Biography: Leo Tolstoy (Russia, 1828-1910)

Figure 1.--This drawing of Tolstoy as a student was probanly done some time after 1845. I'm not sure who drew it.

Leo Tolstoy was one of the greatest novelist of all time. Chrologically is life span was very close to the great American novelist Mark Twain. He was born into an aristocratic Russian family in 1828 at Yasnya Polyana, in Tula Province. He was one of 5 children. During the Crimean War Tolstoy commanded an artillery battery during the bitterly fought siege of Sebastopol. He had a long life in which he was a soldier, a writer, teacher and political and moral thinker. Tolstoy in 1862 married an 18-year old girl named Sofya Andreyevna. They had an incredinblre 19 children. She was also an influence in his writing. Tolstoy as an older man became a radical Christian thinker. He conceived a Christian philosophy which opposed violence. He died at a railway station on his last pilgrimage to find harmony in 1910.


His mother was Mariya Nikolayevna, nee Princess Volkonskaya before her marriage. Tolstoy's father was Nikolay Ilich Count Tolstoy. Both parents died when Leo was still a nboy. He was as a result raised by relatives.


Count Leo Tolstoy in 1828 was born into an aristocratic life of privilege and wealth in Trarist Russia. It was Tsarist Russia that played a central role in defeating Napoleon and in the 1820s, Russia was still the most powerful country in Europe.


Leo was one of 5 children. They lived at the family estate called Yasnaya Polyana. This was a place that Tolstoy loved and spent most of his life there. You would expect that his childhood was a happy one because he was born into a wealthy family. Indeed it was and in writing his first book called Childhood, he based the fictionalized story on his childhood experiences. Tolstoy must have been a remarkable child because many of the events which occurred in his early life are far from idyllic. Children who experience adversity and remain well adjusted and happy souls are often referred to as "Children of Gold". Bill Naughton wrote a about such a child in his story called "A Real Good Smile". Tolstoy was also a child of gold who despite the tragedy grew up with fond memories of his early life. The terrible events which happened to him were that those who cared for him became ill and died. He was not two years old when his mother died. When he was nine years old his father died. Now an orphan he was looked after by his grandmother. She died 11 months later. His aunt Aleksandra was his next guardian but she died in 1841. He was then brought up by another aunt called Tafyana. He called her Aunt Toinette. They loved each other greatly and she had a good influence upon his childhood and early manhood. He wrote her very touching letters. His young life was thus full of people coming and going. It is a characteristic of his stories that there are lots of people traversing through them, often more than the casual reader is able to absorb. In War and Peace there are 559 characters. It seems that a possible influence to write in this way came from this childhood experience. His writing was influenced by the leading 19th century writers such as Dickens and French philosophers such as Rousseau. He was introduced to these by his teachers. We know a great deal about Tolstoy's childhood because of his detailed autoibiographical trilogy--unfortunately they are written as novels. While using them for biographical purposes is complicated, they are a wondeful source on 19th century Russian childhood.

Childhood Clothes

We do not have a lot of information on how the young Leo was dressed. Photographt was not yet developed when he was a young child and did not reach Russia for several more years. Available imagrs suggest that he was dressed much like a boy in Western Europe rather than as a Russian boy. The Russian aristocracy was obsessed with Frande and often looked on Russian customs, including clothing as little short of barbaric. A series of Russian illustrations provide some insight into the type of clothes a young aristocratic male child would have worn. The pictures show the boy at different ages and thus his attire a boy would wear at these ages can be seen. We aare not sure about the accuracy of these drawings.


Tolstoy was educated at home by tutors. In the novel Childhood the young hero is also educated this way. An illustration here shows a loving pupil teacher relationship and no doubt this was the true experience of Tolstoy. He appears to have dressed similarly to students in Wetern Europe as a boy. Here we see him as an older student (figure 1). Again he is dressed imilaly to a student bin the West. Tolstoy in 1844 began at the the University of Kazan. He started his university life on an Oriental Language course but transferred to a course to study law. He was not impressed with educational program and left the University in 1847 without a degree, returning to Yasnya Polyana.

