Biography of Leo Tolstoy

leo tolstoy

ca. 1897. Wikimedia Commons.

“Tolstoy,” by Rosemund Bartlett, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, NY, 2011, 454 pages

Summary by David P. Bridges

TOLSTOY was born in 1828 at the family estate inherited by Tolstoy’s grandfather in 1784. Lev grew up on the 5,500 acre estate, Yasnaya Polyana, which was carefully landscaped complete with ponds, gardens, paths and an imposing manor house, all cared for by hundreds of serfs. Tolstoy married Sonya Bers in 1862. They had 14 children, born on the estate. He was totally enthralled with his family history and, throughout his writing career, Lev pillaged his family history for creative material to use in developing his fictional characters. Count and Countess Rostov in War and Peace are prime examples from his family history. His family pedigree meant a great deal to him.

The ocean was probably the one element which would never hold any attraction for him. The emotional sensitivity his father noticed in him as a young boy rendered him very susceptible to crying. His father Nikolay loved hunting, both riding to hounds and shooting, and considered hunting second only to warfare as an arena for showing courage and bravado. Young Tolstoy was brought up with a gun in his hand, and he loved to hunt.

Tolstoy was raised with foreign tutors, who were a fixture in Russian Noble households. Tutors and governesses were imported, chiefly from France, Germany and England. At an early age, Tolstoy’s inborn eccentricities had begun to exhibit themselves in various ways. Young Lev would spend his life asserting his independence and resisting people’s attempts to make him conform. He had an in borne family trait called dikost, which literally means “wildness” or “weirdness,” eccentricity, or absurdity. Tolstoy was noted for his independence of thought, and he had a propensity to do the opposite of everyone else.

Tolstoy’s mother died when he was at an early age, and he never knew her. His father, Nikolay, spent grueling years in the Russian army during and after the Napoleonic invasion. He had a tendency to drink too much, and he died in 1837, which left Lev an orphan at age nine. In 1908, Lenin would famously characterize the “tearing off of masks” as a hallmark of Tolstoy’s fiction, possibly due to his being an orphan, and forced to deal with a sheer reality. He resented submission to any authority. It was probably Lev’s dikost which impelled him to go up to the classroom on the mezzanine floor one day, and take a running jump out the window. He claimed afterwards that he had wanted to “do something unusual,” and surprise everyone.

Tolstoy lost his virginity at age 14, and would later define the subsequent 20 years as a period of “crude desolate living in the service of ambition, vanity, and, above all, lust.” In 1841, he moved to the provincial city of Kazan and attended the University there. During his adolescence in Kazan, it was his brother, Sergey, who led Lev into debauchery. Dickens and Rousseau were some of his favorite writers. Here, his social consciousness was beginning to awaken, but it would be a long time before he would renounce his aristocratic birthright, and become a fully-fledged “repentant nobleman.”

Tolstoy oscillated between setting unrealistic, puritanical goals for a future life of purity, self-denial, and self-mortification, which followed his actual pursuit and enjoyment in the present of hedonistic social life. Lev started compiling rules for developing his will-power, which included getting up at 5 AM, and going to bed no later than 10 PM, with two hours permissible for sleeping during the day. He resolved to carry out everything he prescribed for himself: eat moderately, and eat no “sweets,” to walk for an hour every day, and visit a brothel only twice a month. (In March 1847, he was treated for gonorrhea.)  By the 1850s, Tolstoy had an inability to suppress the physical attraction he felt towards the pretty peasant girls on his estate. He once again succumbed to gambling, drinking and spending time with the Gypsies in Tula. It was a matter of great consternation to him that his attempts to find a bride always ended in failure.

