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Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy
(Leo Tolstoy)

September 9, 1928, marks the birthday of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who was born on his family's estate in Yasnaya Polyana, Tula Province, near Moscow.  Both his mother and his father died when he was a young boy, and he was raised by several of his aunts.

As a young man, Tolstoy enjoyed drinking, gambling, and running with beautiful women.  Only his guilt kept him from devoting his life totally to debauchery.  About the time he began keeping a diary, he wrote that he had contracted venereal disease, for which he underwent treatment in 1847.  He wrote, too, about why he couldn't help breaking the rules that society had made to protect itself from people such as he: people always try to stop themselves from doing what they really want to do.  That notion would become a recurring theme in his writing throughout his life.

In 1851, after racking up heavy gambling debts, Tolstoy accompanied his older brother to the Caucasus, where he joined an artillery regiment, eventually seeing service in the Chechens and the Crimea.  He began writing realistic stories about the military battles he saw firsthand--one of the first writers to describe the horror and chaos of war realistically.  In the 1850s, Tolstoy published the autobiographical trilogy, Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1854), and Youth (1857).

At the same time, Russia was still saddled by a medieval economic system.  Most  of the peasants were enslaved as serfs.  Tolstoy didn't believe that was right; so he opened a school for peasants on his family's estate before helping to found 20 more schools in neighboring villages.  He believed in freedom of information and allowed his students to study whatever they desired.  He was also editor of an educational journal in which he wrote that the upper classes had as much to learn from peasants as peasants had to learn from the upper classes.

In 1862, Tolstoy married Sonya Andreyevna Behrs (1844-1919), who eventually bore him 13 children.  The author often claimed that marriage was the best thing that had ever happened to him.  "Domestic happiness has swallowed me completely."  His wife also served as a loyal secretary, copying and editing all of his manuscripts by hand.  She copied the sprawling manuscript for War and Peace (1868) four times.  It was his masterpiece.

Published between 1865 and 1869, the book told the epic tale of five families pitted against Napoleon's invasion of Russia.  Its sweeping canvas includes 580 characters, some historical, others fictional.  The story moves from family life to the headquarters of Napoléon, from the court of Alexander to the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino.

War and Peace reflected Tolstoy's view that all is predestined, although we cannot live unless we imagine that we have free will.  He reserved his harshest judgment for Napoleon, who thought that he could control events.  Pierre Bezukhov, who wanders on the battlefield of Borodino and sees only the confusion and horror of war, comes closer to the truth.  Great men are for him ordinary human beings who are vain enough to accept responsibility for the life of society, yet unable to recognize their own impotence in the cosmic flow.

During the early years of Tolstoy's marriage, free love was becoming fashionable among the Russian upper classes, and everyone started to think of marriage as old fashioned and silly.  Tolstoy felt differently.  In 1872, when he heard about a woman who had thrown herself in front of a train after the end of an affair, he developed the idea for a novel about a woman whose life is destroyed by adultery.  He called it Anna Karenina (1875).  He wrote it as a defense of marriage as the most important foundation of society.  When it was published, most critics said it was inferior to War and Peace, but it is now considered one of the greatest novels ever written.

After Anna Karenina, Tolstoy renounced all of his earlier works.  "I wrote everything into Anna Karenina," he said, "and nothing was left over."  Voskresenia (1899, Resurrection) was Tolstoy's last major novel.  In it, Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich Nekhliudov abandons prostitute Ekaterina Maslova with their child as a young man. The novel begins when Maslova is called to court on charges of murdering a client. Nekhliudov is a member of the jury.  He realizes that he also is accused, although in the court of his own conscience. 

Despite his publishing success, Tolstoy frequently suffered severe bouts of depression.  He had wealth, position, and prestige but felt that he lacked purpose in life.  One day, he observed that, although the peasants on his estate wore ragged clothes, lived in leaky huts, and had no way of improving their lives, they were happy.  He came to believe that they knew the meaning of life, so he renounced all of his property and became a peasant.  He learned to make his own food and clothes and lived in a hut.  He began writing theology and philosophy and founded his own form of Christianity.  He became something of a profit, with people from all over the world, including Woodrow Wilson and Mahatma Gandhi, coming to him for counseling.  His teachings influenced the kibbutz movement in Palestine.  In his native Russia, his moral authority surpassed that even of the czar.

Leo Tolstoy, who once said, "In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you," died of pneumonia on November 20 (New Style calendar), 1910, at a remote railway junction.  Eight years after his death, his wife was heard to remark, "I lived with Lev Nikolayevich for forty-eight years, but I never really learned what kind of man he was." 

Tolstoy's collected works, which were published in the Soviet Union in 1928-58, consist of 90 volumes.

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