The Russian novelist and moral philosopher Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) ranks as one of the world's great writers, and his "War and Peace" has been called the greatest novel ever written.
Leo Tolstoy was one of the great rebels of all time, a man who during a long and stormy life was at odds with Church, government, literary tradition, and his own family. Yet he was a conservative, obsessed by the idea of God in an age of scientific positivism. He brought the art of the realistic novel to its highest development. Tolstoy's brooding concern for death made him one of the precursors of existentialism. Yet the bustling spirit that animates his novels conveys—perhaps—more of life than life itself.
Tolstoy's father, Count Nikolay Ilyich Tolstoy, came of a noble family dating back to the 14th century and prominent from the time of Peter I. Both Tolstoy's father and grandfather had a passion for gambling and had exhausted the family wealth. Nikolay recouped his fortunes, however, by marrying Maria Volkonsky, bearer of a great name and heiress to a fortune that included 800 serfs and the estate of Yasnaya Polyana in Tula Province, where Leo (Lev Nikolayevich) was born on Aug. 28, 1828, the youngest of four sons. His mother died when he was 2 years old, whereupon his father's distant cousin Tatyana Ergolsky took charge of the children. In 1837 Tolstoy's father died, and an aunt, Alexandra Osten-Saken, became legal guardian of the children. Her religious fervor was an important early influence on Tolstoy. When she died in 1840, the children were sent to Kazan to another sister of their father, Pelageya Yushkov.
The Yushkovs were among the highest society in the town, Pelageya's father having been governor of the province before his death. Balls and receptions dominated the Yushkovs' social life, and there was much concern about what was comme il faut. Aunt Pelageya told Tolstoy that nothing was better for a young man's development than an affair with an older woman. He was no prude, but he was awkward and proud, being known to his friends as the "Bear."
Tolstoy was educated at home by German and French tutors. He was not a particularly apt pupil, but he was good at games. In 1843 he entered Kazan University; planning on a diplomatic career, he entered the faculty of Oriental languages. Finding these studies too demanding, he switched 2 years later to the notoriously easygoing law faculty. The university, however, had too many second-rate foreigners on its faculty, and Tolstoy left in 1847 without taking his degree.
Tolstoy returned to Yasnaya Polyana, determined to become a model farmer and a "father" to his serfs. His philanthropy failed because of his naiveté in dealing with the peasants and because he spent too much time carousing in Tula and Moscow. During this time he first began making those amazingly honest and self-lacerating diary entries, a practice he maintained until his death. These entries provided much material for his fiction, and in a very real sense his whole oeuvre is one long autobiography. In 1848 Tolstoy attempted to take the law examination, this time in St. Petersburg, but after passing the first two parts he again became disenchanted, returning to the concerts and gambling halls of Moscow when not hunting and drinking at Yasnaya Polyana.
Army Life and Early Literary Career
Nikolay, Tolstoy's eldest brother, visited him at this time in Yasnaya Polyana while on furlough from military service in the Caucasus. Leo greatly loved his brother, and when he asked him to join him in the south, Tolstoy agreed. After a meandering journey, he reached the mountains of the Caucasus, where he sought to join the army as a Junker, or gentleman-volunteer. In the autumn he passed the necessary exams and was assigned to the 4th Battery of the 20th Artillery Brigade, serving on the Terek River against the rebellious mountaineers, Moslem irregulars who had declared a holy war against the encroaching Russians.
Tolstoy's border duty on a lonely Cossack outpost became a kind of pagan idyll, hunting, drinking, sleeping, chasing the girls, and occasionally fighting. During the long lulls he first began to write. In 1852 he sent the autobiographical sketch Childhood to the leading journal of the day, the Contemporary. Nikolai Nekrasov, its editor, was ecstatic, and when it was published (under Tolstoy's initials), so was all of Russia. Tolstoy now began The Cossacks (finished in 1862), a thinly veiled account of his life in the outpost.
From November 1854 to August 1855 Tolstoy served in the battered fortress at Sevastopol. He had requested transfer to this area, where one of the bloodiest battles of the Crimean War was in process. As he directed fire from the 4th Bastion, the hottest area in the conflict for a long while, Tolstoy managed to write Youth, the second part of his autobiographical trilogy. He also wrote the three Sevastopol Tales at this time, revealing the distinctive Tolstoyan vision of war as a place of unparalleled confusion, banality, and heroism, a special space where men, viewed from the author's dispassionate, Godlike point of view, were at their best and worst. Some of these stories were published while the battle they described still raged. The first story was the talk of Russia, attracting (for almost the last time in Tolstoy's career) the favorable attention of the Czar.
When the city fell, Tolstoy was asked to make a study of the artillery action during the final assault and to report with it to the authorities in St. Petersburg. His reception in the capital was triumphal. Because of his name, he was welcomed into the most brilliant society. Because of his stories, he was lionized by the cream of literary society. Tolstoy's photographs at this time show a coarse-looking young man with piercing eyes, spatulate nose, and mustache. He was not tall but very strong.
