1x12 | Talking Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy is considered by some to be the greatest writer to ever live. He wrote the classics War & Peace and Anna Karenina, but he renounced those novels later in life after undergoing a drastic spiritual awakening. The religious teachings of this complicated man went on to change the course of world history.

My name is Lenore, and I’m the Victorienne.

[theme music]

Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, or Leo Tolstoy, was born in 1828 on his family’s estate, known as Yasnaya Polyana, about 100 miles south of Moscow. He was the fourth of five children in the aristocratic Tolstoy family. Before Tolstoy had turned two years old, his mother died, and his father died just a few years later. Tolstoy and his siblings were then under the care of an aunt who ended up dying a few years after that, so they moved in with another aunt in the city of Kazan.

Not long after arriving in Kazan, Tolstoy’s older brothers decided to take the 14-year-old to a brothel for the first time. That brothel just so happened to be located next to the monastery where their grandfather was buried. This first encounter with sex was the beginning of an obsession with both sex and the guilt it inspires.

As a teenager, Tolstoy became interested in philosophy and law, and came to greatly admire the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. While many other Russians wore a crucifix each day, Tolstoy chose to wear a medallion with Rousseau’s portrait. Charles Dickens was another of his role models, and Tolstoy kept a portrait of Dickens above his writing desk for his entire career.

While Tolstoy was interested in educating himself, he was a poor student. He enrolled in Kazan University’s Oriental languages program but had to transfer to their law program, which was actually easier, but he failed there too. One of his lecturers described him as "unable and unwilling to learn". We know this was not the case, and Tolstoy’s university experiences show his lifelong disdain for authority.

In 1847, Tolstoy left the university without a degree and returned to his family’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana. He decided to educate himself while trying his hand at managing the estate, leading the serfs (enslaved peasants) in farm work. Like university, he failed in this endeavor, largely because he was always off living it up in the cities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Tula.

It was at this time that Tolstoy began keeping a diary, which he continued to do throughout his life. His first entry, from March of 1847, is about being treated for a venereal disease. His diaries detail his constant attempts at self-improvement. He made lengthy lists of all his moral failings - gambling, drinking, visiting brothels - and the ways he wanted to discipline himself to change his ways. He was inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s thirteen virtues, which was a system Franklin used to develop his moral character. Some of Tolstoy’s rules for himself were like the New Years Resolutions people make today: going to bed at 10pm, cutting down on desserts, things like that. But some of Tolstoy’s rules show another side of the man, such as limiting his visits to brothels to just two times a month. As his diaries show, Tolstoy was never able to discipline himself according to his own extensive rules and later in life he claimed that life is too complex for people to conform to strict rules or philosophical systems.

A new chapter of Tolstoy’s life began in 1851, when his older brother Nikolai came to visit him while on military leave. Nikolai convinced him to join the army in the Caucasus Mountains. Tolstoy agreed. For the next few years, Tolstoy wrote fiction in his spare time, producing his first published work in 1852. It was an autobiographical, but fictional, account of his childhood titled, creatively, "Childhood". Dickens’ influence can be seen in the story, especially the influence of the novel David Copperfield.

A couple of years after "Childhood" was published, Tolstoy was transferred to the city of Sevastopol and became an artillery officer in the Crimean War. He took part in the Siege of Sevastopol, a battle which lasted 11 months. He recorded his experiences during this time in his three "Sevastopol Sketches", titled "Sevastopol in December", "Sevastopol in May", and "Sevastopol in August". The first of the sketches describes the courage of simple soldiers, and was widely praised as a patriotic story. The tsar even had the story sent to Brussels to be translated into French for a foreign audience. The second Sevastopol sketch was decidedly less patriotic, providing a soldier’s stream of consciousness right before he’s killed by a bomb. The Russian censors deleted large sections of the story. Tolstoy’s third Sevastopol sketch, a criticism of the Crimean War, resulted in negative attention from the Russian government, but positive attention from literary circles.

