Book discussed in this essay: Tolstoy: A Russian Life, by Rosamund Bartlett 

It is a particular distinction when the excellent single you out as the very best. Vladimir Nabokov declared, "Tolstoy is the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction." E.M. Forster said, in Aspects of the Novel, "No English novelist is as great as Tolstoy—that is to say has given so complete a picture of man's life, both on its domestic and heroic side." In "The Russian Point of View," Virginia Woolf, who was more impressive as a critic than as a novelist or political oracle, named Tolstoy "the greatest of all novelists—for what else can we call the author of War and Peace?" She esteemed him as

one of those born aristocrats who have used their privileges to the full…. There is something proud and superb in the attack of such a mind and such a body upon life. Nothing seems to escape him. Nothing glances off him unrecorded.


For Marcel Proust, Tolstoy was not a mere aristocrat but a literary divinity at the least, who made an honored French novelist look all too human: in Balzac, Proust wrote, "humanity is judged by a literary man anxious to write a great book; in Tolstoy, by a serene god." Maxim Gorky, in Reminiscences of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy, discerned divinity not only in his writing but in his very presence: "He is like a god, not a Sabaoth or Olympian, but the kind of Russian god who ‘sits on a maple throne under a golden lime tree,' not very majestic, but perhaps more cunning than all the other gods." Thomas Mann, in the magnificent essay "Goethe and Tolstoy," seconded the opinion that Tolstoy seems a pagan god, because gods "are of the same essence as nature," and "the nobility that nature confers [is] godlike." And for Mann, Tolstoy was not just cunning but surely majestic.

Was Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) then the superior writer and the superior man whom so many believe him to have been? Was he the superior writer because he was the superior man? Or do we think of him, in our peculiar modern fashion, as the superior man because he was the superior writer? He was unquestionably born not only to write but to enjoy life in its manifold sensual, intellectual, and spiritual glory. The gods' gifts in their fullness were his—except for the ability to rest content with them. The world that ought to have been Tolstoy's unalloyed delight, Virginia Woolf went on to say, drips with the mind's venom: "There is always at the centre of all the brilliant and flashing petals of the flower this scorpion, ‘Why live?'" This godlike man came to loathe his life so much that it seemed unendurable. How this could be so is every biographer's and critic's object of fascination.

A Wealthy Nobleman

Tolstoy's recent biographers and critics have strongly tended to exalt the writer over the man, and they are given to disparaging not only the vain young hellion but also the penitent old holy man; the man they admire is the one in the prime of life whose love for his wife and children enriched the writing of War and Peace. His most recent biographer, Rosamund Bartlett, an independent English scholar with books on Chekhov, Shostakovich, and Wagner in Russia to her credit, is well positioned to make Tolstoy: A Russian Life give credence to its subtitle. She writes, "Tolstoy lived a Russian life, and he lived many more lives than most other Russians, exhibiting both the ‘natural dionysism' and ‘Christian asceticism' which the philosopher Nikolay Berdyaev defines as characteristic of the Russian people." Natural dionysism is the most fragrant of euphemisms; anyone who has been to Russia has likely seen drunks being frog-marched through the streets by their slightly less drunken comrades, or flat on their faces and licking the sidewalk. And Christian asceticism as Tolstoy practiced it entailed perfervid moralizing, hatred of his wife, neglect of his supreme genius, rank hypocrisy, and too little honest discipline.

As the renegade Soviet-era writer Mikhail Zoshchenko put it, "Man is excellently made, and eagerly lives the life that is being lived." The young Count Leo Tolstoy lived the life expected of a wealthy nobleman. A private German tutor saw to his early education. An entourage of slaves attended to his bodily needs. "Like so many Russian country estates at that time," writes Bartlett, "Yasnaya Polyana was an almost self-sufficient kingdom, with its own population of serfs to till the fields, milk the cows, chop wood, weave carpets, cobble shoes, groom the horses, breed hounds for hunting, clear paths, complete the accounts, prepare meals, fetch water and do the laundry. It was also a whole world which Tolstoy never had to leave." When he was old enough, comely and convenient serf girls provided sexual services; Gypsy singers and full-fledged prostitutes also joined in the debauch. Inheriting Yasnaya Polyana at 19, he gambled away a fortune over several years, literally losing his house, which a neighboring landowner took apart and carted away. (Two wings remained.) Getting drunk enough to lick the sidewalk furnished occasional relief.

