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Who is Leo Tolstoy?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a Russian author, activist, and philosopher. He is most well remembered for his voluminous War and Peace, published serially in the 1860s. Leo Tolstoy led a markedly different life from other famous Russian authors of the era, such as Dostoevsky. His novels are considered classics of Russian literature, and his later philosophical works have inspired a wide variety of people.

Leo Tolstoy was born into the Russian aristocracy in late 1828 and was one of five children. His parents both died before he reached the age of ten, and the relatives who raised him educated him at home. Leo Tolstoy also briefly attended Kazan University, although he never took a degree there.

Tolstoy spent his twenties in Moscow among the Russian elite, writing about the experience later with bitterness. Leo Tolstoy felt that his youth in Moscow was squandered with gambling, liaisons, and exploitation of the peasants who formed the foundation of his family's wealth. Leo Tolstoy ended up joining the military, seeing action in the Crimean war that inspired Sebastopol (1855), The Cossacks (1861), and "The Raid", a short story published in 1852.

After his military service, Leo Tolstoy traveled in Europe, and in 1862 he married Sofia Bers, with whom he had 13 children. The two remained married throughout Tolstoy's life, although he spent his later years physically separated from his wife. His history of social activism began in the late 1850s, when he started a school for peasant children, realizing that education was the key to social mobility. During this period, he wrote his most well known novels, including Anna Karenina, published in 1873.

Leo Tolstoy grew disillusioned with his life as a member of the aristocratic elite, and in 1884 he gave up his worldly possessions to live as a peasant ascetic. The reasoning leading to this decision is documented in his later philosophical writing, which explores Christian philosophy and sets forth Tolstoy's personal beliefs. Leo Tolstoy came to the conclusion that passive non-resistance was a vital personal and political tool and that true Christians needed to be guided by God rather than by social norms or the state. Tolstoy also fervently believed in helping the lower classes, providing them with education, food, housing, and other forms of assistance.

Leo Tolstoy is still viewed as a teacher by many Christians, who appreciate his simple values and strive to achieve them in their own lives. His writings on non-violence, love for enemies, and the renunciation of evil inspired a wide variety of public and private figures, including Gandhi. Tolstoy's decision to live out his later years in relative poverty was applauded by many, even at the time, and his writings became popular among Russians seeking a less decadent way of life.

Tolstoy's family suffered to some extent during his wanderings, and they would have led very difficult lives if his wife had not controlled the printing rights to his literary estate. Using the sale of his books, essays, and short stories, she financed the family's existence. Despite the hardships she endured, Sofia remained devoted to her husband throughout his life, supporting the greater cause that he embodied.

While Tolstoy is remembered overwhelmingly for his works of fiction, which were extremely valuable additions to the field of Russian literature, he also contributed an expansion of Christian philosophy, pushing his readers to challenge their belief systems and to form new ideas about life and happiness. Tolstoy was a man with very strict morals, which he explored logically and convincingly in books like Confession (1884) and What I Believe (1886). Tolstoy reworked traditional Christian thinking in a manner that appealed to many readers, and his writings had a huge impact on people all over the world, despite his 1901 excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By dreyne — On Dec 19, 2013
@Authordor: Currently known works include seven novels, of which 'War & Peace' and 'Anna Karenina' are most well known. He also wrote five smaller novellas, 54 short stories and six plays. His non-fiction papers and collected works include 41 philosophical and religious works, 3 writings on art and a small collection of four works on the science of teaching and education.
By Authordor — On Dec 18, 2013

How much did Leo Tolstoy write?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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