Born to an aristocratic Russian family in 1828, he is best known for the novels War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), often cited as pinnacles of realist fiction. He first achieved literary acclaim in his twenties with his semi-autobiographical trilogy, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth (1852–1856), and Sevastopol Sketches (1855), based upon his experiences in the Crimean War. Tolstoy’s fiction includes dozens of short stories and several novellas such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Family Happiness, and Hadji Murad. He also wrote plays and numerous philosophical essays.
In the 1870s Tolstoy experienced a profound moral crisis, followed by what he regarded as an equally profound spiritual awakening, as outlined in his non-fiction work A Confession. His literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus, centering on the Sermon on the Mount, caused him to become a fervent Christian anarchist and pacifist. Tolstoy’s ideas on nonviolent resistance, expressed in such works as The Kingdom of God Is Within You, were to have a profound impact on such pivotal 20th-century figures as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Bevel. Tolstoy also became a dedicated advocate of Georgism, the economic philosophy of Henry George, which he incorporated into his writing, particularly Resurrection.
LEO TOLSTOY died one hundred and eight years ago today, aged 82. His last days and hours succumbing to pneumonia in a railway master’s house were followed by the entire world. A special telegraphic wire was installed in Astapovo to transmit news about the state of his health, and newspapers carried reports from the Russian and foreign press. Tostoy was hardly aware of all the commotion.
Nine days earlier he had left his estate in Yasnaya Polyana in secret before dawn, accompanied by his doctor. Having contemplated leaving home several times before, he decided it was finally time to break away from his family life, from the rows over his literary heritage, from the battles between his wife and his secretary. On the night of his escape he wrote that he was doing what people of his age do: leaving the worldly life to spend his last days in quiet and solitude.
On the way to the station he stopped at Shemardino convent to see his sister. He stayed the night in a hotel by a monastery, and again left at four in the morning, heading south. He did not get very far, reaching Astapovo with a high fever.
His escape from Yasnaya Polyana inspired his contemporaries with awe. It was seen as a heroic release from the constraints of life, the removal of the last barriers between him and the God. (“The release of Tolstoy” was the title of a wonderful account of Tolstoy’s last days by Ivan Bunin, a Russian poet and writer who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1933.) Tolstoy’s death—like his life—was a monumental event, particularly in Russia. Writers, artists, followers and peasants flocked to his funeral. Trains from Moscow to Yasnaya Polyana, where he was brought after his death, were packed. (The government forbade the running of extra trains.)
A “cinematograph” filmed the coffin being carried by peasants. A choir of 100 people sang “Eternal Memory” and a procession of some 10,000 people in black coats followed the coffin. There were no clergymen at the funeral. Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Orthodox Church. His relationship with God did not need intermediaries.
Leopold Sulerzhitsky, one of Tolstoy’s friends and followers, once wrote in a letter that there were two Tolstoys—the great and the real. “The great has remained and will remain for ever, and that is why he is not lost, but the kind friend, tender and patient, full of humility is gone for ever.” This assessment is in keeping with a new biography of the man by Rosamund Bartlett, “Tolstoy: A Russian Life”. Informative and detailed, with the facts of Tolstoy’s life and the usual tributes to his ideas, the book sadly lacks the flare necessary for breaking beyond the obvious.
“I fear the death of Tolstoy,” Anton Chekhov once observed. “If he were to die, a large empty space would appear in my life… So long as he lives, bad taste in literature, all vulgarity, insolence and snivelling, all crude, embittered vainglory, will stay banished into the outer darkness.” Chekhov never lived to see Tolstoy’s death, having died of tuberculosis six years before him at the more gentle age of 44. But he was right to understand that Tolstoy’s presence imposed certain ethical restrictions on Russian society.
Devastatingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death is hardly marked in Russia. Tolstoy was a man who opposed state violence, who considered the Church’s union with the state as blasphemous, who denounced pseudo-patriotism, and who wrote to Alexander III asking him to pardon those who assassinated his father. These principles are firmly out of fashion in today’s Russia. By turning Tolstoy into an icon, the Soviets ultimately hollowed him out.
On September 23, 1862, Tolstoy married Sophia Andreevna Behrs, who was 16 years his junior and the daughter of a court physician. She was called Sonya, the Russian diminutive of Sofia, by her family and friends. They had 13 children, eight of whom survived childhood
Tolstoy’s wife Sophia and their daughter Alexandra
The marriage was marked from the outset by sexual passion and emotional insensitivity when Tolstoy, on the eve of their marriage, gave her his diaries detailing his extensive sexual past and the fact that one of the serfs on his estate had borne him a son. Even so, their early married life was happy and allowed Tolstoy much freedom and the support system to compose War and Peace and Anna Karenina with Sonya acting as his secretary, editor, and financial manager. Sonya was copying and handwriting his epic works time after time. Tolstoy would continue editing War & Peace and had to have clean final drafts to be delivered to the publisher
However, their later life together has been described by A. N. Wilson as one of the unhappiest in literary history. Tolstoy’s relationship with his wife deteriorated as his beliefs became increasingly radical. This saw him seeking to reject his inherited and earned wealth, including the renunciation of the copyrights on his earlier works.
The Tolstoy family left Russia in the aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution and the subsequent establishment of the Soviet Union, and Leo Tolstoy’s relatives and descendants today live in Sweden, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and the United States. Among them are Swedish singer Viktoria Tolstoy and Swedish landowner Christopher Paus, Herresta.
A recent political manifesto published by Nikita Mikhalkov, one of Russia’s most odious, wealthy and Kremlin-favoured film directors, is a good example of the country’s dreary move away from Tolstoy’s ideals. Called “Right and Truth”, the 10,000-word call for “enlightened conservatism” draws on the ideas of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, one of Russia’s most reactionary thinkers, who viewed Tolstoy as one of his most dangerous enemies. (He once denounced democracy as “the insupportable dictatorship of vulgar crowd”, and saw Tolstoy’s non-violent resistance as a real threat.) As a senior figure in the Church, Pobedonostsev helped to initiate Tolstoy’s excommunication. In 1899 the Holy Synod banned all prayers in Tolstoy’s memory after his death.
A hundred and eight years after Tolstoy’s death, this ban feels very much in place in Russia today.