Count Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) is sometimes regarded a Russia's greatest novelist. A friend of Gandhi and Edison, he was admired as a storyteller, prophet and moral conscience of the Russian people. His social and moral ideals had an impact around the globe. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, June 1986]
Tolstoy is crediting with producing history's longest and greatest novels— War and Peace and Anna Karenina—which captured the immensity of the Russian land the depth and complexity of its society and people.
Tolstoy came from an aristocratic family yet felt close to his serfs and later in life maintained he was weak and even though he lived like a monk. Tolstoy tried to free his serfs before it became required for nobles to do that. Tolstoy's characters have been described as "both inevitable and unpredictable, universal and private and because, while they are certainly their own individuals, we are always aware of who their maker is."
Tolstoy was not an easy man to live with. Guilt over his past deeds and paralyzing fear of death drove Tolstoy to near madness and thoughts of suicide many times. At various times he threatened to poison himself, failed suicide with a toy gun, was publicly accused of homosexuality and secretly read his wife's dairy.
Tolstoy has been accused of not having a sense of humor.
Tolstoy's Early Life and Misspent Youth
Tolstoy was born on September 9, 1828 (August 28 on the Julian calendar) into a wealthy, serf-owning family in his mother's ancestral home in the village of Vasnaya Polyana in the central Russian province of Tula. His father was a count and his mother was a princess. Tolstoy's mother died giving birth to a daughter when Tolstoy was two. His father died when he was nine. Friends and relatives took care of Tolstoy and his brothers and sisters until they were taken to Kazan in 1841 to live with an aunt.
Tolstoy displayed intelligence and imagination at an early age. In 1836, one his tutors predicted he would be a famous writer. He entered the University of Kazan in 1844 and, after failing many of his courses he withdrew at the age of 19. As a student, Tolstoy admired the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who Tolstoy praised for inspiring a sense of rebellion and distrust of religion in him.
Tolstoy's earliest memory, at the age of five, was of pushing a woman off of a porch for rejecting his advances. After he left university he lived like a rogue. He drank and gambled excessively and "rioted with all sorts of loose women." Tolstoy' caroused the bars of Moscow with gypsies, lost his family’s 32-room mansion in a card game, and was often taking medicine for either gonorrhea or syphilis.
Describing his misspent youth, Tolstoy later wrote in his dairy, "I fought duels to slay others, I lost at cards, wasted the substance wrung from the sweat of peasants, punished the latter cruelly, and deceived men. Lying, robbery, drunkenness, violence, murder...all committed by me, not one crime omitted."
Tolstoy’s rogue period came to an end in 1841 when he joined the army and went to the Caucasus with his brother. In 1854 he was commissioned as an officer and fought in the Crimean War. His soldiers said,“He was a real master in cursing. Sometimes he would curse so ornately that it was impossible to repeat it after him.”
Tolstoy's Troubled Marriage and Family
Tolstoy married 18-year-old Sonya Andreyevna Behrs, the vulnerable but intelligent daughter of wealthy family friends. The 34-year-old count proposed to her only weeks after they began courting. "Mother of God, help me," he wrote in his dairy. "I'm in love as I never believed it possible to love. I'm mad, I'll shoot myself if it goes on like this." "A man goes through earthquakes, epidemics, the horror of disease, and all sorts of spiritual torments," Tolstoy told Maxim Gorky, "but the most agonizing tragedy he ever knows always has been, and always will be, the tragedy of the bedroom."
Both Tolstoy and Sonya were avid diary writers. To entertain themselves. They used to read each other's most personal entries and comment on them. Shortly before their wedding Tolstoy insisted that Sonya read his explicit bachelor diaries, in which he detailed the years of drinking, gambling and womanizing. He also related his obsession with a peasant girl on his estate who bore him a son.
The sheltered, young Sonya was shocked by these revelations. She went through with the wedding three days later but she never forgave him. "I remember how shattered I was by those diaries," she later wrote in her diary. "It was very wrong for him to do this. I wept when I saw what his past had been."
Tolstoy and Sonya spent 48 years together at the Tolstoy family estate in Yasnaya Polyana, where the peasant Tolstoy had an affair with continued to work. Tolstoy and his wife kept separate bedrooms. Once after her children told her that her husband was waiting for her, Sonya wrote, "Innocent lips transmit anything but innocent words. I know what they mean and don't like it.”
