Tolstoy, Leo (Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Tolstoy, Leo (Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy)

Tolstoy, Leo (Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy) (1828-1910) Russian novelist and essayist

A moralist and pacifist reformer during the decline of the Romanov dynasty, Leo Tolstoy wrote passionately about VIOLENCE, Christianity, and anarchism. The son of Count Nikolai Tolstoy, the author claimed descent from one of Russia’s oldest and most respected noble families. In 1844, he left the family estate at Yasnaya Polyana in the Caucasus to study Asian philology and law at Kazan University in Tatarstan north of the Kazakhstan border. His time in the imperial army as a gunnery officer earned the sympathy of the British writer GEORGE ORWELL, a child of empire who noted that the Russian author came of age in a militarist epoch during which most young males from good families spent time in uniform.

After service along the Danube and in a war of annexation fought in present-day Chechnya between the Black and Caspian Seas north of the Iranian borders, Tolstoy began the first of his semiautobiographical war fictions. He won the regard of the newly crowned Czar Alexander II for vignettes of the Crimean War in Sevastopol Sketches (1855), which describes the tenacity of the Russian Empire against an alliance of the British, French, and Turks. In realistic glimpses, Tolstoy turned personal experience into propaganda promoting moral individualism and civil disobedience. Sevastopol Sketches dramatizes the mental torment of Volodya, an ambivalent soldier who serves under the imperial eagle of Nicholas I. With unflinching introspection, the character berates himself: “Lord! Can it be that I am a coward … can it be that I so lately dreamed of dying with joy for my fatherland, my tsar?” (Tolstoy 1888, 181), a reference to the recently deceased Nicholas I. To the author, military life derived from hypocrisy—a form of disciplined bondage forcing men like Tolstoy and Volodya to loot and destroy. Rather than the epitome of patriotism, service to the czar sapped spirits of honor and courage and pushed sensitive men toward madness. To the author’s chagrin, government censors revamped one vignette, “Sevastopol in May,” into prowar propaganda for dissemination in the September issue the magazine Sovremennik (The contemporary), published by Tolstoy’s fourth cousin, ALEKSANDR PUSHKIN.

Tolstoy displayed integrity and courage in revealing his innermost beliefs. In the novella The Cossacks: A Caucasian Story of 1852 (1863), he reprises his own maturation from spoiled aristocrat to battlefield veteran through the eyes of the protagonist Olenin, a parallel to Volodya. The narrative explores the contrast between NATURE and the battlefield, which became a motif of the post-World War II era central to the libertarian novels of Anatoly Kuznetsov, BORIS PASTERNAK, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (see PRISON LITERATURE) and to the verse of ANNA AKHMATOVA and YEVGENY YEVTUSHENKO. Because the memory of battlefield carnage haunted Tolstoy, The Cossacks required over a decade of composition and revision. It earned the regard of his contemporary, the novelist IVAN TURGENEV, who classed the autobiographical piece among Russian masterworks.

Benevolence and Historical Fiction

During a period of altruism beginning at age 31, Tolstoy sheltered the homeless and jobless, served as a magistrate on his estate, and opened 13 schools for peasants. He wrote an alphabet book, didactic children’s literature, primers, and a pedagogical journal entitled Yasnaya Polyana (Clear glade). He explored the moral and cultural changes in his country in Voyna i mir (War and Peace, 1869), an epic example of NAPOLEONIC LITERATURE featuring Russian resilience under the threat of the French general’s expansionism in 1812. Tolstoy’s text deals with the influx of Western European ideas and behavior at the court of Czar Alexander I and the fastidious dress, mannerisms, and bilingualism of aristocrats who converse in French. For all their illusions of wealth and control, the Bezukhovs, Bolkonskys, Kuragins, and Rostovs, four of the five central households featured in the story, suffer the random cruelties of the French invasion, diminution of property and wealth, and disillusion.

