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15th September 2014

The Life of Leo Tolstoy

On the 186th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy’s birth, Alister Pearson remembers the life of the famous writer, philosopher and political thinker.

The 9th September marked the 186th anniversary of Russian author, philosopher and political thinker Leo Tolstoy’s birth. He is one of the most inspiring authors who ever lived. Virginia Woolf called him the greatest of all novelists; James Joyce remarked, “He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical!” His work “The Kingdom of God is Within You” brought up the idea of pacifism that would have a heavy impact on Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Born into a family well known to Russian nobility, Tolstoy was the fourth of five children. He briefly attended Kazan University before dropping out and moving to various cities around Russia. In 1851, like his fellow contemporary Fyodor Dostoevsky, he suffered from running up major gambling debts and decided to join the army with one of his brothers. It was roughly at this point that he started to write.

His first piece of work “Childhood” would eventually become the first of a trilogy that explores a young person surfacing into the world and their role in it. It would be followed by “Boyhood” and “Youth”. In his later years Tolstoy would dismiss these works as “an awkward mixture of fact and fiction,” however it did earn him immediate acclaim from one of the prominent Russian writers of the time, Ivan Turgenev.

In 1862 Tolstoy married Sophia Behrs. The relationship would be later portrayed in “Anna Karenina” through the characters Levin and Kitty. The married couple would go on to have fourteen children; five would tragically die before reaching their 8th birthday.

In 1863 he began his most prestigious novel, “War and Peace”. The epic piece would take six years to finish and contain 1225 pages. It documents Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in the early 1800s as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families. Significantly the first edition is partially written in French but the majority in Russian. The dialogue is where most of the French is presented as it was considered more esteemed than Russian though critic Orlando Figes suggested in his New York Review of Books that Tolstoy used the French language to illustrate deceit and Russian to symbolise sincerity and honesty.

The book would later be included in countless lists as one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. The American magazine Newsweek placed it at number one in their list of top 100 books. Critics praised Tolstoy’s objectivity in the novel with Ernest Hemmingway remarking, “no one could write about war better than Tolstoy did” and Isaak Babel going as far as saying that “if the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.”

He began his first proper work of fiction “Anna Karenina” in 1873, taking four years to complete. It is a story of a doomed love as the unhappily married titular character commences an affair with Count Vronsky. It was one of the first pieces of literature to use a stream of consciousness style, something that the likes of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf would later utilise. Like “War and Peace” the novel is highly regarded with Dostoevsky declaring it “flawless as a work of art”.

“Anna Karenina” had a profound effect on Tolstoy and he fell into an existential crisis, which he explained in his 1884 publication, “My Confession.” He converted to Christianity in 1878 in attempt to use faith to solve the problem of life’s meaninglessness. However, he soon discovered that all organised religion seemed to be corrupt and thus developed his own beliefs based upon Christianity. He outlined his Christian Anarchist beliefs in his 1894 piece “The Kingdom of God is Within You”. It was greatly influential for Mohandas Gandhi who said he was “overwhelmed” after reading it. The pair would exchange letters from 1908 until Tolstoy’s death two years later. Tolstoy would extend his Christian Anarchist beliefs by writing his own religious model gaining many followers. However this resulted in him being excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Leo Tolstoy died aged 82 after suffering pneumonia. Thousands lined the street for his funeral, which only exemplifies what a prominent figure of Russian life the great writer was. His final burial place is by the “green stick” his brother told him about in his childhood.

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