Typically Tolstoy

Russian literature from the second half of the nineteenth century aims to describe and analyse life in all its aspects. This literary movement is called realism. And realism fits Tolstoy like a glove!

The set-up

The set-up of Tolstoy’s novels and stories is usually simple: there are good and bad people and after the necessary struggles the good win and the hero and heroine end up together. The, often internal, struggle between good and bad is the main subject, but other themes like war, love, discrimination, adultery and happiness feature regularly too.

Writing style

Tolstoy’s writing is uncomplicated. Dutch slavist Karel van het Reve even went so far as to say there there is not a single sentence in War and Peace that a twelve-year-old wouldn’t be able to understand. He doesn’t use difficult words either, keeping his writing as clean as possible. He does, however, frequently use French, as that was the spoken language of the gentry at the time, but in English translations the French is often translated into English as well. Another difficulty is the vast amount of characters (with long Russian names) that Tolstoy introduces. He often uses the omniscient narrator technique: the narrator knows what goes on in Napoleon’s mind on the eve of the battle and what Natásha talks about with her mother before she goes to sleep.


Tolstoy took his writing extremely seriously. He rewrote War and Peace seven (!) times before he was completely happy with it. His research was so extensive that he went to Borodino (W&P) to see where the sun came up on the morning of the battle of Borodino. To make his characters as real as possible, he often sought inspiration within his own family. The Bolkonski family (W&P) was based on his mother’s family, the Volkonskis, and the Rostovs are based on the Tolstoys. For realistic female characterisation Tolstoy consulted his wife.


Tolstoy knows how to bring a scene to life. In Hadji Murad there is a scene in which four soldiers are keeping watch at night. An ordinary writer would have stated the fact and that would have been that. Not Tolstoy. He describes all their little habits, their conversation and the silences in between, giving the reader that fly-on-the-wall experience. These soldiers are not relevant in the story, but their story helps to make the story, it gives it the necessary couleur locale.


As he got older Tolstoy’s work became more and more moralistic. In War and Peace (1869) his reflections are still of a philosophical nature, but by the time he writes Hadji Murad (1904) he is explicitly against the war and interference in the Caucasus. Towards the end of his life he wrote less and less literature and more moralistic and religious essays.

In short:

You can recognise Tolstoy by his (numerous!) extraordinarily lifelike and recognisable characters, his great psychological insight, his superior descriptions, his clear writing and unpretentious vocabulary and his warning finger. Books such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace are unrivalled classics that will, once read, remain with you throughout your life.


Photo: Wikipedia


54 thoughts on “Typically Tolstoy

  1. This is a brilliant post – one that gives me a deeper and more meaningful understanding of Tolstoy and the time in which he lived. I was especially interested in the progression of his writing as he aged. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Would that all “author sites” were this good. Everything is made crystal clear; it is fascinating and revelatory; this post about the basic ingredients of Tolstoy’s craft it superbly written. Who could not learn from it, as well as enjoy it, and remind oneself how much one appreciates Tolstoy and why? You understand with great insight what make a great writer great, and you know how to get to the essentials (unlike a lot of academics who waste one’s time with tendentious criticism). Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hey Roger, thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog post and your super nice comment! You have nailed the purpose of my blog. I try to explain Russian literature in an accessible and entertaining manner, as it is my deep rooted belief that it is there to be enjoyed by anyone, not just academics.
    Kind regards and happy reading! Elisabeth


  4. Hello dear Rebecca! It makes me very happy to hear that you enjoyed reading my little piece about Tolstoy. Yes, he certainly changed his writing as he got older, not to everyone’s liking. His friend and colleague Turgenev wrote him an extremely touching letter from his deathbed, calling him the great writer of the Russia and begging him to return to literature. After that Tolstoy did write his final piece of fiction, Hadji Murad. But it was not all bad, Tolstoy used his fame to advocate things like peaceful resistance and influenced people like Gandhi, who he corresponded with.
    Take care, Elisabeth

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you for replying, Elisabeth.

    I should perhaps mention that – besides a personal blog at


    which includes posts about literature and books and about individual writers, as well as about writing as a craft (among other topics), I do have an author site at


    It’s (1) still under development; (2) is not nearly as good as your site on Russian writers: and, (3) is about Theodore Dreiser, an important American novelist (who, by the way, has always been loved by Russians), but a far lesser writer than Tolstoy.