At the early age of 11 years old, Tolstoy consciously began to question his faith. In 1855, he remarked in his diary, “the religion of Christ [must be] purged of dogma and mystery, [made a] practical religion, not promising future bliss, but providing bliss on earth.” He was always considered a religious writer, concerned with seeking the truth. The icon had fulfilled the role of theology in the Russian Orthodox Church. There simply was no written theological tradition in Russia as there was in the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches.  When the art of icon painting fell into decline in the 19th century, (after the Orthodox Church was made into a department of the state,) it was literature which took its place. Russia began instinctively to understand the role of literature as theology. Consequently, Tolstoy’s writing is hailed for its realism, but it is a very emblematic, religious kind of realism. Lev was the scourge of the Russian Empire for being himself an iconoclast, and respecting no authority, including, most famously, the Orthodox Church. One Russian Monk saw Tolstoy as “the devil in human form.”

In the 1880s, Lev was strangely attracted to the Moravian Brethren, a church which dates back to the rebellion against Roman Catholicism in the late 14th century. They were early predecessors to Luther and the Protestants. Though he was not trying to start a new church, Tolstoy dispensed with all sacraments, believing only in the merits of a simple life of service. He would eventually renounce his Orthodox faith. Ironically he became the most influential spiritual leader in Russia.

In March of 1847, in a diary entry, he notes that, “my  turbulent creative journey began on this date.” His diary would fill 14 volumes of his collected works. Later in life he would write short stories, combining a degree of fantasy with a moral. The 629 works he produced during his lifetime comprised tales, fables, legends and sketches.

A great Russian mythological character was Ilya of Murom. To this day, he is the most powerful literary personification of the Russian people. Ilya is a peasant’s son, who lives at home on the brick stove until he is 33 years old, apparently unable to move. After some wandering beggars give him strength, he then sets out on his horse to perform mighty feats, defeating whole armies single-handedly, and always drawing his superhuman power from the Russian land. Ilya was a warrior who combined strength with meekness, patience and stamina.  While deriving no pleasure from killing, he passionately defends his nation. He became an Orthodox Saint, and a symbol of spiritual power. Tolstoy wrote into his characters the spirit and traits of Ilya.

He struggled to stop caring about other people’s opinion of himself. If Tolstoy’s siblings seemed more settled than he was, it was because none of them nurtured such huge aspirations. He read voraciously. Tolstoy came of age in a very bleak time in Russia’s history, which was something he became aware of only gradually. Nicholas I had begun his reign in 1825, by suppressing the Decembrist Uprising of a group of army officers who had staged an ill-fated coup. His regime had grown more repressive and reactionary as time went on. Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837, author and founder of Russian literature) and Nikolai Golgol (1809-1852, Ukrainian dramatist, novelist and short story writer) had dominated the literary scene during the previous decade.  Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883, Russian novelist, short story writer, playwright) was also an acclaimed writer, a friend at first, and then an enemy of Tolstoy.

In the winter of 1848, Tolstoy led a hedonistic life and developed a passion for playing cards and gambling. His fellow writer, a proletariat, Dostoyevsky, was also a fellow gambler, to the point of the losses of even the shirt on his back. Both of these Russian writers had a trait from the educated class: an indifference to money which bordered on contempt. Two giants of Russian literature would spend their lives coming close to each other but never meeting, either physically or ideologically. For one thing Dostoyevsky was socially Tolstoy’s inferior, and for another, he was his main rival, but they would also come to espouse radically different world views.

Soldier Tolstoy, Crimean War Artillerist.

He fought with bravery while he was in the Army. He was renowned for his physical strength and stamina, spending long periods in the saddle and fighting with bravery while serving with the Russian army. His first-hand experience of warfare in the Caucuses would prove to be invaluable when he later came to write the battle scenes in War and Peace. The Terek Cossacks were horsemen, close to nature, and embodied characteristics that Tolstoy wrote into his characters. The Cossacks was published in 1863 just before he began War and Peace.

In 1852, Tolstoy was appointed Bombardier, 4th Class, in the 4th Battery of the Russian Army’s 20th Artillery Brigade. He was involved in raids against the Chechens and other mountain tribes. He had submitted his first book, Childhood, for publication, and when it had been accepted, he was utterly delighted. However, in May 1854, he had to sell his mansion home to settle his financial affairs, (due to his gambling problem) which saddened him deeply. He sold off the estate home, brick by brick, and it was rebuilt 20 miles away by the new owner.

