In 1800 Prince Nikolai Volkonsky withdrew to his country estate, Yasnaya Polyana, which he controlled with military zeal. His strict ways terrorised his shy daughter Marya, who only married after his death. Her husband was Nikolai Tolstoy, who served in a hussar regiment during the Napoleonic Wars. Nikolai Tolstoy had a cousin who he was all but engaged to, but he inherited the debts of his profligate father and chose to marry the wealthy Marya instead.
Many years later, the fourth son of this union, Count Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy (1828-1910), made use of his family history as he wrote War and Peace. Leo Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana in 1828, where his brother Nikolai told him of a hidden green stick upon which was written the secret to universal brotherly love that could bring happiness to the whole world.
Tolstoy's mother died when he was two; his father was murdered whilst travelling when Tolstoy was nine years old. He inherited his childhood home from them, but was forced to move to Kazan during his teenage years, where he had a short and disastrous career at the University of Kazan, despite being a keen reader. He was an admirer of Rousseau, and was torn between reading novels, engaging in earnest philosophical musings and pursuing more earthly pleasures such as drinking, gambling, and visiting brothels.
In 1851 he joined Nikolai in the Caucasus, eventually becoming a soldier there. He spent three years in the south of Russia, where he started to write, producing the autobiographical novel Childhood. Afterwards he went on to serve in the Crimea during the war of 1853-56, fighting at the Siege of Sebastopol, which caused him to question the meaningless destruction of war.
After the war, Tolstoy established himself as a writer in St Petersburg, publishing the Sebastopol Sketches and other short works. His writing was widely admired, but he soon grew disillusioned with the literary scene and moved back to Yasnaya Polyana. In 1862 he married Sofia Andreevna Bers, with whom he had thirteen children; eight survived childhood. Family life inspired him to settle down and write War and Peace, which was published in 1869. It met with great success, and he followed it with Anna Karenina, published in 1877.
However, after he finished Anna Karenina, Tolstoy underwent a profound spiritual crisis. He wrestled with the questions that had been plaguing him all his life: what was the meaning of life? Was it possible to have a society built on brotherly love, as described in his brother Nikolai's childhood story?
In 1878 Tolstoy decided to devote himself to a spiritual life, advocating brotherly love, Christian anarchism and non-violence. This led to him becoming extremely unpopular with the autocratic government and the Orthodox church in Russia. He was excommunicated in 1901, but his fame as a writer and philosopher meant that the government could not silence him. He attracted an international following, including a young Gandhi, who was influenced by his writings on non-violence in The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894).
His most ardent admirer was a man called Vladimir Grigoryevich Chertkov, who became Tolstoy's secretary, and fought jealously with Sofia Andreevna over control of Tolstoy's life and work. Tolstoy argued frequently and viciously with his wife over his new ascetic lifestyle. In 1910, his home life became so bitter that he fled from Yasnaya Polyana, possibly planning to retire to a monastery. But he fell ill in Astapovo, and died of pneumonia in the stationmaster's house; his wife was not allowed to see him as he lay dying. He is buried at Yasnaya Polyana, in the place where his brother once told him that the green stick of brotherly love was hidden.
Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett
Tolstoy: A Biography by A.N. Wilson
The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Final Year by Jay Parini
'The Hedgehog and the Fox' in Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin
On the Translators
Louise and Aylmer Maude were an English couple who lived in Russia in the late nineteenth century. During this time they became personal friends of Tolstoy, whose work they translated into English: Aylmer focused on the philosophical works, whilst Louise tackled the literature. Tolstoy, who could read English, approved of their translations and allowed Aylmer to write a biography of himself. Although War and Peace has been re-translated many times, their translation remains the standard by which all others are judged.