Leo Tolstoy, -a Russian novelist, a social and moral philosopher and one of the greatest writers of all time- lived during the period of realism. Most of his works present the reader to Russian life in the early 19th century and some of them deal with Russia’s past history or social system. How did Tolstoy have such a fascinating insight to every level of society? How did history or the people around him influence his writing? In what ways did he, himself influence people through his writing? Why do people, today read his works all over the world?
Leo Tolstoy was born on September 9, 1828, at Yasnaya Polyana, his parents’ estate close to Moscow. His mother died when he was two years old. His father was a landowning nobleman, and he died when his son turned nine. Orphaned at an early age, Tolstoy was raised by his aunt, a deeply religious woman. The young Tolstoy received his first education from German and French tutors who taught him at home. Having a good education seemed really important in his eyes, so he attended a university where he studied law and languages.
After having lost interest and disagreeing with some of the teachers, he left without a degree and went back to his family’s old estate to continue the family tradition. (McGraw-Hill, p. 481) There he set out to reform the imperfect Russian society. During his college years Tolstoy came across some famous works of Jean Jacques Rousseau. The words of the French political thinker, who lived during the years of Enlightment, made a huge impact on the young Tolstoy. Rousseau had great trust in the common people, those who were mostly looked down by higher society.
He argued in favor of equality and called for the abolition of all titles of rank and nobility. Tolstoy liked these views and agreed with most of them. He, too, had had faith in the lower classes and clearly saw the faults of nobility. “Man is born free, and everywhere is in chains,” was his favorite quote from Rousseau. (World History, p. 435) But never would he have imagined what kind of a conflict he got himself into by expressing his views on society. Tolstoy saw the dissipation and extravagance of high society, and also the injustices and poverty of serfs.
Serfs were the people forced to work on the land in Russia’s feudal system. The feudal system in Russia meant that poor families received land, food and housing from a nobleman, and they worked and served him in return. These people were treated very badly, they lived among horrible conditions and they had no hope of ever improving their condition of life because they never received any education. Tolstoy clearly saw the injustices of this situation and he was saddened to see generations of people sentenced to working for someone else with no way out.
He was determined to become a model farmer and a “father” to his serfs. (McGraw-Hill, p. 481) He traveled to France and Germany and visited several dozen elementary schools across Europe. Finally, Tolstoy set up a school for peasant children, giving them a way to escape their destiny. Because of these actions Tolstoy became in conflict with higher society, which was not happy about the increasing awareness of serfs. His family also limited his generosity; his wife was especially annoyed because of her husband’s charity towards the poor.
Tolstoy married his wife when he was 34 and Sofya Andreyevna Bers was 16 years younger then her husband. She was a very intelligent, strong-willed woman who gave Tolstoy great happiness and 13 children. Tolstoy continued to work with his serfs and convinced his friends and other people around him to try and better the life of the work force. To everyone’s astonishment his estate thrived under the new system where serfs were paid and given education and they lived among better conditions. By making these changes in his estate’s economic life and managing it successfully, he convinced many other landowners to improve, too.
After the birth of his children, Tolstoy had his own family to think about. Although he never had financial problems, he had to provide a living for his quickly growing family. In the next 15 years he raised a large family and as an escape from everyday problems into the past he wrote his two greatest novels: War and Peace and Anna Karenina. War and Peace represents a high point in Tolstoy’s life. It is the story of 1812 when Napoleon, a French general attacked Russia. The story contains 559 characters; important military battles and portrays of historically famous people.
The main theme, however is the changing lives of four Russian aristocratic families. Its general message is love of life in all circumstances which was inspired by Tolstoy’s personal happiness. The shorter novel of Anna Karenina also deals with high Russian society, but it is more of a psychological work than any of his other pieces. This novel gives the reader the idea that Tolstoy greatly disapproves of intellectuality and urban sophistication and is tormented by the mission of humans in this world (http://www. geocities. com/Athens/Acropolis/6681/tolstoyb. tm). War and Peace and Anna Karenina realistically portrays Russian society in the early 19th century and probably that is the reason why every generations of people all over the world enjoy Tolstoy’s works. The next 15 years were spent with seeking the ultimate meaning of life. Tolstoy went through a serious, long-lasting spiritual crisis that gave birth to two of his lesser- known works: Confession and Critique of Dogmatic Theology. In these writings he bravely attacked social inequality and the ultimate powers of government and church.
His life was more and more dominated by the desire to achieve social justice and an acceptable system of moral principles. At this time he became involved with public matters and participated in many social events. During this period Tolstoy’s relationship with his family became estranged. He planned on giving away all his wealth, but his wife would not hear of it. She would not share the thought of her husband that by doing good things to others might help you achieve understanding of the meaning of life.
Finally, they reached a compromise and Sofya received the copyright to all his works before 1881. McGraw-Hill, p. 483) Tolstoy’s last years were filled with his worldwide celebration, but they bought him great unhappiness. During these years he lived far from the world, and led a quiet life. Rejecting the foundations of Russian society and religion he established his own religion in which he explained that God lives in all people. The Eastern Orthodox Church for his view of God excommunicated Tolstoy. At the age of 82, in 1910, increasingly tormented by his personal beliefs, religious persecution, his personal wealth and by the hopeless quarrels with his wife, he decided to leave his family.
He set out on his last pilgrimage in search of justification and truth. Three days later he fell ill and died on November 20, in the home of a station manager. He was later buried at his dear Yasnaya Polyana, where he spent most of his happiest years. Tolstoy benefitted from many things he received in his childhood. When foreign teachers tutored him he learned their languages completely. Therefore he knew Russian, his native language, and he spoke French and German perfectly, too. He later applied this knowledge in his books, writing in all three languages.
The concept of God and the purpose and meaning of religion troubled Tolstoy throughout his life. He had always been in search of the concept of right or wrong, but never could achieve an understanding of the matter. Tolstoy’ on ideas on religion and on nonresistance to evil influenced Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Both of these men fought nonviolently for rights and the well being of their people: Gandhi in India against the British and Luther King for equality for blacks. Other famous Russian authors of this period were Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ivan Turgenev. McGraw-Hill, p. 484)
Tolstoy’s life seems a little bit of struggle at some points, but he really gave a lot to this world. He made a huge difference by getting rid of his convictions and doing what he thought was best for society. He even had the courage to express his views that were not welcomed by most of the people around him. Tolstoy is known for his books, however, that bought him worldwide acclaim in his living, but he is still celebrated today as one of the world’s greatest author of all times.
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