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Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (September 9th, 1828 – November 20th, 1910) was a Russian writer – novelist, essayist, dramatist and philosopher – as well as pacifist Christian anarchist and educational reformer. He was the most influential member of the aristocratic Tolstoy family.
As a fiction writer, Tolstoy 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 19th-century Russian life, the two books stand at the peak of realist fiction. As a moral philosopher Tolstoy was notable for his ideas on nonviolent resistance through works such as The Kingdom of God is Within You, which in turn influenced such twentieth-century figures as Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Leo was born August 28th 1828 at Yasnaya Polyana, in the Tula district of Central Russia. The Tolstoys were the well-known family of Russian nobility. The writer's mother was born a Princess Volkonsky, while his grandmothers came from the Troubetzkoy and Gorchakov princely families. Tolstoy was connected to the grandest families of Russian aristocracy; Alexander Pushkin was his fourth cousin. His birth as a member of the highest Russian nobility distinguishes Tolstoy from other writers of his generation. He always remained a class-conscious nobleman who cherished his impeccable French pronunciation and kept aloof from the intelligentsia.
Tolstoy's childhood was spent between Moscow and Yasnaya Polyana, in a large family of three brothers and a sister. He has left an extraordinarily vivid record of his early human environment in the notes he wrote for his biographer Pavel Biryukov. Leo lost his mother when he was two years of age, and his father died when Leo was only nine. His subsequent education was in the hands of his aunt, Madame Ergolsky, who is supposed to be the starting point of Sonya in War and Peace. (His father and mother are respectively the starting points for the characters of Nicholas Rostov and Princess Marya in the same novel.)
In 1844, Tolstoy began studying law and Oriental languages at Kazan University, where teachers described him as "both unable and unwilling to learn." He found no meaning in further studies and left the university in the middle of a term. In 1849 he settled down at Yasnaya Polyana, where Leo attempted to be useful to his peasants but soon discovered the ineffectiveness of his uninformed zeal.
Most of the life he led at the university, and after leaving it, was unremarkable compared to many young men of his class, irregular and full of pleasure-seeking – wine, cards, and women – not entirely unlike the life led by Pushkin before his exile to the south. But Tolstoy was incapable of such lighthearted acceptance of life-as-it-came. From the very beginning, his diary (which is extant from 1847 on) reveals an insatiable thirst for a rational and moral justification of life, a thirst that forever remained a ruling force in his mind. The same diary was his first experiment in forging a technique of psychological analysis which was to become his principal literary weapon.
Tolstoy's first literary effort was a translation of A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy. Sterne's influence on his early works was substantial, although he subsequently denigrated him as "a devious writer". In 1851, Leo attempted a more ambitious and more definitely creative kind of writing, his first short story "A History of Yesterday". In the same year, sick of his seemingly useless life in Moscow, which brought heavy gambling debts, he went to the Caucasus, where the writer joined an artillery unit garrisoned in the Cossack part of Chechnya, as a volunteer of a private rank of noble birth. In 1852 Leo completed his first novel Childhood and sent it to Nikolai Nekrasov for publication in the Sovremennik. Although Tolstoy was annoyed with the publishing cuts, the story had an immediate success and gave Tolstoy a definite place in Russian literature.
In his battery Tolstoy had much more spare time, and most of it was spent in hunting. In the little fighting that he saw, he did very well. In 1854 Leo received his commission and was, at his request, transferred to the army operating against the Turks in Wallachia, where he took part in the siege of Silistra (located in North-Eastern Bulgaria). In November of the same year the noble writer joined the garrison of Sevastopol. There he saw some of the most serious fighting of the century. He took part in the defense of the famous Fourth Bastion and in the Battle of Chernaya River, the bad management of which he satirized in a humorous song, the only piece of verse he is known to have written.
In Sevastopol he wrote the battlefield observations Sebastopol Sketches, widely viewed as his first approach to the techniques to be used so effectively in War and Peace. Appearing as they did in the Sovremennik monthly while the siege was still on, the stories greatly increased the general interest in their author. In fact, the Tsar Alexander II was known to have said in praise of the author of the work, "Guard well the life of that man." Soon after the abandonment of the fortress, Tolstoy went on leave of absence to St. Petersburg and Moscow. The following year he left the army, thoroughly disgusted with the meaningless carnage he had witnessed.