Tolstoy and his wife educated their children at home. Tolstoy enjoyed sitting around in the evening with his family drinking tea from a samovar. Tolstoy and Sonya had 16 children. But it wasn’t all love and kisses. Tolstoy once wrote that he found his children "so repulsive, pathetic and degrading to listen to" that "it would have been better for me to have no children at all." Before the birth of her tenth child Sonya wrote, "The thought of another baby fills me with gloom. My world is such a small and dismal place."
Book: Love and Hatred: The Troubled Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy by William Shirer (Simon & Shuster, 1994).
Tolstoy's Estate (125 miles south of Moscow, 10 miles south of Tula) is the family estate where Tolstoy spent much of his life. Known in Russian as Yasnaya Polyana, it contains the house where Tolstoy and his family lived, servant's quarters, and an unmarked grave where Tolstoy was buried.
Tolstoy and his family lived in a white house set among white birch trees. The mansion was originally just a wing of a mansion used by his parents. Tolstoy inherited the estate in 1847 when he was 19. Seven years after that he sold the main houses which was carted off in 36 pieces to a nearby village and later demolished.
Among the objects on display are peasant boots that Tolstoy made himself, a samovar he used when drinking tea with his wife and family, and a 22,000 volume library with books in 35 languages, including copies of the Talmud, Koran and Bible.
Tolstoy wrote War and Peace (1863-69) and Anna Karenina (1873-77) in the study. On his desk are pictures of his family, a paperweight from the glassworks of Bryansk and a little bronze doll from "Aunt Toilet." Below the desk is the famous 17-inch high chair that the near-sighed writer sat on so he wouldn't have to bend over when he read.
Tolstoy Moscow House
Tolstoy Moscow House (Inner Southwest, 21 Ulitsa Lva Tolstovo, Park Kultury Metro Station) is a modest timber house where the writer and his family stayed on visits to Moscow between 1882 and 1901. Built in 1830 between a church and a beer factory, it was constructed from the same wooden planks used to make the fence and is painted brown and has green trim. In the bare muddy yard are a few birch trees.
Tolstoy lived here with his wife, sons, daughter-in-laws, grandchildren and 10 servants. The dinner room table has two soup turrens (the smaller one was used for vegetarian meals eaten by Tolstoy and his daughter). Among the items on display are the original furniture, a bowl of vegetarian soup, a pantry where Tolstoy made acorn coffee, a Chinese pinball machine, a rocking horse, a health room where Tolstoy worked with barbels and a drawing room where he played chess with Rachmaninoff. In the Master bedroom is a desk where Tolstoy’s wife proofread and edited his manuscripts. In the children's rooms are cribs and coloring books.
The Hall, a formal receiving room, is where Tolstoy entertained and read aloud to Chekhov, Gorky and other writers. A grand piano sits on top a bear rug. On a staircase is a stuffed bear. On top of the desk in his study are the proof sheets of Resurrection, a novel he finished shortly before his death. Near the end of his life Tolstoy was so nearsighted he cut the legs of his desk chair so he see the papers on his desk.
Tolstoy's Asceticism and Peasant Philosophy
After reading the Sermon on the Mount in the Bible, Tolstoy suddenly decided to change his life, recording his moral crisis in Confession (1879), the same name as Rousseau's greatest work. Tolstoy vowed to live by a code of nonviolence, universal love, forgiveness and simplicity. He freed his serfs, renounced his titles, gave money away to peasants, tried to give his estate to the poor, promoted vegetarianism and progressive education, wrote stories for peasants, advocated celibacy (but continued to father children) and wanted to place his works in the public domain for "all people of the world.”
Tolstoy also rejected authority, promoted the rights of individuals to make their own decisions, rejected violence and distanced himself from all organization associated with force including the Church and the State. He encouraged people to generate their own religions. For his efforts he was excommunicated and marked as a traitor.
Tolstoy dressed in peasant rags and wore peasant boots he made himself. He went out to the fields nearly very day to work. He turned away from what he called "irresponsible fiction" and wrote about more spiritual and ethical issues. His embrace of asceticism also marked the beginning of downward spiral of what up until then had been a relatively happy marriage.
Tolstoy believed everyman should divide his day into four period. Before breakfast, hard physical labor. From breakfast till lunch, activity of the mind, writing. From lunch until dinner, activity of dexterous workmanship, artisan labor. And after dinner, talking with family and guests, music, chess. Before breakfast Tolstoy used clear snow from the courtyard, saw and split wood in the shed and then carry it to the ten stoves in the house.♥
Tolstoy on Vegetarianism, Violence and Revolutionary Activity
Tolstoy became a vegetarian in 1885 and a never ate meat again the rest of his life. "The more compassionate we are to all animals, the better it is for our soul," he wrote. During his ascetic period Tolstoy used to drink a brew of barley and acorns instead of coffee and ate a vegetarian diet of fruit, vegetables, porridge and bread. He didn't eat eggs, butter or lard.
