Follow TV Tropes


Creator / Leo Tolstoy

Go To
Photograph by Vladimir Chertkov from 1910

There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one; the regeneration of the inner man. How is this revolution to take place? Nobody knows how it will take place in humanity, but every man feels it clearly in himself. And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.
Leo Tolstoy, "Three Methods Of Reform" in Pamphlets: Translated from the Russian (translated by Aylmer Maude)

Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Russian: Лев Никола́евич Толсто́й; 9 September [Old Style 28 August] 1828 – 20 November [Old Style 7 November] 1910), usually referred to as Leo Tolstoy, was a Russian writer and philosopher. He is best known internationally for his novels, which include the notorious doorstopping epic War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He also received nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year from 1902 to 1906 and for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901, 1902, and 1909. He never won, and that is considered to be a major controversy.

Tolstoy was born 9 September 1828 at Yasnaya Polyana in the Tula province and descended from a well-known Russian noble family. He was the fourth of five children of Count Nikolai Ilyich Tolstoy (1794-1837), a veteran of the Patriotic War of 1812; and Princess Mariya Tolstaya (née Volkonskaya; 1790–1830). They died when he was very young, leaving their children to be raised by their relatives.

He received his primary education at home from French and German tutors. In 1843, he studied Oriental languages and law at the University of Kazan, but failing to excel as a student and being prone to drinking, visiting brothels, and gambling, he ultimately left the university without attaining a degree. He attempted university exams again in the hopes of obtaining a position with the government, but he ended up in Caucusus serving in the army, following in the footsteps of his elder brother in 1851. It was during this time that Tolstoy began writing.

After the defence of Sebastopol, he wrote The Sebastopol Sketches (1855-6), which established his reputation as a writer. After a period in St Petersburg and abroad, where he studied educational methods for use in his school for peasant children in Yasnaya Polyana, he married Sophie Andreyevna Behrs, mostly called Sonya, in 1862. They had thirteen children, and Sonya acted as Tolstoy's secretary, proofreader, and financial manager. In the meantime, Tolstoy continued his educational projects, cared for his peasants, and wrote War and Peace (1865-1868) and Anna Karenina (1874-6).

Upon completing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy fell into a profound state of existential despair and then experienced a profound spiritual awakening. Around 1879-82, Tolstoy wrote A Confession, which marked a change in his life and works. Tolstoy even wrote a series of pamphlets after 1880 in which he espoused indictment to the demands of the flesh, nonviolent resistance, and denunciation of private property, something his wife strongly objected to. This strained their marriage, and Tolstoy eventually conceded his wife the copyrights — and the royalties — to all of his pre-1881 writings. His spiritual awakening also led Tolstoy to become an unorthodox Christian; he rejected the sacraments, miracles, the Holy Trinity, and all other doctrines of the Christian faith. He also rejected the Old Testament and much of the New Testament, accepting only the Sermon on the Mount and nothing more, even composing his own "corrected" version of the Gospels, in which Jesus is portrayed as a merely wise man who arrived at a true account of life. His unorthodox Christian beliefs, also expounded in Resurrection (1899), led to his eventual excommunication by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901.

On 20 November 1910, Leo Tolstoy died at the age of 82 due to pneumonia at Astapovo railway station. He was interred at Yasnaya Polyana without a Christian burial due to his excommunication.

Selected Works

  • War and Peace (1869): A novel that combines history and philosophy, chronicling the French invasion of Russian and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society through the lives of five Russian aristocratic families.
  • Anna Karenina (1878): Another eight-part novel with more than a dozen major characters. It is centered on an extramarital affair between Anna Karenina and the cavalry officer Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky. The affair scandalized the social circles of St Petersburg, forcing the two lovers to flee to Italy in search of happiness. When they return to Russia, their lives further unravel.
  • The Death Of Ivan Ilyich (1886): A novella written shortly after his spiritual awakening. It tells the story of a high-court judge in 19th-century Russia succumbing to a terminal illness.
  • Resurrection (1899): Tolstoy's last novel. He intended to provide a panoramic view of Russia at the end of the 1800s and expound on the injustice of man-made laws and the Russian Orthodox Church. This novel got him excommunicated.