The years 1856-61 were passed between St. Petersburg, Moscow, Yasnaya Polyana, and foreign countries. In 1857 (and again in 1860-61) he traveled abroad and returned disillusioned by the selfishness and materialism of European bourgeois civilization, a feeling expressed in his short story Lucerne and more circuitously in Three Deaths.
These years after the Crimean War were the only time in Tolstoy's life when he mixed with the literary world. He was welcomed by the litterateurs of St. Petersburg and Moscow as one of their most eminent fellow craftsmen. As he confessed afterwards, his vanity and pride were greatly flattered by his success. But he did not get on with them. He was too much of an aristocrat to like this semi-Bohemian intelligentsia. All the structure of his mind was against the grain of the progressive Westernizers, epitomized by Ivan Turgenev, who was widely considered the greatest living Russian author of the period. Turgenev, who was in many ways Tolstoy's opposite, was also one of his strongest admirers; he called Tolstoy's 1862 short novel The Cossacks "the best story written in our language".
Tolstoy did not believe in Westernized progress and culture, and liked to tease Turgenev by his outspoken or cynical statements. His lack of sympathy with the literary world culminated in a resounding quarrel with Turgenev in 1861,whom he challenged to a duel but afterwards apologized for doing so. The whole story is very characteristic and revelatory of Tolstoy's character, with its profound impatience of other people's assumed superiority and their perceived lack of intellectual honesty. The only writers with whom he remained friends were the conservative "landlordist" Afanasy Fet and the democratic Slavophile Nikolay Strakhov, both of them entirely out of tune with the main current of contemporary thought.
In 1859 Leo started a school for peasant children at his estate, followed by twelve others, whose ground-breaking libertarian principles Tolstoy described in his 1862 essay, "The School at Yasnaya Polyana". He also authored a great number of stories for peasant children. Tolstoy's educational experiments were short-lived, but as a direct forerunner to A. S. Neill's Summerhill School, the school at Yasnaya Polyana can justifiably be claimed to be the first example of a coherent theory of libertarian education.
In 1862 Tolstoy published a pedagogical magazine, Yasnaya Polyana, in which he contended that it was not the intellectuals who should teach the peasants, but rather the peasants the intellectuals. He came to believe that he was undeserving of his inherited wealth, and gained renown among the peasantry for his generosity. Leo 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.
Meanwhile his insatiate quest for moral stability continued to torment him. In 1860 Leo was profoundly affected by the death of his brother Nicholas, even though he had been faced with the loss of his parents and guardian aunts during his childhood. Tolstoy considered the death of his brother his first encounter with the inevitable reality of death. In 1862, at last, he proposed to Sofia Andreyevna Behrs and was accepted. They were married on 23 September of the same year.
His marriage is one of the two most important landmarks in the life of Tolstoy, the other being his conversion. His marriage provided for him an escape from unrelenting self-questioning. It was the gate towards a more stable and lasting "natural state". Family life, and an unreasoning acceptance of and submission to the life to which he was born, now became his religion.
For the first fifteen years of his married life Leo lived in a blissful state of confidently satisfied life, whose philosophy is expressed with supreme creative power in War and Peace. Sophie Behrs, almost a girl when he married her and 16 years his junior, proved an ideal wife and mother and mistress of the house. Together they had twelve children, five of whom died in their childhoods.
Sophie was, moreover, a devoted help to her husband in his literary work, and the story is well known how she acted as copyist to his War and Peace, copying seven times from beginning to the end. The family fortune, owing to Tolstoy's efficient management of his estates and to the sales of his works, was prosperous, making it possible to provide adequately for the increasing family.
Tolstoy had always been fundamentally a rationalist. But at the time he wrote his great novels his rationalism was suffering an eclipse. The philosophy of War and Peace and Anna Karenina (which he formulates in A Confession as "that one should live so as to have the best for oneself and one's family") was a surrender of his rationalism to the inherent irrationality of life. Any notion that one could have control over one's own life and the lives of others was abandoned, in favor of the notion that the sum of the free wills of thousands made for the massive movements of history. Hence the greatest wisdom (according to War and Peace) consisted in accepting without sophistication one's place in life and making the best of it. But already in the last part of Anna Karenina a growing disquietude becomes very apparent. When he was writing it the crisis had already begun that is so memorably recorded in A Confession and from which he was to emerge with a new religious and ethical teaching.