Adult Life

He had a long life in which he was a soldier, a writer, teacher and political and moral thinker. After leaving university. He then spent his time learning how to manage the family estate as traveled often to Moscow and St. Petersburg, enjoying the life of a young aristocrat. Tolstoy led a debauched life as a young man and was treated for venereal disease (1847). He also acquired substantial gambling debts. His tendency toward debauchery troubled his increasingly as he grew older. He later looked back on his early adulthood, " His young adulthood is best summed up with his own words, "I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain. I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants' toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat. Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder - there was not a crime I did not commit...Thus I lived for ten years." [Tollstoy, Confession.] At this time, Tolstoy began his literary career. He published his autobiographical trilogy Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1854), and Youth (1857). The problem in using these books to understnd Tolstoy is that these are novels and not written precisely as autobiographies.

Military Service

Tolstoy aand his older brother traveled to the Caucasus (1851). They joined an artillery regiment just at the time that Russia was moving toward war. Russia had been seen as the most powerful nation in Europe. Russian leaders had no concept of the extent to which the Industrial Revolution had changed the European power ballance. He fought in the Crimea War and was Sevastopol during the siege. Notably his literary masterpiece, War and Peace was set in the Napoleonic Wars. He wrote about his war experiences in Sevastopol Stories during the Crimean War, one of the more pointless wars in European history. While War and Peace is one of the most powerful wars addressing the mindlessness of war, there were fundamental issues at play in the Napoleonic Wars. It is notavle that he set his novel in the Napoleonic Wars rather than the Crimean War in which bhe was personally involved. Besides a clear example of a war which need not have been fought, the Crimea was a ctitical war in European history in that exposed the weakness of the Tsarist state in the new emerging indudtrial utrope.

Travel in the West

The Crimean War had convinced many Russians that their country needed to be changed. Tolstoy in 1857 visited France, Switzerland, and Germany to learn about the West. He was increasingly concerned with the need to moderniuze and change Russia. Education was a major interest. He visited several elementary schools.


Tolstoy from 1847 onwards kept a diary and it acted as his ideas book. He wrote all kinds of observations in it. These were constantly referred to when Tolstoy was writing his novels. Tolstoy's early fiction developed out of concepts in his diaries. Tolstoy wared with his own pasions in these diaries. He was obsessed with the debauchery of his youth and sought to understand and control his seemingly uncontrollable passions.

Interest in Education

After his travels in Europe, Tolstoy returned again to Yasnya Polyana. He created a school for peasant children a few years befote Tsar emancipated Russia's serfs. He had come to the view that the best way of changing Russia was through education. He was not impressed with the schools that he had observed in the West. He read widely on educational theory and began publishing artivles and eventually textbooks. He did not like what he saw in European schools. He theorized that education should be a friendly partnership between pupil and teacher. He was appalled by the cruel rote learning carrot and stick methods he witnessed. Once back at the family estate he set up a school for peasant children. The school seems to have been a very kind and loving environment in which to learn (figure ?). The students are happy and attentive in their studies. There is individual learning and group work centred around Tolstoy in progress. He wrote text books for his students and made counting equipment for mathematic lessons. There is a photograph showing happy children how have graduated and are proudly showing their certificates. Many years later there is a photograph, taken in 1907, of Tolstoy surrounded by peasant children. It is clear that they still held him in high esteem all the years later. There is a diary entry in which he writes about the scruffy appearance of the children but behind the grime are eyes sparkling with wonder and enthusiasm to learn.

Peasant Children's Clothing

Peasant children wore smocks, long trousers, and boots. The boys have short hair styles. The girls wear dresses and head scarves. In the graduation photograph the boys are wearing heavy coats and Russian hats. The footwear they are wearing is padded boots.


Tolstoy in 1862 married an 18-year old girl named Sofya Andreyevna Behrs (1844-1919). For such a noted author, Tolstoy's large family is not well understood. They appear to have had an incredinble 19 children, but this is not definutive. We have seen some accounts of fewer children as "low" as 13. Andreyevna was not jyst a housewife and baby machine. She was an important influence in his writing. She inspired him and seems to have fulfilled the adage that behind every great man is a woman. For Tolstoy, Sofya was that woman. Besides bearing his children, she also served as her husband's personal secretary. Inspired by his wife's youthfulness, her intellect ,and her beauty that for Tolstoy, the years between 1865 and 1877 are the those in which he wrote his greatest books. These are of course War and Peace and Anna Karenina (1873-79). She also offers many insights to historians concerning Tolstoy's work. After finishing War And Peace he decided to write a book on German philosophy. He apparantly dismissed Hegel and was taken by Schopenhauer. Andreyevna tells historians that Tolstoy eventually gave up his German philosophy project. Apparently the German gave him headaches.

