Leo Tolstoy was born on September 9, 1828. Tolstoy was a novelist, playwright, and essayist, generally considered to be among the finest writers who ever lived. His political and religious writings also had a strong impact on later generations of social activists.
Tolstoy was born into a well-known family of Russian nobility. He entered university at 16, planning to study law and languages, but he was neither a very good student nor a well-motivated one, and he left school before completing his studies.
After leaving the university, Tolstoy began writing, which appears to be the only thing he took very seriously. He enjoyed the relaxed life of a young, wealthy aristocrat, but his vices eventually caught up with him; by 1851, he was heavily in debt from gambling, and he joined the army to make enough money to repay his debts. Tolstoy served as an artillery officer during the Crimean War (1853-1856), rising to the rank of lieutenant and receiving official recognition for his bravery in battle.
During his years in the army, his first novels were published. The trilogy Childhood (e-book | e-audio | print), Boyhood (e-book | print), and Youth (e-book | print) told the story of a rich man’s son coming of age and realizing that he does not share the values of his parents. Tolstoy later rejected them as being overly sentimental, but they are strongly autobiographical and offer insight into the early stages of his political thinking.
Tolstoy was horrified by his military experience and left the army as soon as the war was over. He wrote about the war in the three short stories that make up Sevastopol Sketches (e-book). His political and literary thinking was further shaped by two trips he took through Europe, in 1857 and 1860-61.
On the first trip, Tolstoy witnessed a public execution in France. The sight led him to a passionate commitment to non-violence and a strong distrust of government. “...the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit but above all to corrupt its citizens...Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere,” he wrote in a letter to a friend.
During his travels in France, Tolstoy met Victor Hugo, whose novels influenced his own writing. He also met the French politician and philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who was among the first people to declare himself an anarchist. They discussed their theories of education, and their conversation so moved Tolstoy that when he returned to Russia, he founded several schools for the children of recently emancipated Russian peasants (serfdom had been abolished in Russia in 1861). Political pressures led to the schools being closed fairly quickly, but they were among the first experiments in democratic education, giving the students a say in their own education.
Tolstoy married in 1862. He and his wife, Sonya, had 13 children—only eight survived beyond childhood—and their married life was very happy, at least in the beginning. Sonya served as Tolstoy’s secretary and financial manager. She was also his copyist, writing out repeated drafts of his work as he edited and revised new drafts for his publisher. In that capacity, she copied out by hand at least seven drafts of War and Peace, a novel that was more than 1,200 pages long in its first printing.
War and Peace (e-book | e-audio | print), the first of Tolstoy’s two great masterpieces, is a massive tale of the Napoleonic era and the French invasion of Russia. It follows the members of five noble families from 1805 to 1820, and includes more than 500 characters, many of them historical figures.
Tolstoy followed War and Peace with his other classic work, Anna Karenina (e-book | e-audio | print | audio). It’s the story of a noblewoman who has an affair with a cavalry officer and comes to feel increasingly confined by the social restrictions on her life.
In the last decades of his life, Tolstoy was increasingly given to spiritual reflection, and his later writing began to focus on religious themes. His 1884 My Religion (e-book | e-audio) was a statement of his Christian faith, focusing on “turn the other cheek” as a commandment to non-violence. A decade later, in The Kingdom of God Is Within You (e-book), he argued for a complete re-organization of society based on strict Christian principles. He had come to believe that the aristocracy was an unfair burden on the poor, and that land ownership was immoral.
By 1901, Tolstoy’s essays had become so anarchist and pacifist that he was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church. He continued to promote the writings of other Russian anarchists and to help them find publishers.
Tolstoy’s 1908 Letter to a Hindu (e-book) urged nonviolence as a tactic for India for gain its independence from the British empire. Mohandas Gandhi, who was working as a lawyer in South Africa and only beginning his career as a political activist, read the essay, and it greatly shaped his thinking. After also reading The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy, and the two men corresponded for more than a year until Tolstoy’s death.
At the end of Tolstoy’s life, his marriage to Sonya was deteriorating rapidly. As his religious and political philosophies grew more extreme, she found him harder to live with. In their final days, they were arguing over what would become of the copyrights to his works after his death. He wanted to place all of his work in the public domain; she wanted to retain control of his work in order to support herself after his death. Determined to finally abandon his wealth and his aristocratic life, he signed the document relinquishing his copyrights and left Sonya. Within a few days, he became seriously ill and died at a nearby train station on November 20, 1810. (The 2009 movie The Last Station is a somewhat fictionalized account of Tolstoy’s last days, with Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren as the Tolstoys.)
Tolstoy’s two great works have been adapted in a variety of formats. War and Peace has been turned into an opera by Sergei Prokofiev, and filmed at least twice—a 1956 English-language version starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn, and a 1967 Russian-language version. There are two different TV miniseries adaptations, a 2007 French-Italian co-production and a 2016 BBC version. And a piece of the novel was adapted as the musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which played for several years off-Broadway before opening on Broadway in 2016.
Anna Karenina has been even more popular. It’s been filmed more than a dozen times, most notably in 1935 with Greta Garbo and in 2012 with Keira Knightley; Helen McCrory stars in a 2000 TV miniseries version. Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin scored a 1972 ballet, and later ballet productions were built around pre-existing music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Alfred Schnittke. Novelist Ben H. Winters adds steampunk elements to Tolstoy’s story in Android Karenina (e-book | e-audio | print).
David Carlson’s 2007 opera based on Anna Karenina has an interesting backstory. The libretto by Colin Graham had been written 40 years earlier for English composer Benjamin Britten, who had been commissioned by the Bolshoi Theatre to write a Karenina opera. That project was abandoned after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.
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