The Crimean War was tipped off by access to the holy sites in Palestine, but was really about Russia’s expansionist ambitions, and the threat that they represented to French and British interests. The Crimean Peninsula became the main theater of war. Lev had a sadistic superior who often put him in the trenches, and he found himself exposed to mortal danger on more than one occasion, watching people killing each other every morning and evening. In this time he read: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Las Cases’ Memoirs of Napoleon, De Tocqueville and Goethe. By September 1854, he was in the besieged city of Sevastopol, Russia’s main naval base on the Black Sea. Here he found himself in the 3rd Battery of the 14th Light Artillery Brigade.

By April 1855, Tolstoy had finished Sevastopol in December. Tolstoy’s descriptions of the soldier’s heroism and suffering were deeply moving, the more so for the calm, unsensational tone in which he delivered them. Next came Sevastopol in May which was far bleaker work, as he witnessed the French fly the flag over the inflamed city. Finally, he completed Sevastopol in September. These three works would profoundly affect his writing on war, and his thoughts on war reflected in War and Peace. In 1856, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant for his bravery in Sevastopol, but he had little interest in continuing his career in the military.

Tolstoy came out with provocative opinions, and seemed to go out of his way to be contrary and outrageous. He came to despise the social conventions of high society, but he made an exception for family. He was very thin-skinned and took offense easily. The controversy amongst the Russian intelligentsia, between the two warring camps of the Slavophile and Westernisers, remained for the rest of the course of Tolstoy’s life.

Tolstoy, before his time and the timing of Russian culture, began to sketch out a project to free his serfs. He was to become a “repentant nobleman” as he saw serfdom as inhumane, and he would take on the writer’s voice of morality in the nation in relation to this and so many other issues. In 1861, Alexander II’s Emancipation of Serfdom Act, written by Metropolitan Filaret, freed 23 million serfs without bloodshed. Noblemen who were against freedom of the peasants thought a peasant was “like a stray dog — not worth giving a crust to, as they would eventually come to grief anyway.” Tolstoy disagreed, now viewing most of his fellow nobles as vile parasites.

Tolstoy thought it took an abundance of vanity for anyone wishing to become a writer. His belief that art should deal with eternal moral rather than the ephemeral truth of political ideology was infused into his works. He wrote a lot of short stories that were parities of parable of art and morality.

By 1858, he was back at Yasnaya Polyana and lived in the wings of the old mansion. With one of his serfs he had an illegitimate son named Timofey who worked for him as his coachman. At the end of his life, he would come to experience feelings of bitter remorse over the affair, which he sublimated in the writing of his later story, The Devi”. During this winter, he went bear hunting with some friends because it was traditional to hunt bears while they were hibernating in Russia. On the first day, armed with two rifles and a dagger, Tolstoy killed a bear wrestling it with his bare hands. On the second day, a bear nearly killed him after being frightened by the sound of a gunshot. A few weeks later, he went back and killed the bear that had nearly killed him.

In the next year, his social consciousness inspired him to open a school for peasant children on his estate. By 1862, the school had brought notice to Tolstoy because he was hanging around dangerous figures like Alexander Herzen (1812-1870, Russian thinker) and Joachim Lelewel (1786-1861, Polish historian, bibliographer, polyglot and Politian) and the government began to build a file on him. Tolstoy eventually lost interest in the schooling of peasants because of a young 18-year-old woman named Sofya Andreyevna. He was 34, thus there was a 16 year difference in their ages.

He had been looking for a woman that he could mold and educate according to his tastes. As the daughter of a doctor descended from a German immigrant and an illegitimate Russian noblewoman, Sofya certainly could not boast such an impressive pedigree as Tolstoy’s.

