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A Brief Tolstoy Biography


Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born in 1828 of a noble family. He was born at Yasnaya Polyana, his parent's estate, in Tula, Russia. Tula is located approximately 200 kilometers south of Moscow. Young Tolstoy was orphaned by the age of nine and was raised by his aunts. His schooling came from private tutors who came to Yasnaya Polyana. At the age of 16 Lev was sent to the University of Kazan where he was bored. He eventually left the University without receiving a degree. Upon returning to Yasnaya Polyana in 1849, he sought to aid and educate the serfs on his land. These attempts failed and Tolstoy promptly left the estate to tour Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Tolstoy followed his brother into the army in 1851, largely as the result of avoiding large gambling debts he had acquired. This army service took him to the Caucasus, a large area of Central Asia, where he not only observed war and the customs of culture in the area, but took place in the fighting. In 1854 he was part of the defense of Sevastopol and relates some of these experiences through his war tales, particularly the "Sevastopol Stories." It is during this time that he begins serious writing attempts with Childhood in 1852, with Boyhood and Youth to follow in 1854 and 1857, respectively. Of particular importance at this time in the young career of Tolstoy was the journal of Nekrasov: The Contemporary. Tolstoy wrote descriptions of what he experienced during the Siege of Sevastopol, and these descriptions were published in Nekrasov's journal. This publication afforded Tolstoy an initial amount of success and considerable attention.

Tolstoy left the army in 1855 and spent the majority of his time divided between his estate at Yasnaya Polyana and the literary and intellectual circles of Saint Petersburg. Tolstoy wrote in his diary that this time in his life was particularly ugly to him as he was dissatisfied with his debauchery. It was at this time that Tolstoy was treated for venereal disease. As a response to this dissatisfaction with his existence, he begins to setup a school for peasant children at Yasnaya Polyana. His emphasis is largely spontaneous: he advocated giving the peasant children the freedom to learn when they wanted to. He was often pleased that the children would take it upon themselves to know when to learn and do their schoolwork, but the school ultimately proved to be impractical yet concluded that education was a critical social institution. In the years of 1860-61, Tolstoy travels through Western Europe, investigating various educational theory and pragmatic methods of teaching, writing about what he witnesses in magazines and textbooks.

Tolstoy marries Sophia Andreyevna Bers in 1862. Sophia was a young, well-educated, and very fertile woman. Through the next decades, she will bare Tolstoy 13 children. In addition to wife and child bearer, Sophia was also Tolstoy's secretary - a critical occupation in the 19th Century for a writer. At this time Tolstoy writes more fiction, much of which is born out of his various diary entries, discussions which attempt to understand his feelings and actions so that he could control them. Part of these actions included infidelity and a harsh understanding of the role of his wife. These infidelities led to instability in their marriage. In addition to writing diary entries and fiction including "The Cossacks," War and Peace, and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy read tremendous amounts of material, including literature and philosophy of Plate, Rousseau, Dickens, Sterne, Goethe, Stendhal, Thackeray and George Eliot.

In 1876, the inertia of Tolstoy's doubts, philosophical and spiritual, stemming from childhood combined with his sensual nature that resulted in an evasive period of self-examination. One result of this self-examination period was his conversion to the doctrines of Christian love and the birth of his belief in the nonresistance to evil. Tolstoy structures the evolution of this progression in Confession (1879). From this point forward, Tolstoy works to spend the rest of his life practicing his newfound faith. In addition, the works he writes in his later years are attempts at propagating this faith and understanding upon others. There were numerous results of this profession and preaching of faith. One of this messages, a Rousseauistic simplicity of life labeled him an anarchist by many. This anarchy was viewed also by the Orthodox Church, which responded to Tolstoy's preaching that all organizations based on force (including government and the Church) were wrong, by excommunicating him in 1901. There were a number of individuals that followed Tolstoy, however. A Tolstoy "cult" grew in Russia and abroad, turning Yasnaya Polyana from an estate where Tolstoy rested to a place of pilgrimage. This gathering of followers angered the Church and fueled its decision to excommunicate Tolstoy - an act that pleased Tolstoy very much.

In Tolstoy's final years his writings take a very moralistic tone. The Death of Ivan Ilych, The Power of Darkness, and The Kreutzer Sonata all pose moral questions to the reader and reflect Tolstoy's attempt at understanding morality and preaching his understanding. As a result of this newfound morality, Tolstoy seeks to put his beliefs into practice and abandons essentially his entire life. He leaves all earthly goods behind, a move that angers his wife. His numerous children, except one - Alexandra, side with their mother on the decision. In 1910, at the age of 83, Tolstoy finally denounces everything, running away from home with Alexandra. Shortly thereafter he catches a cold and dies in a train station that same year.