Literary Masterpieces

Tolstoy in his great works weaves great events in with family life and personal crisis in an effort to assess the meaning of life. Tolstoy's most noted work War and Peace (1863-69) was the epic account of five families whose members play out their lives and passions agaiunst the backdrop of Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Tolstoy was developing his non-violent philosophy even as he was writing War and Peace. His choice of the Napoleonic War rather than the Crimean War was notable. Anna Karenina (1873-79) was Tolstoy's other great masterpiece. This was the tragic story of a mother who gives up her son, leabing a loveless marriage for her lover, but commits suicide. These works today are seen as two of the great jewels of European culture. Tolstoy himself was beginning to see himself as a spirtual leader rather than a novelist. He renounced his great works and penned Conversion (1879) to explain his evolving newphilosophy. His last novel Voskresenia (Resurrection) (1899) had none of the force of his earlier work.

Figure 2.--Tolstoy here is entertaining two unidentified children on a bench in St. Petersburg. The photo was taken about 1905. Tolstoy died about five years later in 1910 at age 82 years. The children, perhaps brother and sister, appear to be wearing very similar jackets--black wide-collared jackets with large white buttons. Note also that both children wear similar black long stockings with strap sandals. The boy, who appears to be about 8 or 9, wears a dressy light-colored suit with a white shirt and rather full and floopy bow tie. His trousers are quite unusual. They are like knickers with elastic gathering around the upper leg, but are so short as to suggest more modern short pants or even rompers, except that they are rather tight and form-fitting for knickers. Notice that the long stockings come up very high on his legs. The girl, who appears to be about 11, wears an interesting dress with a rather heavy leather belt and a white jabot at the neck. Her skirt has a wide band at the bottom made of the same material as the rest of the skirt and looks as though it had been sewn on to make the skirt longer. But this may just be part of style--a trimming so to speak. It may be that the children are wearing school uniforms, although both the boy and girl look rather more formally dressed than would probably be the case with children in school clothes. They are clearly delighted by their aged interlocutor, who seems to be telling them a story of some sort. .


Tolstoy as an older man became a radical Christian thinker. He conceived a Christian philosophy which opposed violence. He became an early proponent of non-violence. argued a kind of passive ressistance to evil as an effective response to aggression. He argued for the fair treatment of the poor and working class. He encouraged Christians to reject the State and seek answers to matters of morality in their own hear and from God. Several of his books developed his philosophy: Confession (1884), What Then Must We Do? (1886), and more explicitely The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894). The Russian Orthodox Church was not pleased with his religious teaching and excommunicated him (1901). An aging Tolstoy became seriously ill and traveled to the warm Crimea to recuperate. He left his estate to Vladimir Chertkov, a desciple. He planned to live his final years as a wandering ascetic. He died of pneumonia at a isolated railway station during his effort to find harmony (1910). Tolstoy's writing, especially The Kingdom of God is Within You was a major influence on Gandhi. Ghandi of course faced the British. We wonder how Tolstoy's thinking would have been effcted by Russiads trials in the 20th century against first Imperial and then NAZI Germany.

Western Children's Clothing

A reader writes, "Curiously, the two children in the 1905 St. Petersburg image (figure 2) are dressed very differently from the children in the school that Tolstoy run. How do you explain that. Maybe a difference of date? Or of class?" Yes there are significant difference. The children that he taught on his estate were peasant children. Remember that serfdom in Russia was only abolished in 1861 and even after this, the lives of most serf children did not improve markedly. The children in the image here are unidentified, but clearly came from an affluent St. Petersburg family. Wealthy families, especially in St. Petersburg, colesly followed European fashions. Thus the well to do would dress like Europeans more than peasant children. In fact many saw Russia and Russian fashions as backward, even barbaric, and avoided fashions that would suggest a Russian influence. Note that Tolstoy himself as a boy appears to have worn Western and not Russian peasant clothing.


Author?. Leo Tolstoy- A Russian Illustrated Biography (1956).

William Fergusson

Bill compiled the fitt draft of this page.


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Created: November 24, 2003
Last updated: November 24, 2003