Leo Nicolaevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) was the next to youngest of five children, descending from one of the oldest and best families in Russia. His youthful surroundings were of the upper class gentry of the last period of serfdom. Though his life spanned the westernization of Russia, his early intellectual and cultural education was the traditional eighteenth century training. Lyovochka (as he was called) was a tender, affection seeking child who liked to do things “out of the ordinary.” Self-consciousness was one of his youthful attributes and this process of self-scrutiny continued all his life. Indeed, Tolstoy’s life is one of the best documented accounts we have of any writer, for the diaries he began at seventeen he continued through old age.
In 1844 Leo attended the University of Kazan, then one of the great seats of learning east of Berlin. He early showed a contempt for academic learning but became interested enough at the faculty of Jurisprudence (the easiest course of study) to attend classes with some regularity. Kazan, next to St. Petersburg and Moscow, was a great social center for the upper class. An eligible, titled young bachelor, Tolstoy devoted his energies to engage in the brilliant social life of his set. But his homely peasant face was a constant source of embarrassment and Tolstoy took refuge in queer and original behavior. His contemporaries called him “Lyovochka the bear,” for he was always stiff and awkward.
Before his second year examinations, Tolstoy left Kazan to settle at his ancestral estate, Yasnaya Polyana (Bright Meadow) which was his share of the inheritance. Intending to farm and devote himself to improve the lot of his peasants, Tolstoy’s youthful idealism soon vanished as he confronted the insurmountable distrust of the peasantry. He set off for Moscow in 1848 and for two years lived the irregular and dissipated life led by young men of his class. The diaries of this period reveal the critical self-scrutiny with which he regarded all his actions, and he itemized each deviation from his code of perfect behavior. Carnal lust and gambling were those passions most difficult for him to exorcise. As he closely observed the life around him in Moscow, Tolstoy experienced an irresistible urge to write. This time was the birth of the creative artist and the following year saw the publication of his first story, Childhood.
Tolstoy began his army career in 1852, joining his brother Nicolai in the Caucasus. Garrisoned among a string of Cossack outposts on the borders of Georgia, Tolstoy participated in occasional expeditions against the fierce Chechenians, the Tartar natives rebelling against Russian rule. He spent the rest of his time gambling, hunting, fornicating.
Torn amidst his inner struggle between his bad and good impulses, Tolstoy arrived at a sincere belief in God, though not in the formalized sense of the Eastern Church. The wild primitive environment of the Caucasus satisfied Tolstoy’s intense physical and spiritual needs. Admiring the free, passionate, natural life of the mountain natives, he wished to turn his back forever on sophisticated society with its falseness and superficiality.
Soon after receiving his commission, Tolstoy fought among the defenders at Sevastopol against the Turks. In his Sevastopol sketches he describes with objectivity and compassion the matter-of-fact bravery of the Russian officers and soldiers during the siege.
By now he was a writer of nationwide reputation and when he resigned from the army and went to Petersburg, Turgenev offered him hospitality. With the leader of the capital’s literary world for sponsor, Tolstoy became an intimate member of the circle of important writers and editors. But he failed to get on with these litterateurs: He had no respect for their ideal of European progress and their intellectual arrogance appalled him. His lifelong antagonism with Turgenev typified this relationship.
His travels abroad in 1857 started Tolstoy toward his lifelong revolt against the whole organization of modern civilization. To promote the growth of individual freedom and self-awareness, he started a unique village school at Yasnaya Polyana based on futuristic progressive principles. The peasant children “brought only themselves, their receptive natures, and the certainty that it would be as jolly in school today as yesterday.” But the news of his brother’s illness interrupted his work. Traveling to join Nicolai in France, he first made a tour of inspection throughout the German school system. He was at his brother’s side when Nicolai died at the spa near Marseille, and this death affected him deeply. Only his work saved him from the worse depressions and sense of futility he felt toward life.
The fundamental aim of Tolstoy’s nature was a search for truth, for the meaning of life, for the ultimate aims of art, for family happiness, for God. In marriage his soul found a release from this never ending quest, and once approaching his ideal of family happiness, Tolstoy entered upon the greatest creative period of his life.
In the first fifteen years of his marriage to Sonya (Sofya Andreyevna Bers) the great inner crisis he later experienced in his “conversion” was procrastinated, lulled by the triumph of spontaneous life over questioning reason. While his nine children grew up, his life was happy, almost idyllic, despite the differences which arose between him and the wife sixteen years his junior. As an inexperienced bride of eighteen, the city bred Sonya had many difficult adjustments to make. She was the mistress of a country estate as well as the helpmate of a man whose previous life she had not shared. Her constant pregnancies and boredom and loneliness marred the great love she and Tolstoy shared. In this exhilarating period of his growing family, Tolstoy created the epic novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, while Sonya, rejoicing at his creative genius, faithfully turned his rough drafts into fair copy.
Toward the end of 1866, while writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy entered on the prolonged and fateful crisis which resulted in his conversion. He recorded part of this spiritual struggle in Anna Karenina. The meaning of life consists in living according to one’s “inner goodness,” he concluded. Only through emotional and religious commitment can one discover this natural truth. Uniquely interpreting the Gospels, Tolstoy discovered Christ’s entire message was contained in the idea “that ye resist not evil.” This doctrine of “non-resistance” became the foundation of Tolstoyism where one lived according to nature, renouncing the artificial refinements of society. Self-gratification, Tolstoy believed, perverted man’s inherent goodness. Therefore property rights — ownership by one person of “things that belong to all” — is a chief source of evil. Carnal lust, ornamental clothing, fancy food are other symptoms of the corrupting influence of civilization. In accordance with his beliefs, Tolstoy renounced all copyrights to his works since 1881, divided his property among his family members, dressed in peasant homespun, ate only vegetables, gave up liquor and tobacco, engaged in manual work and even learned to cobble his own boots. Renouncing creative art for its corrupt refinements, Tolstoy wrote polemic tracts and short stories which embodied his new faith.
But the incongruity of his ideals and his actual environment grieved Tolstoy. With his family, he lived in affluence. His wife and children (except for Alexandra) disapproved of his philosophy. As they became more estranged and embittered from their differences, Sonya’s increasing hysteria made his latter years a torment for Tolstoy.
All three stages of Tolstoy’s life and writings (pre-conversion, conversion, effects of conversion) reflect the single quest of his career: to find the ultimate truth of human existence. After finding this truth, his life was a series of struggles to practice his preachings. He became a public figure both as a sage and an artist during his lifetime and Yasnaya Polyana became a mecca for a never-ceasing stream of pilgrims. The intensity and heroic scale of his life have been preserved for us from the memoirs of friends and family and wisdom seeking visitors. Though Tolstoy expressed his philosophy and theory of history with the same thoroughness and lucidity he devoted to his novels, he is known today chiefly for his important contributions to literature. Although his artistic influence is wide and still pervasive, few writers have achieved the personal stature with which to emulate his epic style.