Arguably, the greatest novelist in history, Leo Tolstoy is also the father of Christian Anarchism. Trace the origins of ideas that influenced people like Gandhi in Leo Tolstoy’s biography.

Leo Tolstoy Biography

Born On: August 28, 1828
Born In:  Yasnaya Polyana, Russia
Died On: November 20, 1910 (aged 82)
Career: Novelist, Essayist, Dramatist, and Educational reformer
Nationality: Russian 

Leo Tolstoy

If you ever go through the lines in “The Kingdom of God Is Within You”, you will definitely start wondering whether the ideas proclaimed by Martin Luther King and Gandhi were their own or not. Such was the influence of Count Lyev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (or Leo Tolstoy as we know him) on the life of these great leaders. His masterpiece is one of the world’s most influential books and is considered biblical in the study of Tolstoyan, Christian anarchist, and nonviolent-resistance movements worldwide. Leo was the most popular and influential member of the royal Tolstoy family. He was one of the few early observers of confirmation bias, which is a psychological phenomenon. He was also an elaborate realist fiction writer whose other books include “Anna Karenina” and “War And Peace", which present vivid descriptions of Russian life, attitude and society in 19th century throughout. Both these novels have been placed on Time magazine’s ten greatest novels of all times, getting the first and third place respectively. Let’s decipher Tolstoy's life which ensued him to write such wonderful literature and how he influenced others.
Leo Tolstoy was born as Count Lyev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, the forth son of Count Nikoláj Illjìsch Tolstoy and Countess Mariya Tolstaya at his mother’s family estate Yasnaya Polyana, in Tula region of Russia. His mother died 2 years later, while giving birth to his sister, Maria. He lived in the countryside till 1836, when the family moved to Moscow so that the children could attend school. However, the death of his father caused young Lyev to move back in Yasnaya Polyana, wherein he lived with his aunt. In 1841, the thirteen-year old again had to travel to a new home, Kazan, since the death of his aunt Aline.
Early Life
It was in Kazan that Tolstoy prepared himself for the entrance exams to Kazan University, where he hoped to study oriental languages. He trained himself in different languages such as Arabic, Turkish, Latin, German, English, and French. He also learned geography, history, and religion. Apart from the academic subjects, Tolstoy began to study earnestly the literary works of English, Russian and French authors including Charles Dickens, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, Laurence Sterne, Friedrich Schiller, and Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire.
Tolstoy finally got admission and started studying at Kazan University in 1844. However, he couldn't get through the second year of studies and finally dropped out in 1847. By then, he had become more social and independent. Tolstoy, then, spent his time in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. However, he had become involved in drinking, gambling and visiting brothels. In the spring of 1851, Tolstoy traveled with his brother Nikolay, who was an officer in the Caucasian army, to join the army. Around this time, Tolstoy had started off with his writing expedition. His first novel was part of his autobiographical trilogy, named Childhood (1852). It was published in the magazine “Sovremennik”. The writing was highly lauded and appreciated. The favorable response encouraged Tolstoy to write further. In the following years, Tolstoy came up with ‘Boyhood’ and ‘Youth’.
In 1854, Tolstoy was transferred to Wallachia to fight against the French, British and Ottoman Empire and defend the city of Sevastopol. This battle inspired his work ‘Sevastopol Sketches’, which was written between 1855 and 1856 and was published in three installments in The Contemporary magazine. In 1855, Tolstoy left the army. He then traveled to Europe in 1857 and during this visit Tolstoy witnessed a public execution in Paris, a traumatic experience that marked the rest of his life. He vowed never to serve any government, as he considered “the state” as an unfair and cruel entity. In the mean time, Tolstoy’s works were translated into English, which brought him fame and earnings.
