This lauded author was born Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy in 1828 at Iasnaia Poliana, his family's estate in Russia. At times the toast of the town, he also fell out of favor with the Russian authorities many times during a long career—both for his political views and failed writing endeavors. He was a prolific author who did not set out to be a storyteller. He was full of contradictions: he led a raucous, philandering youth, then devoted himself to family life only to become bitter and disillusioned; he was a count who was fascinated by peasant life; he was a revolutionary in his thinking and later in life he was an activist and reformer; he was best known as Russia's greatest moral authority, and his teachings on civil disobedience have inspired Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and countless others. He was, and still is, an author to be reckoned with.
Downright Debauchery Although Tolstoy's legacy as an author and philosopher is one of seriousness and morality as a young man, Tolstoy was often far from serious or moral. In his 20s, he dropped out of the university, spent several years in-and-out of the army, during which time he drank heavily, gambling away his family's fortune, womanizing and fraternizing, and eventually gained entrée into the close knit world of the St. Petersburg literary scene, becoming at one point closely associated with Turgenev, the author of Fathers and Sons. In 1858, four years before his first marriage, he had an adulterous affair with a married peasant who bore him an illegitimate child. It wasn't until he was 50 years old that Tolstoy had a great change of faith and heart that solidified his very moral attitude toward the world.
Leo Tolstoy in love Faithless Love When Tolstoy was 34, he courted and married 18-year-old Sonya Andreevna Behrs, the daughter of a former playmate who lived near Iasnaia Poliana. Many of the details of the couple's original courtship are captured in Anna Karenina in Levin and Kitty's storyline. Like Kitty and Levin, the initial years of Tolstoy and Sonya's married life were blissful—from 1863 to 1888, Sonya bore him 12 children and they worked together on many of his manuscripts. Tolstoy's crisis of faith in the late 1870s began to corrupt their union. When in 1879 he broke with the official church of Russia to start his own school of thought, his wife disapproved vehemently and he began to feel increasingly trapped by the marriage. Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901 following the publication of his novel Resurrection; from then on the antagonism between him and his wife led to a tortured, estranged existence. When Tolstoy died in 1910, Sonya was not admitted to his deathbed—at Tolstoy's request—until after he lost consciousness.
Do As I Say and Not As I Do? Looking through Tolstoy's library of work (his collected works in Russian, including letters and journals, fill 90 volumes) it is apparent that Tolstoy was a man driven to create. Yet, for all of his prodigious production as a writer, farmer, philosopher, and educator, Tolstoy considered himself in many respects as much a student of great literature as a teacher. He was first and foremost a great reader. In his diaries, he wrote often of the impact George Eliot, Homer, Shakespeare, Thackeray, Pushkin, Dickens, Cervantes, Kant, Baudelaire, Goethe, and his contemporary Russian rivals Turgenev and Dostoevsky had on his own life and work. No matter how much he read, until his dying days, there was always something more for Tolstoy to write about Russia, religion, or relationships. Reading a novel by Tolstoy knowing that he was not a perfect man makes you wonder if writing was his way of creating something that he missed in his own life.