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Along with Feodor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Turgenev and Vladimir Nabokov, Leo Tolstoy is one of the most important pillars of Russian literature. He is mainly remembered for what is considered by many readers and critics as the greatest novel of all times, War and Peace. He is also the author of other successful novels such as Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. His texts display his unique narratorial style and the strength of his descriptive techniques.
Tolstoy was born in 1828 in the Russian province of Tula to a noble family with considerable wealth. His Tula family estate, named Yasnaya Polyana, was transformed into The Tolstoy National Museum after his death. He was a brother to four other boys in the family. Their mother soon died to be followed by their father just a few years later and the children were confined to members of their father’s family near the city of Kazan. As a young child, Tolstoy had home tutorials by private tutors who introduced him to the basics of reading and writing. He was not any brilliant, though. He rather showed early disinterest in formal education. When he was sent to the University of Kazan in 1843 to study oriental languages and then law, his lack of seriousness made him leave the university before receiving any degree. By that time, Tolstoy decided to go back home and manage his family’s farm.
As a farmer, Tolstoy was very enthusiastic in his work. He treated his serfs as friends and even started teaching them before he built schools for them at a later stage. However, despite his great enthusiasm and vivacity, Tolstoy was not serious in farming either. He was a regular absentee. In fact, he was so fond of partying and socializing, a habit that suited his literary evasions more than it suited the labors of a true farmer. He started writing a diary during his farming years when one of his older brothers suggested that he joins him in the army. In the 1850s, Tolstoy had to take part in the Crimean War between Russia and an alliance of France, Britain and Ottoman Turkey. During his free time, he used to carry on with his diary. He eventually finished his first autobiographical book that he entitled Childhood. The publication of the latter in 1852 was an immediate success and was encouraged by publishers. It was then followed by a second part and a third part respectively entitled Boyhood (1854) and Youth (1857).
Apart from this autobiographical trilogy, Tolstoy also wrote about his experience in the army and the horrors and futility of wars. This was in The Cossacks that he finished later and published in 1862 and also in another trilogy entitled Sevastopol Tales. On Tolstoy’s return home after the end of the Crimean war, he realized that he had already made himself a name that even the Tsar himself had heard about and appreciated. Yet, Tolstoy stubbornly refused to settle in Petersburg and join the Russian literary élite of the time. He rather chose to travel around Europe, visiting London and Paris and meeting with figures like Victor Hugo and Charles Darwin. He is even said to have attended some of the latter’s historical lectures. Tolstoy’s instability soon pushed him to return to Russia, though.
It was in the 1860s that Tolstoy started working on his masterpiece, War and Peace. An important part of it was first published in the famous periodical The Russian Messenger before it was finished in 1869. War and Peace, which was equally an immediate and everlasting success, was characterized by a large cast of characters representing real people that Tolstoy had actually met. Written in a rather epic style, the novel mainly described the horrors of war in concrete details from somebody who had a first-hand experience with killing and bloodshed. Though the story as well as the characters were fictional, the narrative developed in a very realistic way by recounting events from the Napoleonic Wars that took place in the very beginning of the 19th century. The novel was not only a seminal war fiction that would influence many a writer of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it also contained philosophical contemplation of universal issues related to the meaning and use of human conflicts.
After the phenomenal success of War and Peace, Tolstoy started working on his second most popular novel, Anna Karenina. A realistic novel too, the latter was first published in a series of installments in The Russian Messenger (1873-1877). The eponymous protagonist was a married woman belonging to aristocracy who had an affair with another man than her husband. The novel was hailed as a refined work of fiction by such important literary men as Nabokov, Dostoevsky and William Faulkner.
Such a huge success of his novels quickly made of Tolstoy a very rich man. His great wealth helped him realize many of his own dreams as well as the dreams of his young wife and his many children. However, money also became a source of trouble in his household. After the publication of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy was very concerned about his existential quest, trying to find a meaning and an objective for his life, something that he did not find in the Russian Orthodox Church. In a number of publications that followed, he explained his own personalized vision of the Christian faith. These works were “Confession” (1879), The Mediator (1883), What I Believe (1885) and “The Kingdom of God is Within You” (1894). Tolstoy’s revolutionary views about faith and existence soon became popular and had followers not only in Russia, but also in other parts of the world. This influence made Russian authorities keep him under surveillance, mainly because he was critical of Russia’s war policies as well as of the Orthodox Church and of the Tsar’s religious role. Indeed, Tolstoy was among the advocates of the separation between Church and State.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of Tolstoy’s reformed faith, if so to call it, was austerity and charity. He led a life of asceticism and vegetarianism and put his socialist ideals into practice by establishing numerous schools for the poor and funding public meals. He also believed that he had to give most of his fortunes away, which was strongly objected by his young wife. Generally, the latter did not appreciate her husband’s new ideals and lifestyle, which caused serious misunderstandings between the couple towards Tolstoy’s twilight years. By the end, the couple grudgingly came to an agreement according to which part of the wealth went to the wife.
Due to the effect of his war experiences, Tolstoy was also among the pioneers of the non-violent resistance of injustice. He strongly believed in pacifist actions and strategies of struggle. This made him become a source of inspiration for numerous political leaders, including his contemporary Mohandas Gandhi and later Martin Luther King, Jr.
Most of Tolstoy’s later novels bore the influence of his rather new life of a mystic. He held convictions on the universality of faith, believing that “God is love.” He realized the resemblances between different world religious traditions and mysticisms, including Christianity’s various denominations, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. For him, a common feature united all human faiths which was based on universal divine love. In 1886, Tolstoy published another bestselling title, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which also represented a philosophical journey into questions about life, death and faith. Father Sergius, another novel that equally delves into questions of belief, was published in 1898. It was followed by Resurrection in 1989 and by The Living Corpse in 1890.
The year 1901 witnessed Tolstoy’s excommunication from the Church and also his deselection from the Nobel Prize for Literature for uncertain reasons while he was incontestably the most qualified. Despite his extraordinary fame and worldwide success, Tolstoy’s twilight years were marked by numerous problems. He had serious problems with his wife who disapproved of his religious transformation. He was tightly controlled by Russian authorities which feared his growing influence. He was also pursued by journalists and fans who did not allow him to enjoy a peaceful and intimate life. In addition to all this, Tolstoy started to suffer from old age and serious health problems.
In October 1910, Tolstoy decided to go on a pilgrimage, being accompanied by his daughter Aleksandra. Upon taking the train, the 82-year-old man did not stand the hardships of the trip and soon caught pneumonia. He resorted to the stationmaster’s home in Astapovo which was not very far from Tolstoy’s home itself. On November 9th, 1910, Leo Tolstoy passed away to be buried in his old estate Yasnaya Polyana.