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Famous People:
Leo Tolstoy

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Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

Also: Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy

Most known works:
War and Peace (1863-69)
Anna Karenina (1875-77)

It is impossible to imagine Russian literature without Leo Tolstoy. A Russian novelist, reformer, pacifist and moral thinker, notable for his ideas on nonviolent resistance and his contribution to Russian literature and politics.

Early Life

Leo Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana, in Tula Province, the fourth of five children. The title of Count had been conferred on his ancestor in the early 18th century by Peter the Great. His parents died when he was young, so he was brought up by relatives. Tolstoy studied law and Oriental languages at Kazan University in 1844, but never earned a degree. He returned in the middle of his studies to Yasnaya Polyana, and spent much of his time in Moscow and St. Petersburg.


Tolstoy was one of the giants of 19th century Russian literature. His most famous works include the novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and many shorter works, including the novellas The Death of Ivan Ilych and Hadji Murad (1904). His autobiographical novels, Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1854), and Youth (1857), his first publications, tell of a rich landowner's son and his slow realization of the differences between him and his peasant playmates. Although in later life Tolstoy rejected these books as sentimental, a great deal of his own life is revealed, and the books still have relevance for their telling of the universal story of growing up.

After contracting heavy gambling debts, Tolstoy accompanied in 1851 his elder brother Nikolay to the Caucasus, and joined an artillery regiment. One of Tolstoy's earliest published stories, The Raid, was based on a military manouvre against the Chechen mountain tribesmen, in which Nikolay's unit took part. The story appeared in censored form in 1852. During the Crimean War, recounted in his Sevastapol Sketches, Tolstoy commanded a battery, witnessing the siege of Sebastopol (1854-55). In 1857 he visited France, Switzerland, and Germany. After his travels Tolstoy settled in Yasnaya Polyana, where he started a school for peasant children.

In 1862 he married Sofia Andreevna Bers, and together they had thirteen children. His marriage has been described by A.N.Wilson as one of the unhappiest in literary history, and was marked from the outset by Tolstoy on the eve of his marriage giving his diaries to his fiancee.

His fiction consistently attempts to convey realistically the Russian society in which he lived. The Cossacks (1863) describes the Cossack life and people through a story of a Russian aristocrat in love with a Cossack girl. Anna Karenina (1867) tells parallel stories of a woman trapped by the conventions of society and of a philosophical landowner (much like Tolstoy), who works alongside his serfs in the fields and seeks to reform their lives. Tolstoy not only drew from his experience of life but created characters in his own image, such as Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace, Levin in Anna Karenina and to some extent, Prince Nekhlyudov in Resurrection.

War and Peace is generally thought to be one of the greatest novels ever written, remarkable for its breadth and unity. Its vast canvas includes 580 characters, many historical, others fictional. The story moves from family life to the headquarters of Napoleon, from the court of Alexander I of Russia to the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino. It was written with the purpose of exploring Tolstoy's theory of history, and in particular the insignificance of individuals such as Napoleon and Alexander. Somewhat surprisingly, Tolstoy did not consider War and Peace to be a novel (nor did he consider any of the great Russian fictions written up that time to be novels). This view becomes less surprising if one considers that Tolstoy was a novelist of the Realist school who considered the novel to be a framework for the examination of social and political issues in middle class life. War and Peace (which is really an epic in prose) therefore did not qualify. Tolstoy thought that Anna Karenina was his first true novel, and it is indeed one of the greatest of all realist novels.

After Anna Karenina, Tolstoy concentrated on Christian themes, and his later novels such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1884) and What Then Must We Do? develop a radical anarcho-pacifist Christian philosophy which led to his excommunication from the Orthodox church.

Religious and Political beliefs

Tolstoy had a profound influence on the development of anarchist thought.. Tolstoy believed that a Christian should look inside his or her own heart to find inner happiness rather than looking outward toward the church or state. His belief in non-violence when facing oppression is another distinct attribute of his philosophy. By directly influencing Mohandas Gandhi with this idea Tolstoy has had a huge influence on the nonviolent resistance movement to this day. He believed that the aristocracy were a burden on the poor, and that the only solution to how we live together is through Anarchy. He also opposed private property and the institution of marriage and valued the ideals of chastity and sexual abstinence.

A letter Tolstoy wrote to an Indian newspaper entitled "A Letter to a Hindu" resulted in a long-running correspondence with Mohandas Gandhi, who was in South Africa at the time and was beginning to become an activist. The correspondence with Tolstoy strongly influenced Gandhi towards the concept of nonviolent resistance, a central part of Tolstoy's view of Christianity.

In 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War, Tolstoy condemned the war and wrote to the Japanese Buddhist priest Soyen Shaku in a failed attempt to make a joint pacifist statement.

Tolstoy was an extremely wealthy member of the Russian nobility. He came to believe that he was undeserving of his inherited wealth, and was renowned among the peasantry for his generosity. He would frequently return to his country estate with vagrants whom he felt needed a helping hand, and would often dispense large sums of money to street beggars while on trips to the city, much to his wife's chagrin. He died of pneumonia at Astapovo station in 1910 after leaving home in the middle of winter at the age of 82. Thousands of peasants turned out to line the streets at his funeral.


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