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Leo Tolstoy | Biography

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Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born into a family of landowners and aristocrats on September 9, 1828, in the Tula province of Russia. He had three older brothers and one younger sister and was raised mostly by two aunts, since Tolstoy's mother, Princess Volkonskaya, died before he was two and his father, Count Nikolay Tolstoy, died when he was about nine. Tolstoy also lost one of his aunts and a grandmother by the time he was 13. Despite the deaths of so many family members, his first autobiographical novel recalls a happy childhood. Tolstoy was educated by tutors and started university training in 1844, but he dropped out without getting a degree.

The count lived a wild life in his student days and early adulthood—he drank, gambled, and caroused with women. He joined the military in his early 20s, accompanying his older brother Nikolai to the Caucasus, where he served as an artillery officer in Russian campaigns against the indigenous people of the region. He also fought in the Crimean War against Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire and was promoted to lieutenant for bravery under fire. His war experiences served to inform the realistic war scenes depicted in War and Peace.

Tolstoy kept a diary throughout his life, which he used for his fiction as well as for self-examination. His early work includes short stories and sketches and three autobiographical novels. After he married Sofya Bers in 1862, he settled down to family life on his ancestral estate of Yasnaya Polyana and began his most productive writing period, penning War and Peace in the 1860s and Anna Karenina in the 1870s, his most well-known and beloved works. War and Peace has been universally praised as a masterpiece and is considered by some to be the best novel ever written. Matthew Arnold, a 19th-century English poet and critic, famously said that Tolstoy's novels were not works of art but pieces of life. Critics have remarked on Tolstoy's realism—his ability to vividly portray the external world and internal states of human consciousness.

The genesis of War and Peace was Tolstoy's interest in the Decembrist uprising of 1825, in which a faction of aristocrats who supported constitutional monarchy challenged the authority of Tsar Nicholas I. He imagined writing about one of the exiled rebels coming back from Siberia in 1856, when the surviving rebels were pardoned, but then began to reimagine the time of rebellion and the era of the Napoleonic Wars—the historical period in which progressivism grew. The original title of his work in a serial publication was The Year 1805, which he changed to War and Peace in 1867, a title likely borrowed from a work by French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, whom Tolstoy met in Belgium during a trip to Western Europe.

Most of the fictional characters in War and Peace were based on friends and family members. For example, Natasha Rostov has characteristics of both Tolstoy's sister-in-law and his wife. The elder Prince Bolkonsky and Count Rostov are based on the author's grandfathers, young Nikolai Rostov and Marya Bolkonsky on his parents, and Sonya on one of his aunts. Dolokhov is partially based on Fyodor Tolstoy, a cousin-uncle. Tolstoy did extensive research on the Napoleonic Wars and even visited battle sites to help create the realism of the novel. Parts of the novelist's personality can also be seen in the characters of the young men: Pierre's appetite and desire to uncover the meaning of life; Nikolai's bravery and spectacular gambling loss (Tolstoy lost his house in a game of cards); and Andrei's existential angst (anxiety about existence).

Tolstoy had always been preoccupied with spirituality and how people could find a philosophy to provide meaning to their lives, but in midlife he underwent a profound spiritual crisis in which the questions of life and death surfaced with renewed intensity. Tolstoy eventually rejected the beliefs of Russian Orthodox Christianity, which he believed wrongly exercised authority over its members, even while he embraced a plain Christianity based on the moral teachings of Jesus. He was excommunicated by the Church in 1901. In his old age Tolstoy became a magnet for followers of his ideas; many of his followers, like him, were vegetarian and believed in living communally rather than owning private property. Much of his later work is nonfiction and didactic short fiction, in which he sought to propagate his ideas about nonviolence and the corruption of state and religious institutions. Mahatma Gandhi, the nonviolent Indian activist, corresponded with the author and was influenced by his ideas, which were similar to Hindu and Buddhist teachings about nonviolence.

His desire to divest himself of wealth—for example, by giving up his copyrights—created tensions in Tolstoy's marriage, as did the growing number of disciples who came to see him. The author left home on a pilgrimage in 1910 with his daughter and doctor but soon contracted pneumonia and died on November 20, 1910.

Tolstoy's large body of work includes 12 novels and novellas, essays, plays, and an autobiography.

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