Tolstoy, Leo Nikolayevich

views updated


(18281910), Russian prose writer and, in his later years, dissident and religious leader, best known for his novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina.


The fourth son of Count Nikolai Ilich Tolstoy and Princess Maria Nikolaevich Volkonskaya, Tolstoy was born into the highest echelon of Russian nobility. Despite the early deaths of his mother (1830) and father (1837), Tolstoy led the typically idyllic childhood of a nineteenth-century aristocrat. He spent virtually every summer of his life at his family's ancestral estate, Yasnaya Polyana, located about 130 miles (200 kilometers) south of Moscow.

Although he initially flunked entrance exams in history and geography, Tolstoy entered Kazan University in 1844. He was dismissed from the department of Oriental languages after failing his first

semester's final examinations. He reentered the next year to pursue a law degree, and, two years later, knowing that he was about to be dismissed once again, he requested leave for reasons of spoiled health and domestic circumstances. Tolstoy returned to Yasnaya Polyana with grandiose plans for self-improvement, experiments in estate management, and philanthropic projects. Over the next few years, he made little headway on these plans, but he did manage to acquire large gambling debts, a bad reputation, and several bouts of venereal disease. He also began keeping a detailed diary that, with some significant lapses, he kept for his entire life. These journal entries occupy twelve volumes, each several hundred pages long, of his Complete Collected Works.


Tolstoy's first published work, Childhood (1852), appeared in the influential journal The Contemporary, and was signed simply "L.N." The work was enthusiastically praised for the complex psychological analysis and description conveyed by the work's seemingly simple style and episodic, nearly plotless, structure. The five years after the publication of Childhood saw Tolstoy's literary star rise: he published sequels to Childhood (Boyhood [18521864] and Youth [1857]) and a handful of war stories. (Tolstoy had enlisted as an artillery cadet in 1852 and seen action in the Caucasus and later in the Russo-Turkish war). Almost without exception, the stories enjoyed success with both critics and readers.

In 1857 Tolstoy left the army as a decorated veteran and traveled Europe, where he wrote a run of poorly received stories and novellas that were praised for their artistry but sharply criticized for their plainspoken condemnation of civilization and apathy toward the burning questions of the day. In part because of this criticism Tolstoy announced in 1859 his renunciation of literary activity, declared himself forevermore dedicated to educating the masses of Russia, and founded a school for peasant boys at Yasnaya Polyana, which he directed until its closure in 1863. Tolstoy produced few literary works during this time, though he wrote several articles on pedagogy in the journal Yasnaya Polyana, which he published privately. This was not the last time Tolstoy was involved in education. A decade after closing the second Yasnaya Polyana school he began an educational series The New Russian Primer for Reading, and spent nearly two decades working on it. The primer sold more than a million copies, making it the most read and most profitable of Tolstoy's works during his lifetime.


In the fall of 1862 Tolstoy married Sofya Andreevna Behrs, the daughter of a former playmate and a girl half his age. Their marriage of nearly fifty years produced ten offspring who survived childhood and several who did not. Though tumultuous, their early relationship was mostly happy. In 1863 Tolstoy closed his school and commenced work on his magnum opus, War and Peace (18631869). Partly a historical account of the period from 1805 to 1812, partly a novelistic description of quotidian life of fictional characters, and partly a historiographical animadversion on conventional historical accounts, War and Peace was initially perceived as defying generic convention, sharing characteristics with the didactic essay, history, epic, and novel. Perhaps reflecting its chaotic structure, War and Peace portrays war as intensely chaotic. It ridicules the tsar's and military strategists' self-aggrandizing claims that they were responsible for the Russians' victory over la Grande Armée. The sole effective commander was General Mikhail Kutuzov, who in previous historical accounts had been portrayed as an inept blunderer. In the novel he is depicted as the ideal commander inasmuch as his modus operandi derives from the maxim "patience and time"that is, he relies little on plans and military science, and instead on a mix of instincts and resignation to fate. The true heroes of the war, the novel contends, were instead individual Russianssoldiers, peasants, nobles, townspeoplewho reacted instinctively and unconsciously, yet successfully, to an invasion of their homeland.

In 1873 Tolstoy began his second great novel, Anna Karenina (18731878), which has one of the most famous first lines in world literature: "All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The novel's unhappy families are the Karenins, Aleksey and Anna, and the Oblonskys, Stiva (Anna's brother) and Dolly. Anna feels herself trapped in marriage to her boring if devoted husband, and begins an affair with an attractive if dim officer named Vronsky. Aleksey denies Anna's request for a divorce, and she decides defiantly to live openly with Vronsky. Their illicit affair is simultaneously condemned and celebrated by society. Stiva is a charismatic sybarite who philanders through life taking advantage of Dolly's innocence and preoccupation looking after the household. The third, happy couple of the novel, Konstantin Levin and Kitty (Dolly's youngest sister), are unmarried at the beginning of the story. Their inconstant courtship and eventual marriage take place mostly as the background to the drama of the Oblonskys and Karenins. The novel ends with Anna, nearly insane from guilt and stress, throwing herself beneath a train. Levin, now a family man, undergoes a religious conversion when he realizes that his constant preoccupation with questions of life and death, combined with an innate inclination to philosophize, had prevented his seeing the miraculous simplicity of life itself.