On Sunday, September 16, 1862, he proposed to Sonya, (spelling changed) and at his insistence, they were married seven days later. They arrived back at his estate and he told her that “he had not known that it was possible to be so happy, and that he loved his wife more than anything else in the world.” Thus began what was to be an extraordinary fruitful partnership, in which Sonya acted as amanuensis to her husband, performing an invaluable service by deciphering the often barely legible handwriting of the amendments, which were invariably crammed into the margins of his torturously composed drafts.

The Cossacks was a kind of Rousseau-inspired metaphor of Tolstoy’s spiritual journey in the decade before his marriage. With his marriage now secure, he was ready to go back to writing fiction for an educated audience about members of his own class. After being married a year to Sonya, he found his literary voice and began writing War and Peace, his own epic, one of the longest and greatest works of fiction ever written. On February 25 of 1863, Sonya noted that her husband had started a new novel. The novel was War and Peace in over 5,000 manuscript pages, numerous false starts, and several different titles, but six years later, he was finished.

In the spring of 1863, Tolstoy bought cattle, sheep, birds and pigs, and tried vainly to interest Sonya in milking and butter churning. Apart from being pregnant, she was also a city girl, and she found she could not tolerate the smell of the manure in the cattle sheds. So he created the second largest orchard in Europe, and cultivated an interest in bees and aviaries. He was not always wise when it came to practical things. (farming was one of these things.)

In 1864, it was the birth of his son, Sergey, that began the happiest years of the Tolstoy’s marriage. Lev and Sonya’s relationship became stronger and more stable, leading him to declare in a diary entry that he and Sonya “meant more to each other than anyone else in the world.” By sitting up late at night to write out legible copies of her husband’s drafts, (which gave her a sense of involvement in his creative life), she became indispensable to his artistic productivity. Tolstoy believed that the happiness they experienced was only discovered “in one in a million couples.”

He wrote to a relative “I’ve never felt my intellectual, and even all my moral energies, to be so free and so capable for work. And I’ve got work going on inside me now. This work is a novel about the period from 1805 through 1820… I’m now a writer with all the power of my soul, and am writing and thinking as I have never written and thought before. I’m a happy and calm husband and father, with nothing to hide from anybody, and no wish except for everything to go on like this…”

In relation to the conception of War and Peace, Tolstoy’s initial plan was to artistically capture the history of the nation over a 50 year period. What he called the Three Ages would begin with 1805 to 1812, the second would focus on 1820s and the Decembrists, and the third would bring the action into the disastrous Crimean War. The “best laid plans of mice and men” seldom come to fruition, so he focused the novel on the events leading up to 1812. For the next six years, his iron discipline was focused, because he lived in a hospitable environment, Yasnaya Polyana, in the heart of the Russian countryside, supported by his devoted wife.

Tolstoy and wife Sonya.

Tolstoy and wife Sonya.

In the 1860s, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoyevsky were all at the height of their power. Tolstoy gathered his hundreds of sources on the Napoleonic Wars, used his autobiographical instincts and drew heavily for his most memorable characters from his own immediate family members; real-life people provided his spark to create. Also for inspiration, he was reading: Homer, Goethe, Hugo, and Stendhal.  By 1865, he delivered to The Russian Messenger the first part of the novel called The Year 1805.

Alexander Herzen was a Russian thinker, Agrarian, and the founder of Socialism, who influenced Tolstoy’s thinking at this time. According to Lev, the novel he completed in 1869 was not a novel or historical fiction, but a narrative poem. The novel ultimately was about sin, separation from God, and the absence of human relatedness, and redemption, the restoration of love. Sonya copied the entire novel 7 times before it was published, and she pointed out grammatical issues to Tolstoy as she copied. She became the emotional anchor of stability which allowed him to concentrate on his writing. He believed a woman’s role as “Queen” was to primarily bear children, reproducing the species, and the thoughts that encompassed his thinking would become a central theme in Anna Karenina.

