About the Author

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy

Russian author, one of the greatest of all novelists. Tolstoy's major works include War and Peace (1863-69), characterized by Henry James as a "loose baggy monster", and Anna Karenina (1875-77), which stands alongside Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Fontane's Effi Briest as perhaps the most prominent 19th-century European novel of adultery. Tolstoi once said, "The one thing is necessary, in life as in art, is to tell the truth." Tolstoy's life in often seen to form two distinct parts: first comes the author of great novels, and later a prophet and moral reformer.

Leo Tolstoy was born at Yasnya Polyana, in Tula Province, the fourth of five children. The title of Count had been conferred on his ancestor in the early 18th century by Peter the Great. His parents died when he was a child, and he was brought up by relatives. In 1844 Tolstoy started his studies of law and oriental languages at Kazan University, but he never took a degree. Dissatisfied with the standard of education, he returned in the middle of his studies back to Yasnaya Polyana, and then spent much of his time in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

In 1847 Tolstoy was treated for veneral disease. After contracting heavy gambling debts, Tolstoy accompanied in 1851 his elder brother to the Caucasus, and joined an artillery regiment. In the 1850s Tolstoy also began his literary career, publishing the autobiographical trilogy Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1854), and Youth (1857).

During the Crimean War Tolstoy commanded a battery, witnessing the siege of Sebastopol (1854-55). In 1857 he visited France, Switzerland, and Germany. After his travels, Tolstoy settled in Yasnaja Polyana, where he started a school for peasant children. He saw that the secret of changing the world lay in education. He investigated during further travels to Europe (1860-61) educational theory and practice, and published magazines and textbooks on the subject. In 1862 he married Sonya Andreyevna Behrs (1844-1919); she bore him 13 children. Sonya also acted as her husband's devoted secretary.

Tolstoy's fiction grew originally out of his diaries, in which he tried to understand his own feelings and actions so as to control them. He read widely fiction and philosophy. In the Caucasus he read Plato and Rousseau, Dickens and Sterne; through the 1850s he also read and admired Goethe, Stendhal, Thackeray, and George Eliot.

Tolstoy's major work, War and Peace, appeared between the years 1865 and 1869. The epic tale depicted the story of five families against the background of Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Its vast canvas includes 580 characters, many historical, others fictional. The story moves from family life to the headquarters of Napoléon, from the court of Alexander to the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino.

War and Peace reflected Tolstoy's view that all is predestined, but we cannot live unless we imagine that we have free will. The harshest judgement is reserved for Napoleon, who thinks he controls events, but is dreadfully mistaken. Pierre Bezukhov, who wanders on the battlefield of Borodino, and sees only the confusion, comes closer to the truth. Great men are for him ordinary human beings who are vain enough to accept responsibility for the life of society, but unable to recognise their own impotence in the cosmic flow.

Tolstoy's other masterpiece, Anna Karenina (1873-77), told a tragic story of a married woman, who follows her lover, but finally at a station throws herself in front of an incoming train. The novel opens with the famous sentence: "Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Tolstoy juxtaposed in the work crises of family life with the quest for the meaning of life and social justice. "The Oblonsky home was in turmoil," Tolstoy writes as an introcution to his themes. Anna Karenina comes to Moscow to reconcile the Oblonskys. Her love affair with Vronskii parallels with another plot, Konstantin Levin's courtship and marriage to Kitty Shcherbatskaia. Tolstoy sees that everywhere the family life of the landed gentry is breaking up, but he did not accept nihilist theories about marriage. Aleksei Karenin is unable to save his career or make Anna happy. "For the first time he vividly conjured up her personal life, her thoughts, her wishes; and the idea that she might, and even must have a personal life all her won was so frightening that he hastened to drive it away. This was the chasm into which he dared not look." Through Levin, who seeks the meaning of existence, Tolstoy states, that "everything has now been turned upside down and is only just taking shape."

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. 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 labour with common criminals to exile with the "politicals". The novel affirmed Tolstoy's belief in the primacy of the individual conscience over the collective morality of the group.

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. In 1901 the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated the author. Tolstoy became seriously ill and he recuperated in Crimea.

Tolstoy's teachings influenced Gandhi in India, and the kibbutz movement in Palestine, and in Russia his moral authority rivaled that of the tsar. After leaving his estate with his disciple Vladimir Chertkov on the urge to live as a wandering ascetic, Tolstoy died of pneumonia on November 7 (Nov. 20, New Style) in 1910, at a remote railway junction. His collected works, which were published in the Soviet Union in 1928-58, consists of 90 volumes.

In his study What is Art? (1898) Tolstoy condemned Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Dante, but not really convincing. He stated 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 can 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 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; love of enemies.

Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.