Tolstoy joined the literary scene in St. Petersburg, but didn’t last long. He refused to commit to any one school of thought or intellectual camp, which the radical intelligentsia disliked. Tolstoy decided to leave that literary community to take a trip around Europe. He ended up gambling away all of his money in Paris and had to return home. Also in Paris, Tolstoy witnessed a public execution, which had a profound effect on him. In a letter to a friend he wrote "The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens … Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere."

In 1860, a few years after his first tour of Europe, Tolstoy was able to take another trip there, where he met his literary heroes Ivan Turgenev and Victor Hugo. While in London in 1861, Tolstoy got to hear Dickens read "A Christmas Carol" at St. James’ Hall. On this second tour of Europe, Tolstoy studied pedagogical theory and practice, and upon his return to Yasnaya Polyana, he established 13 schools for Russian peasants. It was that same year that the peasants had been emancipated from serfdom, but most were poor and remained rural peasants.

In 1862, Tolstoy married a woman named Sophia, who was 18 years old at the time, while he was 34. Their marriage was notoriously difficult, and they grew further apart as time went on, but continued to love each other the rest of their lives. Their marriage got off to a rocky start when, the night before their wedding, Tolstoy forced Sophia to read his diaries. He claimed that since they were to be married, they would have no more secrets, meaning she needed to read his journals and know about all past, including his promiscuity and that he’d recently fathered a child with one of the peasants on his estate.

The next decades were difficult for Sophia, as she gave birth to thirteen children, eight of whom lived into adulthood. While Tolstoy was sensitive in his writings, he was insensitive in real life, and Sophia bore the brunt of his capricious moods. She also worked tirelessly running their estate, looking after their finances, and acting as Tolstoy’s copyist and unofficial editor. She rewrote all his drafts by hand, sometimes using a magnifying glass to decipher his tiny scribblings in the margins of manuscripts. Sophia rewrote the complete manuscript of "War and Peace" eight times, and some sections she had to rewrite over twenty times. This was during the same period that she gave birth to four of their children.

Without Sophia’s help, Tolstoy might not have ever finished "War and Peace", or it might have taken him far longer. The novel, with its over 500 characters, is high on lists of the greatest books ever written. Tolstoy’s plan for the story was originally to detail the lives of those involved in the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, but he decided to cover the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath instead. It’s hinted that one main character’s son will go on to become a Decembrist.
In addition to the narrative of "War and Peace", Tolstoy included three long essays on the laws of history. At the time, many people in Europe believed in the great man theory, which said that historical events are the result of individual great men and their major decisions. Tolstoy rejected this idea, believing the course of history to be determined by small, seemingly insignificant decisions made every day by each person. He believed the meaning of life came from your day-to-day activities, which is part of why "War and Peace" was so long. Tolstoy wanted to show the impact of all the small decisions made by individual characters and their innermost thoughts and feelings.

These small decisions can be seen in the battle scenes of "War and Peace", which depict combat as chaotic, showing how little control the military leaders actually have over the outcome. Tolstoy researched the Battle of Borodino extensively. This included a trip to the battlefield where he took note of every detail, including the way the sun rose and set over the field. The chapters which cover the Battle of Borodino are celebrated by military historians as a true depiction of the battle and the experience of war. One former general said the chapters should be required reading for all Russian Army officers. Despite having a pacifist message at its core, "War and Peace" was considered a patriotic book and was handed out among Stalin’s Commissars during World War II to motivate the Red Army.

After "War and Peace", Tolstoy is perhaps best known for his novel "Anna Karenina". The heroine’s story ends after she throws herself under a train, which was inspired by a real event. A woman did the same thing at a train station near Yasnaya Polyana and Tolstoy was called in as a local justice of the peace. He had to view her mangled corpse in the mortuary and was there during the post-mortem. "Anna Karenina" includes Tolstoy’s most autobiographical character, a man named Konstantin Levin who insists on laboring alongside his peasants and has a complicated relationship with the Russian social order. 

In "Anna Karenina", Tolstoy’s spiritual doubts can more clearly be seen. The novel was published around the time that Tolstoy went through a spiritual crisis. He went to the Russian Orthodox Church in search of answers, but after not finding them, he rejected the church and created his own theology. He based it on the ethical teachings of Jesus rather than on his miracles or divinity, and wrote his own version of the gospels.

