Count Lev (Leo) Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born in 1828 into one of Russia’s oldest noble families. After the death of both parents before age nine, the intensely sensitive boy was brought up by an aunt living in Kazan, Russia. There he eventually enrolled in the university, but thinking his professors incompetent, Tolstoy returned to his estate at Yasnaya Polyana, where he unsuccessfully attempted agricultural reform. The disillusioned young man then enlisted in the army, where he wrote voraciously, published his first works, and indulged in gambling sprees, drinking binges, and chronic womanizing.
After his marriage at 34 to a cheerful young Sophia Andreyevna Behrs, Tolstoy’s life brimmed with the joys of family and creativity, including the eventual birth of 13 children and the writing of his epic masterpiece, War and Peace (1863-69). But in 1869, Tolstoy endured a major spiritual crisis that lasted through the 1870s, while he was writing Anna Karenina (1873-77). The orderly foundation upon which the past sixteen years had rested seemed fatally cracked: “Is there any meaning in my life that will not be destroyed by my inevitably approaching death?” Tolstoy asked in his Confession (1880). He could no longer bear the burden of his conventionally successful life, which he believed he had achieved at great moral cost, by blindly following the dictates of upper-class society.
This spiritual awakening moved Tolstoy to dedicate the next twenty years to writing religious parables, stories, and novellas, such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), intended to awaken readers’ existential consciousness. He also wrote powerful polemical essays exposing the injustices of the state, of serfdom, of the Russian Orthodox Church, and concerning modern medicine, education, marriage, and sexual mores. So commanding was his moral stature that leading statesmen, activists, and artists from across the globe wrote to Tolstoy and visited him at Yasnaya Polyana in search of spiritual illumination. Some said there were two tsars in Russia’s late nineteenth century, Nikolai II and Leo Tolstoy—and that Tolstoy was the more respected of the two.
As Tolstoy’s questioning of modern civilization deepened, he grew increasingly estranged from his wife over differences of lifestyle, finances, and the raising of their children. Tolstoy left his home in the middle of the night in October 1910, when he was 82, presumably to escape to a monastery. This final effort to find a life free of falsehood and moral compromise ended only ten days later, when he died of pneumonia at the Astapova train station in a small rural Russian town on November 7, 1910.
Tolstoy’s life journey, like that of his searching characters, was filled with contradiction and the spirit of human possibility. He once wrote: “Man is flowing. In him there are all possibilities: he was stupid, now he is clever; he was evil, now he is good, and the other way around. In this is the greatness of man.” Tolstoy’s own life is a crowning illustration of these humane and inspiring words.
“Can it be that there is not room for all men on this beautiful earth under those immeasurable starry heavens? …All that is unkind in the hearts of men should, one would think, vanish at contact with Nature—that most direct expression of beauty and goodness.”
—Leo Tolstoy, from his 1853 short story, “The Raid”
Like many nineteenth-century Russians, Leo Tolstoy was born into the Russian Orthodox Church, but he struggled with a search for God his whole life, as did many of his fictional characters. By the early 1880s, Tolstoy could no longer accept the dogma, sacraments, or authority of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was disturbed by the religious hypocrisy of the upper classes, as well as by their pursuit of wealth and power. Tolstoy was also bothered by the repressive policies of the state, especially when state-sponsored violence was justified on supposedly Christian grounds. Tolstoy left the Church, never to return.
He rejected the debauchery of his youth and perceived that his conventionally successful life had come at great moral cost. Tolstoy repudiated his earlier literary masterpieces and renounced his wealth to live as a peasant, believing that the Christian faith of the Russian peasantry was morally superior to that of the upper classes. That superiority is reflected in the peasant boy, Gerasim, in The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
By the time Tolstoy published his Confession and “What I Believe” (1884), he had begun to attract disciples. His powerful 1894 polemical essay, “The Kingdom of God Is Within You,” which later inspired Gandhi, ultimately led to Tolstoy’s excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901.
Torrents of visitors came to Yasnaya Polyana to discuss the principles of Tolstoy’s self-created religion, “Tolstoyanism,” which was based on an interpretation of the New Testament’s Gospels without the miracles. Those principles are that humans manifest God’s presence in the world through selfless acts of devotion to others; that personal salvation is available if one follows this path of love; and that nonresistance is the only godly response to evil in the world.