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Tolstoy: Life as Russian History

"Without knowing why I am and why I am here, life is impossible."

      -- Leo Tolstoy

In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy not only relates a telling portrait of Russian society in the second half of the 19th century, but also mirrors his own personal transformations during this time. Tolstoy expresses his beliefs and actions through his character Levin, the landowning aristocrat who searches for a higher meaning in life. But whereas Levin found his answers in love, family life, and nature, Tolstoy sought out a deeper meaning in his later years, turning away from luxury, property, and pleasures for, in his mind, a more holy and just existence.

Count Leo Nicolaevich Tolstoy was born on September 10, 1828, the fourth of five children, to wealthy noble parents. He lived at the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana ("clear glade"), south of Moscow. Orphaned at 9, Tolstoy was brought up by relatives and educated by French and German tutors. At 16, he entered the University of Kazan, where he studied languages and law, though he showed far more interest in gambling, drinking, and women. He was by no means a social success: his stiff awkwardness led his friends to nickname him "the bear." Eventually influenced by the writings of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Tolstoy became disenchanted with formal education and left the university in 1847 without a degree.

Tolstoy returned that year to Yasnaya Polyana, now his legal inheritance. Along with 2100 acres came 233 male serfs, bonded laborers whose back-breaking work gave him his livelihood. For his day, the young Tolstoy had a fairly liberal attitude toward his serfs: he reasoned that as long as he treated them well, ownership was fair.

Serfs in Tolstoy's day led wretched lives. Though the majority of the Russian population was made up of rural workers -- 96.4% in 1797, 87.4% in 1897 -- minority landowners ran their lives. Beatings were the most common form of training and discipline. The vast majority of serfs were uneducated and lived in squalid conditions. They were not legally allowed to hold local or international passports, so they could not seek out better lives elsewhere. Punishment for being discovered outside one's legal environs included beatings, fines, deportation, and exile.

Tolstoy tried to improve his serfs' lot in life, but failed miserably. He would later record these deeds in his novel A Landowner's Morning, where a young nobleman abolishes corporal punishment on his estate, provides schooling for his laborers, and lectures them on how to live better lives. The serfs greet his efforts with mistrust and greed, and the landowner soon abandons his efforts. Though these initial attempts at improving the lives of serfs backfired, such benevolence would figure significantly in Tolstoy's later life.

His idealism dashed, Tolstoy temporarily gave up country life in 1848 and left for Moscow and St. Petersburg. For two years he lived the aristocratic life to which he was born, going to countless parties, gambling, and womanizing. Still socially awkward, he scrutinized his own actions in his diaries, and noted with great remorse the emptiness of society life. At this time, he also began to closely observe his high-born urban peers, and felt a great urge to write down what he saw. Thus, Tolstoy's creative life was born. The next year, his first novel, Childhood, was published.

In 1852, Tolstoy joined his brother Nicolai in the army as a commissioned officer, fighting Tartars along the Chechnian border (a fight still plaguing the region today). The horrors of war had a great impact on Tolstoy -- besides the torture each side inflicted on the other, brutality within the Russian ranks was harrowing.

Peasants made up the involuntary enlisted ranks, and, before reforms were enacted in 1863, were forced to serve for twenty-five years, making family life impossible. After the Crimean War, mandatory service was reduced to seven years, though those with bad records served nine. Enlisted men could expect to not see their families during years of service. Training and discipline mostly took the form of beatings and floggings. One of the worst punishments was the "gauntlet," in which a soldier was tied to his gun and forced to run between ranks of men who flogged him, often to death. Another image that deeply impressed Tolstoy was that of Russian officers shot to death by their own soldiers in battle. Tolstoy was also horrified by governmental use of the military to quell peasant riots. In such cases, the government essentially forced peasants to oppress other peasants. Such violence often ended in hangings and shootings of rural laborers who fought for legal rights and basics such as food.

