Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana, his family's estate outside of Moscow, on August 28, 1828, in Russia's Tula Province, the youngest of four sons. His mother died when he was two 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 dedication was an important early influence on Tolstoy. When she died in 1840, the children were sent to Kazan, Russia, to another sister of their father, Pelageya Yushkov.
Tolstoy was educated at home by German and French tutors. He was not a particularly exceptional student 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 two years later to studying law. Tolstoy left the university in 1847 without taking his degree.
He returned to Yasnaya Polyana, determined to become a model farmer and a "father" to his serfs (unpaid farmhands). His charity failed because of his foolishness in dealing with the peasants (poor, working class) and because he spent too much time socializing in Tula and Moscow. During this time he first began making amazingly honest diary entries, a practice he maintained until his death. These entries provided much material for his fiction, and in a very real sense the collection is one long autobiography.
In September 1862, Tolstoy married Sofya Andreyevna Bers (or Behrs), a woman sixteen years younger than himself. Daughter of a prominent Moscow doctor, Bers was beautiful, 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 thirteen children.
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. His new novel created a fantastic out-pouring of popular and critical reaction.
Tolstoy's War and Peace represents a high point in the history of world literature, but it was also the peak of Tolstoy's personal life. His characters represent almost everyone he had ever met, including all of his relations on both sides of his family. Balls and battles, birth and death, all were described in amazing detail. In this book the European realistic novel, with its attention to social structures, exact description, and psychological rendering, found its most complete expression.
From 1873 to 1877 Tolstoy 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 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 also 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 (money earned from sales) were making him an extremely rich man.1
After finishing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy renounced all his earlier works. "I wrote everything into Anna Karenina," he later confessed, "and nothing was left over." Voskresenia (1899, Resurrection) was Tolstoy's last major novel, and affirmed his belief in the individual over the collective. Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich Nekhliudov has abandoned the prostitute Ekaterina Maslova with their child as a young man. The novel begins when Maslova is called to court on charges of murdering a client. Nekhliudov is a member of the jury. He realizes that he also is accused but in the court of his own conscience. Maslova is wrongly sentenced to four years' penal service in Siberia. Nekhliudov follows her convoy to Siberia and manages to obtain commutation of her sentence from hard labor with common criminals to exile with the "political prisoners". Before the emergence of the gulag fiction, the novel enjoyed vast popularity during the reign of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) as Soviet premier. It has been claimed, that while writing the story Tolstoy relived some of his guilt-ridden memories of his youth about a girl he had seduced and abandoned.
In the 1880s Tolstoy wrote such philosophical works as A Confession and What I Believe, which was banned in 1884. He started to see himself more as a sage and moral leader than an artist. In 1884 occurred his first attempt to leave home. He gave up his estate to his family, and tried to live as a poor, celibate peasant. Attracted by Tolstoy's writings, Yasnaya Polyana was visited by hundreds of people from all over the world. Pilgrims and his disciples enjoyed a smooth ride on a tarmac road, which the Czarist government ordered to be built down to Tula. In 1901 the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated the author. Tolstoy became seriously ill and he recuperated in Crimea, Ukraine.
In his study, What is Art? (1898) Tolstoy condemned Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Dante, but not really convincingly; his misreading of Shakespeare is deliberate. Tolstoy states that art is a conveyor of feelings, good and bad, from the artist to others. Through feeling, the artist 'infects' another with the desire to act well or badly. "Art is a human activity having for its purpose the transmission to others of the highest and best feelings to which men have risen." Tolstoy used ordinary events and characters to examine war, religion, feminism, and other topics. He was convinced that philosophical principles could only be understood in their concrete expression in history. All of his work is characterized by uncomplicated style, careful construction, and deep insight into human nature. His chapters are short, and he paid much attention to the details of everyday life. Tolstoy also refused to recognize the conventional climaxes of narrative – War and Peace begins in the middle of a conversation and ends in the first epilogue in the middle of a sentence.