In this work, he infused classic family values, and many of the hunting scenes came from his own experiences hunting on the estate. In his diary entry in October of 1870, he states “Poetry is the fire burning in a person’s soul. This fire burns, warms and brings light…There are some people who feel the heat, others who feel the warmth, others who just see the light, and others who do not even see the light…But the true poet cannot help burning painfully, and burning others. That’s what it is all about.” Lev was inspired by the outdoors, and did a great deal of cross-country skiing, skating, gardening, mowing fields with the peasants and hunting woodcocks, hares and wolves. City life chaffed him.

Tolstoy always found the start of a new work of fiction mentally taxing, and reported “Thinking through and reflecting on everything that could happen to all the future people of my forthcoming work, which is going to be very big, and thinking through millions of possible combinations in order to choose 1/100,000 is terribly difficult.” Two years after finishing War and Peace, he had succumbed to melancholy thoughts and lost his will to live. Sonya encouraged him to get started on another novel, to refocus his thoughts and ambitions. Author Schopenhauer, a hero of Tolstoy’s as a philosopher (1788-1860, focused on Buddhism, Metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, phenomenology, morality and psychology) influenced his thinking, and as a result, Lev hung a picture of him on his study wall.

Lev cared deeply about the role of public education, and in 1872 he published a thirteen-year project titled ABC, (758 pages, 28 editions in his life and 1 million copies sold,) which taught children the 35 letters of the Cyrillic alphabet. The Greek alphabet was close to the Cyrillic. Consequently, he became obsessed with learning Greek, which logically followed the study of the New Testament. For young readers, he wrote two of his best fictional works in this time period: God Sees the Truth but Waits, and Captive of the Caucasus. He discovered St. Antony of Egypt, the founder of monasticism, and to some degree, ascetic life. Lev began to focus more on “Russian wandering based on a constant life of pilgrimage without material possessions.” He dreamed of becoming a wanderer, and eventually did late in his life.

Tolstoy bought 7,000 acres of Bashkirs land, (Turkic peoples of the Muslim faith where Europe meets Asia) a people who by the middle eighteenth century had their lands absorbed by the Russian Empire. He thought he could cultivate the good pasture lands, and quickly make back the money he invested through the sale of the crops. The place became a summer getaway for the family. However, in 1873 there was a famine in the region, so he went to work, raising 2 million rubles, and spear-heading the collection of 344,000 kilograms of grain. This helped him to empathize with the struggles of the peasant population of Samara region.

Lev thought his next novel would be on Peter the Great, the first Reformer of Russia, and he started the novel 33 times. He read an enormous number of books and articles of history, trying to learn what it was like to live in that time. The more he read the more he disliked Peter, and finally dismissed him as a “drunken jester”. He now had the desire to write on his contemporaries.

In 1862, Nickolay Chernyshevsky (1828-1889, a Russian revolutionary democrat, materialist philosopher and utopian socialist) wrote a novel titled, What Is to be Done? In his classic nihilist text, he championed women’s liberation and free love. In response to this, Tolstoy had been thinking about a defense of marriage and conservative family values, set against the radical intelligentsia.

In 1872, a thirty-five-year-old woman named Anna Pirogova, (a distant relative of Sonya’s,) arrived at the Yasenski railway station close to his estate.  Anna’s husband had told her he was going to run off with a younger German woman.  In a jealous rage, she wrote him a note accusing him of being her murderer before throwing herself under the train. This incident convinced Lev to move forward with his novel, Anna Karenina, about a society woman who commits adultery and suicide. His view was to hate the crime but not the person, and this holds the key to why Anna Karenina is one of the most compelling and complex literary characters ever created.

Tolstoy had been riveted by Pushkin in Tales of Belkin, who started his novel by going straight into the action without even bothering to set the scene first, or describe the characters. Consequently he began his untitled novel: The hostess had just managed to take off her sable fur coat in the hall and give instructions to the butler about tea for the guests in the large drawing room, when there was the rattle of another carriage at the front door… He reworked the crucial opening scene four times to get it exactly right. He was gradually finding his way into his next novel and he thought it “was the first proper novel in his life.”

