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|Print version. Published on site Rusnet.NL 8 December 2003
Russian author, one of the greatest of all novelists.
Tolstoy's major works include War and Peace (1863-69), characterised 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. Leo Tolstoy was born on September 9, 1828 (New Style) at Yasnaya Polyana, in Tula Province, the fourth of five children. 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.
Tolstoy was treated for veneral disease in 1847, and for most of the rest of his life was troubled by his tendency to debauch himself on a grand scale.
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 Sevastopol (1854-55).
In 1857 he visited France, Switzerland, and Germany to learn more about society and how to reform it. After his travels Tolstoy settled in Yasnaya 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 copiously, both in literature 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 was convinced that philosophical principles can only be understood in their concrete expression in history. 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 Napoleon, from the court of Alexander to the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino.
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.
After finishing Anna Karenina Tolstoy renounced all his earlier works and wrote Conversion (1879) to explain his doctrines. Voskresenie (1899, Reseurrection) was Tolstoy's last major novel.
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 rivalled that of the tsar.
After leaving his estate on the urge to live as a wandering ascetic, Tolstoy died of pneumonia on November 20 in 1910, at a remote railway junction.
His collected works, which were published in the Soviet Union in 1928-58, consists of 90 volumes.