Tolstoy's form of Christianity was based on the Sermon on the Mount and crystallized in five leading ideas: human beings must suppress their anger, whether warranted or not; no sex outside marriage; no oaths of any sort; renunciation of all resistance to evil; and love of enemies. "The main feature, or rather the main note which resounds through every page of Tolstoi, even the seemingly unimportant ones, is love, compassion for Man in general (and not only for the humiliated and the offended), pity of some sort for his weakness, his insignificance, for the shortness of his life, the vanity of his desires... Yes, Tolstoi is for me the dearest, the deepest, and greatest of all artists. But this concerns the Tolstoi of yesterday, who has nothing in common with the exasperating moralist and theorizer of today." (The composer Peter Tchaikovsky in Vladimir Volkoff's biography Tchaikovsky: A Self-portrait, 1975) 2
Throughout his life, Tolstoy struggled with the issue of the meaning of life. This question became even more of an issue for him as he matured. One of the most interesting statements he made was in 1875. He wrote, “I am 47….And so I have reached old age, that inner spiritual condition to which nothing from the outer world has any interest, in which there are no desires and one sees nothing but death ahead of one. Life really is a stupid and empty joke…and so I began to search for a view of life that could do away with its apparent senselessness. That is the aim and content of what I am writing at present….I would like to expound this whole mass of religions and scientific views of our time, to show the gaps and—forgive my boldness—without denying anything, to fill these gaps.”3
It is interesting that I am 47. I do not believe that I have reached old age; however, I do understand Tolstoy’s interest regarding the meaning of life. I try not to reflect upon this issue on a constant basis, but it is definitely part of my thoughts. I can understand Tolstoy’s comment regarding the apparent senseless of life. At time there seems to be no rhyme or reason to making things which take place in our lives. I also turned to religion in order to find meaning in my life, but became somewhat discontented over time.
His later life seemed to be consumed by his newly created religion. In fact, he had many “Tolstoyites” who chose to follow his belief system. His classic novels had become a thing of the past and he devoted his writing talent to works of religion and/or philosophy. He became so dedicated to his religious beliefs that be walked away from his estate, left his family, and began a spiritual journey.
Russians love few things better than a good anniversary — any excuse to celebrate the country’s rich cultural history gives rise to festivals and forums, concerts and commemorative films.
As 2010 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Anton Chekhov, President Dmitry Medvedev flew to the playwright’s small southern hometown and laid a bouquet of white roses. One hundred years after his death in 1837, poet Alexander Pushkin was celebrated across the country — a city was even named after him.
Why, then, the silence in Russia around Leo Tolstoy, widely considered to be one of the greatest writers who ever lived?
November 20, 2010 will mark 100 years since Tolstoy’s dramatic death. Having achieved world fame and acclaim with "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina," Tolstoy turned later in life to the spiritual treatises that would lead to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1910, at the age of 82, he abandoned his family and his estate in Yasnaya Polyana, outside Moscow, dying days later at a nearby train station, never having recovered from the pneumonia that had long plagued him.
It’s a dramatic end befitting a novelist who explored, with poetic realism, life’s greatest thrills: family, war, love.
At least, that’s how he is remembered in the West. In Russia, Tolstoy’s writing is always and everywhere linked with his work as a philosopher, one who preached principles of nonviolence, simple living and brotherly love. That may be where the problem lies.
“Lev Nikolayevich posed very uncomfortable questions,” said Fyokla Tolstaya, a great-great-granddaughter of the writer, using his Russian name and patronymic. “He is a very difficult author for today’s leadership,” she said.
Perhaps that is why, on a government level, the anniversary is being entirely ignored.
“We’ve received no orders to prepare for the anniversary,” said a woman who answered the phone at the Culture Ministry’s anniversaries committee, but declined to provide her name. For anniversaries honoring many of Russia’s other great writers, less well-known in the West but celebrated here, the department is given years to plan and organize. The department first received an order in 2007 to prepare for this year’s celebrations marking 150 years since Chekhov’s birth, she said by way of example.