In 1861, Tolstoy again visited Europe. He met Victor Hugo, who started Tolstoy’s literary and political emergence along with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. The French anarchist influenced Tolstoy’s thought on both anarchism and education. Tolstoy then returned to his estate in Yasnaya Polyana, where he set up schools for the children of peasants working in his estate. His educational experiments were cut short by interventions of Tsarist secret police, but his work in this field was considered very important as an early example of modern democratic education systems.
Marriage & The Epics
In September of 1862, at the age of thirty four, Tolstoy married the sister of one of his friends, nineteen year old Sofia ‘Sonya’ Andreyevna Behrs. He had twelve children, the oldest was Sergey born in 1863 and youngest being Ivan born in 1888.The countess was given Tolstoy’s diaries to know everything about him, Though initially shocked, she never gave him a hard time over the content which included his sexual adventures and radical thoughts. In fact, Countess Tolstoy helped him immensely by organizing his rough notes, copying out drafts, and assisting him in his correspondence and business affairs of the estate.
Tolstoy began writing ‘War and Peace’ in 1862 and its six volumes were published between 1863 and 1869. Even though the masterpiece received rave reviews and was exalted as one of the greatest Russian novels, Tolstoy was not satisfied and ventured to Samara in The Steppes, where he built a new summer estate. He started writing his next epic, ‘Anna Karenina’ in 1873. The first chapter was published in the Russian Herald in 1876. The same year, the complete novel was released too. This novel further cemented Tolstoy’s position as one of greatest novelists ever. However, post the success of ‘Anna Karenina’, he started working on Christian themes, which were mostly anarchist.
Tolstoy published a number of non-fiction articles and novels that outlined his ideology and harshly criticized the government and church. This led to his ex-communication by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901, when his novel ‘Resurrection’ was published. However, the move by the church did not do much to demean the status of Tolstoy as by then, his popularity had surpassed many other great writers and Tolstoyism had found thousands of disciples.
Having embraced the lifestyle and principles of non-violence mainly due to his interpretations of gospels from Jesus, Tolstoy wrote “The Kingdom Is Within You” in the year 1903.This book largely influenced Mahatma Gandhi and his letter to Tolstoy, regarding a passive resistance movement, started a correspondence between the two, which grew into friendship. Tolstoy wrote “A Letter to a Hindu” in 1908, which Gandhi later translated into Gujarati with his permission.
Last Days
In his last days, Tolstoy renounced his family wealth, heritage and all worldly assets and set out to live his new life as a wandering ascetic, a short distance away from his home Tolstoy died of pneumonia on November 20, 1910, at the stationmaster’s home at the Astapovo train station. He wanted no ceremony or ritual after his death, but thousands showed up to pay their respect and reverence. Tolstoy was buried in a simple wooden coffin near his brother Nikolay’s ‘place of the little green stick’ by the ravine in the Stary Zakaz Wood, on the Yasnya Polyana estate. Tolstoy believed it to be an important place since his childhood, as he remembered Nikolay once telling him that therein, one could find the secret to happiness and the end to all suffering.
His Selected Works
Novels & Novellas
  • Childhood (1852)
  • Boyhood (1854)
  • Youth (1856)
  • Family Happiness (novella, 1859)
  • The Cossacks (1863)
  • War and Peace (1865–1869)
  • Anna Karenina (1875–77)
  • The Death of Ivan Ilyich (novella, 1887)
  • The Kreutzer Sonata (1889)
  • Resurrection (1899)
  • Hadji Murat (written in 1896–1904, published 1912)
Short Stories
  • The Raid (1852)
  • Sevastopol Stories (1855–56)
  • Ivan the Fool: A Lost Opportunity (1863)
  • Polikushka (1863)
  • The Prisoner in the Caucasus (1872)
  • Strider: The Story of a Horse (1864, 1886)
  • How Much Land Does a Man Need? (1886)
  • Master and Man (1895)
  • Father Sergius (1898)
  • The Power of Darkness (tragedy, 1886)
  • The Fruits of Enlightenment (comedy, 1889)
  • The Living Corpse (1900)
  • A Confession (1882)
  • What I Believe (also called My Religion) (1884)
  • What Is to Be Done? (1886)
  • The Kingdom of God is Within You  (1894)
  • The Gospel in Brief (1896)
  • What Is Art? (1897)
  • Letter to the Liberals (1898)
  • The Law of Love and the Law of Violence; published in 1940 complete text

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