Tolstoy Kept It Brief

(Here’s a fresh perspective on a classic writer by Alex Strike, a blogger and an essay writing specialist who can be found on Lifehack, Twitter or Facebook.)

When Vladimir Nabokov read his lectures on literature, he closed all the curtains in the room to make it totally dark and started to speak.

“On the horizon of Russian literature, this is Gogol” — and the small hall light flashed in the corner. “This is Chekhov” — and one more star appeared on the ceiling. “This is Dostoevsky” — Nabokov turned the light on here. “And this is Tolstoy!” The lecturer opened the curtains, and a bright blinding sunlight flooded the room.

Count Leo Tolstoy was the first writer who refused a copyright; he was an opponent of the Russian state system; he fulminated an anathema because he did not accept any religious authorities. He had refused the Nobel Prize, he hated money, and he always took the side of peasants. Many of his unique positions and practices are not known today.

He left us 165 000 sheets of manuscripts, 90 volumes of complete works, and 10 000 letters. He had been looking for the meaning of life and the universal happiness throughout his whole life, and he had found them in one word: kindness.

We all know Tolstoy as the author of long novels like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, which is why some do not realize that Tolstoy could write powerful short letters, stories, or novels. Indeed, his writings are filled with extremely long sentences and scrupulous levels of detail. Interestingly, his handwriting was often barely legible. The only person who could understand it was his wife, Sophia. She had to re-write War and Peace many times before Leo chose the final version to send to his editors. Here is the example of his handwriting:

At one time, a famous Italian physician named Cesare Lombroso examined the handwriting of Tolstoy and concluded that it belonged to a woman of pleasure who had psychopathic tendencies.

Despite the evidence of his effusive, rich and prosperous body of work, Tolstoy was a master of brevity. When, you may ask, did he keep it brief?

Tolstoy was capable of writing compact and pithy — when he wanted to. Along with his great novels, he left behind sixty-one short narratives, each consisting of less than eight thousand words. These stories include such works as What For?, Master and Man, Wisdom of Children, Ivan the Fool, What Men Live By, and others, including a series of fables.

The Fables

Tolstoy’s fables teach us morality through vivid images, epithets, metaphors, metonymy, humor, even sarcasm. Just take a look at some of them (Note: these Russian texts were newly translated for this article by its author, Alex Strike).:

The Olive-Tree and The Reed were arguing about who was stronger. The Olive laughed at The Reed and said that he bended from every wind, even a light one. The Reed kept silence. The Storm came: The Reed tottered, dangled, bended to the ground, but survived. The Olive strained against the wind, and broke.


One man had a hen that gave him golden eggs. He wanted more and more gold, so, he killed the hen (he thought there would be a big piece of gold inside); but it was like all other hens.


The Hen found snake eggs and began to incubate them. The Swallow noticed it and said: “How stupid you are! You’ll be the first one offended by them when they are born”.

Fairy tales

Another unexpected side of Tolstoy can be found in his fairy tales for kids. More than a hundred tales stand as perfect examples of Leo’s talent for brevity:

A child has got lost in the street. He is running, screaming, looking for his mother. People ask the child: “What does your mother look like, honey?” And the child answers crying: “Don’t you know? My mother is that one who is the best one.”

Thirty-four words. (Well, this is not Hemingway of course, whose shortest masterpiece contained six.) Not short enough? This story requires twenty-two words:

Sergey had three dogs. He teamed them into a triple and drove. The dogs left him all together, and Sergey was not able to catch them.


The shortest known written text by the genius Leo Tolstoy has been found and published not very long ago. He wrote this letter during the last year of his life, and the story related to it was quite amusing:

Leo had received a letter from one student with the surname Fedorov, who asked to explain the right pronunciation of the word “Rostova”. As far as you all remember, this is a surname of Natasha, one of female characters in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. So, the student asked the following question: what was the right word stress here, RostOva or ROstova? And Leo Tolstoy sent him a reply: “RostOva. L. T.” with a stress mark above the letter “O”.

This was described as probably the shortest letter Tolstoy ever wrote in About Tolstoy by Valentin Bulgakov, who was the author’s last secretary. The fact that he wrote the letter reveals Tolstoy as a polite person who did not want to leave a correspondence unanswered, but who still did not have enough time to write long sentences, or to explain why he decided to pronounce Natasha’s second name this way.


Finally, Leo Tolstoy left behind some powerful quotes, another testament today to his simple genius:

• There is no more or less in love.

• Everything comes to those who wait.

• Strong people are always simple.

• If you want to be happy, be.

• Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

• We lost because we told ourselves we lost.

• Boredom: the desire for desires.

5 Responses

  1. thank you. really
    thank you. really interesting piece. I have been reading some short stuff by Tolstoy recently and watched a documentary about him too. this has added to my little storehouse of Tolstoy knowledge.

  2. Thank you Michael! I always
    Thank you Michael! I always considered Tolstoy a genius of writing long masterpieces, that is why it was interesting for me to reveal some other aspects of his works. and I wasn’t disappointed 🙂

  3. Thanks for sharing this info
    Thanks for sharing this info about one of my favorite writers. Much appreciated!

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