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Leo Tolstoy - Biography

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

There are some artists who spend their lives shrouded in mystery -- whose works obscure as much about the person behind them than they reveal. The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy is definitely not one of those artists. Throughout his life, Tolstoy found his natural medium for self-expression, and possibly even for being, in the written word, and we still have those words by which to measure the man.

Tolstoy, the son of a Russian aristocrat, was born in 1828 on his family's estate near Moscow. His mother died when he was not yet two; his father, when Leo was eight. He was raised by a series of aunts and educated by private tutors. Beyond any doubt he was a brilliant child, but did not do well at his studies because they did not interest him.

At sixteen he entered the University of Kazan, intending to become a diplomat. He quickly switched to law, but did poorly at that too. During college he seemed much more intent on pursuing a vigorous program of both mental and physical exercise, coupling strenuous activity with a voracious program of fiction-reading. He left school without graduating.

Returning to the family estate which he had recently inherited, he vacillated between trying to improve the lives of the peasants at home and drinking and gambling freely in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was at this point in his life that he began the prolific writing habit that would become his most notable characteristic. Still a boy at heart, he decided to leave home and pursue adventure in the Caucasus Mountains.

There he volunteered for the army and fought both in local battles (something like a National Guardsman) and in the Crimean War. This experience would become invaluable fodder for his later writing. Although Tolstoy was a born aristocrat, his work invariably presents those in power as corrupt, manipulative, and spiritually dead, while the peasants are presented as faithful, loyal, loving and giving. The true soul of Russia, Tolstoy was convinced, lay in its peasants; the aristocracy were merely parasites and leeches. 

After his war experiences, Tolstoy returned to St. Petersburg, where he met Turganev, then the premier Russian man of letters. The elder Turganev thought Tolstoy was wild and actually somewhat insane; this impression was not softened by Tolstoy's nightly bouts of carousing. Nonetheless, the other side of Tolstoy's personality still persisted in his moral and altruistic concern for those less fortunate than himself. He had become interested in the education of peasants back in Yasnaya Polyana, and this interest flowered during the late 1850s and early 1860s. He took two trips to Europe to visit French and German schools, looking for ideas he could bring back to his own state.

During this period, Tolstoy, now thirty-four, married a beautiful young girl, Sonya Behrs, who lived on a neighboring estate. She was only eighteen at the time of their marriage, and had already read his published memoirs; nonetheless, Tolstoy took the additional step of forcing her to read his much more graphic diaries so there would be nothing about him she did not know. 

His early married years were extremely productive, in two very different senses; he fathered several of his thirteen children, and he wrote his greatest novel, War and Peace. After completing this monumental undertaking, Tolstoy worked on a number of nonfiction projects, primarily essays on education and a reading primer. In 1873, however, he began work on a new novel, dealing with the difficult and -- in the late nineteenth century -- almost taboo subject of adultery. This book, which would become Anna Karenina, wore on him heavily, and yet he seemed chained to the project, writing as if he were doomed to do it.

The process of writing Anna Karenina was slowed by the deep psychological depression Tolstoy was experiencing during that time. At fifty, he came face to face with the ultimate question: what is the meaning of life? Tolstoy was forced to acknowledge he had no idea. He found this thought so distressing, so absolutely unbearable, that he was plagued with thoughts of suicide. In 1880, three years after the completion of Anna Karenina, he published his Confession, which explored his spiritual dilemma through a study of religion and philosophy. By the end of the book, he ultimately reached the conclusion that the reason for living comes from other people.

Following the Confession, Tolstoy continued his religious explorations and philosophizing, and this resulted in three other works of this type: A Criticism of Dogmatic Theology, A Translation and Harmony of the Four Gospels, and What I Believe. Although these sound like traditional Christian apologetics, they are in fact a continuation of the thought processes begun in the Confession. He advocates a policy of absolute nonresistence to evil; he argued as well against wealth and working for personal gain. He found the real meaning of Christianity in Christ's call to social action, and all his subsequent works were on this topic.

Tolstoy's life during this period mirrored his art. He gave up meat, alcohol, and smoking; he undertook an intense regimen of physical labor. He seemed to be punishing himself for all the delights of the senses in which he had indulged so freely in his younger years. Although this change in lifestyle caused intense dissention between Tolstoy and his wife Sonja, he became more and more ascetic. Finally, in September of 1910, he decided that forty-eight years of marriage to a woman who did not understand him had been enough. He packed his bags and got on a train, intending to leave her; however, while on the train he became so ill that he disembarked at Astapovo, where he died a few days later.

Although many readers today find Tolstoy difficult to read, many of his stories seem almost mythic in their inevitability, and there is a purity about them that belies their depth. Tolstoy's contribution to literature lies in his depiction of the complex nature of the human spirit and its relationship to God.

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