Notwithstanding his sensual temperament, Tolstoy had always suffered from sporadic bouts of intense desire to adopt an ascetic's life. While still at work on Anna Karenina, Tolstoy began A Confession (18751884), the first-person narrative of a manvery similar to Levin at the end of Anna Karenina who, despite his success and seeming happiness, finds himself in the throes of depression and suicidal thoughts from which he is rescued by religion. Although the rhetoric of the work suggests a radical conversionTolstoy later described the time as an "ardent inner perestroika of my whole outlook on life"some critics have cast doubt on the fundamentality of the conversion. As early as 1855, for instance, Tolstoy wrote in his diary plans to create a new religion "cleansed of faith and mystery, a practical religion, not promising future bliss, but giving bliss on earth."

Tolstoy spent the 1880s and 1890s developing his religious views in a series of works: A Critique of Dogmatic Theology (1880), A Translation and Unification of the Gospels (1881), What I Believe (1884), and The Kingdom of God Is within You (1893). Most of these works were banned by the religious or secular censor in Russia, but were either printed illegally in Russia or printed abroad and clandestinely smuggled in, thus adumbrating the fate of many Soviet works printed as samizat or tamizdat. The core of Tolstoy's belief is contained in God's commandments in the Sermon on the Mount: do not resist evil, swear no oaths, do not lust, bear no malice, love your enemy. Tolstoy is everywhere and at pains to point out that adherence to these injunctions, especially nonresistance to evil, inevitably leads to the abolition of all compulsory legislation, police, prisons, armies, and, ultimately, to the abolition of the state itself. He described his beliefs as Christian-anarchism. Vladimir Nabokov described them as a neutral blend between a kind of Hindu Nirvana and the New Testament, and indeed Tolstoy himself considered his beliefs as a syncretic reconciliation of Christianity with all the wisdom of the ages, especially Taoism and Stoicism. Following this creed, Tolstoy became a vegetarian; gave up smoking, drinking, and hunting; and partially renounced the privileges of his classfor instance, he often wore peasant garb, embraced physical labor as a necessary part of a moral life, and refused to take part in social functions that he deemed corrupt.

His new life led to increased strife with his wife and family, who did not share Tolstoy's convictions. It also attracted international attention. Beginning in the 1880s, hundreds of journalists, wisdom-seekers, and tourists trekked to Yasnaya Polyana to meet the now-famous Russian writerturned-prophet. Tolstoy, who had always kept up extensive correspondence with friends and family, was inundated with letters from the curious and questing. In his lifetime he wrote 10,000 letters and received 50,000. In 1891 he renounced copyright over many of his literary works. Free of copyright restriction and royalties, publishing houses around the world issued impressive runs of Tolstoy's works almost immediately upon their official publication in Russia. In 1901 his international fame was increased when Tolstoy was excommunicated for blasphemy from the Russian Orthodox Church.

In addition to works on philosophy, religion, and social criticism, Tolstoy penned during the last decades of his life a number of works of the highest literary merit, notably the novella The Death of Ivan Ilich (1882), the affecting story of a man forced to admit the meaninglessness of his own life in the face of impending death; and Hadji Murat (18961904, published posthumously), a beautifully wrought but uncompleted novel set during the Russian imperialistic expansion in the Caucasus. Tolstoy's third long novel, Resurrection (18891899), though inferior in artistic quality to his other novels, is a compelling casuistical account of a man's attempt to undo the wrongs he has committed. Tolstoy also wrote an influential and debated body of art criticism. What Is Art? (18961898) attacked art for not fulfilling its true mission, namely, the uniting of people into a universal collective. His On Shakespeare and Drama (19031904) dismissed Shakespeare as a charlatan.

Increasingly distressed by domestic conflict and angst over the incommensurability of his life with his beliefs, Tolstoy left home in secrecy in the autumn of 1910. His flight was immediately broadcast by the international media, which succeeded in tracking him down to the railway stop Astapovo (later renamed Leo Tolstoy), where he lay dying of congestive heart failure brought on by pneumonia. What could only be described as a media circus was assembled outside the stationmaster's house when Tolstoy died early in the morning of November 7,1910. His final words were "Truth, I love much."

See also: anarchism; golden age of russian literature


Eikhenbaum, Boris. (1972). The Young Tolstoy, tr. Gary Kern. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis.

Eikhenbaum, Boris. (1982). Tolstoi in the Sixties, tr. Duffield White. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis.

Eikhenbaum, Boris. (1982). Tolstoi in the Seventies, tr. Albert Kaspin. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis.

Gustafson, Richard F. (1986). Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger: A Study in Fiction and Theology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Morson, G. S. (1987). Hidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in War and Peace. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Orwin, Donna Tussing. (1993). Tolstoy's Art and Thought, 18471880. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Orwin, Donna Tussing, ed. (2002). Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wasiolek, Edward. (1978). Tolstoy's Major Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, A. N. (1988). Tolstoy. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Michael A. Denner