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A Tolstoy Timeline [imagemap with 6 links]

A Brief Biography

Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy
1828-1910

"How is one to understand the merits and inconsistencies of this remarkable and mystifying character?"

The question was Alexandra Tolstoy's, Leo Tolstoy's aristocratic aunt, who loved him dearly and was his foremost ally at the court of the Tsar. She was not alone in asking the question. All who knew him well, except those disciples who idolized him, confessed to some mixture of awe and ambivalence towards the great Russian novelist.

Tolstoy himself was all too aware of the contradictions. No man was ever more uncomfortable in his own skin. Tolstoy's personal diaries, kept up throughout most of his 82 years, show plainly how ashamed he was of the abyss that often separated his behaviors and his beliefs.

His life reads like a novel all its own. Born to a father who had fought against Napoleon and to a wealthy spinster who had never expected to marry, Leo Tolstoy was motherless at 2 and an orphan by age 7. At 19 he was the master of hundreds of serfs (slaves, really) and owner of vast landholdings which he proceeded to squander by compulsively gambling. His sexual appetites were equally intense, and he became predatory as well as dissolute, sexually assaulting servants, contracting venereal disease, and fathering an illegitimate child with one of his serfs before falling in love and proposing marriage to a girl half his age. He invented increasingly high-minded "rules for life" which he was unable to adhere to for long. After marrying, he fathered 13 children and delegated to his wife all responsibility for the management of their practical affairs while he pursued his art, his spiritual needs, and intense social activism.

Ambitious and intellectually voracious, Tolstoy was physically strong and courageous. As a young army officer he fought in Chechnya, endured the siege at Sevastopol during the Crimean War, and was decorated for bravery. Later he had the strength and presence of mind to survive being mauled by a bear. At the age of 80 he could still outride and outwalk many younger companions.

As he grew older, another sort of courage emerged that was moral -- a determined commitment to nonviolent resistance against tyranny and evil, a commitment that put him on a collision course with the Russian imperial regime of which he was a privileged member. It is to Tolstoy whom Mahatma Gandhi gave credit for his own first understanding of nonviolent resistance to oppression, and there is an unbroken lineage from Tolstoy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King.


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