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Leo Tolstoy

Russian novelist

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 Leo Tolstoy

Lev Nikolaevich (Leo) Tolstoy (1828–1910). Russian novelist, reformer, and moral thinker

Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy family estate a hundred miles south of Moscow, on August 28. He died on November 20 at a nearby railroad station, having fled in the night from an increasingly contentious marriage and a set of familial relationships that had been hardened in large part by Tolstoy's attempts to apply his radical moral beliefs to his own life. In the intervening eighty-two years Tolstoy became perhaps the most prominent novelist in an age and place of great authors as well as a vociferous critic of science and modernization.

Tolstoy's international fame rests primarily on two novels, War and Peace (1865–1869) and Anna Karenina (1875–1877). His fictional works also include short masterpieces such as "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" (1886), "The Kreutzer Sonata" (1889), and "Master and Man" (1895). In addition he wrote autobiographical accounts of his childhood (Childhood, Boyhood, Youth[1852–1857]) and his experiences as a soldier in the Crimean War (Sevastopol Sketches [1855]). With regard to issues of science, technology, and ethics Tolstoy's most relevant writings include a variety of short, passionate non-fiction works, particularly "What I Believe" (1884), "What Then Must We Do?" (1887), "On the Significance of Science and Art" (1887), "What Is Art?" (1898), and "I Cannot Be Silent" (1908), all of which address a confluence of moral and intellectual errors he perceived in modern life and thought at the turn of the twentieth century.

Like his contemporary Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881), whom he never met, Tolstoy was broadly concerned with the spiritual future of the human race. He attempted to confront the gradual movement away from traditional values with an almost Aristotelian emphasis on the permanent relationships of things, promoting the universality of natural and religious values of love and labor to which he believed the human heart responds. Although the West now knows him as the writer of large and perhaps infrequently read novels, his influence on writers and political dissidents such as Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (b. 1918) has been enormous, and his thought provides resources for ethical assessments of science and technology that have not yet been explored fully.


Works by Leo Tolstoy

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Anna's world is turned upside down when her life takes a precarious turn. Although she is married with a son, Anna unexpectedly finds herself falling in love with Count Vrosky. Anna is determined to follow her passions, and her elicit love affair with Vrosky threatens to jeopardize her comfortable existence. Anna Karenina unravels into tragedy as the story's characters are confronted with dilemmas of faith, love, happiness, and betrayal. Tolstoy's profound depiction of human emotion and self-discovery provokes readers to question the meaning of life. Often construed as Tolstoy's greatest novel, Anna Karenina beautifully illustrates the political and social atmosphere of Russia during the 19th century. Anna Karenina is a deeply moving narrative which wrestles with the contradictions that beleaguer human happiness.

In this short book, the newly-converted Tolstoy shares some of the struggles he faced during a mid-life crisis of faith. He begins by reflecting upon how neither philosophy nor religion seemed to answer any of life’s great questions. As he explains, the author only overcomes his doubts after observing and immersing himself in the faith of ordinary people performing everyday tasks. The Christian life lived out, more than anything else, revealed the truths of God to him. Tolstoy’s personal account not only provides insight into the mind of one of the world’s greatest novelists, but it also serves to shed light on the human experience of doubt, despair, and faith. Tolstoy’s Confession can be read especially well alongside his novella of similar themes, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Tolstoy's novella, written just after the author's conversion to Christianity, is now considered a literary masterpiece. In it, death suddenly confronts Ivan, a well-to-do middle-aged Russian man, in the form of an acute illness. Standing on the edge of death's yawning chasm, Ivan looks back at his life and its comparative vacuity. Before he fell ill, earning enough money for some elegant furniture concerned him, but now eternity and destiny wrack his spirit. Tolstoy's startlingly precise portrayal of human anxiety, desire, epiphany, and love has gripped countless readers from all walks of life, and many of them report that the story not only moved them to tears, but also had a profound impact upon how they view life and its purpose. This beloved book is essential to any library.

The title of Tolstoy’s novella is a clever joke, as it contains the story of a couple’s descent into unhappiness. The 17-year-old Mashechka falls in love with Sergey Mikhaylych, a man more than twice her age. After an awkward courtship, the two marry. As Mashechka matures, however, she begins to understand more of love’s complexities; she realizes that her love for Sergey was a mere child’s infatuation. Disillusioned, Mashechka grows to loathe both herself and married life. Tolstoy’s tale exhibits the vivid narration and perceptive observations of human existence that characterize all of the author’s works. Written before his conversion, Family Happiness provides an interesting contrast to Tolstoy’s later religious short stories and novels.

