LEO TOLSTOY-Among the World’s Greatest Writers … by Janina Gomes

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Leo Tolstoy

It is difficult to write about one of the greatest writers that ever existed and to trace the influence of his life experiences on his writings, but we can only try to do justice to him and his seminal novels ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’ by a short biography of his life.

Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy referred to in English as Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was born to an aristocratic Russian family. His mother died when he was two years old and his father when he was nine years old.  He and his siblings were raised by his relatives.  His studies at Kazan University, where he was studying law and oriental languages, which he left in the middle, seemed to invite the disdain of his teachers who described him as both unable and unwilling to learn.

He returned to his family estate at Yasnaya Polyana, and spent his life visiting Moscow, Tula and St. Petersburg leading a lax and luxurious life. After incurring heavy gambling debts, he went with his older brother and joined the Russian Army in 1851. He served as a young artillery officer during the Crimean War and was in Sevastopol during the 11 month long siege of Sevastopol in 1854-55. During the war he was recognized for his courage and promoted to Lieutenant. But he was appalled by the number of deaths there were in warfare and after the Crimean War, he left the Army. His experience in the Army and two tours to Europe in 1857 and 1860-61 changed him from a dissolute and privileged society author to a non-violent and spiritual anarchist. During his 1857 visit to Paris, he witnessed a public execution, a trauma that marked him for life.

Two great French writers and intellectuals who influenced him and his work were Victor Hugo and Joseph Proudhon. With the latter his discussions also focused on education. These interactions so fired him with enthusiasm that he returned to his family estate to set up 13 schools for the children of Russian peasants who had just been emancipated from serfdom in 1861.

Tolstoy’s major novels’ War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’ and his novellas such as ‘Hadji Murad’ and the ‘Death of ‘Ivan Ilyich’ all consistently attempted to convey realistically the Russian society in which he lived. ‘The Cossacks’ (1863) describes the Cossack life and people. ‘Anna Karenina’( 1877) tells parallel stories of an adulterous woman trapped in the conventions  and falsities of society and a  philosophical landowner( much like Tolstoy) who worked alongside the peasants in the fields and sought to reform their lives. Tolstoy not only drew on his life experiences but also created characters in his own image such as, Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrei in ‘War and Peace’ and Levin in ‘Anna Karenina’.

‘War and Peace’ is remarkable for its dramatic breadth and unity, which includes 580 characters, many of them historical figures and some fictional ones. The story encompasses a vast canvas and moves from family life to the headquarters of Napolean, and from the court of Alexander I of Russia to the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino. Its grandeur and scope make it one of the greatest novels ever written.

  In the 1870’s Tolstoy experienced a profound moral crisis and a profound spiritual awakening as outlined in his non-fictional work ‘The Confession’ (1882). His literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus centering on his Sermon on the Mount’ caused him to become a fervent Christian anarchist and pacifist. His ideas on non-violent resistance expressed in such works as ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’ had a pivotal influence on two great leaders of the 20th century- Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King .Jr.

His contemporaries, among whom we can count, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustav Flaubert and Anton Chekov paid him lofty tributes. And in the words of British poet and critic, Mathew Arnold: “A novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life”.

Janina Gomes 

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