Leo Nikolaivich Tolstoy was born on August 28, 1828 to Princess Marie Volkonsky and Count Nicolas Tolstoy. Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana, the Volkonsky manor house on the road to Kieff in Russia. It was here that he was to spend the majority of his adult life. Leo was the fourth and last son of the family; they also had one daughter. Tolstoy’s mother died when he was 18 months old, an event that would forever affect his feelings about women and motherhood. His father died when Tolstoy was nine years old, and the children grew up with a variety of aunts. According to Tolstoy, one of those aunts, Tatiana Yergolsky, “had the greatest influence on [his] life” because she taught him “the moral joy of love.”
All four Tolstoy sons attended the University of Kazan. An irregular student, Tolstoy studied law, but he was more attracted by high society than by the rote learning methods employed at the University. When his brother Nicolas finished school and enlisted in the Russian military, Tolstoy took advantage of the opportunity to leave as well. He went to St. Petersburg and Moscow, where he led a debauched life and claimed in his diary that “I am living like a beast.” In April 1851 Nicolas, disturbed by the direction of his brother’s life, convinced him to head for the Caucasus Mountains with Nicolas’ artillery division. Their journey to the Caucasus, over land and sea, was to form the backbone of Leo’s 1861 novel The Cossacks. Tolstoy became a soldier and stayed in the Caucasus’ for three years, where he wrote his first novel, Childhood, in the winter of 1851-1852. It was published in a leading St. Petersburg review, Sovremennik, in September 1852. The review would also serialize some of Tolstoy’s later works, including Boyhood and Youth.
When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, Tolstoy was transferred to the front. During his experience with the War in Sebastopol, he had the first of many religious awakenings, believing that he needed to “create a new religion corresponding to the development of mankind.” After Sebastopol capitulated in August 1855, he went to St. Petersburg to report on the battle, and then he left the army for good. In St. Petersburg, Tolstoy was well-received by the literary community, but he also often fought with many of them, including disagreements with the great author Turgenev (Fathers & Sons). He was elected a member of the Moscow Literary Society in February 1859.
When Tolstoy’s beloved brother Nicolas died of consumption on September 20, 1860, he turned his focus towards his religious feelings and his desire to do good works. He toured Europe, studying its educational systems in the hope of starting new schools in Russia. When the serfs were liberated on February 19, 1861, he hurried back to Russia in order to mediate between them and their former masters. Unfortunately, because he frequently sided with the serfs, he was forced out of his mediator position. This conflict between Tolstoy’s status as a wealthy landowner and his desire to help the poor would cause him problems for the rest of his life.
On September 23, 1862, at the age of 34, Tolstoy married 18-year-old Sophia Behrs, the youngest daughter of a wealthy family which he had known for many years. During their early days of marriage, he conceived the idea of a novel based on the Decembrists, a group of noble families who attempted to bring the idea of a constitution to state attention in December 1825. As soon as he started doing research on their work, however, the whole period of the Napoleonic wars unfolded. The novel was to eventually become Tolstoy’s great epic, War and Peace. The novel was serialized over a period of five years, 1864-1869, and at first, the critics were completely baffled by it. Even Turgenev was unsure of the novel’s importance. It did not gain critical adoration until several years after it was completed.
Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s next work, was based on the real-life case of a young woman whom Tolstoy knew. She was a young society woman who threw herself under a train over what was then called “a romance.” The novel was serialized during 1873-1876, and was widely regarded as a triumph. At the time of Anna Karenina’s composition, Tolstoy was undergoing another important stage in his religious process. He was questioning the integrity of the Greek Orthodox Church and the morality of Russian high society; those questions are brought to the fore in this work.
Throughout the composition of Anna Karenina and later writings including Resurrection (1899) and the masterful short novel The Death of Ivan Ilyitch (1886), Tolstoy was heavily involved in public works. His work in the 1880s, for example, mostly involved a stream of pamphlets and didactic articles concerning religion, educational instruction, economics, and lifestyle. He wrote articles praising vegetarianism, temperance, chastity, and wealth redistribution through collective ownership of land. He underlined the importance of these lessons through personal example. When a series of famines struck Russia in the early 1890s, for example, he and his family moved deep into the countryside in order to set up soup kitchens – 246 of them by July 1892.
By the turn of the century, Tolstoy was universally loved and respected by all classes of people except for the very wealthy and powerful. In part to mediate some of his influence, the Russian Church (Greek Orthodox) excommunicated him in March 1901. He was also denounced by the state as an anarchist in 1891, and he increasingly had to publish his works abroad because of censorship. These measures failed to lessen Tolstoy’s popularity with the working class – on the day after the Church’s excommunication announcement, students and workers paraded in public squares and accosted Tolstoy with such support and sympathy that he was forced to run back into his house.
Though his health began to fail in 1901, Tolstoy continued his writing and his public work until the end of his life. In his final years, he became more fixed on spiritual ideas and moral perfection. Desiring complete freedom from social responsibilities, he left his wife on November 10, 1910 in order to live in a hut in the woods and concentrate on spiritual matters. It was during this final journey that he died, on November 21, 1910, in a village near the Shamardin Convent. Appropriately, peasants brought his body to Yasnaya Polyana.