Among the pamphlets he wrote in this period were Kingdom of God is Within (1893), What Is Art (1893), The Law of Love and The Law of Violence. He wrote,"'Resist not evil,' means 'Do not resist evil man,'which means 'Do no violence to another,' which mans 'Commit no act that is contrary to love'...To get rid of an enemy, one must love him."
Tolstoy viewed history as a series of events beyond the control of any individual. He opposed war and religious intolerance (he kept copies of the Talmud, Koran and Bible near his desk) but did not himself mixed in revolutionary activity like Dostoevsky. When asked if there was a difference between the killing done by an idealistic revolutionary and killing done by tsarist police Tolstoy replied, "There is as much difference as between cat shit and dog shit. But I don't like the smell of either one or the other."♥
Tolstoy raised a half a million dollars to help a Canadian group who called themselves Doukhobors—Spirit Wrestlers—who were being brutally persecuted for refusing military service. Tolstoy's views won many supporters but also earned the scorn of the tsarist government. Some of Tolstoy's followers were persecuted but Tolstoy was protected by his worldwide fame and love of the Russian people.
Tolstoy's Famous Friends
Tolstoy was friend with Chekhov, Repin (the Russian artist) and Turgenev. He played chess with Rachmaninoff.
One of the people Tolstoy used to correspond with was Mohandas Gandhi. Tolstoy's advice to the young lawyer about what to do about India was: "do not participate in evil—in violent deeds of the administration, in the law courts, the collection of taxes and, what is more important, in soldiering, and no one in the world will enslave you.” ♥
For his 80th birthday Thomas Edison sent Tolstoy one his first phonographs. Tolstoy promptly recorded I Cannot Be Silent, a plea for the abolition of the death penalty, in Russia, German, French and English on the wax cylinders. The recording remains today.
Tolstoy, the Writer
Tolstoy began writing when he was in the army. His first published worked appeared in the Russian magazine Contemporary in 1852. It was collection of memories entitled Childhood. After that he wrote a number of stories and accounts of his experiences in the Crimean War. By 1856, he was a well known writer.
Tolstoy’s family wealth allowed him to pursue his career as a writer without having to worry about money. He also had his family to help him. Sophia dutifully transcribed Tolstoy’s messy, indecipherable scribbling into the neatly-written manuscripts submitted to the his Publisher. War and Peace was transcribed to Sonya, who reportedly copied it seven times in its entirety. She also organized and managed his publications.
In his later years, Tolstoy's desk chair was only 17 inches high which meant that when he wrote his chin was only seven inches above the desktop; he was near sighted and didn't want to use his glasses.
Tolstoy and the Nobel Prize
Tolstoy was nominated nine times in succession for the Nobel prize in Literature but never awarded it. He seemed like the obvious choice for the first Nobel Prize for Literature in 1901 but he was passed over in favor of the largely forgotten French poet René F.A. Sully Prudhomme (1839-1907).
Tolstoy didn't win the Nobel Prize, it was said, because members of the literary establishment regarded him as a man with "narrow-minded hostility to all forms of civilization" who preached "theoretical anarchism and mystical Christianity" and produced works full of "detestable opinions on art, government and civilization."
After being rejected the first time, Tolstoy wrote, "I was very pleased to learn that the Nobel Prize was not given to me. First, because it spared me the problem of disposing of the money, which, like all money, can lead only to evil, in my view; the second, because it has given me the honor and great pleasure to receive such expressions of sympathy from so many highly esteemed although unknown persons."
Tolstoy wrote poetry, short stories, voluminous diaries and opinions and critiques on many issues but as a writer he is known only for two works: War and Peace and Anna Karenina, regarded by critics as the most complete pictures of a society ever written. Tolstoy wrote War and Peace between 1863 and 1869 and Anna Karenina between 1873 and 1877 in the study of his estate.
Tolstoy published works come to 640,086 pages according to the Jubilee Edition. Among his lesser-known works are the novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886); A Natural History, a story about a an owl and a tsarist eagle; Kreutzer Sonata (1889), thinly veiled novella, based on his relation with Sonya, about a man who murders a wife that he has come to hate; The Power of Darkness (a play written in 1886); Master and Man (1895), Resurrection (1899), A Confession, Childhood, Boyhood and Youth and The Cossacks.
