Nowadays Tolstoy is best known for writing Anna Karenia and War and Peace. It seems strange therefore that the vast majority of the thousands who attended his funeral, had never read one of his books. They came for Tolstoy the anarchist, Tolstoy the advocate of rights for peasants, Tolstoy the campaigner for peaceful resistance.
Tolstoy’s aristocratic youth
Count Tolstoy was born on his family’s estate Yasnaya Polyana in 1828. His aristocratic heritage was even better than the tsar’s. After a rather wild youth filled with women, alcohol and a gambling addiction that nearly cost him his considerable inheritance, he decided to better his life. In 1858 he moved to Yasnaya Polyana. There he founded a school for the local peasants’ children. The aristocracy in Russia at the time did not just own their houses and estates; they also owned the souls who lived there, the peasants were actually slaves.
After he had written Anna Karenina, Tolstoy began to question his lifestyle more and more. He initially sought the solution in a strict religious life, he became a vegetarian, and quit smoking and drinking. He felt he could no longer take advantage of his privileged position and started to wear peasants’ clothes and work on his land. In 1873 he and his wife Sophia set up an enormous charity for the famine in Samara. They raised 1,867,000 roubles and 344,000 kilograms of grain. The whole Tolstoy family traveled to the affected area to offer practical help.
Typically for Tolstoy he showed his outrage in letters to the tsar and newspapers. He blamed the government’s mismanagement for the famine and reproached the government for leaving the victims without any help. Time after time Tolstoy used his fame and background to raise attention to social issues. His theories about non violent resistance caught the attention of Ghandi, and later influenced other great political figures like Martin Luther King JR, Václav Havel and Lech Walesa. Yasnaya Polyana became an international pilgrimage, where people in mental or financial need always found the door open. Tolstoy’s influence grew to such proportions, that people said that Russia had two tsars, Nicholas II and Tolstoy. The tsars during Tolstoy’s life were certainly not always happy with his opinions, but his status made him more or less untouchable.
Tolstoy’s death in Astapovo
After yet another fight with his wife (Sophia didn’t always agree with her husband), Tolstoy left Yasnaya Polyana in 1910. A few days later he fell ill during a train journey. He was laid to bed in a station master’s house. There he died a week later, while the whole world press gathered in the small station of Astapovo.
It takes a great deal of greatness to write a masterpiece like War and Peace, but a great deal more to stand up for your beliefs.
I have read with great pleasure the following books:
–Tolstoy, a Russian Life from Rosamund Bertlett
–Tolstoy from A. N. Wilson
I also enjoyed the film The Last Station with Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren.