy's family continued to grow, and his royalties (money earned from sales) were making him an extremely rich man.

But after finishing "Anna Karenina" Tolstoy faced a profound crisis. He desperately questioned faith, science, art, justice and marriage. He came to the conclusion that he didn't deserve his wealth, so he began working together with the peasants. His theory of non-violent resistance to evil had a profound impact on many people around the Globe, including Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the U.S.A. At the same time, his sharp criticism of Christian dogmas and state institutions resulted in him being excommunicated from the Orthodox Church.

His marriage also cracked. The more of a saint he became in the eyes of the world, the more of a devil he seemed to his wife. He wanted to give his wealth away, but she would not hear of it. Finally in 1884 Tolstoy assigned to his wife the copyright to all his works written before 1881. Their relationship at the time was described as one of the unhappiest in literary history.

Unable to endure the quarrels at home he left home in October 1910, accompanied by his youngest daughter, Alexandra, and his doctor. But the trip proved too much for his health. He died in a remote station on November 9, 1910. He was buried at Yasnaya Polyana.

Besides influencing the minds of spiritual seekers around the globe, Tolstoy also shaped the modern literature. He influenced such writers as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov and many others.


About the author

Back to blog