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Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). Anna Karenin.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Biographical Note

LEO NIKOLAEVITCH TOLSTOY, the greatest of Russian novelists and most influential of Russian thinkers, was born on his ancestral estate of Yasnaya Polyana, near Toula, a hundred miles due south of Moscow, on September 9, 1828. His father, Count Nicholas Tolstoy, died when Leo was less than ten; his mother, six years earlier.

After the death of his parents, he was taken care of by his aunts; and at fifteen he entered the University of Kazan. Though he took part in the social pleasures of the town, Tolstoy’s years at the university were neither satisfactory nor very profitable, and before he was nineteen he gave up his studies and returned to the family estates.

He had been reading Rousseau and he attempted to put some of that philosopher’s theories into practice, seeking to live according to Nature and to ameliorate the condition of the peasantry. But the difficulties were too great for his inexperience, and he went to St. Petersburg and tried the study of law, but without success. After a few years at home, devoted to the amusements of a country gentleman, he joined his brother Nicholas, then stationed with his regiment in the Caucasus. Here he entered the army, and in the intervals of expeditions against Circassian bandits he began his literary career with the first part of his autobiographical “Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth.” When the Crimean War broke out, he volunteered for active service, and joined the army of Prince Gortchakov on the Danube. Thence he went to Sebastopol, where he took part in the defense of the citadel and reached the rank of divisional commander. His “Tales from Sebastopol” give a vivid picture of his experiences, and their publication brought him at once a great reputation. On his return to St. Petersburg he was warmly received in literary circles, but his satisfaction in his social success did not last long.

In 1855, Alexander II became Czar, and initiated the progressive policy which led to the emancipation of the serfs. Tolstoy’s interest in the welfare of the laborers of the soil reawakened, and he set out to study educational methods in western Europe. On his return he set up at Yasnaya Polyana a free school in which the children were subjected to no sort of compulsion, and the whole burden of attracting and holding their attention was placed on the teachers, of whom Tolstoy himself was one. The experiment lasted only two years, but he continued his work among the peasantry, acting for a time as “Arbitrator” under the new Emancipation Law.

His marriage in 1862 to Sophia Andreevna Behrs, a beautiful and cultivated girl of eighteen, the daughter of an army doctor, corrected for a time the depression which he suffered at the contemplation of the wrongs of the people. For a time he became absorbed in domestic life, taking part in the education of his children, of whom he had fifteen.

During the years of his educational and sociological experimenting he had done little writing; but now he resumed fiction, and produced after several years’ labor, his two greatest novels, “War and Peace” (1864–1869), a study of the Napoleonic campaign in Russia, and “Anna Karenin” (1876). The relations of Levin and Kitty in the latter are substantially those of himself and his wife. Writing did not come easy to him, and he revised and corrected and rewrote again and again, his wife and daughters making fair copies of the successive drafts. Some chapters he rewrote as often as ten times.

Meantime he continued to take seriously his duties as a landowner, finding his recreation in hunting and tennis, and, when he was run down, going off to Samara for the koumiss cure. In this district he became much interested in the Molochans, a religious sect, who rejected the ceremonies of the Greek Church and took the Bible as their sole guide, and he bought an estate in their neighborhood. During a famine which occurred while he was there, he exerted himself on behalf of the starving peasants.

As he approached the age of fifty, Tolstoy became more immersed in religious problems. For a time he had passed from the skepticism of his youth to the piety and devotion of an Orthodox Greek Churchman; but the prayers he heard from the priests during the Russo-Turkish War so revolted him that he abandoned the church altogether. Seeking the peace of mind which he believed the peasant possessed, he attempted to adopt their mode of life and toiled daily in the fields; he gave up tobacco, alcohol, and meat, and made his watchword “Simplicity.” His property he made over to his wife and family, though he continued to live with them. His publications became more and more concerned with religion and ethics, and what fiction he wrote was made a vehicle for his teaching. “My Confession” describes the history of his beliefs down to 1882; other writings of the later period include “What I Believe,” “What to Do,” “On Life,” “The Kreutzer Sonata,” “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” and “What is Art?” His last important novel was “Resurrection,” written in aid of the Doukhobors, whom he sought to save from persecution. In this book he attacked the Orthodox Church and was formally excommunicated in 1901. In 1910 he decided to leave his family and suddenly set out from Yasnaya Polyana; but he was seized with pneumonia on the journey and died at Astapovo on November 20. His death deprived Europe of its most conspicuous man of letters and of a teacher whose message, however far from modern practice, was listened to by men of all nations almost as the utterance of inspiration.

“Anna Karenin” is the most widely known of Tolstoy’s works and is generally regarded as his artistic masterpiece. It exhibits favorably his peculiar realism—a realism which consists not merely in the accuracy of literal description of actual types and conditions, but in an essential truthfulness which refuses to yield to the pressure of doctrine or the enticements of sentiment. While the central situation is familiar enough, it would be hard to find a treatment of it of so remarkable an impartiality; while the characters are laid bare without ceasing to be convincing living beings. The society and the background are, as always, purely Russian; but the human nature on which the action depends is universal. It is one of the great novels of the world.

“Ivan the Fool” is a favorable example of the short stories of Tolstoy’s later period, written to teach specific doctrines. It all but passes from the sphere of fiction into that of parable, and it presents with extraordinary force and skill the extreme form of nonresistance.

W. A. N.