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The Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

by Leo Tolstoy

The goal of the artist is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to force people to love life in all its innumerable, inexhaustible manifestations.

The Life and Times of Leo Tolstoy

  1. 1820s
    • 1825: Alexander I dies, ending a reign that began in 1801.
    • 1825: Poet Alexander Pushkin begins writing Eugene Onegin.
    • 1825: Decembrist Revolt fails to prevent the ascension of Alexander’s brother Nicholas I.
    • 1828: Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy is born at Yasnaya Polyana, August 28.
  2. 1830s
    • 1830: A nationalist revival leads to a general insurrection (known as the November Uprising) in Russian Poland. The uprising is defeated in 1831.
    • Tolstoy’s mother dies when he is two; his father, when he is eight.
    • 1838: The first Russian railroad is built, connecting St. Petersburg with the royal residence at Tsarskoye Selo.
  3. 1840s
    • 1840: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is born. He will become one of Russia’s greatest composers with such ballets as Swan Lake (1875-76) and The Nutcracker (1891-92).
    • Tolstoy enters Kazan University to study Oriental languages in 1845; moves to St. Petersburg to take law exams but runs up huge gambling debts in 1849.
  4. 1850s
    • 1850-54: Dostoevsky exiled by Nicholas I to Siberian prison camp.
    • 1852: Tolstoy’s first publication, an autobiographical novel titled Childhood appears anonymously.
    • 1855: Nicolas I dies; reign of Alexander II begins.
    • The Crimean War between Russia and the combined forces of mostly Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire begins in 1853. The Peace of Paris ends it in 1856.
  5. 1860s
    • 1861: Alexander II’s emancipation of serfs transforms the Russian economy, beginning a series of reforms.
    • 1861-65: United States Civil War.
    • 1862: Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is published, one of Tolstoy’s favorite novels.
    • 1863-69: Tolstoy serializes War and Peace in a Russian journal; published as a complete novel in 1869.
  6. 1870s
    • 1870: Franco-Prussian War begins in July.
    • 1873-77: Tolstoy serializes Anna Karenina in the “thick journal” The Russian Herald; published as a complete novel in 1878.
    • 1880: Dostoevsky publishes The Brothers Karamazov.
  7. 1880s
    • 1881: Alexander II is assassinated; Alexander III’s rule begins.
    • Tolstoy begins his Intermediary Publishing Company, through which he publishes The Death of Ivan Ilyich in 1886.
    • 1889: Anna Akhmatova born, the Russian poet who will ultimately become a voice of the people under Stalin’s regime.
  8. 1890s
    • 1892: Central and Southwestern Russia faces severe famine and drought.
    • 1894: Tolstoy writes “The Kingdom of God Is Within You,” which later inspires Gandhi.
    • 1894: Alexander III’s reign ends; Nicholas II’s reign will last until 1917.
    • 1896: Russian playwright Chekhov’s The Seagull first performed.
  9. 1900s
    • 1903: American Senator William Jennings Bryan visits Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana.
    • 1904-1905: Russo-Japanese War in Korea. Jack London is the only American journalist to get near the front.
    • 1904: Tolstoy’s final masterpiece, Hadji Murád, completed.
    • 1905: Russia simmers as workers storm the Winter Palace in Moscow on “Bloody Sunday,” January 22.

Tolstoy’s Russia

Modern Russian history begins in the eighteenth-century with Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725), an imposing seven-foot-tall man who sometimes settled political disagreements by hitting his opponents in the head with a club. He just as brazenly attempted to transform his economically and politically backward country into a powerful modern empire by Westernizing all aspects of Russian society. A century later, Count Leo Tolstoy, a French-speaking nobleman, would become the proud beneficiary of the modern society Tsar Peter created. But Tolstoy also would be tormented by the fact that his social power and financial comfort were built on the backs of Russia’s underprivileged serfs, who constituted 90 percent of the population.

Tolstoy’s ambivalence about the modernization of Russia deepened when the Great Reforms of Alexander II, in the 1860s, introduced Western-style political and social freedoms even more extensive than those of Peter the Great. Moreover, an industrial revolution similar to that of Victorian England now took place. Young people of all classes began migrating from the peaceful countryside to the bustling new cities in search of professional opportunities. Many families that once lived together in rural Russia became spread out, and the close relationship between the serfs and their aristocratic masters dissolved.

While many thinkers and writers greeted these changes enthusiastically, others, such as Tolstoy, were deeply concerned about the breakdown of the traditional Russian social fabric. Tolstoy observed the rise of a new class of professional merchants, lawyers, and doctors, who embodied the Western values of materialism and individualism at the expense of the traditional Russian ideals of community and compassion.

It is no wonder Tolstoy loved the British writer Charles Dickens, whom he considered a kindred spirit in the fight to raise people’s awareness about the human costs of modern “progress.” Tolstoy believed that only by vigorously casting off the internalized falsehoods of modern society could Russians—or any human beings—return to their original state of natural goodness. Tolstoy’s fiction, such as Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, depicts a broken world headed for moral disaster, unless honest introspection and spiritual transformation begin to occur.

“The goal of the artist is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to force people to love life in all its innumerable, inexhaustible manifestations.”
—Leo Tolstoy, from an 1865 letter


A popular pastime in 19th century Russia, bridge and whist were especially prevalent among upper-class men. In his twenties, Tolstoy obsessively played cards, and a substantial gambling debt even forced him to sell his family home when he was 27. In an 1890 polemical essay "Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?", Tolstoy wrote: "For people of dull, limited moral feeling, the external diversions are often quite sufficient to blind them to the indications conscience gives of the wrongness of their lives."

Tolstoy described card-playing in his fiction not only to heighten the sense of social reality but also to make psychological observations about his characters. For Ivan Ilyich card-playing is, like almost everything else he does, an empty, soul-numbing habit, a culturally acceptable excuse to avoid honest introspection and genuine intimacy with other people.

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