    Best regards, Roger

    P.S. By the way, at outstanding author site is the one re Walt Whitman at


    I have some posts re Whitman on my personal blog.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I continue to learn every time I come to your blog. Literature, poetry, music – these elements are so important and yet, in our business of living we forget to incorporate moments that feed our soul. Thank you for adding these moments to my day!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Definitely do. It is also translated to English, as far as I know. This was always my ambition, but I never had time. To big a task for the one who doesn’t know Russian keyboard 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Such a wonderful post! I read “The Death of Ivan Ilych” during summer, since I thought it might be a good (short) introduction to Tolstoy, and it amazed me. What would you advise me to continue with? 🙂


  9. First of all, thank you so much! If you don’t mind reading the same book for a while, then I highly recommend War and Peace, it is such a great book in every way. Another good choice is Anna Karenina, a tragic love story.
    I wish you lots of reading pleasure:-)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Too true about the moralising. I love Tolstoy, I’ve even made the pilgrimage to his grave at Yasnaya Polyana, and I’ve read W&P, Anna Karenina, Resurrection, Ivan Illyich and the Kreutzer Sonata, but I could not make myself continue with Hadji Murad!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I’ve read all the ones you mention too!
    One of my first was “Resurrection.” It blew my mind. I think it’s underrated. People who don’t know Tolstoy well do not seem to read it, know about it, or (needless to say) mention it.
    I must confess that I began “Hadji Murad” but didn’t finish it for some reason. Not that it did not seem good — I just got sidetracked.
    Is this site great, or what?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hey Lisa. Wow, you’ve actually been to Yasnaya Polyana! For me that’s still a dream… How was it? Why didn’t you finish Hadji Murad? It’s well worth reading. Have a nice day! Elisabeth


  13. Wow Roger! I’m impressed! And glad to hear you enjoyed Tolstoy. And my blog! Thank you so much for you enthusiastic reactions, it’s always a pleasure to hear from you. Elisabeth


  14. Elisabeth —

    I don’t know why I myself did not finish “Hadji Murad.” It was a long time ago when I read it (part, that is); I was younger. I still have the book in a somewhat battered edition published by Dodd, Mead, and Company in 1912. I purchased it in the 1970’s for one dollar.

    I do recall that I was greatly impressed by Tolstoy’s writing and that it seemed like (to use a perhaps clumsy analogy) the work of a precious stone cutter. The prose was as clear as crystal (to use a cliché).

    I wonder what the “cultural appropriation” zealots would make of such a book? See my blog at post at


    Thanks much for your response to my previous comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I found War and Peace in a charity shop for £1 but avoided it. I wasn’t sure I could handle the thousand pages! You’ve made me reconsider this decision. Do you have any tips for reading W & P?

    Liked by 1 person

  16. And I recommend the Aylmer Maude translation, it has helpful notes and they personally knew Tolstoy. The other piece of advice is that you can’t expect to read it in a couple of weeks, it takes a couple of months, and that is how it was written. It was first published in episodes in a literary magazine, rather like a tv-series, instead of a film.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Elisabeth —

    You might be interested to take a look at Tim Miller’s blog at


    I find it to be fascinating and extremely well done in every respect — including, but by no means limited to, the visual aspect. It is an excellent example of how an author-writer or literary site should be constructed and what it should contain (not that you need to learn). It seems to be mostly devoted to literature and poetry, including ancient literature (as well as much modern), and works that might escape one’s notice.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Yes, they really are thought provoking. What keeps them fascinating for me is that you keep finding new things in their works. Reading Anna Karenina at 20 is a different experience compared to reading it at 40. Never boring! Thanks again for your feedback, I’m happy to hear from you!


  19. Interesting, Elisabeth – your comment about reading “Anna Karenina” and the general implications as they pertain to reading great literature. I have had this experience, not with Russian writers particularly, but in general as a reader — i.e., the experience of rereading a book after a long interval and finding much that you missed the first time, or seeing it differently, sometimes almost like a new book. It happened to me with a few books that I read in school. I think a key (or perhaps THE key) is that one shouldn’t (as I am sure you would agree) be forced, or feel compelled, to read a book when one isn’t “ready’ for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Hey Roger, interesting that you should say that. After reading a lot of books for school, I stopped reading for perhaps even half a year, highly unusual for me. So yes, it does take the fun away. But I also think that great classics can be read again and again, and different aspects of the story catch your attention. Like Huckleberry Finn for instance, when your young the adventure grips you, when you’re older it’s the human interaction that grabs your attention.


