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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was born in Yasnaya Polyana, located in western Russia, to a family of Russian nobles.  His mother inherited an estate that employed 800 serfs.  Tolstoy was a Count by birth, an honor bestowed on his ancestors by Peter the Great.  Losing both parents while still young, Tolstoy received instruction from his deeply religious aunt who had a profound effect on him.  Due to a dissatisfaction with the teaching style, Tolstoy removed himself from the university and returned to the family estate.  He developed a severe gambling habit that nearly ruined him several times.  He joined Russian army in the 1850s, much like his father who had fought during the French invasion of Russia.  His participation in the Crimean War led to the work Sevastopol Sketches, which describes the horrors Tolstoy witnessed during the siege of the title city. 

After the success of this work, Tolstoy continued to write, eventually publishing his masterpiece War and Peace (1869), which provided a panoramic view of Napoleonic Russia.  Starting in the 1880s, Tolstoy began to shift from novels to philosophical and religious works, such as A Confession and What I Believe.  His What is Art details the significance of art and its influence on the actions of others.  His religious transformation, which caused him to be excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church, developed from a re-reading of the biblical Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  From this passage, Tolstoy established a foundation of five principles of behavior that served as the basis of his transformation:  renounce anger, take no oaths, give no resistance to evil, engage in no extra-marital sex, and love one's enemies.  As a result, he adopted principles of Christian anarchism and pacificism, which caused him to influence Gandhi.

Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina after War and Peace proved high successful but still called the former his first true novel.  In the novel he investigates the human conscience in the face of temptation.  The opening line is famous, the storyline epic, and the fate of the title character tragic.

Source:  Leo Tolstoy (1986) by William Rowe

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