Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born in an estate on the Russian countryside on August 28, 1828 (old style). He was the fourth child of five in a wealthy and noble family, and held the title of “Count” from birth.
His mother died when he was two years old, but his family held closely together, and Tolstoy would later recall playing fantasy games led by his older brothers, especially one in which the siblings inhabited a secret benevolent society of insect creatures called the “Ant Brotherhood”. He later said that this inspired his lifelong mission to help humanity (as befit a young Count) and made him feel “in love for the first time” – not in love with any person, but “in love with love”.
Living variously in Moscow and at the country estate, the family was further disrupted when their father died of natural causes. The adolescent Tolstoy went to Kazan University, where he showed a suprising distaste for the subject of history. He complained, “Why should any one have to know that the second marriage of Ivan the Terrible to the daughter of Temryuk took place on August 21, 1562, or that the fourth to Ann Alekseyevna Koltovski happened in 1572?” He would later write one of the greaest historical novels of all time, “War and Peace”.
Unlike most other great Russian writers of his time, Tolstoy never became a bohemian or a political radical, and never joined the fashionable liberal circles in the Eurocentric city of St. Petersburg. (He did, however, enjoy gambling and prostitutes, and suffered from venereal disease at one point). He returned to the family estate after finishing his education, then joined the army to help Russia fight the Crimean War. He participated in several Crimean War battles including the seige of Sevastopol.
He married a middle-class woman, Sonya Andreyenva Bers, in 1862, and then began to devote his life to writing. His military experiences led to his first notable publication, a series of stories called “The Sevastopol Sketches”. But he was working on a great novel, and every time he thought this work-in-progress was ready for publishing he added more and more. Titled ‘War in Peace’, the legendarily long-winded (but powerful) novel travels back to a time before Tolstoy was born, when Russia was fighting a bitter war against Napoleon’s invading army. This epic novel, finally published to immediate acclaim between 1865 and 1869, would depict the war from both the Russian and French viewpoints, and would capture military conflicts, class conflicts and romantic conflicts on both sides.
Despite the novel’s broad structure, though, the story was clearly meant to be a celebration of the Russian soul and a mockery of the arrogance of Emporer Napoleon, who believed a single man (himself) could exert control over the future of mankind.
Tolstoy was inspired by the fame he achieved and the reciprocation of the public, publishing his next massive novel, ‘Anna Karenina’, in 1876. Like “War and Peace”, this book portrayed humans as mere circumstantial victims inside a cosmic lottery. Tolstoi believed in the concept of free will as a delusion (but a necessary one, as mankind must believe in free will for life to be bearable). These ideas were expressed in virtually every Tolstoy novel. He also believed that humanity was best interpreted not up close, but through the grand sweep of history.
Because Tolstoy became outspoken on religious matters, he was banished by the Russian Orthodox church on heretical grounds. Later, as his importance as a writer grew, he was allowed back into the church, but the excommunication had only increased his reputation as an outspoken man of learning and conviction. Like Henry David Thoreau in America, he spoke of simplicity as his personal religion, believing that the key to inner peace is found in simple living and ideals. This belief was manifested not only in his increasingly spiritual lifestyle but also in his writings after ‘Anna Karenina’, in which he eschewed stylization.
The author experienced personal as well as political strife, and his frugal, ascetic lifestyle began to be seen as increasingly eccentric to those around him, including his wife. Tolstoy’s later novels include ‘Conversation’, (1879) ‘A Confession and What I Believe’ (1880), ‘What is Art?’ (1884) and ‘The Death of Ivan Illyich’ (1886). Though productive, Tolstoy remained in turmoil and conflict with his wife and all but one of his children for much of his final ten years and died of pneumonia on November 7th, 1910 while attempting to leave home with his one faithful daughter.
The somber, colorless, mentally revealing prose of Tolstoy would become the template not only for Russian literature of the future (he was cited as an influence by both Nabokov and the Soviet Underground) but to fellow socio-political analysts Franz Kafka, Emile Zola, George Orwell and D. H. Lawrence. Another notable reader of Tolstoy was Mahatma Gandhi, one of many who would go on to fight for the same humanitarian ideals that had become this Russian nobleman’s life’s mission.