Biography of Leo Tolstoy, Influential Russian Writer

The great Russian novelist and philosophical writer

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy
Portrait of Leo Tolstoy, circa 1890.

 Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828-November 20, 1910) was a Russian writer, best known for his epic novels. Born into an aristocratic Russian family, Tolstoy wrote realist fiction and semi-autobiographical novels before shifting into more moral and spiritual works.

Fast Facts: Leo Tolstoy

  • Full Name: Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy
  • Known For: Russian novelist and writer of philosophical and moral texts
  • Born: September 9, 1828 in Yasnaya Polyana, Russian Empire
  • Parents: Count Nikolai Ilyich Tolstoy and Countess Mariya Tolstoya
  • Died: November 20, 1910 in Astapovo, Russian Empire
  • Education: Kazan University (began at age 16; did not complete his studies)
  • Selected Works: War and Peace (1869), Anna Karenina (1878), A Confession (1880), The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), Resurrection (1899)
  • Spouse: Sophia Behrs (m. 1862)
  • Children: 13, including Count Sergei Lvovich Tolstoy, Countess Tatiana Lvona Tolstoya, Count Ilya Lvovich Tolstoy, Count Lev Lvovich Tolstoy, and Countess Alexandra Lvona Tolstoya
  • Notable Quote: “There can be only one permanent revolution—a moral one; the regeneration of the inner man. How is this revolution to take place? Nobody knows how it will take place in humanity, but every man feels it clearly in himself. And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself."

Early Life

Tolstoy was born into a very old Russian aristocratic family whose lineage was, quite literally, the stuff of Russian legend. According to family history, they could trace their family tree back to a legendary nobleman named Indris, who had left the Mediterranean region and arrived in Chernigov, Ukraine, in 1353 with his two sons and an entourage of approximately 3,000 people. His descendant then was nicknamed “Tolstiy,” meaning “fat,” by Vasily II of Moscow, which inspired the family name. Other historians trace the family’s origins to 14th or 16th-century Lithuania, with a founder named Pyotr Tolstoy.

He was born on the family’s estate, the fourth of five children born to Count Nikolai Ilyich Tolstoy and his wife, the Countess Maria Tolstoya. Because of the conventions of Russian noble titles, Tolstoy also bore the title of “count” despite not being his father’s eldest son. His mother died when he was 2 years old, and his father when he was 9, so he and his siblings were largely brought up by other relatives. In 1844, at age 16, he began studying law and languages at Kazan University, but was apparently a very poor student and soon left to return to a life of leisure.

Tolstoy did not marry until his thirties, after the death of one of his brothers hit him hard. On September 23, 1862, he married Sophia Andreevna Behrs (known as Sonya), who was only 18 at the time (16 years younger than him) and was the daughter of a doctor at court. Between 1863 and 1888, the couple had 13 children; eight survived to adulthood. The marriage was, reportedly, happy and passionate in the early days, despite Sonya’s discomfort with her husband’s wild past, but as time went on, their relationship deteriorated into deep unhappiness.

Photo of Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sonya
Leo and Sonya Tolstoy, circa 1906.  Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Getty Images

Travels and Military Experience

Tolstoy’s journey from dissolute aristocrat to socially agitating writer was shaped heavily by a few experiences in his youth; namely, his military service and his travels in Europe. In 1851, after running up significant debts from gambling, he went with his brother to join the army. During the Crimean War, from 1853 to 1856, Tolstoy was an artillery officer and served in Sevastopol during the famous 11-month siege of the city between 1854 and 1855.

Although he was commended for his bravery and promoted to lieutenant, Tolstoy did not like his military service. The gruesome violence and heavy death toll in the war horrified him, and he left the army as soon as possible after the war ended. Along with some of his compatriots, he embarked on tours of Europe: one in 1857, and one from 1860 to 1861.

Portrait of young Tolstoy in military uniform
Tolstoy served as an officer during the Crimean War. Bettmann / Getty Images 

During his 1857 tour, Tolstoy was in Paris when he witnessed a public execution. The traumatic memory of that experience shifted something in him permanently, and he developed a deep loathing and mistrust of government in general. He came to believe that there was no such thing as good government, only an apparatus to exploit and corrupt its citizens, and he became a vocal advocate of non-violence. In fact, he corresponded with Mahatma Gandhi about the practical and theoretical applications of non-violence.