Tolstoy spent the rest of his life fighting social inequities, beginning with education for rural laborers. In 1859, now back at Yasnaya Polyana, he opened a school for peasant children and succeeded by creating a relaxed atmosphere in which students didn't fear their masters. Tolstoy and the staff, many with radical inclinations, dressed in peasant garb so as not to intimidate students. Tolstoy's ABC text was used instead of government-issued books, an innovation that authorities frowned upon. Beginning in 1857, Tolstoy traveled extensively, studying progressive school systems and other forms of organization, whether governmental or societal. He became enormously unpopular with both landowners and the government for championing the rights of peasants, and faced several investigations and at least one police raid on his home.

Tolstoy briefly interrupted his travels to be at his brother Nicolai's side as he lay dying in France. Tolstoy was greatly affected by his brother's death; a sense of futility in life -- as well as terror of death -- began to slowly invade his thoughts.

In 1865, Tolstoy began publishing in serial form War and Peace, his great epic of five Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars (1805-1814). For four years he chronicled with great detail and precision the poignant psychological and social aspects of the war years on Russian society. Of war, he wrote:

Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.

In 1862, Tolstoy married Sofya Andreyevna Behrs, whom he called "Sonya." The first fifteen years of marriage proved blissfully happy for Tolstoy, who found great comfort, joy, and satisfaction in family life (much as Levin does at the end of Anna Karenina). He noted in his diary on January 5, 1862, "Domestic happiness has swallowed me completely." It was during these contented years that Tolstoy produced both War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Together he and Sonya had thirteen children (three of whom died in childhood), and Sonya worked lovingly at copying over Tolstoy's final drafts. But things between them would change.

In the 1870s, Tolstoy slowly began a moral crisis and depression that would last the rest of his life. He remained haunted by death, and desperately sought out greater meaning in life. Never very religious, he now found great personal significance in Christ's injunction, "that ye shall resist not evil." Nonresistance, or peacefulness in the face of violence, became the cornerstone of his life. Tolstoy also arrived at the idea that self-gratification corrupted man's inherent goodness, and that therefore property rights -- owning "things that belong to all" -- were evil. He wanted to give all his land away, but ultimately parceled it out to his family, who largely opposed his altruistic ideas. In his quest for a holy life, Tolstoy also became a vegetarian; abstained from sex, alcohol, and tobacco; worked on his farms; wore only peasant clothing; and even made his own shoes. His family, particularly his wife, was extremely unhappy with his conversion, with the exception of his daughter Alexandra who shared many of her father's beliefs.

After his conversion, Tolstoy renounced his earlier fiction as "trash" written for the cultural elite, and turned to writing essays and tracts. In his 1882 "Confession," he speaks candidly of his moral crisis, and in the 1886 pamphlet "What Then Shall We Do?" he inveighs against property ownership and the exploitation of labor. In 1894, he published "The Kingdom of God Is Within You," describing his personal religious findings; in 1901 he was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church. "What Is Art?" written in 1898, dismisses all but morally inspired art that could appeal to the average citizen. Though Tolstoy made many bureaucratic enemies, he also found many followers, several of whom sought him out at Yasnaya Polyana as a prophet.

In his last years, Tolstoy turned back to fiction, writing morality tales and plays. "Master and Man" (1885) and "The Death of Ivan Ilych" (1886), two of his best known short stories, portray men seeking spiritual conversion upon their deathbeds. The short novel The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) describes a loveless marriage (and was banned in several countries). The play The Power of Darkness (1888) demonstrates Tolstoy's belief that greed and lust lead to violence and evil. In 1892, when a severe famine hit, Tolstoy set up many relief stations in Tula and Samara, and published his volume The Famine. A final novel, Resurrection (1899), deals with the triumph of the individual over government, as well as hypocrisy in society.

At the age of 82, unhappy at home, Tolstoy took off one night and soon became ill at a rural railway station. On November 20, 1910, Tolstoy died of heart failure in an obscure hospital in Astapova. The Church briefly considered lifting the ban of excommunication on Tolstoy at his deathbed, but ultimately decided against it.

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