Graf Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy
Aug. 28, 1828 - Nov. 7, 1910
Leo Tolstoy was born to land owning nobility in Yasnaya Polyana, Tula Province, Russia; about 100 miles south of Moscow. Tolstoy's parents died when he was a youngster and he was raised by relatives. This heir to a significant estate was taught by tutors and did not receive a great deal of exposure to the world outside of his social status. As a young man, of sixteen, Tolstoy attended Kazan University. He was not pleased with the instruction he received there, left the university in 1847 and returned home to manage his estate. Bored with country live, the young Tolstoy preferred the social life of Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 1852, he joined the army in search of adventure and purpose.
Tolstoy served honorably in the Caucasus and published his first works while still on active duty. Childhood was printed in the magazine, The Contemporary, followed by Tolstoy's experiences in the Caucasus in The Raid and The Woodfelling. In 1854, Tolstoy was transferred to the Danube and fought there during the Crimean War. During this tour of duty, he wrote Sevastopol, describing the often unnoticed heroism of the common soldier. Tolstoy left the army in 1856 and moved to St. Petersburg and, later, back to his estate in Yasnaya Polyana.
The next period of Tolstoy's life involved travel. In 1857, he visited Germany, France and Switzerland. At age thirty, he began to settle down. Tolstoy returned home and started a school for peasant children in Yasnaya. Enthralled with his new-found mission in life, Tolstoy traveled, once again, to Europe in 1860-61. This time, his trip was for the purpose of doing research on various teaching methods. This resulted in Tolstoy compiling text books that won considerable acclaim.
In 1862, Tolstoy married a middle class girl, Sofya (Sonya)Andreyevna Bers. He abandoned his educational endeavors and focused all his energies and attention into his marriage. During the following fifteen years, Leo and Sonya had thirteen children! Tolstoy managed the affairs of his estate and wrote his two greatest masterpieces; War and Peace and Anna Karenina; during this period.
War and Peace took seven years to write and is set in 1805-1814 Russia. It deals with the history and high society of five upper-class families, contrasted sharply against the struggles and hardships of the nation during this time of the Napoleonic war. War and Peace is considered one of the top three most significant literary works of all time. Even so, Tolstoy was heavily criticized for his opinions and theories about war and the people who wage it. Tolstoy objected to the way historians typically attach credit for great accomplishments to a single, heroic individual. He insisted that there are two types of people in the world; those who take action and those who do not. Any event or accomplishment is the result of the actions of many. Tolstoy was the champion of the unsung heros of the world.
Anna Karenina is darker and less optimistic than War and Peace. It deals with the upper-class society during 1860's Russia. The story revolves around the immoral affair between Anna and Vronsky. It is contrasted by the happy marriage of Kitty and Levin. Tolstoy develops the phycology of Vronsky in every detail. He is pessimistic about the meaning of life, considers suicide and endures social condemnation for his sympathies towards the peasantry. Some critics believe that Vronsky is autobiographical to this extent, while the happy marriage of Kitty and Levin is reflective of Leo and Sonya's union.
By the time Tolstoy was fifty, he had become extremely disenchanted with his successful life. Torturing thoughts about the meaning of life and the inequities of society drove him to a state of spiritual crisis. He delved into the works of the great philosophers and theologians to no avail. It was the peasants, who he admired and sympathized with, that gave him the answer he was searching for. Their code of life was simple: serve God and not oneself. Tolstoy gleaned from the Gospels his theory that Christ's true message was that each person has within themselves to discern good and to use the power it gives to give meaning to life.
Tolstoy's interpretation of the Words of Christ resulted in five commandments to live by; do not grow angry, do not lust, do not bind yourself by oaths, do not fight with those who are evil and treat the just and unjust with equal kindness. These views are expanded in his book The Gospel in Brief, in which Tolstoy combines the four Canonical Gospels into one, based on his interpretation. He denounced immorality, disavowed the authority of the Church and government over men's lives. Tolstoy rejected the notion of privately owned property )this was very radical coming from a large estate holder) because it had be taken by force. For his rather radical spirituality, Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Church (1901) and pressured into dividing his land holdings among his relatives, rather than disposing of the ownership altogether.
During his latter years, Tolstoy wrote on religious and spiritual themes. His most noted works of this period are A Confession, An Examination of Dogmatic Theology (an attack on the Russian Orthodox Church), What Then Must We Do? (extremely vivid piece on life in the Moscow slums) and The Death of Ivan Ilich. Tolstoy's last great work was the novel, Resurrection (1899). It does not have the artistic quality of his former masterpieces but is pointed in its message. Tolstoy, almost preaching, stresses the ills of society, corrupt nature of the judicial system and injustices of the Church as he saw them to be.
Tolstoy endeavored to make changes in his personal life that reflected his code of spirituality. He stopped drinking, smoking, became a vegetarian and dressed in peasant garb. Tolstoy's wife did not agree with his, so called, conversion and resulting way of life. She rejected his insistence upon total chastity and went behind his back to obtain sole ownership of family property and the copyrights to his pre-1880 writings. This was not greed on her part as she saw it; merely the way to rightfully provide a proper standard of living for their large family. Many of these works were not published till after Tolstoy's death and proved to be some of his greatest contributions to the literary world. Included were such works as Father Sergius, The False Coupon, Alyosha Gorshok and a collection of plays. Unlike Marxism; which, also, supports a classless society; Tolstoy believed the only way to true equality of all people was through moral perfection and the supreme law of love.
Tolstoy died a very troubled and sad man. In his later years, he yearned for the monastic life, free of possessions and devoted to service to humanity. His beliefs fell in sharp contrast to the pampered, upper-class life of his family in which he was forces to exist. His live, he believed, made a travesty of his spiritual beliefs and teachings. Tolstoy was a disgrace and a joke within his own family. Not able to bear this any longer, he left home one night, accompanied by his doctor and youngest daughter, Aleksandra. His hope was to find a place where he would be welcome and could live out the remainder of his life in peace. This would be no easy task as no monastery would have him due to his excommunication in 1901. No one knows for sure what transpired during the few days after Tolstoy left his home. What is know is this; on November 7, 1910 (old calendar), at the age of 82, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was found dead, apparently of pneumonia, at an isolated railroad junction in Astopovo, Ryazan Province, Russia.
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