Leo Tolstoy's body of work provides examples of:

  • Actual Pacifist: This is frequently debated in his work, as the man himself became a die-hard pacifist in the latter part of his life. In fact, his book The Kingdom of God Is Within You heavily influenced Mahatma Gandhi.
  • Angel Unaware: Michael in "What Men Live By".
  • Author Tract: Most of his writing have varying degrees of this, especially his later works. A good reminder that Tropes Are Tools.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Lampshaded and inverted in What is Art? with Tolstoy arguing that beauty more often coincides with amorality and immorality than with goodness.
    • Likewise inverted in Childhood, where the narrator resolves to be good as best he can precisely because he thinks himself ugly.
  • Bowdlerise: Tolstoy complained that when What is Art? was submitted for publication, some of his sentiments were softened to be in accordance with the Russian mores of the time, like replacing "Church religion" with "Roman Catholic religion", "patriotism" with "pseudo-patriotism", and others, implying that he was a Russian patriot who accepts all the doctrines of the Orthodox Church.
  • Circassian Beauty: In The Cossacks, the romantically-minded soldier Olyenin fantasizes about falling in love with a Circassian slave girl, "a maiden of graceful form, with long braids of hair and deep submissive eyes" who is "lovely but uncultivated, wild and rough". When he snaps out of his reverie, he exclaims "What rubbish!" — acknowledging the absurdity of the idea — before slipping into dreams of highlander girls once again.
  • Corrupt Church: One of the central themes of Resurrection, attacking the Church for hypocrisy.
  • Creator Backlash: Tolstoy grew to despise much of his early work, which he came to view as nothing more than vain attempts at getting recognition with no true artistic passion invoked behind them. In his work What is Art?, he relegates War and Peace and Anna Karenina as examples of "bad art", but in a conversation with Aylmer Maude, one of his translators, regarding this, Tolstoy states that the only thing he does not like about these works is that they are too long; they were written in a way adapted to please the leisured well-to-do classes who have time to read all these books since they have other people to do the work for them.
  • Creator-Preferred Adaptation: Tolstoy consistently praised and supported Aylmer and Louise Maude as they translated his works, even stepping in to assist them from time to time. Of the Maudes, he said: "Better translators, both for knowledge of the two languages and for penetration into the very meaning of the matter translated, could not be invented."
  • Decapitation Presentation: In Hadji Murat, the reader is first aware of the death of Hadji Murat when someone shows off his head in a sack.
  • Doorstopper: He was so infamous for it that his name has actually entered the Russian language to mean a very long book. This is also his major gripe with works like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, in that these books were long because the well-to-do classes have other people to work for them, giving them time to read lengthy books.
  • Famous Ancestor: Tolstoy was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan through the marriage of Prince Fyodor of Yaroslavl to Anna of the Tatars.
  • God Is Good: The Russian Orthodox Church, on the other hand... has seen better days.
  • Heel Realization: The autobiographical My Confession partly consists of Tolstoy having one of these:
    "I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain. I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants' toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat. Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder — there was not a crime I did not commit..."
  • The Heretic: He denied a lot of doctrines that the Orthodox Church taught. For one thing, he rejected the sacraments, the doctrine of the Trinity, miracles, and accepted only the Sermon on the Mount. He wrote a "corrected" version of the Gospels portraying Jesus as a merely wise man, and he denied the doctrine of the Redemption of mankind, considering it "to be one of the most untrue and harmful of Church dogmas". Resurrection is where he made these views very transparent, and this is what got him excommunicated by the Orthodox Church. His unorthodox views of Christianity also denied him a Christian burial.
  • Heroic Self-Deprecation: Tolstoy is a well-respected and famous writer and philosopher (at least in his country). In an autobiographical work of his, My Confession, he mentions that he had recurring bouts of depression despite having what many would call a happy life: he had a beloved wife; good children; a large estate "which grew and increased without any labour on [his] part"; was respected and praised by friends, neighbours, and strangers alike; and was mentally and physically well (excluding his depression). Why was he depressed? Because he was wondering if life was even worth living. In the end, he concluded that it was.
  • Oh, and X Dies: The Death of Ivan Ilych
  • Plato Is a Moron: Wrote an entire pamphlet devoted to arguing that William Shakespeare was a terrible writer and King Lear a terrible play. He's also not afraid to dismiss the likes of Franz Liszt, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Oscar Wilde in What is Art?
  • Real Men Love Jesus: Tolstoy was a devout Orthodox Christian, though he had grievances with the Russian Orthodox Church and denied a lot of its doctrines. The Church became the main object of his attacks in a couple of his writings, which led to his excommunication on 20 February 1901.