War and Peace is Tolstoy's great epic novel set during the Napoleonic Wars. It was completed in 1869 and established Tolstoy as a great writer. In one famous scene, the heroine, the aristocratic Natasha, visits the countryside and finds herself suddenly intoxicated by the music of a village band, instinctively doing the steps of a traditional peasant dance. When War and Peace was released as a movie it was eight hours long. The version that found its way into American theaters and video stores was cut to six hours. Over 12,000 soldiers were used for the Battle of Borodino.♥
Anna Karenina is regarded by many as Tolstoy's finest work. Acclaimed for is realness and the depth of the characters and almost as long as War and Peace, it is about the consequences suffered by a woman who breaks the strict moral and sexual codes in the tsarist era. "All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," is the opening sentence of Anna Karenina.♥
Anna Karenina is a young woman who escapes from her loveless marriage with a stiff, older man and has an adulterous affair with her lover, the gallant soldier Vronsky, at great cost. The story was inspired by Anna Stepanovna, the mistress of Tolstoy's neighbor who threw herself under a train after being spurned by her lover. Tolstoy went to the station to see the body. Anna Karenina has been turned into numerous stage, television and film production. The main characters has been played from everyone form Greta Garbo to Vivien Leigh to Sophie Morceau.
Book: An excellent translation of Anna Karenina by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Viking, 2001)
Leo and Sonya's Last Tortured Years
While Tolstoy engrossed himself in peasant life and philosophical issues Sophia took care of their 13 children. She regarded his intellectual pursuits as self-indulgent and as irresponsible and neglectful of his family duties.
After reading Kreuter Sonota, Sonya decided she has had enough. Describing the last 19 years of their marriage, William Shirer wrote in Love and Hatred: The Troubled Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy, "Sonya's hysteria grew worse. Leo Tolstoy became a desperate old man engaged in a deadly war with his unbalanced wife.”
As an old woman, Sonya used to storm out of house and hide in the garden, sparking a furious search for her. She had a "senile flirtation," as Tolstoy put it, with a pianist composer that triggered more animosity and accusations that Sonya had gone mad.
In the last years of his life, Tolstoy was convinced by a manipulative con man named Vladimir Chertkov that if he really wanted to help the poor he should give everything he owns to a deserving peasant: namely Chertkov himself. When Sophia found out that her husband had drawn up a new will and left everything to Chertkov she threw a series of temper tantrums.
Tolstoy's Death and Will
It was once said that Tolstoy had "sinew of steel and the nerves of a fainting female." He suffered from rheumatism, toothaches, enteritis and spells of weakness." Two of his brothers died of tuberculosis and he was worried that he would come down with the disease. In 1901 and 1902 he suffered a bout of malaria, severe infections in his lungs and typhoid. In 1908, he had a series of minor strokes and developed phlebitis Near the end of his life, Tolstoy was so nearsighted he cut the legs of his desk chair so he see the papers on his desk. In his last entry in his diary, Tolstoy wrote: My life is some stupid and spiteful joke that some one has played on me...This is the end and it doesn't really matter anymore."
Angry after he discovered his wife riffling through his papers, Tolstoy decided, at the age of 80, after 48 years of marriage, to leave his wife. On a freezing cold night, and dressed only in light peasant clothes, Tolstoy left his estate with the help of his youngest child. He planned to buy a third class ticket and board a crowded, poorly-heated train bound for the Russian border. He only got as far as the Asropovo train station, where he came down with pneumonia. Sequestered in a small cottage, with the Russian press recording every detail, Tolstoy died about a month about leaving his wife, on November 20, 1910,
Tolstoy wrote five wills before the final one in 1910. Going against the wishes of his wife and family, he left all of his papers and copyrights to his youngest daughter Sasha, who was directed to give them "to the people." Tolstoy hated the whole idea of inheritance. In accordance with his wishes, Sasha bought the family estate from her mother and brothers and turned it over to the peasants.
Tatyana Tolstoya, the great-grandniece of Tolstoy, is writer of epic novels and short stories. Her first book, The Slynx (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) took 14 years to write and attempts to describe Russian culture in a wintery dream world presided over by mutant midget. She lived during much of the 1990s in the United States and taught for a whole at Princeton. In Russia she was known for her caustic wit.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016