For he hated himself. When he was 14, his older brothers had taken him to a brothel to surrender his virginity, and afterward he wept at the prostitute's bedside. When he was 18 and a student at the University of Kazan, he took literary advantage of a month-long stay in the venereal disease clinic to make his first diary entry, vowing to give up "the disorderly life…[that is] a consequence of the early corruption of the soul." Easier said than done.


His moral suffering was so intense because he knew what was good but could not bring himself to live worthily. A poignant childhood fantasy, which Bartlett calls "one of the most important and most cherished of all his memories," made him hope not only for his own salvation but for every human being's. "When he was about five years old, his beloved eldest brother Nikolay, then about eleven, announced that the secret to human happiness was written on a little green stick which was buried in the woods a short walk from their house. When the secret was revealed, he told his brothers, people would not only be happy, but they would also cease to be ill, and would no longer be angry with each other." Thus would commence the millennium of the "ant brotherhood"—a novel term that probably emerged from some confusion with the "Moravian brotherhood," which sounds very similar in Russian. Of course, it was the same Nikolay who took his little brother whoring for the first sad time. But there is virtue in theory and virtue in practice, and youths do change between 11 and 20, or 5 and 14. Nevertheless, Tolstoy would always dream of the soul's perfection, available to all.


When an adolescent, he found his moral and intellectual idol in Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who Bartlett rightly says "probably exercised more influence on Tolstoy than any other thinker over the course of [the Russian's] lifetime." She quotes from a conversation Tolstoy had in 1901: "I did more than admire [Rousseau]—I worshipped him. When I was fifteen, I wore next to my skin a medallion with his portrait rather than a cross. Many of his pages are so close to me that it feels like I wrote them myself." Rousseau's hand, Bartlett writes, can be felt in Tolstoy's contempt for civilized mores and reverence for the natural man, his penchant for free-and-easy schooling, his dismissal of religious orthodoxy, his emphasis on individual conscience, his exploration of chaste and illicit love, and his brief for social equality. Right on all counts. Yet Bartlett overlooks Rousseau's master idea, which is explicit in the Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men and the Emile, and which had the deepest influence on Tolstoy: that amour-propre, or vanity, a sentiment social in origin, infects men with the urge to shine in others' eyes and causes them to replace the soul's true needs with artificial desires, most notably the passion known as honor, for which one will kill or die over a trifle, whether a worthless love affair or imperial glory. Tearing at his own vitals at 24, Tolstoy declares in his diary that he is doomed to return again and again to this soul-sickness he cannot cure, the vanity that rots every bit of him like leprosy or venereal disease.

At this time Tolstoy's literary career was getting underway, to considerable acclaim. The novella Childhood (1852) made his name; it would form a trilogy with Boyhood (1854) and Youth (1857). The Rousseauean theme of resplendent innocence gradually tarnished by amour-propre is prominent, and so are some other distinctively Tolstoyan preoccupations: the consuming thought of death, even in childhood; the discovery in one's first flights of metaphysics that reason has its limits, an insight that seems enchanting in boyhood but would strike Tolstoy differently later in life; the longing for God, Whose love exceeds immeasurably any love of woman.

It was the expected thing that a ripping blade like Tolstoy would try soldiering: there lay adventure and honor. He served in the Caucasus against the Chechen insurgency, and transferred in search of sharper action to the Crimean war against the Turks, British, and French. His three Sevastopol Stories (1855-1856) depict war, in his biting words, "not as a beautiful, orderly, and gleaming formation, with music and beaten drums, streaming banners and generals on prancing horses, but war in its authentic expression—as blood, suffering and death." War is of course conducted by honorable men, in the Rousseauean sense: "you will discover that each [soldier] is a little Napoleon, a little monster ready to start a conflict and kill a hundred or so men simply in order to obtain another star or an increase of a third in his pay." Almost in spite of himself, Tolstoy does have some admiring words for the courage of those who brave wounds and death, whatever may drive them. He was a man among men who respected even where he detested and abhorred. Yet only the desperate prayers of men in extremity really come close to redeeming the folly and waste of this most revered of virile activities.