Tolstoy's rationalism found satisfaction in the admirably constructed system of his doctrine. But the irrational Tolstoy remained alive beneath the hardened crust of crystallized dogma. Tolstoy's diaries reveal that the desires of the flesh were active in him until an unusually advanced age; and the desire for expansion, the desire that gave life to War and Peace, the desire for the fullness of life with all its pleasure and beauty, never died in him. We catch few a glimpses of this in his writings, for he subjected them to a strict and narrow discipline. He wrote as effortlessly as ever in his late years and produced admirable works of art, such as Hadji Murad, one of many pieces that appeared posthumously. It became increasingly apparent that, in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, there were only two subjects that Tolstoy was really interested in and thought worth writing about – and that is life and death. The relationship between life and death was examined by him over and over again, with increasing complexity.
As his reputation among people of all classes grew immensely, a few Tolstoyan communes formed throughout Russia in order to put into practice Tolstoy's religious doctrines. And, by the last two decades of his life, Tolstoy enjoyed a place in the world's esteem that had not been held by any man of letters since the death of Voltaire. Yasnaya Polyana became a new Jerusalem. Pilgrims from all parts of Russia flocked there to see the great old man. But Tolstoy's own family remained hostile to his teaching, with the exception of his youngest daughter Alexandra Tolstaya. His wife especially took up a position of decided opposition to his new ideas. She refused to give up her possessions and asserted her duty to provide for her large family. Tolstoy renounced the copyright of his new works but had to surrender his landed property and the copyright of his earlier works to his wife. The later years of his married life have been described by biographer A. N. Wilson as one of the unhappiest in literary history.
Tolstoy was remarkably healthy for his age, but he fell seriously ill in 1901 and had to live for a long time in Gaspra and Simeiz, Crimea. Still he continued working to the last and never showed the slightest sign of any weakening of brain power. Ever more oppressed by the apparent contradiction between his preaching of communism and the easy life he led under the regime of his wife, full of a growing irritation against his family, which was urged on by Chertkov, he finally left Yasnaya Polyana, in the company of his daughter Alexandra and his doctor, for an unknown destination. After some restless and aimless wandering he headed for a convent where his sister was the mother superior but had to stop at Astapovo junction. There he was laid up in the stationmaster's house and died, apparently of cold, on November 20, 1910. He was buried in a simple peasant's grave in the woods about 500 meters away from Yasnaya Polyana. Thousands of peasants lined the streets at his funeral.
Tolstoy's fiction realistically conveys the Russian society in which he lived. Matthew Arnold commented that Tolstoy's work is not art, but a piece of life. Arnold's assessment was echoed by Isaak Babel who said that, "if the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy." His first publications were three autobiographical novels, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth (1852 – 1856). They tell of a rich landowner's son and his slow realization of the differences between him and his peasants. 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.
Tolstoy 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. The Cossacks (1863) is an unfinished novel which describes the Cossack life and people through a story of Dmitri Olenin, a Russian aristocrat in love with a Cossack girl. This text was acclaimed by Ivan Bunin as one of the finest in the language.
War and Peace (1869) is generally thought to be one of the greatest novels ever written, remarkable for its breadth and unity. 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. The novel explores Tolstoy's theory of history, and in particular the insignificance of individuals such as Napoleon and Alexander. But more importantly, Tolstoy's imagination created a world that seems to be so believable, so real, that it is not easy to realize that most of his characters actually never existed and that Tolstoy never witnessed the epoch described in the novel.
Anna Karenina (1877), which Tolstoy regarded as his first true novel, was one of his most impeccably constructed and compositionally sophisticated works. It 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 their lives. His last novel was Resurrection, published in 1899, which told the story of a nobleman seeking redemption for a sin committed years earlier and incorporated many of Tolstoy's refashioned views on life. An additional short novel, Hadji Murat, was published posthumously in 1912.
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