A later visit to Paris, in 1860 and 1861, produced further effects in Tolstoy which would come to fruition in some of his most famous works. Soon after reading Victor Hugo’s epic novel Les Miserables, Tolstoy met Hugo himself. His War and Peace was heavily influenced by Hugo, particularly in its treatment of war and military scenes. Similarly, his visit to the exiled anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon gave Tolstoy the idea for his novel’s title and shaped his views on education. In 1862, he put those ideals to work, founding 13 schools for Russian peasant children in the aftermath of Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs. His schools were among the first to run on the ideals of democratic education—education which advocates democratic ideals and runs according to them–but were short-lived due to the enmity of the royalist secret police.

Early and Epic Novels (1852-1877)

  • Childhood (1852)
  • Boyhood (1854)
  • Youth (1856)
  • "Sevastopol Sketches" (1855–1856)
  • The Cossacks (1863)
  • War and Peace (1869)
  • Anna Karenina (1877)

Between 1852 and 1856, Tolstoy focused on a trio of autobiographical novels: Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. Later in his career, Tolstoy criticized these novels as being overly sentimental and unsophisticated, but they’re quite insightful about his own early life. The novels are not direct autobiographies, but instead tell the story of a rich man’s son who grows up and slowly realizes that there is an insurmountable gap between him and the peasants who live on the land owned by his father. He also wrote a trio of semi-autobiographical short stories, Sevastopol Sketches, which depicted his time as an army officer during the Crimean War.

For the most part, Tolstoy wrote in the realist style, attempting to accurately (and with detail) convey the lives of the Russians he knew and observed. His 1863 novella, The Cossacks, provided a close look at the Cossack people in a story about a Russian aristocrat who falls in love with a Cossack girl. Tolstoy’s magnum opus was 1869’s War and Peace, a massive and sprawling narrative encompassing nearly 600 characters (including several historical figures and several characters strongly based on real people Tolstoy knew). The epic story deals with Tolstoy’s theories about history, spanning many years and moving through wars, family complications, romantic intrigues, and court life, and ultimately intended as an exploration of the eventual causes of the 1825 Decembrist revolt. Interestingly, Tolstoy did not consider War and Peace to be his first “real” novel; he considered it a prose epic, not a true novel.

Illustration of a ballroom scene
Illustration of Natasha's first ball in "War and Peace" from a 1893 edition.  Leonid Pasternak / Wikimedia Commons

Tolstoy believed his first true novel to be Anna Karenina, published in 1877. The novel follows two major plotlines which intersect: an unhappily married aristocratic woman’s doomed affair with a cavalry officer, and a wealthy landowner who has a philosophical awakening and wants to improve the peasantry’s way of life. It covers personal themes of morality and betrayal, as well as larger social questions of the changing social order, contrasts between city and rural life, and class divisions. Stylistically, it lies at the juncture of realism and modernism.

Musings on Radical Christianity (1878-1890)

  • A Confession (1879)
  • Church and State (1882)
  • What I Believe (1884)
  • What Is to Be Done?  (1886)
  • The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886)
  • On Life (1887)
  • The Love of God and of One's Neighbour (1889)
  • The Kreutzer Sonata (1889)

After Anna Karenina, Tolstoy began further developing the seeds of moral and religious ideas in his earlier works into the center of his later work. He actually criticized his own earlier works, including War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as not being properly realistic. Instead, he began developing a radical, anarcho-pacifist, Christian worldview that explicitly rejected both violence and the rule of the state.

Between 1871 and 1874, Tolstoy tried his hand at poetry, branching out from his usual prose writings. He wrote poems about his military service, compiling them with some fairy tales in his Russian Book for Reading, a four-volume publication of shorter works that was intended for an audience of schoolchildren. Ultimately, he disliked and dismissed poetry.

Two more books during this period, the novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) and the non-fiction text What Is to Be Done? (1886), continued developing Tolstoy’s radical and religious views, with harsh critiques of the state of Russian society. His Confession (1880) and What I Believe (1884) declared his Christian beliefs, his support of pacifism and complete non-violence, and his choice of voluntary poverty and asceticism.

Political and Moral Essayist (1890-1910)

  • The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893)
  • Christianity and Patriotism (1894)
  • The Deception of the Church (1896)
  • Resurrection (1899)
  • What Is Religion and What is its Essence? (1902)
  • The Law of Love and the Law of Violence (1908)

In his later years, Tolstoy wrote almost solely about his moral, political, and religious beliefs. He developed a firm belief that the best way to live was to strive for personal perfection by following the commandment to love God and love one’s neighbor, rather than following the rules set by any church or government on earth. His thoughts eventually garnered a following, the Tolstoyans, who were a Christian anarchist group devoted to living out and spreading Tolstoy’s teachings.