The young, proud Stepan Kasatsky has a seemingly bright future ahead of him: he has risen to a high rank in the Russian army, and he will soon marry the beautiful Countess Mary Korotkova. When Stepan discovers his fiancée’s infidelity—with Czar Nicholas I, no less—he experiences such heartbreak and humiliation that he flees, later dedicating himself to the Russian Orthodox Church. He takes the name “Father Sergius.” Although he becomes a celebrated churchman, he continues to struggle with pride and lust. Written during Tolstoy’s later, post-conversion years, Father Sergius shares the characteristic messages of humility, abstinence, self-denial, and total faith in God. In 1917, Yakov Protazanov, one of the founding fathers of Russian cinema, directed a film inspired by the novella.

This story of the life of Christ differs widely from Tolstoy’s other work. He provides us with an experimental narrative that blends the stories of the four Gospels into one. In this blend, Tolstoy discards what he finds incongruous to the modern person’s everyday experience and understanding, such as Jesus’ genealogy or miracles. With his stunning directness and literary expertise, Tolstoy makes Christ seem present and real in spite of the fact that his picture of Christ may not necessarily align that of other theologians.

This short novel, published after Tolstoy's death, is the last novel the great author wrote. The novel tells the true story of Hadji Murad (or Hadji Murat, alternatively), an Avar who commanded the peoples of Dagestan and Chechnya in their resistance against assimilation into Russian Empire. Tolstoy had first heard of Murad during his travels, and the author became inspired by his refusal to give in to the demands of a corrupt world. Hadji Murad shares many of the same themes found in War and Peace. Those enchanted by Tolstoy's work may find yet another treasure in this lesser-known historical novel.

Although now considered one of Tolstoy’s best shorter stories, Russian authorities censored The Kreutzer Sonata after its publication in 1889. Similarly, other countries including the United States had banned the book’s translations. The story concerns Pozdnyshev, a cynical young man overcome by passion, rage, and jealousy. The author plumbs the innermost depths of Pozdnyshev’s crumbling mind; the callousness of that mind and its intentions can be profoundly unsettling. Tolstoy explains in the story’s epilogue, however, that the downfall of the twisted Pozdnyshev serves only to show how carnal lust destroys lives. While all readers acknowledge the story’s genius, its intended message of ascetic abstinence remains controversial. G.K. Chesterton, for example, wrote that “Tolstoy is not content with pitying humanity for its pains: such as poverty and prisons. He also pities humanity for its pleasures, such as music and patriotism. He weeps at the thought of hatred; but in The Kreutzer Sonata he weeps almost as much at the thought of love.”

The avaricious Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov is impatient to set out on a business venture. Defying common sense, he drags his servant, Nikita, along with him into the bitter cold of a Russian blizzard. Brekhunov and Nikita lose themselves in the forest; in a matter of minutes, the master shifts from discomfort to panic and from irritation to desperation. Both his life and that of his servant are in his hands. Master and Man shares the startlingly precise insight into human nature that characterizes all of Tolstoy’s work. Passionate and rich in imagery, the short story has enchanted readers with its message of selfless love.

Famous for his longer novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy displays his mastery of the short story in Twenty-Three Tales. This volume is organized by topic into seven different segments. Part I is filled with stories for children, while Part 2 is filled with popular stories for adult. In Part 3, Tolstoy discreetly condemns capitalism in his fairy tale "Ivan the Fool." Part 4 contains several short stories, which were originally published with illustrations to encourage the inexpensive reproduction of pictorial works. Part 5 features a number of Russian folk tales, which address the themes of greed, societal conflict, prayer, and virtue. Part 6 contains two French short stories, which Tolstoy translated and modified. Finally, Part 7 contains a group of parabolic short stories that Tolstoy dedicated to the Jews of Russia, who were persecuted in the early 1900's. Entertaining for all ages, Tolstoy's creative short stories are overflowing with deeper, often spiritual, meaning.

Guy de Maupassant was a popular 19th century French writer, considered one of the great innovators of the modern short story. Tolstoy, at the prompting of a friend, read a collection of Maupassant’s stories in 1881, shortly after the Russian novelist’s radical conversion. Because of Tolstoy’s newfound zeal for ascetic Christianity, he found Maupassant’s works trivial and overly sensual. In this essay, Tolstoy, while he comments on Maupassant specifically, lays out his new framework for evaluating literature according to the values of ascetic (and at times Gnostic) Christianity. This framework would go on to shape all of Tolstoy’s later works, including Father Sergius and The Kreutzer Sonata.

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Works about Leo Tolstoy