In Tolstoy’s last years before the collapse of the Russian Empire, he ceased writing sophisticated novels to compose folklore similar to stories treasured and recited by illiterate peasants. He wrote treatises and adapted Aesopic and Hindu FABLES and European fool tales—“The Big Oven,” “The Fool and His Knife”—into illustrative commentary on a perilous period of history. At the core of his didacticism was his aristocratic distaste for middleclass materialism, insincerity, profligacy, and progressivism that threatened Russian tradition. His admiration for the free-spirited peasant energizes The Living Corpse (1900), a six-act drama lauding the decision of Fedya, a dissatisfied St. Petersburg aristocrat, to drop out of society. He offers to marry Masha, a Gypsy singer, whom the text describes as a pure dove offering “pure, self-sacrificing love” (Tolstoy 1919, 74).

Tolstoy’s obsession with the senselessness of combat underlies “A Prisoner in the Caucasus” (1872), a war memoir that Turgenev prized for its artistic quality. The shackling and escape attempts of Zhilin, a prisoner of the Tartars, contrasts the exigencies of war with the humanity and piety of Muslim Tartar villagers. As in The Cossacks, the author refuses to debase the enemy, whom he portrays in appealing family, religious, and community scenarios. The crux of “A Prisoner in the Caucasus” prefigures Tolstoy’s conversion to a radical form of Christian brotherhood, a result of incarceration that FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY glorified six years earlier in Crime and Punishment (1866).

The Power of the Individual

In his last two decades, Tolstoy crusaded for nonviolence. Following two years of famine and Asiatic cholera outbreaks, he produced a bold criticism of Czar Alexander III, known as the Peacemaker. With the pacifist diatribe The Kingdom of God Is within You (1894), Tolstoy railed against universal military service and international bloodshed. He took the title from Christ’s words: “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). Of Russian imperialism, the author notes that “from the Roman Caesars to the Russian and German Emperors,” power has always required favoritism toward soldiers, the robotic agents of imperial will (Tolstoy 1894, 241). To the dismay of the czar, the text repudiates the power of the empire in favor of the rule of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, which blesses peacemakers. Tolstoy repudiates despots and demands equality for all classes with a rhetorical question: “Without justice, what is an empire but a great band of brigands?” (181). The Indian nonresistance leader Mohandas Gandhi admired Tolstoy’s treatise for its validation of the human conscience as a source of benevolence more trustworthy than either church or state.

In the 10th year of the reign of Czar Nicholas II, Tolstoy denounced the Russo-Japanese War and wrote his final work, Hadji Murdd an antimilitary HERO novel written during 1896-1904 and published in 1912. He based the title figure on a real Islamic warrior who led Chechen guerrillas during a Russian invasion of the Caucasus in 1851. After Murad’s capture, Cossack forces slew him and sent his embalmed head to Czar Nicholas. Tolstoy symbolized Murad with a thistle and immortalized him in a fable about a falcon slain by fellow birds because contact with humans had changed the falcon’s true identity. The author extolled his hero for courage under fire, reviled the officers under Nicholas I for corruption and bloated triumphalism, and pitied the peasants of southern Russia for the demands of grain cultivation and for the loss of farm income during conscription by the army. The posthumously published narrative was banned in 1912, but it appeared unabridged in a German edition released in Berlin. The original text remained unpublished in Russian until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Tolstoy stated his notion of passive resistance in “A Letter to a Hindu” (1908), an editorial reply printed in the Free Hindustan, leading to an exchange of letters with Mohandas Gandhi. To convey his fellowship with humanity, the author quotes Krishna and cites lines from the Upanishads (Lessons, 1000-600 B.c.) and the VEDAS (Knowledge, ca. 150 B.c.). His moral integrity impressed his countrymen, fellow authors ANTON CHEKHOV and Fyodor Dostoyevsky; the Korean modernist Yi KWANGSU; and two writers who escaped the Holocaust, RUTH PRAWER JHABVALA and the Yiddish Nobel laureate ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER.


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Simmons, Ernest Joseph. Tolstoy. New York: Routledge, 1973.

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Alexandria, Va.: Orchises Press, 1996.

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Constance Garnett. London: Heinemann, 1894.  . The Living Corpse. Translated by Anna

Monossowich Evarts. New York: Nicholas L.

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----- . Sevastopol, Isabel Florence Hapgood. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1888.

------- . War and Peace. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1915.