Tolstoy determined he no longer wanted the novel to just be the story of high-society marital infidelity. Consequently, he wrote more autobiographically, including topics that interested him like ploughing techniques. He was going through a difficult time of despair in his life, and he thought there had to be more than breeding a kind of horse, shooting ten hares in one field and learning Arabic; all of these no longer brought him satisfaction. Lev thought his only hope was that he had misunderstood the meaning of life. He went hunting without a gun for fear of turning it on himself, finding it impossible to get away from thoughts of death and the notion that nothing else remained for him in life. Self-doubt increasingly bedeviled Tolstoy as he struggled to finish his novel. The concluding sentence of the Anna Karenina novel was written in 1877.

Lev began his spiritual crisis by first becoming a devout communicant of the Orthodox faith. He undertook a study of all world religions, produced a translation of the Gospels (similar to Thomas Jefferson, he left out all miracles, the resurrection and focused it on Christ’s morals and ethics), wrote a searing autobiographical book about his quest for the meaning of life, read Joseph Renan’s (1823-1892, French expert of Middle East ancient languages and civilizations, philosopher and writer) Life of Jesus, and set out to follow Christ’s teachings.

He had given up praying at sixteen, and lost his belief at eighteen, but in his late forties, he began to yearn for the guidance provided by strong religious beliefs, as he had given up on philosophy. He began again saying his prayers every day, going to church, and fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. He discovered Optina Pustyn monastery where the Eastern Christian practice of Hesychasm (inner stillness and Jesus Prayer) was observed. He met father Ambrosy there, hoping against hope that he might find answers to spiritual questions which tormented him.

The Father later remarked after meeting with him: “His heart seeks God, but there is muddle and a lack of belief in his thoughts. He suffers from a great deal of pride, spiritual pride. He will cause a lot of harm with his arbitrary and empty interpretation of the Gospels, which in his opinion no one has understood before him, but everything is God’s will.” Sonya was happy to see her husband calm down after the violent mood swings of the previous years, and that his character had changed for the better. She noted that no one in the family seemed to take Christianity as seriously as he did. He went to church and studied the peasants’ faith, because he observed their faith was so strong. One positive outcome of Tolstoy’s new Christian outlook was his desire to “save his soul, as he put it, which meant “being at peace with the world.”

In 1878, ten years had lapsed since War and Peace. He went to Moscow to search archives for information on the Decembrist Uprising as he entertained it as a subject for another novel. While increasing his Samara estate by 10,000 acres, he witnessed sectarianism, which was an integral part of the spiritual life of the Russian people, contributing to a mass exit of peasants from the Orthodox Church. A generation of Russian nihilists was developing who preached the religion of socialism.

Tolstoy next visited Kiev, the cradle of Russian civilization, to visit the famed Caves Monastery which dated back to the early eleventh century. This was a turning point in his spiritual journey; he concluded after the visit, “The Church, from the present day all the way back to the third century, is one long series of lies, cruelty and deception.” He ventured to Tula to speak to Father Alexander who recommended he read Metropolitan Makary’s Dogmatic Theology, and his renowned History of the Russian Church. Lev’s research resulted in his rejection of the divinity of Christ and the Orthodox dogma. Lev saw the light when he realized “goodness, forbearance and love amongst the people was the Gospels, not the Church.” He completed, Union and Translation of the Four Gospel, Confession  and Investigation of Dogmatic Theology and thought the first treatise the most important work of his life.

Lev thought Jesus was a lone crusader swimming against the current of public opinion, a “humble sectarian” with whom he could identify, as well as look up to morally. He had stripped the Gospels down to their moral message by discarding accounts of Christ’s baptism and early childhood, all miracles, the story of the Resurrection, and anything referring to Jesus as a divine figure, and passages highlighting the special mission of anointed apostles, about half the Gospels were written out according to his thought, and money was an evil in itself. The Sermon on the Mount was the cornerstone to his belief system, and he essentially became a Protestant in the footsteps of Martin Luther, Jan Hus, and John Calvin. He had turned his back on his successful novelist career in favor of his spiritual journey.