“The government, which is normally very proactive in organizing anniversaries seems to have put Tolstoy away on the shelf,” said Catherine Tolstoy, a 22-year-old member of the abundant Tolstoy clan.
“He is very well respected, but he’s not useful and hasn’t got the right views,” she said. “He’s got very different values from the current government.”
Yet other celebrated writers, including Chekhov and the great satirist Nikolai Gogol, also criticized the country for issues that remain little changed today: officials’ corruption, their countrymen’s love of vodka, treatment of prisoners.
The government’s decision to ignore Tolstoy’s centenary is something that has surprised some of his greatest champions, yet is something they overwhelmingly choose to explain away by saying that it is births, not deaths, that should be celebrated.
“There hasn’t been one television program dedicated to him, but that doesn’t mean we don’t value him,” said Marina Tikhonycheva, the head of the Tolstoy Institute. All 10th graders in Russia, she noted, are required to plow through "War and Peace." (She later noted that Russia’s Kultura channel recently aired a celebrated film adaptation, failing to note that it was Tolstoy’s centenary but celebrating the fact that it was the 90th anniversary of director and star Sergei Bondarchuk’s birth.)
Others see something more deliberate in the Tolstoy void, blaming his relationship with the Orthodox Church, which expelled him in 1901 citing his repudiation of Jesus Christ and the church.
“The church’s position to Tolstoy has not changed,” said a source inside the Orthodox Church’s committee on culture. “Tolstoy is anti-Christian. He is excommunicated and therefore presents no interest for the church.”
Tolstoy’s family has put in several requests to have the church re-examine the writer’s excommunication. However, it categorically refuses to do so.
“The order can only change if a person himself repents. This can’t happen after a person is dead,” the church source said.
“The church does pressure culture, but not to such a degree,” said Boris Felikov, an associate professor of religion at the Russian State University for the Humanities.
Some members of Tolstoy’s family disagree. “The government is very friendly with the church, as it was in pre-revolutionary times, and puts a lot of pressure on the state,” said Tolstaya. In Soviet times, his views against organized religion and in support of the country’s peasantry made him a hero of the communist regime (Lenin even published an essay titled “Tolstoy as Mirror of the Revolution”).
“Now there’s a different approach,” Tolstaya said. “He isn’t comfortable and he isn’t needed.”
That may be true of the Russian government and its powerful church, but not so in the West. To mark the centenary of Tolstoy’s death, new translations of his novels have been issued. A film about his last days, “The Last Station,” was released to critical acclaim, its lead actors (Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer) both nominated for Oscars. New biographies of Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, were released, as well as her letters.
Inside Russia, the Tolstoy estate, as well as a handful of museums and institutes in Moscow, are organizing forums. On November 20, they will open a small museum at Ostankino, the provincial railway station where Tolstoy met his death.
“Tolstoy is still relevant,” said Tolstaya, his great-great-granddaughter. “The question becomes: what have the people in Russia done in the 100 years since he left us? Have we managed to answer his questions? The answer is no.” 4
There is no denying that Tolstoy is one of the greatest authors of all time. His classic novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina are not only read by today’s students in the former USSR, but they were even made into films in the United States. “Anna Karenina” was also made into a miniseries by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). These novels have been translated into several different languages and are definitely worth reading. I would also recommend reading A Confession and Resurrection in order to understand his views regarding the meaning of life.
Life certainly can be challenging. The fact that Russia made no formal effort to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the death of this great novelist is proof of that. It is true that some of his writings were considered controversial; however, how will any of us be judged one hundred years after we die?
1) “Leo Tolstoy: Biography” http://www.notablebiographies.com/St-Tr/Tolstoy-Leo.html (accessed 5/26/12)
2) “Leo Tolstoi” http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/ltolstoi.htm (accessed 5/26/12)
3) R.F. Christian (trans.) Tolstoy’s Letters (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978) Vol. 1, p. 288
4) “Russia Snubs Tolstoy” http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/russia/101011/leo-tolstoy-death (written 10/12/10, accessed 5/26/12)