During the same year Tolstoy visited Moscow, garnering there both success in society and esteem among authors. By the time he returned to St. Petersburg, he was beginning to tire of his new literary acquaintances. He felt that they were insincere talkers. He offended both camps of what soon became a war within the Contemporary group— with the opposing points of view represented by the aristocratic Ivan Turgenev and the radical Nikolai Chernyshevsky. His lifelong friendship with the conservative poet A. A. Fet dated from this time. Tolstoy was never a "professional author"; he avoided literary gossip, and his independent wealth permitted him to remain aloof from the scramble of making a living.
School for Peasant Children
In 1856 Tolstoy left the service (as a lieutenant) to look after his affairs in Yasnaya Polyana; he also worked on The Snowstorm and Two Hussars. In the following year he made his first trip abroad. He did not like Western Europe, as his stories of this period, Lucerne and Albert, show. He was becoming increasingly interested in education, however, and he talked with experts in this field wherever he went. In the summer he returned to Yasnaya Polyana and set up a school for peasant children, where he began his pedagogic experiments. In 1860-1861 Tolstoy went abroad again, seeking to learn more about education; he also gambled heavily. During this trip he witnessed the death of his brother Nikolay in the south of France. More than all the grisly scenes of battle he had witnessed, this event brought home to Tolstoy the fact of death, the specter of which fascinated and terrified him throughout his long career.
After the freeing of the serfs in 1861, Tolstoy became a mediator (posrednik), an official who arbitrated land disputes between serfs and their former masters. In April he had a petty quarrel with Turgenev, actually challenging him to a duel. Turgenev declined, but the two men were on bad terms for years.
Tolstoy's school at Yasnaya Polyana went forward, using pioneering techniques that were later adopted by progressive educationists. In 1862 Tolstoy started a journal to propagate his pedagogical ideas, Yasnaya Polyana. He also took the first of his koumiss cures, traveling to Samara, living in the open, and drinking fermented mare's milk. These cures eventually became an almost annual event.
In September 1862, Tolstoy wrote his aunt Alexandra, "I, aged, toothless fool that I am, have fallen in love." He was only 34, but he was 16 years older than Sofya Andreyevna Bers (or Behrs), whose mother had been one of Tolstoy's childhood friends. Daughter of a prominent Moscow doctor, Bers was handsome, intelligent, and, as the years would show, strong-willed. The first decade of their marriage brought Tolstoy the greatest happiness; never before or after was his creative life so rich or his personal life so full. In June 1863 his wife had the first of their 13 children.
His wife's diary entry for Oct. 28, 1863, reads: "Story about 1812; he is very involved with it." And indeed Tolstoy was. Since 1861 he had been trying to write a historical novel about the Decembrist uprising of 1825. But the more he worked, the farther back in time he went. The first portion of War and Peace was published in 1865 (in the Russian Messenger) as "The Year 1805." In 1868 three more chapters appeared; and in 1869 he completed the novel. Tolstoy had been somewhat neglected by critics in the preceding few years because he had not participated in the bitter literary politics of the time. But his new novel created a fantastic outpouring of popular and critical reaction.
War and Peace represents an apogee in the history of world literature, but it was also the high point of Tolstoy's personal life. He peopled his enormous canvas with almost everyone he had ever met, including all of his relations on both sides of his family. In so doing he celebrated a patriarchal way of life—rich in its country contentments and glittering in its city excitements. Balls and battles, birth and death, all were described in copious and minute detail. In this book the European realistic novel, with its attention to social matrix, exact description, and psychological rendering, found its most complete expression.
The genial scenes of feast and hunt were a reflection of Tolstoy's great personal happiness at this time. His estate prospered, and he was deeply in love with his wife. She worshiped her husband, doing everything in her power to free him from all but his writing. Their son Ilya reported that she copied out the complete text of War and Peace seven times.
But even in this year of Tolstoy's greatest success ominous signs of the future began to appear. The brilliant rhetoric of those passages in War and Peace in which Tolstoy argued for his own idiosyncratic theory of history foreshad-owed the often crotchety tone of the later intransigent moralist. In the midst of all his happiness, in 1869, Tolstoy experienced a deep and mysterious personal trauma. Traveling to buy an estate in Penza Province, he stopped overnight in Arzamas. Awakened by a nightmare, he felt that he was dying. Once again, as when Nikolay had died, he was reminded of his mortality, and his so-called conversion of 1880 may, in a sense, be traced back to this experience.
Tolstoy's next 10 years were equally crowded. He published the Primer and the first four Readers (1872-1875), his attempts to appeal to an audience that would include children and the newly literate peasantry. From 1873 to 1877 he worked on the second of his masterworks, Anna Karenina, which also created a sensation upon its publication. The concluding section of the novel was written during another of Russia's seemingly endless wars with Turkey. The country was in a patriotic ferment. M. N. Katkov, editor of the journal in which Anna Karenina had been appearing serially, was afraid to print the final chapters, which contained an attack on war hysteria. Tolstoy, in a fury, took the text away from Katkov, and with the aid of N. Strakhov he published a separate edition that enjoyed huge sales.
