Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was a Russian novelist, social reformer,
pacifist, Christian anarchist, vegetarian, moral thinker and an
influential member of the Tolstoy family.
is widely regarded as one of the greatest of all novelists, particularly
noted for his masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina; in
their scope, breadth and realistic depiction of Russian life,
the two books stand at the peak of realistic fiction. As a moral
philosopher he was notable for his ideas on nonviolent resistance
through his work The Kingdom of God is Within You, which in turn
influenced such twentieth-century figures as Mahatma Gandhi and
Martin Luther King, Jr..
Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana, the family estate situated
in the region of Tula, Russia. He was the fourth of five children
in his family. 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 until he eventually left the University.
Teachers described him as "both unable and unwilling to learn."
returned in the middle of his studies to Yasnaya Polyana and spent
much of his time in Moscow and St. Petersburg. After contracting
heavy gambling debts, Tolstoy accompanied his elder brother to
the Caucasus in 1851 and joined the Russian Army. Tolstoy began
writing literature around this time. In 1862 he married Sofia
Andreevna Bers, who was 16 years his junior, and together they
had thirteen children.
marriage with Sofia Andreevna Bers was marked from the outset
by Tolstoy on the eve of their marriage giving his diaries to
his fiancée. These detailed Tolstoy's sexual relations
with his serfs. Despite so, their early marriage life was comparatively
blissful and idyllic and allowed Tolstoy much freedom to compose
the literary masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina. His
late marriage life has been described by A.N.Wilson as one of
the unhappiest in literary history. His relationship with his
wife deteriorated as his beliefs became increasingly radical.
and Fictional Works
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 Ilyich and Hadji Murad. His contemporaries paid him lofty
tributes: Dostoevsky thought him the greatest of all living novelists
while Gustave Flaubert gushed: "What an artist and what a
Chekhov, who often visited Tolstoy at his country estate, wrote:
"When literature possesses a Tolstoy, it is easy and pleasant
to be a writer; even when you know you have achieved nothing yourself
and are still achieving nothing, this is not as terrible as it
might otherwise be, because Tolstoy achieves for everyone. What
he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested
critics and novelists continue to bear testaments to his art:
Virginia Woolf went on to declare him "greatest of all novelists"
and Thomas Mann wrote of his seemingly guileless artistry—"Seldom
did art work so much like nature"—sentiments shared
in part by many others, including Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov
and William Faulkner.
autobiographical novels, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth (1852–1856),
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.
served as a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment during
the Crimean War, recounted in his Sevastapol Sketches. His experiences
in battle helped develop his pacifism, and gave him material for
realistic depiction of the horrors of war in his later work.
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 (1877) tells parallel stories
of an adulterous woman trapped by the conventions and falsities
of society and of a philosophical landowner (much like Tolstoy),
who works alongside the peasants in the fields and seeks to reform
not only drew from his experience of life but created characters
in his own image, such as Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrei in
War and Peace, Levin in Anna Karenina and to some extent, Prince
Nekhlyudov in Resurrection.
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.
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
many of the great Russian fictions written at 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 nineteenth-century life. War and Peace (which is to
Tolstoy 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.
Anna Karenina, Tolstoy concentrated on Christian themes, and his
later novels such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) and What
Then Must We Do? develop a radical anarcho-pacifist Christian
philosophy which led to his excommunication from the Orthodox
church in 1901.
and political beliefs
Tolstoy's Christian beliefs were based on the Sermon on the Mount,
and particularly on the phrase about turn the other cheek, which
he saw as a justification for pacifism, nonviolence and nonresistance.
Tolstoy believed being a Christian made him a pacifist and, due
to the military force used by his government, being a pacifist
made him an anarchist. He felt very isolated in these beliefs,
suffering on occasion with depression so severe that whenever
he saw a rope he thought of hanging himself, and he hid his guns
to stop himself from committing suicide.
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 nonviolence when facing oppression
is another distinct attribute of his philosophy. By directly influencing
Mahatma Gandhi with this idea through his work The Kingdom of
God is Within You (full text of English translation available
on Wikisource), Tolstoy has had a huge influence on the nonviolent
resistance movement to this day.
believed that the aristocracy were a burden on the poor, and that
the only solution to how we live together is through anarchism.
He also opposed private property and the institution of marriage
and valued the ideals of chastity and sexual abstinence (discussed
in Father Sergius and his preface to The Kreutzer Sonata). Tolstoy's
later work is often criticised as being overly didactic and patchily
written, but derives a passion and verve from the depth of his
austere moral views. The sequence of the temptation of Sergius
in Father Sergius, for example, is among his later triumphs.
relates how Tolstoy once read this passage before himself and
Chekhov and that Tolstoy was moved to tears by the end of the
reading. Other later passages of rare power include the crises
of self faced by the protagonists of The Death of Ivan Ilyich
and Master and Man, where the main character (in Ilyich) or the
reader (in Master and Man) is made aware of the foolishness of
the protagonists' lives.
had a profound influence on the development of anarchist thought.
Prince Peter Kropotkin wrote of him in the article on anarchism
in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica:
naming himself an anarchist, Leo Tolstoy, like his predecessors
in the popular religious movements of the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries, Chojecki, Denk and many others, took the anarchist
position as regards the state and property rights, deducing his
conclusions from the general spirit of the teachings of Jesus
and from the necessary dictates of reason. With all the might
of his talent he made (especially in The Kingdom of God is Within
You) a powerful criticism of the church, the state and law altogether,
and especially of the present property laws.
describes the state as the domination of the wicked ones, supported
by brutal force. Robbers, he says, are far less dangerous than
a well-organized government. He makes a searching criticism of
the prejudices which are current now concerning the benefits conferred
upon men by the church, the state and the existing distribution
of property, and from the teachings of Jesus he deduces the rule
of non-resistance and the absolute condemnation of all wars. His
religious arguments are, however, so well combined with arguments
borrowed from a dispassionate observation of the present evils,
that the anarchist portions of his works appeal to the religious
and the non-religious reader alike.
letter Tolstoy wrote to an Indian newspaper entitled "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. Along with his
growing idealism, he also became a major supporter of the Esperanto
movement. Tolstoy was impressed by the pacifist beliefs of the
Doukhobors and brought their persecution to the attention of the
international community, after they burned their weapons in peaceful
protest in 1895. He aided the Doukhobors in migrating to Canada.
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.
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.
died of pneumonia at Astapovo station in 1910 after leaving home
in the middle of winter at the age of 82. His death came only
days after gathering the nerve to abandon his family and wealth
and take up the path of a wandering ascetic—a path that
he had agonized over pursuing for decades. Thousands of peasants
lined the streets at his funeral.