As Tolstoy detached himself from the military, the virtue project took hold of him once more. In March 1856 Tsar Alexander II had delivered a speech advocating the abolition of serfdom: better from above, he said, than from below. No landowner was more eager to see this justice done than Tolstoy: Bartlett places him among "the distinguished ranks of the Russian gentry whose awakened social conscience caused them to become ‘repentant noblemen.'" Surely Rousseau affected Tolstoy here. So did Alexander Radishchev, whose attack on serfdom in A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow got him exiled to Siberia by Catherine the Great in 1790; Bartlett calls Radishchev the founder of "Russia's intellectual aristocracy—its intelligentsia." The peasantry and the intelligentsia did not always see eye to eye, however. When Tolstoy announced to his serfs his intention to free them, they balked, believing that a new tsar was bound to emancipate them anyhow and that their master was trying to pull a fast one on them with a shrewd contract offer. Justice, freedom, and equality would have to wait.

The peasants gave Tolstoy the fish eye once again when he tried to provide their children with a basic education: since he was offering it from sheer goodness, there must be a catch. But in March 1860, five months after the school opened, there were 50 students, including some adults. The need for primary schooling was urgent: in the 1850s 95% of the peasantry could not read or write, there were no state schools in rural areas, and what schooling there was lay in the hands of village priests or sometime soldiers, who taught by rote, and to the tune of a hickory stick, or a birch. Tolstoy's school was a free-for-all that worked, at least in as much as those who wanted to learn could do so. Tolstoy oversaw the operation, taught, traveled in Europe to speak with the latest pedagogical innovators, wrote articles. He affected peasant dress, told the kids wonderful stories, took them on in snowball fights, hosted celebrations on feast days. This was precisely the kind of subversion that the Ministry of Internal Affairs could not tolerate. While Tolstoy was away, the secret police turned Yasnaya Polyana upside-down, but found nothing incriminating. Tolstoy despaired of his project nonetheless and abandoned it for years, though he would revive the school in 1872 and consider it one of his proudest achievements.

In the meantime anyway, as Bartlett writes, he had other things on his mind: true love at long last. In 1862 he married the 18-year-old Sofya Bers, known as Sonya, a doctor's daughter. This girl enthralled him, with her prettiness, her singing, her writing, her charming innocence. Their engagement lasted only a week; bliss could not wait. Once they were married, he gave her his diaries to read, with their accounts of barnyard couplings with serf girls. Even in the barnyard, emotional attachments did form, and with one peasant girl Tolstoy had declared himself in love "like never before," and had fathered a son. The truth was hard for his bride to take, but she took it. There would be a lot more for her to take over the years. She would bear him 13 children, of whom 8 survived to adulthood, and she would scarcely leave Yasnaya Polyana during the first 18 years of marriage. It is said that she copied out seven full drafts of War and Peace. She fished vermin out of the soup pot and introduced hygiene to the kitchen. She compiled a cookbook with 162 recipes. She planted trees. When she was heavily pregnant and unable to work, her husband nagged her about her laziness.

Yet Sonya was Tolstoy's happiness and he hers—at least for a time. And in War and Peace, written between 1863 and 1869, Tolstoy showed happiness like their own, though wrested from more profound suffering—happiness as domestic contentment founded on romantic love, which had come under threat from raging warfare and raging sexuality, but which had proved its powers of endurance even as the erotic thrill of youth had passed.

