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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMESLeo Tolstoy was a man of many parts- soldier, sensualist, country nobleman, writer, teacher and social critic, and, not least, benevolent patriarch. Photographs taken of him in his later years show a fearsome-looking man with long hair and a flowing beard, dressed in peasant's clothes, surrounded by his wife and children. In writing his panoramic novels of Russian life, Tolstoy drew heavily on his varied experiences. Indeed, he gave to some of his central characters, as in Anna Karenina, his own thoughts and feelings, which were sometimes, as you'll see, contradictory.
Leo (or Lev) Nikolayevich, Count Tolstoy was born near Moscow on August 28 (September 9, New Style), 1828, into an old aristocratic family that for generations had been in the Czar's inner circle. Orphaned at nine, he was raised and educated by an aunt. In 1844 he entered the University of Kazan where he was greatly influenced by the writings of the 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who espoused the virtues of nature and a simple life. He left the university in 1847 without obtaining a degree.
Tolstoy then spent time carousing and hunting. Because he was awkward and not as handsome as some of the other young nobles in his social circle, he was nicknamed "Lyvochka the bear." We know from his diaries that Tolstoy was divided against himself: Although he devoted himself fully to having a wild time, he felt guilty about it. But he couldn't determine the source of his guilty feelings. Although he believed in God, he had no patience for organized religion and the rules it imposed on life (he was later excommunicated for his views by the Russian Orthodox Church).
Fed up with city life, Tolstoy went back to Yasnaya Polyana (Clear Glade), his family's ancestral estate near Moscow. His plan was to become a farmer and devote himself to improving the lot of peasants. He developed a system whereby he would sell peasants small pieces of land year by year, so that they, too, would be property owners and have a personal stake in the productivity of Yasnaya Polyana. Although the peasants liked him personally, they couldn't understand why a nobleman would try to help them, and so they distrusted his efforts. Terribly disappointed, Tolstoy went to Moscow, where he spent two more years (1848-1850) living the high life. His diaries show a restless, searching young man who gambled and played with women by night, and then chastised himself by day. He began to write during this time and in 1852 published Childhood, a reminiscence that received good reviews. He later wrote Boyhood (1854) and Youth (1856).
Perhaps in another burst of restlessness, Tolstoy in 1851 followed one of his brothers, Nicholas, by volunteering for the army; he served in the Caucasus fighting Tatar guerrillas. He continued to write and in 1854-1856 published Sevastopol Sketches. These accounts of the Crimean War (in which Russia fought Turkey, England, France, and Sardinia) catapulted Tolstoy to the front rank of contemporary Russian writers.
He left the army in 1855 and went to Saint Petersburg, the Russian capital, where the literary community welcomed him. But Tolstoy had no patience for the intellectuals he found there or for their urbane, middle-class views. He had one dispute after another, the most famous of which was with Ivan Turgenev, then the recognized master of the Russian literary scene. Tolstoy disagreed with his fellow writers basically because as a Slavophile- an admirer of Slavic, and especially Russian culture- he didn't share their enchantment with Western European notions of progress.
Tolstoy then traveled extensively in Europe, visiting France, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and England. (He spoke French, German, and English.) A major reason for his travels was to study European systems of education, about which he had developed a keen interest. His exposure to European ways, however, made him feel all the more strongly that Russia was a case apart and could not look to the West to help it realize its destiny.
In 1859, Tolstoy started a school at Yasnaya Polyana for the children of his peasants. Convinced that refined, European-style education killed youthful exuberance, he did everything possible to nurture his pupils' spontaneity and curiosity.
In 1860, Tolstoy's brother Nicholas died of tuberculosis. Tolstoy was deeply affected by his death and later re-created it in Anna Karenina, when he described the death of Levin's brother, also named Nicholas. Like Levin- the novel's hero, whose life he patterned on his own- Tolstoy immersed himself in the affairs of his estate as a way of alleviating his emotional pain.
In 1862, Tolstoy married Sofya (Sonya) Andreyevna Behrs, the daughter of a prominent Moscow physician. Then began the most productive period of his life. He wrote War and Peace, considered one of the world's great novels, from 1864 to 1869. He completed Anna Karenina, another masterpiece, in 1876, while producing a series of short stories, as well as essays on religion, art, and social subjects.
In his books Tolstoy, like most writers, used material from his personal experiences as well as from the world around him. This is very evident in Anna Karenina. He had wanted for some time to write "a novel of contemporary life," as he put it. Marriage, an enduring theme in his work, would be a central concern. So, too, would adultery. Tolstoy had recently had an affair with one of his peasants and had abandoned the child of this union. He felt extremely guilty, and you can sense this clearly in Anna Karenina. Tolstoy got the idea for the novel's ending and its heroine's first name from the suicide in 1872 of Anna Stepanovna Pirogova, the betrayed common-law wife of one of Tolstoy's neighbors, who threw herself under a train. Tolstoy had known Anna Stepanovna and went to the autopsy following her death. You'll note his passion for close observation in the startlingly exact description of Anna Karenina's suicide.
Tolstoy was not only an artist of high standards but also a man continually struggling with spiritual matters. This, too, comes across in Anna Karenina. Levin's struggles and visionary projects in the novel are similar to Tolstoy's. Levin's marriage to Kitty and his happiness in their domestic life reflect Tolstoy's marriage to Sonya and their happy first years together. He based the character of Kitty on Sonya.
Anna Karenina is a towering achievement because Tolstoy succeeded not only in presenting a panoramic picture of his era, but because he dealt with aspects of human nature that are timeless. You can find people throughout history with problems similar to Anna's desperation and guilt, Karenin's fear of intimacy, Vronsky's struggle to keep himself from being smothered by Anna's possessiveness. Most readers consider Tolstoy one of the great masters at drawing psychological portraits of people. The insights about human nature you will gain by reading Anna Karenina will probably help you understand the people around you.
Tolstoy's later books reflect a man becoming increasingly conservative and religious. In The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), a novel, Tolstoy describes marriage as a wasteland, and sexual relations- even between husband and wife- as essentially evil. In another novel, Resurrection (1899-1900), he violently attacks civilization and argues strongly in favor of an ascetic way of life. A Confession (1882) is a detailed account of Tolstoy's torturous coming to terms with religion.
We know from his diaries and from his children's reminiscences that as an old man Tolstoy wanted to leave his family to go off and die alone in the mountains, as religious ascetics before him had done. But the death of his youngest son in 1895 so affected his wife Sonya that he dared not leave her. In his last years, Tolstoy's memory faltered seriously and he suffered fainting spells, after which he would frequently ask for relatives who had died decades before. On November 20, 1910, a month after one of these attacks, he died at the train station in the small town of Astapovo, after having finally decided to flee from Yasnaya Polyana.
All his life Tolstoy had been a combatant, a swimmer against the tide. He was at odds with his social class on matters of lifestyle, on priorities in education, on the emancipation of the serfs (which he strongly favored), and in his belief that Russia must avoid industrialization and Western models of progress. He was progressive as an educator, in many ways ahead of his time as a writer, and visionary as a political thinker. Yet he opposed women's rights and became a religious ascetic, patterning himself after such thinkers as Lao-tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher.
It has been said that Tolstoy's novels have more sweep than those of any other author in the history of literature. Leo Tolstoy, it could be said, was many men and inhabited many worlds in his lifetime. He acknowledged that he never totally resolved the contradictions between his ideals and the way in which he lived. But he forged those struggles into a singular body of literary work. His novels are masterpieces that readers continue to find exciting and relevant.
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