He wanted to escape his previous life by divesting himself of property, which included his literary works. The government had become further suspicious of him, and the police began to follow his every move in conjunction with The Ministry of Internal Affairs in St. Petersburg. Vladimer Chertkov (1854-1936, was Tolstoy’s editor and one of the most prominent Tolstoyan followers) became his closest friend and the two worked together to disseminate his ideal of “true Christianity.” Vladimer was devoted to the peasantry, and he was inspired by unorthodox Christian ideals. However, Sonya had become fed up with her husband being a “holy fool,” reneging on his duties as a father, and no longer even interested in being a part of the family. Lev gave up eating meat, stopped drinking wine, hunting, and tried to give up smoking. He began to study the transcendentalist philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and wanted to proselytize the masses.

Since 1882, he had worked on a major new treatise, What Then Must We Do? Its topics were poverty, exploitation, and the evils of money and private property, (i.e., emancipation from private ownership), brought him to conclude physical labor, humility, and personal endeavor were admirable worthy spiritual objectives. His diatribe against the wealthy ruling class was dedicated to the notions that each person’s moral and religious duty was Agrarian, that to earn their bread through physical labor was imperative, regardless of social class. His title, On Life, presented his philosophical foundations of his new world views. The book expounded on the rejection of the materialistic personal life in favor of the life of the spirit and universal love, unlike his earlier religious works. By 1886, his religious conversion was in full swing and he wrote one of his greatest works in the form of a novella entitled, The Death of Ivan Llych.

Tolstoy had taken a 180 degree turn in his beliefs about which he had written earlier. He roundly condemned the notion of the “sanctity of marriage,” asserting that not even procreation could redeem its “sinfulness.” This further distanced him from Sonya, who felt “demeaned,” (rightly so!) Between 1890 and 1898, he worked on a book which entailed ideas of the “holy fool.” The path to goodness was to be an involuntary “holy fool. Lev’s self-flagellation continued until his last days, and he noted in his diary toward the end of his life that he had never encountered anyone else who embodied his “full complement of vices – sensuality, self-interest, spite, vanity and above all narcissism.”

Chekhov had become impatient with Tolstoy’s retrogressive ideas. However, he placed him as the most important person in Russia. The government had now sent out a circular to all Russian newspapers, forbidding them to publish any articles by Lev. In fact, some thought he should be locked up in the Suzdal Monastery prison, (which was the traditional place of incarceration for heretics in Russia.) He was longing for such “martyrdom,” so he was infuriated that he could continue unhindered. Sonya was concerned that their whole family was on the brink of ruin, and she wondered what had happened to Lev’s doctrine of love and pacifism. He began to learn about Universalists, Unitarians, Quakers, Spiritualists, Swedenborgians and Shakers.

In 1893, Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You became his magnum opus among his religious writings. This is attested to the fact that he wrote over 13,000 manuscript pages on the book, more than War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and his later novel Resurrection combined. The premise was: it is impossible to live as a “true Christian” in conventional society, and within any form of government. The book was seen by the Russian government as the most harmful book it had ever had the occasion to ban from Russia. A young twenty-five year old lawyer working in India named Mohhandas Gandhi, who was already practicing non-violence, was particularly struck by the fact that Tolstoy practiced what he preached, and was not willing to compromise when it came to the search for the truth. In Russia, Alexander III, before his untimely death, had declared that he did not want to add a martyr’s crown to Tolstoy’s fame by exiling him, but he was horrified by his book as well.

Tolstoy was preaching “The ultimate destruction of private property and the state, universal obligation to work, full economic and social equality, a complete abolition of militarism, brotherhood of nations, universal peace and equality of everything that bears the human image.” He had earlier complained of loneliness but now thirty-five people a day wanted to see him, he had become a celebrity. He had declared war on culture and turned himself into a peasant.

