Count Lev Tolstoy (known better as Leo in English) was a famous Russian author considered by many to be one of the greatest writers of all time. He is best known for the novels War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). The former masterpiece was an epic with 580 characters! Fellow Russian author Dostoyevsky considered him the greatest of all living novelists and a British contemporary stated, "A novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life."
Tolstoy also had an intriguing spiritual journey which has influenced many even to this day.
The formative years
Tolstoy was born in 1828 to an aristocratic Russian family in a town 200 km south of Moscow. He was the fourth of five children of Count Nikolai and Countess Mariya. Sadly, his mother died when he was only two and his father died when he was nine. He and his siblings were then raised by relatives.
At age 16 he began studying law and languages at university but his teachers concluded he was “both unable and unwilling to learn” (boy, were they wrong!). Tolstoy left university and began living a privileged aristocratic life which included sexual promiscuity and reckless gambling. He also discovered his love of writing describing his own youthful experiences.
Tolstoy then joined the Russian army with his brother and served in the Crimean War. Although recognized for his courage in battle, he was also appalled by the senseless suffering and death. His brother Nikolai’s death in 1860 also impacted him greatly.
The famous years
Leaving the army, Tolstoy married in 1862 at the age of 34. Sophia (called Sonya by family and friends) was only 18. They had 13 children but only eight survived childhood. As his writing flourished, his wife became his secretary, editor and financial manager.
Tolstoy wrote several novels and plays and numerous philosophical essays and sported a long beard. His reputation grew and his influence spread beyond Russia. He was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace prize in literature (but never chosen). In spite of wealth, fame and family, however, Tolstoy felt a deep emptiness in his life.
The final years
Now in middle age, Tolstoy experienced a profound moral crisis. He had been distressed by the inevitability of death which he knew would deprive him of everything he had laboured to achieve. He found his answer, not in the Russian Orthodox Church, but in the simple faith of the Russian peasants.
He wrote about this spiritual awakening in his nonfiction work A Confession (1882). Two years later, he penned What I Believe as a summary of his Christian beliefs. Tolstoy declared, “There can be only one permanent revolution —a moral one —the regeneration of the inner man."
In his study of the Bible, he focused on the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew chapters 5-7). This led him to become an ardent pacifist and write The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894). This would later profoundly impact Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to embrace non-violent resistance in India and America, respectively.
Tolstoy was not afraid to criticize the church and state of his day. As a result, he was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church for being too radical and critical. His distrust of government led him to adopt an anarchist position. Tolstoy was also committed to education and religious freedom. He founded 13 schools in Russia for peasant children. And he helped the Russian “Doukhobors” and Mennonites to migrate to other countries (like Canada) so they could worship freely.
Towards the end of his life, Tolstoy renounced his wealth and privilege choosing a simpler lifestyle and dressing like a peasant. He died of pneumonia in 1910 at the age of 82. During his long life, Leo Tolstoy had journeyed from a life of recklessness and immorality at war with God, to a life of faith at peace with God and his fellow man.
Rob Weatherby is a retired pastor who loves to read.