This Day In Writing History
On September 9th, 1828, the legendary Russian novelist and playwright Leo Tolstoy was born. He was born on his family's estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in Tula, Russia. He was the fourth of five children. The Tolstoy family was a well known aristocratic family of the old Russian nobility. Leo's parents died when he was young, so he and his siblings were raised by relatives.
In 1844, Leo Tolstoy began studying law and oriental languages at Kazan University, but his teachers described him as being both unable and unwilling to learn, so he dropped out and returned to Yasnaya Polyana. He later spent most of his time between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. He became a compulsive gambler. In 1851, after running up large gambling debts, he and his older brother went to the Caucasus and joined the military. Around this time, he began to write.
After taking two trips around Europe, Leo Tolstoy experienced a literary and political transformation. During his first trip in 1857, while in Paris, Leo witnessed a public execution. It would prove to be a traumatic experience, one that would have a lifelong effect on him. In a letter to his friend V.P. Botkin, Leo wrote of the execution, proclaiming "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."
During his next trip around Europe, which took place between 1860-61, Leo met novelist Victor Hugo. He had read Hugo's recently published masterpiece Les Miserables, and praised the author for his talents. Les Miserables would have a huge influence on Tolstoy's masterpiece, War and Peace. In March of 1861, Leo met French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who was living in exile under an assumed name in Brussels, Belgium. Proudhon would inspire Leo's political philosophy, and his book, La Guerre et la Paix, also influenced the writing of War and Peace. The title of Proudhon's book translates into English as The War and The Peace, and Leo would borrow it for his own novel. He would also be inspired by themes of Proudhon's book.
When he returned to Yasnaya Polyana, an enthusiastic and transformed Leo Tolstoy established over a dozen schools for his serfs' children, so that the poor peasant kids could receive an education. In his 1862 essay, The School at Yasnaya Polyana, Leo discusses his principles in what could be considered the first coherent theory of libertarian education. Unfortunately, Leo's schools would prove to be short-lived, thanks to the harassment of the Tsarist secret police.
On September 23rd, 1862, Leo Tolstoy married his girlfriend, Sophia Andreevna Bers, the daughter of a court physician. At the time of their wedding, Leo was 34 and Sophia was 18. She would bear him thirteen children, five of whom would die in childhood. The night before their wedding, Leo gave Sophia a collection of his diaries, which contained details of his sexual past, including information about the illegitimate son he fathered with one of his serfs. Still, their early marriage was happy and gave Leo the freedom to write, with Sophia serving as his secretary.
The Tolstoys' marriage would deteriorate as Leo's political beliefs grew more radical and he came to reject his inherited wealth and nobility. He became renowned among the peasantry for his generosity. He would bring vagrants home to his country estate to give them a place to stay and a helping hand. When he visited the city, he would distribute large sums of money to street beggars.
In 1862, Leo Tolstoy's first novel, Childhood, was published. It was the first in a trilogy of autobiographical novels. It would be followed by Boyhood (1854) and Youth (1856). After writing the novella Family Happiness (1859) and the novel The Cossacks (1863), Leo began work on what would prove to be his masterpiece, War and Peace. Published in four volumes from 1865-69 (and since then as one giant volume), Tolstoy's epic novel was set during the era of Catherine the Great. It opens in 1805 and ends in 1820.
Although it contains a whopping 580 characters, War and Peace primarily tells the stories of five aristocratic families - the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins, and the Drubetskoys - and how their personal lives entangle with the historical events of 1805-1813, which leads up to, takes place around, and follows the French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. It is rightfully considered one of the greatest novels ever written.
War and Peace was adapted for the screen, first in 1915, directed by Vladimir Gardin. The best known and most acclaimed film version was made by Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk and released in four parts between 1965 and 1967. It would later be edited into one six-hour long film and re-released in 1967. It won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film that year. In 1956, a Hollywood film of War and Peace was released. The 208-minute epic was directed by King Vidor and starred Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, and Mel Ferrer, but the screenplay sanitized Tolstoy's novel considerably (as per Production Code requirements) and condensed the story. It paled in comparison to Bondarchuk's cinematic masterpiece.
Leo Tolstoy's next two novels also proved to be masterworks. Anna Karenina, originally published in serial format from 1873-77 in the literary magazine The Russian Messenger, told the story of Anna Karenina, a married aristocrat whose passionate affair with Count Vronsky leads to tragic consequences. The Death Of Ivan Ilyich (1886), written shortly after Leo had converted to Christianity, is both a meditation on the meaning of life and a shrewd satire. 45-year-old High Court judge Ivan Ilyich Golovin takes a fall while hanging up curtains in his apartment. Weeks later, he develops a bad taste in his mouth and a pain that won't go away.
Numerous expensive doctors are called in, and numerous other people visit Ivan's bedside, but nobody can diagnose or treat his condition. It is obvious, though, that Ivan is dying. Terrified of death, Ivan can't understand why a man like him - someone who has lived such a good life - should suffer such a fate. But as he begins to examine his life, he realizes that his so-called good life was anything but. He dedicated most of his life to social climbing, he ignored his miserable family to concentrate on his work, and his life was filled with hypocrisy. Only after Ivan begins to understand the true meaning of life does he lose his fear of death.
In addition to his novels, Leo Tolstoy also wrote three plays and works of non-fiction. His most famous work of non-fiction was The Kingdom Of God Is Within You (1894). In this book, which was a mix of Christian spirituality and pacifist anarchist philosophy, Tolstoy's aim was to separate the true teachings of Jesus Christ from Orthodox Russian Christianity, which had merged with the state and had thus become corrupt. Indeed, all the modern churches were corrupt and had little to do with the teachings of Jesus. Particularly offensive to Tolstoy was the use of religion by the state to justify war and domestic cruelty. Tolstoy also discussed the principles of non-violent resistance as a solution to these woes. Subsequently, the Russian government banned his book.
The Kingdom Of God Is Within You became an influential work throughout the world. One of its readers was a young Indian activist named Mohandas Ghandi. Ghandi wrote to Tolstoy and the two began a correspondence in 1909 that would last for a year, until Tolstoy's death. He died of pneumonia on November 20th, 1910, at the age of 82. Leo Tolstoy is still considered one of the greatest writers of all time, and deservedly so.
Quote Of The Day
"Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." - Leo Tolstoy
Today's video features clips from Sergei Bondarchuk's brilliant 1967 epic film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's great novel, War and Peace. Enjoy!