Leo Tolstoy – A Brief Biography (1828-1910)
Leo Tolstoy. F. W. Taylor, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Leo Tolstoy was perhaps one of the greatest (if not the greatest) writers and thinkers to have ever lived.
Tolstoy is the author of classics such as War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Illych. Through his works, he has influenced not just Russian literature but world literature.
His philosophy and ideas have inspired countless writers, artists, activists, thinkers, and political and social leaders across the world.
In this biography, we will take a brief look at Tolstoy’s life and legacy.
So let’s get on with it now!
Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, commonly referred to in English as Leo Tolstoy, was born on 9th September 1828 at his family estate, Yasnaya Polyana.
Yasnaya Polyana came under the Tula Governorate of the Russian Empire. It was situated 120 miles South of Moscow and 7.5 miles Southwest of Tula.
Tolstoy was the fourth of five children of Count Nikolai Ilyich Tolstoy, a war veteran of the Patriotic War of 1812, and Countess Mariya Tolstaya.
The Tolstoys were a well-known aristocratic family of old Russian nobility.
When Tolstoy was only two years old, his mother died. And when he was nine, his father passed away too.
And so Tolstoy and his siblings were brought up by relatives.
Leo Tolstoy received his early education at home, where he was taught by German and French tutors. This was one of the reasons why Tolstoy was fluent in multiple languages, including French and German.
In 1844, aged 16, Tolstoy enrolled at Kazan University in order to study oriental languages and then later on the law.
But Tolstoy was not suited for law or university in general, and he left the university before completing his studies.
It is said that his teachers at the university thought him to be both unable and unwilling to learn.
After leaving the university, Tolstoy returned to Yasnaya Polyana. There he led a leisurely lifestyle, gambling and spending much of his time and money in Tula, Saint Petersburg, and Moscow.
The Beginning of Tolstoy’s Career as a Soldier and Writer
In 1851, after accumulating huge gambling debts and failing to successfully run his family estate, Tolstoy went along with his older brother to the Caucasus Mountains and enrolled in the army.
During this time, Tolstoy began writing his first novel, an autobiographical work called Childhood. The novel was a fictionalized account of his own childhood and was published in 1852 in a well-known literary journal of the time called The Contemporary.
In the army, Tolstoy served as an artillery officer during the Crimean War. He was present in Sevastopol during the famous siege which lasted for 11 months in 1854-55.
Tolstoy also took part in the Battle of the Chernaya, which was fought on August 16, 1855, by the Chyornaya River, during the Crimean War.
Throughout the war, Tolstoy continued to write. He managed to complete his second novel called Boyhood, which was also an autobiographical work and the sequel to his first novel Childhood.
Boyhood was published in 1854, in a literary journal called Sovremennik.
And in 1855, three short stories written by Tolstoy, based on his experiences during the siege of Sevastopol, were published as Sevastopol Sketches.
During the war, Tolstoy was recognized for his bravery and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. But in spite of this, he grew to hate the death and destruction caused by war.
This newly discovered aversion to war would greatly influence Tolstoy’s future writings.
When the Crimean War came to an end in 1856, Tolstoy left the army and returned to Russia.
First Trip Around Europe
After returning from the war, Tolstoy undertook a trip around Europe in 1857.
He visited Paris, where he witnessed a public execution. The event was a traumatic and disturbing experience for him and he would remember it for the rest of his life.
The trip completely changed Tolstoy’s philosophy on life. He began to despise wars, killings, and violence in any other form. He also began to distrust Governments.
In a letter to his friend, Tolstoy declared that he would never again serve any Government in any capacity, as he believed that Governments were a conspiracy designed to exploit and corrupt the citizens.
Tolstoy’s outlook became more non-violent and spiritual in nature and he began to consider himself an anarchist.
The same year, Tolstoy’s third novel in his autobiographical trilogy, Youth, was published in the Sovremennik literary journal.
Second Trip Around Europe
In 1860-61, Leo Tolstoy undertook another trip around Europe.
This trip would also have a great impact on Tolstoy’s life.
During the trip, Tolstoy met Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who was a French anarchist living in exile in Brussels. The two men discussed politics, the importance of education, and the printing press in great detail.
The meeting with Proudhon greatly influenced Tolstoy’s political philosophy.
On this trip, Tolstoy also met another famous personality, the French writer Victor Hugo. This meeting deeply influenced his literary direction.
Tolstoy read Victor Hugo’s newly finished masterpiece, Les Miserables, which served as an inspiration for his own masterpiece, War and Peace.
The similarities in the battle scenes and in other places clearly show the influence of Victor Hugo’s novel on Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Establishment of Schools
On returning to Russia after his European trip, Leo Tolstoy established thirteen schools for the children of peasants, who had been emancipated from serfdom after the Emancipation Reform of 1861 (the reform officially abolished serfdom throughout the Russian Empire).
The schools that were established by Tolstoy are now considered to be the first example of democratic education. They adhered to the philosophy of freedom from adult coercion and believed that the school must be made to suit the child and not the other way around.