Tolstoy began living a life of self-denial. He wore peasant clothes, including shoes he cobbled himself, and he stopped drinking, smoking, and eating meat. He denounced his previous works and refused their royalties. Sophia objected to this, saying he’d bankrupt the family, and he eventually compromised by giving her the rights to his work from before 1881. Apart from putting Sophia and their children in a perilous financial situation, Tolstoy also stopped paying them attention for the most part. To him, the family was an obstacle in his attempt to live a more moral life, and Sophia just did not share his life philosophy.

Despite abandoning his family, Tolstoy was certainly not alone on his spiritual journey. He attracted followers after writing books titled "A Confession", "What I Believe", and "The Kingdom of God is Within You" which describe his theology and his attempts to live a more moral life. In addition to his promotion of self-denial, Tolstoy described his philosophy of pacifism and nonviolent resistance, as well as ideas which have been labeled Christian anarchism.

Tolstoy gained loyal followers and Yasnaya Polyana became a mecca for like-minded artists of the time. Dozens of his admirers moved onto the estate and Sophia grew jealous of the peasantry her husband paid so much attention to. She was also jealous of a man named Vladimir Chertkov, one of the most prominent Tolstoyans. Chertkov replaced Sophia as Tolstoy’s editor and exerted enormous influence over him. Sophia suspected that Chertkov and Tolstoy were having an affair, though there isn’t any evidence of this.

Along with Chertkov and the group at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoyan settlements emerged throughout Russia and the world, some of which still exist today. Tolstoy’s influence and rejection of authority led to the Russian government putting him under surveillance by the secret police. Apart from the authorities, Tolstoy also angered the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1899 he wrote the novel "Resurrection" which illustrated his anti-church beliefs, and two years later he was excommunicated. Tolstoy’s descendants have repeatedly tried and failed to get the church to reverse this decision. Unfortunately for the church and the Russian government, Tolstoy’s excommunication actually made him more popular with the Russian population. His opposition to private land ownership and the existing social order threatened those in power.

Tolstoy did exert influence over many of the people who would eventually support revolution, both inside and outside of Russia. In 1908, in response to requests for his support of Indian independence, Tolstoy published "A Letter to a Hindu". After reading the letter and Tolstoy’s book "The Kingdom of God is Within You", Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy seeking his advice. Gandhi and Tolstoy corresponded for the last year of Tolstoy’s life, discussing Indian independence and nonviolence. Gandhi admired Tolstoy so much that he named his second ashram after him.

While Tolstoy’s pacifist teachings influenced Gandhi, and by extension Martin Luther King Jr., his philosophy was not universally admired. Tolstoy was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several years in a row and for the Nobel Peace Prize three times, but never won, which is still controversial. The secretary of the Nobel Prize’s Swedish Academy said that Tolstoy’s teachings "denied the right of both individuals and nations to self-defense". Despite that rejection on an international level, when Tolstoy died in 1910, thousands of Russians went on strike, making the Russian government worry it might be the beginning of a revolution.

Tolstoy died after an odd trip. One night he decided he was finished dealing with Sophia and their family so he ran away. With him were his physician and his daughter Alexandra, who was the only child of his whom he was on good terms with and who was a devoted Tolstoyan. After multiple days of travel, Tolstoy came down with pneumonia and was given a bed in the home of a stationmaster, where he died on November 20th, 1910. He was buried at Yasnaya Polyana in the spot where his brother Nikolai once told him he’d buried a little green stick with an inscription on it that contained the secret of how to make all people happy.

[music fades in]

If you’d like to support this podcast, please leave a review on iTunes, share this podcast with a friend, and if you’re able, consider becoming a Patreon donor for just $2 a month. You’ll have access to exclusive content and you’ll be helping to offset production costs. You can find me at patreon.com/victorienne and if you have a topic suggestion for a future episode, please email victoriennepodcast@gmail.com.

To stay tuned for updates on this podcast, you can find me on Facebook on the page "The Victorienne". I’m also on Instagram under victoriennepodcast.

Thanks for listening.

[music]