By 1901, Tolstoy’s radical views led to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church, but he was unperturbed. In 1899, he had written Resurrection, his final novel, which critiqued the human-run church and state and attempted to expose their hypocrisy. His criticism extended to many of the foundations of society at the time, including private property and marriage. He hoped to continue spreading his teachings throughout Russia.

Tolstoy at his writing desk
Tolstoy at his desk, circa 1908. Library of Congress / Getty Images

For the last two decades of his life, Tolstoy largely focused on essay writing. He continued advocating for his anarchist beliefs while also cautioning against the violent revolution espoused by many anarchists. One of his books, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, was one of the formative influences on Mahatma Gandhi’s theory of nonviolent protest, and the two men actually corresponded for a year, between 1909 and 1910. Tolstoy also wrote significantly in favor of the economic theory of Georgism, which posited that individuals should own the value they produce, but society should share in the value derived from the land itself.

Literary Styles and Themes

In his earlier works, Tolstoy was largely concerned with depicting what he saw around him in the world, particularly at the intersection of the public and private spheres. War and Peace and Anna Karenina, for instance, both told epic stories with serious philosophical underpinnings. War and Peace spent significant time criticizing the telling of history, arguing that it’s the smaller events that make history, not the huge events and famous heroes. Anna Karenina, meanwhile, centers on personal themes such as betrayal, love, lust and jealousy, as well as turning a close eye on the structures of Russian society, both in the upper echelons of the aristocracy and among the peasantry.

Later in life, Tolstoy’s writings took a turn into the explicitly religious, moral, and political. He wrote at length about his theories of pacifism and anarchism, which tied into his highly individualistic interpretation of Christianity as well. Tolstoy’s texts from his later eras were no longer novels with intellectual themes, but straightforward essays, treatises, and other non-fiction work. Asceticism and the work of inner perfection were among the things Tolstoy advocated for in his writings.

Sepia-toned portrait of an older Tolstoy
Portrait of Tolstoy later in life. Photos.com / Getty Images 

Tolstoy did, however, get politically involved, or at least publicly expressed his opinions on major issues and conflicts of the day. He wrote in support of the Boxer rebels during the Boxer Rebellion in China, condemning the violence of the Russian, American, German, and Japanese troops. He wrote on revolution, but he considered it an internal battle to be fought within individual souls, rather than a violent overthrow of the state.

Over the course of his life, Tolstoy wrote in a wide variety of styles. His most famous novels contained sweeping prose somewhere between the realist and modernist styles, as well as a particular style of seamlessly sweeping from quasi-cinematic, detailed but massive descriptions to the specifics of characters’ perspectives. Later, as he shifted away from fiction into non-fiction, his language became more overtly moral and philosophical.

Death

By the end of his life, Tolstoy had reached a breaking point with his beliefs, his family, and his health. He finally decided to separate from his wife Sonya, who vehemently opposed many of the ideas and was intensely jealous of the attention he gave his followers over her. In order to escape with the least amount of conflict, he slipped away secretively, leaving home in the middle of the night during the cold winter.

His health had been declining, and he had renounced the luxuries of his aristocratic lifestyle. After spending a day traveling by train, his destination somewhere in the south, he collapsed due to pneumonia at the Astapovo railway station. Despite the summoning of his personal doctors, he died that day, on November 20, 1910. When his funeral procession went through the streets, police tried to limit access, but they were unable to stop thousands of peasants from lining the streets—although some were there not because of devotion to Tolstoy, but merely out of curiosity about a nobleman who had died.

Legacy

In many ways, Tolstoy’s legacy cannot be overstated. His moral and philosophical writings inspired Gandhi, which means that Tolstoy’s influence can be felt in contemporary movements of non-violent resistance. War and Peace is a staple on countless lists of the best novels ever written, and it has remained highly praised by the literary establishment since its publication.

Tolstoy’s personal life, with its origins in the aristocracy and his eventual renunciation of his privileged existence, continues to fascinate readers and biographer, and the man himself is as famous as his works. Some of his descendants left Russia in the early 20th century, and many of them continue to make names for themselves in their chosen professions to this day. Tolstoy left behind a literary legacy of epic prose, carefully drawn characters, and a fiercely felt moral philosophy, making him an unusually colorful and influential author across the years.

Sources

  • Feuer, Kathryn B. Tolstoy and the Genesis of War and Peace. Cornell University Press, 1996.
  • Troyat, Henri. Tolstoy. New York: Grove Press, 2001.
  • Wilson, A.N. Tolstoy: A Biography. W. W. Norton Company, 1988.