Unfortunately, Tolstoy’s experiments with education were short-lived. The schools were eventually shut down, but their philosophy continues to be prevalent even to this day.
In 1862, after the death of his brother Nikolay, Leo Tolstoy married Sophia Andreevna Behrs, also known as Sonya.
Sonya was the daughter of a court physician, and sixteen years younger than Tolstoy.
From the get-go, their marriage was marked by sexual passion. Tolstoy handed over to Sonya all his diaries that detailed his sexual exploits in the past. He even revealed to her the fact that one of the servants on the estate had borne him a son.
But these revelations did not prevent the couple from enjoying a happy married life at the beginning.
Sonya helped Tolstoy in preparing the final drafts of his novels, including War and Peace and Anna Karenina. She acted as his editor, financial manager, and secretary.
Sonya would constantly write those novels time and again, while Tolstoy continued to edit them in order to have a final draft ready for the publisher.
The couple went on to have thirteen children over the course of their married life. Out of those thirteen children, only eight would survive childhood.
Later on in life, their marriage turned unhappy and sour. As Tolstoy’s beliefs and philosophy on life became more and more radical, his relationship with Sonya deteriorated.
Radical Changes in Tolstoy’s Beliefs
From the late 1860s onward, Tolstoy’s beliefs began to change drastically, becoming even more spiritually radical.
He was influenced by the works of the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, who advocated that ascetic morality was the true spiritual path for the upper classes.
After reading the works of Schopenhauer, Tolstoy decided to live a life of poverty and complete self-denial, believing that to be the path to holiness and eternal salvation.
Tolstoy became opposed to private ownership of land. He willingly decided to let go of all personal pleasures and undergo personal trials in the pursuit of some greater good.
He was also influenced by the teachings of Jesus Christ, especially by the Sermon on the Mount. He began to believe in the ideal of turning the other cheek, which basically meant the refusal to respond to evil or injury with revenge and violent force.
The Sermon on the Mount reiterated Tolstoy’s belief in the doctrine of nonviolence and pacifism.
He laid down these beliefs and ideas of his in his book The Kingdom of God Is Within You. In the book, Tolstoy completely rejects physical violence and advocates non-violent resistance to evil and injustice.
The book had a great influence on young Mahatma Gandhi, inspiring him to launch nonviolent movements for justice and independence. And through the actions of Gandhi, Tolstoy’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance has now spread all across the world.
During this time, Tolstoy also became opposed to the institution of marriage, and he began to believe in the virtue of sexual abstinence.
His subsequent works like The Kreutzer Sonata and Father Sergius reflected these ideals of his.
Famous Fictional Works of Tolstoy
Some of the most famous fiction works of Leo Tolstoy are now considered classics of world literature.
Novels like Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and novellas like The Death of Ivan Illyich and The Kreutzer Sonata have inspired writers and readers across the world.
In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy tells the story of an adulterous woman trapped by the conventions of society, and of a landowner who works along with the peasants in his fields and tries to reform their lives.
In The Cossacks, Tolstoy describes the life of the Cossack people, with the help of a story of a Russian aristocrat who falls in love with a Cossack girl.
In his masterpiece, War and Peace, Tolstoy explores Russian society and the significance of figures such as Napoleon and Alexander I of Russia.
And in his novel Resurrection, Tolstoy tries to expose the injustice of man-made laws and the hypocrisy of the organized and institutionalized Church.
These works realistically depict and highlight the social and psychological conditions of the society in which he lived. They portray the moral and social dilemmas that human beings face in their daily lives and the consequences thereof.
In 1910, aged 82, Leo Tolstoy died of pneumonia at Astapovo railway station, after a day’s train journey south.
With his death, the world lost one of its most influential and important writers and thinkers of all time.
Tolstoy now rests at his family estate, in Yasnaya Polyana.
Since his death, Leo Tolstoy has been widely regarded as one of the greatest writers and thinkers to have ever lived.
His philosophy and ideas have influenced, and still continue to influence, religious, political, and social leaders and thinkers.
Even though Tolstoy considered himself to be a Christian anarchist, his ideas have influenced many great socialist thinkers as well.
Tolstoy’s advocacy of our society returning to subsistence farming and community living found resonance with other well-known thinkers and leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi.
On the literary front, Leo Tolstoy enjoyed widespread popularity and respect even during his own lifetime.
He was respected and revered by his peers and by subsequent writers alike.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekov, and Maxim Gorky admired Tolstoy’s works and recognized his importance in the world of literature.
Subsequent writers such as Mathew Arnold, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and Virginia Woolf extolled Tolstoy for his brilliant writing and considered him to be one of the greatest novelists of all time.
Tolstoy was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature on five different occasions, in 1902, 1903, 1904, 1905, and 1906. And he was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize on three different occasions, in 1901,1902, and 1909.
Surprisingly, he never won the prize on any occasion.
Even though Leo Tolstoy is not with us anymore, his thoughts, ideas, and beliefs continue to be propagated and spread across the world. They continue to influence mankind.
And it is through these thoughts, ideas, and beliefs that Tolstoy continues to live among us.
And we are better off because of it.