  21. Thanks, Elisabeth.

    Some comments on my blog which I think might be pertinent:

    “II think that to love reading, you have to begin by doing it because of intrinsic interest in the topic and because you are anticipating pleasure, not because you regard it as a duty. You should read whatever you like to; it could be books about sports, entertainment figures, lowbrow fiction, whatever you really and truly want to read.
    Whenever (and this comment pertains mainly to classics) you are restricted to encountering good books only as school assignments, when that’s the only place where you encounter them, the game is lost. If you think that classic books are those that you are required to analyze and write essay exam questions on, and nothing more, you will probably not enjoy them in later life. My counsel to all readers, especially young ones, is read whatever you want to read, as much as you can. Seek a level where you have a genuine interest and read at that level. An interest in the best books will often follow.

    A writer (in a book about Herman Melville’s’ Moby-Dick) mentions ‘the wisdom of waiting to read the classics. Coming to a great book on your own after having accumulated essential life experience can make all the difference.’

    YES – waiting, I would be inclined to say, until you are ready, motivated, and receptive.

    Waiting until the most opportune time.

    This is precisely that happened to me with Moby-Dick. And, practically every other classic and/or “great book” I have ever read.

    Hardly any of them – almost none – were read by me as school assignments.”

    Liked by 1 person

  22. You’re absolutely right! I think you should teach children to enjoy books and hand them the tools to do so. It should definitely not be such a drama that they never touch a book again.


  23. After reading all the above replies, I will once again have a go at ‘War and Peace,’ I read it for the first time some decades ago and was gobsmacked by it. I loved it and read the lot quickly, eating the pages. I am sure I read it in Dutch. I tried again some time back and it had lost some of its its magic. It seemed so tortuous but that might well come from getting older and less tolerant. I always thought that with age come tolerance, but in some cases that might not be true. In any case, I will have another go.

    This is a great article. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Hey Gerard,
    Thank you so much, I’m always happy to hear that people get inspired after reading my blog. War and Peace is a great novel, as you already know, but, I do think you need to be in the right frame of mind for it, so perhaps the last time you started reading it you were too busy living life yourself;-)
    Veel leesplezier, groetjes uit Amsterdam!


  25. Hi Elisabeth,
    I am so glad I came across your blog! This is such an insightful post for an amateur Tolstoy worshiper like me. This is the year that I really fell in love with Tolstoy, starting with War & Peace, then continuing onto his shorter works. What’s remarkable about his writing is that his characters, their conflicts and experiences are still so relevant and relatable. Looking forward to more of your posts!

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Hello Misha,
    Nice to hear from a fellow Tolstoy fan! I fell in love with Tolstoy too some 25 years ago, and I still find new joys in those familiar books. You’re absolutely right, they have a timeless quality and are very relatable. Sometimes you feel like he looked in your head, so accurate is the way he describes emotions.
    Thanks for your nice words of encouragement!
    Happy reading, Elisabeth

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Love Tolstoy. Not sure who I like better. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Certainly Tolstoy’s uncomplicated writing style makes him easier to read. A pleasure really. Loved Hadji Murad. I read it right after the Boston Marathon bombings to give me greater insight into those terrible events. One of my favorite stories by Tolstoy is “The Three Questions.” I use this story over and over in a variety of settings to teach an important lesson. Won’t reveal it here as I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise. Love your blog. So glad I encountered it. Best wishes and happy holidays.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. I love Tolstoy more:-) Yes, he is a pleasure to read and he can be very comforting, life affirming and invigorating. I can certainly imagine that you picked it up after the Boston Marathon bombing. Didn’t the terrorist brothers come from the Caucasus?
    The Three Questions doesn’t ring s bell at the moment, I’ll have to look it up and read it!
    I’m very happy to hear you enjoy my blog and wish you all the best and happy reading in 2017!

    Liked by 1 person

  29. “If the world could write itself, it would write like Tolstoy” – Isaac Babel

    This is the quote that blared in my head again and again as I read your post. Love it ❤ ❤


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