In 1892, in Berlin, the first biography came out on Tolstoy, as he had turned sixty-four years old. He was excommunicated from the Orthodox Church, which only increased his fame. His final work, Resurrection, came out in 1899, and was an unprecedented success, but banned in Russia. Most of the scathing chapters were directed at the Orthodox Church, but the government was closely bound to the Church, and felt it was also directed at the institution of government. His main writing projects became compilations of several exhaustive volumes of daily sayings and maxims from his favorite writers and philosophers. He was unhappy for much of the last 15 years of his life, as he became a vociferous opponent of the tsarist regime. Tolstoyans emerged and they seemed to be drawn to him and they became fanatical followers. His attractions to the religions of the Orient only increased towards the end of his life.

He discovered Dukhobors who were wrestlers in the name of the Holy Spirit. They were disparate groups of like-minded religious dissenters in the Ukraine who were forced to settle along Russia’s southern borders at some point in the eighteenth century. They had a hard-working and humble way of life, believing The Kingdom of God is Within You. They revered the sanctity of all human life.  Thus, they were opposed, not only to taking up arms, but to almost every aspect of the Russian Orthodox Church, since it supported the state during warfare. This meant rejecting all rituals, sacraments, icons, clergy, sacred buildings, and also the Scriptures in favor of seeking guidance from the voice of individual conscience. They also renounced tobacco, alcohol, and the eating of meat.

Amid his wife’s suicide attempts, (simply seeking his attention,) he learned to ride a bicycle and he did not care what people thought of a sixty-six year old man riding a bicycle. He was consumed by his collaboration with Chertkov, and the seeds of their working together found fertile ground all across Europe. Chertkov was dedicated to disseminating and preserving Tolstoy’s literary legacy; in fact, it would become his life’s work.

In 1896, Lev began to write Hadji Murat, a short novel about his fighting in the Caucasus, colored by the philosophy of his new Christian beliefs influenced by the Dukhobors. He was accused of spreading an infection of anarchy and atheism throughout the whole of Russia, and now the Intelligentsia worshiped him. Even a young lawyer turned revolutionary named Vladimir Ulyanov, later to change his name to Lenin, was following him.

Tolstoy next wrote “What is Art?” which was a treatise on communicating a universal brotherly love to the widest audience he could reach. He was reflecting on himself as being a consummate artist. His favorite composer was Chopin. He had more or less built an entire artistic and religious edifice on the foundation of one aspect of Christianity: The Sermon on the Mount.  He believed, by renouncing eros and accepting agape love, one could live a holy life. He studied Wagner, and they both wished to revive the spiritual essence of Christianity.  They wanted to remove its “superstitious elements” and the Old Testament notion of a “vengeful God” in order to create a purer and more practical religion. They both felt that violence only leads to more violence, and they lobbied for a simplified-aesthetic life style.

Tolstoyanism was classified as a “sect,” and it was seen as a plot designed to bring down the government. Lev was doing for Russian society what Virgil had done for Dante, by leading people who had lost their way spiritually out of purgatory, so his popularity continued to grow. He became an “Antichrist,” and was not exactly mellowing in old age. In 1908, he received a phonograph from Thomas Edison, so his presence on the world stage was also growing every day. But Lev, despite his world renown, still dreamt of life as “a wanderer.”

In 1910, at the age of 82, he made his yearning to leave home and set off on foot with nothing but the clothes on his back a reality. His destination was the Optina Pustyn Monastery, even though Sonya had tried to drown herself in a pond. He got on a train in Rostove-on-Don, but had to get off at Astapovo when he felt ill. He fell unconscious, and died on November 9, 1910, in the train station. Schools and universities, factories, offices and theaters shut their doors when news of his death surfaced, for all felt the loss of a great writer and mighty hero, who had defiantly “spoken out” on behalf of a nation that had been maimed and muzzled for so long. His death was one more event that galvanized the forces of discontent on the road to revolution.



Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, ca. 1900.

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