The novel was based partly on events that had occurred on a neighboring estate, where a nobleman's rejected mistress had thrown herself under a train. It again contained great chunks of disguised biography, especially in the scenes describing the courtship and marriage of Kitty and Levin. Tolstoy's family continued to grow, and his royalties were making him an extremely rich man.
The ethical quest that had begun when Tolstoy was a child and that had tormented him throughout his younger years now drove him to abandon all else in order to seek an ultimate meaning in life. At first he turned to the Russian Orthodox Church, visiting the Optina-Pustyn monastery in 1877. But he found no answer. He began reading the Gospels, and he found the key to his own moral system in Matthew: "Resist not evil." In 1879-1880 Tolstoy wrote his Confession (published 1884) and his Critique of Dogmatic Theology. From this point on his life was dominated by a burning desire to achieve social justice and a rationally acceptable ethic.
Tolstoy was a public figure now, and in 1881 he asked Alexander III, in vain, to spare the lives of those who had assassinated the Czar's father. He visited Optina again, this time disguised as a peasant, but his trip failed to bring him peace. In September the family moved to Moscow in order to further the education of the older sons. The following year Tolstoy participated in the census, visiting the worst slums of Moscow, where he was freshly appalled.
Tolstoy had not gone out of his way to propagate his new convictions, but in 1883 he met V. G. Chertkov, a wealthy guards officer who soon became the moving force behind an attempt to start a movement in Tolstoy's name. In the next few years a new publication was founded (the Mediator) in order to spread Tolstoy's word in tract and fiction, as well as to make good reading available to the poor. In 6 years almost 20 million copies were distributed. Tolstoy had long been under surveillance by the secret police, and in 1884 copies of What I Believe were seized from the printer. He now took up cobbling and read deeply in Chinese philosophy. He abstained from cigarettes, meat, white bread, and hunting. His image as a white-bearded patriarch in a peasant's blouse dates from this period.
Tolstoy's relations with his family were becoming increasingly strained. The more of a saint he became in the eyes of the world, the more of a devil he seemed to his wife. He wanted to give his wealth away, but she would not hear of it. An unhappy compromise was reached in 1884, when Tolstoy assigned to his wife the copyright to all his works before 1881.
In 1886 Tolstoy worked on what is possibly his most powerful story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and his drama of peasant life, The Power of Darkness (which could not be produced until 1895). In 1888, when he was 60 years old, his thirteenth child was born. In the same year he finished his sweeping indictment of carnal love, The Kreutzer Sonata.
Last Years and Death
In 1892 Tolstoy's estate, valued at the equivalent of $1.5 million, was divided among his wife and his nine living children. Tolstoy was now perhaps the most famous man in the world; people came from all over the globe to Yasnaya Polyana. His activity was unabated. In 1891 and in 1893 he organized famine relief in Ryazan Province. He also worked on some of his finest stories: The Devil (1890, published posthumously) and Father Sergius (1890). In order to raise money for transporting a dissenting religious sect (the Doukhobors) to Canada, Tolstoy published the third, and least successful, of his three long novels, Resurrection (1899). From 1896 to 1904 he worked on the story that was his personal favorite, Hadji Murad, the tale of a Caucasian mountaineer.
Tolstoy's final years were filled with worldwide acclaim and great unhappiness, as he was caught in the strife between his convictions, his followers, and his family. The Holy Synod excommunicated him in 1901. Unable to endure the quarrels at home he set out on his last pilgrimage in October 1910, accompanied by his youngest daughter, Alexandra, and his physician. The trip proved too much, and he died in the home of the stationmaster of the small depot at Astapovo on Nov. 9, 1910. He was buried at Yasnaya Polyana.
Further Reading on Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy's own enormous output (his collected works run to 90 volumes) is exceeded only by the amount of material written about him. Among the memoirs about Tolstoy are A. B. Goldenweizer, Talks with Tolstoy (trans. 1923); Alexandra Tolstoy, Tolstoy: A Life of My Father. (1953); and V. Bulgakov, The Last Year of Leo Tolstoy (trans. 1971). There are two good biographies in English: Ernest J. Simmons, Leo Tolstoy (1946), and Henri Troyat, Tolstoy (1965; trans. 1967). Simmons is more complete and scholarly, but Troyat is more enjoyable to read.
Sir Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History (1953), is a brilliant short study. George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism (1959), when it is not being precious, contains many insights into Tolstoy both as artist and thinker. John Bayley, Tolstoy and the Novel (1966), is a good study of Tolstoy's contribution to the genre. Ralph E. Matlaw, ed., Tolstoy: A Collection of Critical Essays (1967), offers stylistic criticism of Tolstoy's work. For background James H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (1966), is excellent.