Leo Tolstoy was one of the world’s pre-eminent writers becoming famous through his epic novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina. War and Peace has been ranked as one of the greatest novels of all time, for its rich characterisation and sweeping view of Russian society. Tolstoy also became a leading critic of injustice, formal religion and the inequality of Tsarist Russia. While critical of the church, he believed in the essence of gospels and espoused a form of primitive Christianity. In politics, his exposition of pacifism and non-violence had a profound influence on others – most notably Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
“The hero of my tale, whom I love with all the power of my soul, whom I have tried to portray in all his beauty, who has been, is, and will be beautiful, is Truth.”
– Leo Tolstoy
Short Bio – Leo Tolstoy
Born in 1828, Leo Tolstoy came from an aristocratic Russian family with links to some of the most powerful Russian families. He was the fourth cousin of Alexander Pushkin.
In his early life, he struggled with his studies and drifted through life ending up with large gambling debts. Fed up with his aimless and empty life he volunteered to serve in the Russian army. However, these experiences as a soldier led him to become a pacifist in later life. He wrote his battlefield observations in Sevastopol Sketches, and this raised his profile as a leading Russian writer, gaining the attention even of the current Tsar. Later, looking back on these years (in his Confessions 1882), he bitterly regretted his misspent years
“I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain. I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants’ toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat. Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder — there was not a crime I did not commit… Thus I lived for ten years.”
– Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy had a deep interest in seeking a greater understanding and justification of life. He travelled widely through Europe but became increasingly disenchanted with the materialism of the European Bourgeoisie. He could be argumentative with those he disagreed with such as Turgenev (widely considered the greatest Russian writer of his generation). He also developed an increasing sympathy with peasants, the poor, and those downtrodden from society. He went out of his way to help and serve them.
In 1862 he married Sofia Andreyevna Behrs, 16 years his younger. This marriage provided a degree of stability out of which Tolstoy wrote his great epics War and Peace and the novel Anna Karenina.
War and Peace is breathtaking in its scope, realism and sense of history. Some characters were real historical people; others were invented. It tells a narrative of two families set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Tolstoy never saw it as a novel but an epic. Amongst other themes, it suggests the necessity of making the best of life, whatever your situation.
“Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is the one thing we are interested in here.”
– Leo Tolstoy from War and Peace
Religious views of Tolstoy
After writing War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy underwent a change of religious and philosophical attitude. Influenced by Buddhism and Jesus Christ’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ he developed a belief in spiritual renewal based on service to the poor and direct relationship with God. He noted his attitudes in ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you’ and ‘Confessions’.
“The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity by contributing to the establishment of the kingdom of God, which can only be done by the recognition and profession of the truth by every man.”
Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of Heaven is within You.
His religious views could be described as an early form of Christianity – based on the direct teachings of Jesus Christ, but without the external edifice of religious institutions and ‘myths’ such as the Holy Trinity and Eucharist. Tolstoy felt the power and influence of the church diluted the spiritual essence of religion. Due to his criticism of the Orthodox Church, he was ex-communicated from the church but his legacy as a writer and unique thinker was enhanced throughout the world. His philosophy began to attract disciples, and idealistic Tolstoy communes began to form.
His religious views also had a direct impact on his political views. He was critical of injustice, greed and the inequality that tended to dominate Tsarist Russia. He developed a pacifist/anarchist philosophy, and became supportive of civil disobedience to improve the welfare of the oppressed. However, his criticism of the Tsar and Russian class system meant the government started to spy on Tolstoy. He was too internationally famous to directly challenge him, but Tolstoy’s strident criticism of the aristocracy was worrying for the authorities.
Life and death
Tolstoy was interested in the meaning of life and death. During his own life, he witnessed the painful death of his brother from tuberculosis, multiple deaths in the Crimean War and a public guillotining in Paris (which contributed to his rejection of the death penalty). He wrote on this theme of death in his short novel Death of Ivan Ilyich. He completed the book in 1882, but it fell foul of Russian censorship and it was not published until 1886. It is written after his religious conversion and touches on the distinction between what gives life value – sympathy, concern and love – and the ‘artificial life’ of social climbing and outer material displays. It is also critical of the attitudes of his former colleagues and friends who are embarrassed by the inconvenience of his fatal illness, but in the novel, he praises the selfless action of a peasant (Gerasim) who turns out to be Ivan’s greatest friend in his painful moments of dying.
Friendship with Gandhi
In the evening of his life, he developed a close relationship with a young Mahatma Gandhi. Tolstoy had written an article supporting Indian independence and Gandhi requested permission to republish it in a South African newspaper. This led to a long correspondence where the two wrote to each other on religious and political matters. Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi.
“Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills, and in it you too have the only method of saving your people from enslavement… Love, and forcible resistance to evil-doers, involve such a mutual contradiction as to destroy utterly the whole sense and meaning of the conception of love.” – Letters One from Tolstoy to Gandhi
Gandhi was very impressed with Tolstoy’s belief in non-violent resistance, vegetarianism and brand of ‘anarchist Christianity’. Gandhi later became a pre-eminent proponent of non-violent resistance and credited Tolstoy with being a major inspiration in his religious and political outlook.
Death of Tolstoy
On 28 October 1910, Tolstoy left his family home outside Moscow, leaving a note to his wife saying:
“I am doing what old men of my age usually do: leaving worldly life to spend the last days of my life in solitude and quiet,”
However a few days, later he was taken ill on a train passing through a remote Russian village called Astapovo. Suffering from pneumonia, Tolstoy was taken off the train and looked after at the station master’s house. His final days created worldwide media interest with media outlets sending reporters to cover whether Tolstoy would recover. However, his condition steadily worsened and he began slipping in and out of consciousness. On 7 November 1910, he passed away.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Leo Tolstoy”, Oxford, UK www.biographyonline.net. Last updated 4 March 2020. Originally published 22nd Jan. 2009.
Tolstoy: A Russian Life at Amazon
Quotes on Tolstoy
Gandhi said of Tolstoy “the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced”
Virginia Woolf went on to declare him “greatest of all novelists”
James Joyce said of Tolstoy “He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical”
Fyodor Dostoevsky thought him the greatest of all living writers
Famous Russians – Including famous royals, politicians, scientists, composers, authors and sportsmen.
Famous authors – Famous authors. J.R.R. Tolkien, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.
People who changed the world – Famous people who changed the course of history.
Famous pacifists – People who refused to fight and people who supported different forms of pacifism.