National Epic

War and Peace is a theophany wrapped in a Bildungsroman encased in an epic—and not exactly a heroic epic. To show God working His will through human love and courage, as well as sexual viciousness and mad political ambition, is Tolstoy's great theme, as personal fates and national destinies interlace in a fabric intimately detailed even when the scale of the tapestry is singularly vast. Tolstoy's Bildungsroman, or novel of education or self-development, encompasses more than a single hero or heroine: Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Natasha Rostova both assume a significance that would have made him or her the cynosure of a slighter novel. Andrei is dashing and fated to die in war, Natasha is the most enchanting young woman in modern literature, but the book's principal figure is Pierre Bezukhov, who gets everything wrong before he gets everything right. Like Goethe's hero in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795-96), Pierre believes at various stages of his life that he is now just the man he has always wanted to be, when in fact he still has everything to go through and understand. Pierre lives through the receipt of a preposterously sumptuous inheritance; a poisonous marriage to a society beauty; a duel for illusory honor; dabbling in Freemasonry; a round of debauchery; falling in love, hopelessly he thinks, with Natasha (whose engagement to Prince Andrei, Pierre's best friend, is broken off when a malignant seducer temporarily derails her); rubber-necking at Borodino, the decisive battle in Russia's war with Napoleon; prowling the streets of Moscow as the city burns, convinced by numerological speculation that he is destined to be Napoleon's assassin; being taken a prisoner-of-war who just escapes execution as an incendiary; being vouchsafed salvation in the peasant wisdom of his doomed fellow prisoner Platon Karataev, whose simple religious faith leaves Pierre with "that tranquility of mind, that inner harmony" that he had been unable to secure in his earlier hectic quest.

That dreadful question, What for? which had formerly destroyed all his mental edifices, no longer existed for him. To that question, What for? a simple answer was now always ready in his soul: "Because there is a God, that God without whose will not a single hair falls from the head of man."


Thanks to God's will, Pierre is freed from Napoleonic bondage, his vile first wife dies, and he is free to marry Natasha. He has earned earthly happiness, and maybe more.

War and Peace and Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship represent the Bildungsroman at its peak of moral intelligence and emotional exaltation. By comparison, Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Balzac's Lost Illusions, and Flaubert's A Sentimental Education coat their heroes in the muck of hopelessness, while Dickens's David Copperfield, for all its genius, lapses into tear-jerking and monkeyshines. Tolstoy and Goethe have written the supreme novels of practical wisdom; but they are two different sorts of wisdom. Discerning God's will for him is peripheral at best, and largely irrelevant, to Wilhelm Meister's self-development; a secret brotherhood of accomplished men who emphasize the life of action and show little interest in the otherworldly guides him toward his fulfillment in love and work. Pierre Bezukhov on the other hand must come to know God in order to know how to live; when Pierre is all but broken, an illiterate and pious serf provides the illumination he needs. Goethe describes the happy life as noble, Tolstoy as numinous. War and Peace is the greater work of art, for Tolstoy gives life where Goethe gives lessons; but Tolstoy is hardly free from preachiness, and whether one ultimately prefers him to Goethe depends on how thickly one likes Christianity spread on a work of fiction.

For how men honor or betray the love of God, in peace and in war, is Tolstoy's obsession. He is out to prove the literal insanity of war, in which no man realizes his own will, but unfailingly fulfills the divine intention. Although the vast Russian readership hailed the novel as the national epic that celebrated Russia's bravest men in their finest hour, there is little in the novel that can be called heroic. Napoleon may be the prime villain, but every soldier on both sides partakes of evil. Moreover, Tolstoy upends the teaching of Napoleon's hero Machiavelli and shows all-conquering prudence to be sheer illusion. Providence controls every so-called great man as though God were working the strings of a marionette. The Russian commander Kutuzov, the closest thing to a military hero, succeeds because he discerns the will of Providence and submits his own will to it; dazzled by European ideas of military greatness, the very Russia Kutuzov has saved fails to appreciate his humble genius. Tolstoy's is very much a religious novelist's understanding of war and great politics rather than a historian's or statesman's; Victor Hugo takes a similar view in his account of the Battle of Waterloo in Les Misérables. This literary comprehension is too literary and less than comprehensive. Its inadequacy is evident to anyone who recognizes human free will in events great and small.

And yet there is a sense in which Tolstoy makes the reader know war as a Machiavelli or a Thucydides does not. Tolstoy's God touches every life and oversees every death on the battlefield because Tolstoy does: to feel each life and death as though it were his own is Tolstoy's gift, and this born novelist's mode of understanding cuts deeper than any mere idea about life and death. "‘To love life is to love God. Harder and more blessed than all else is to love this life in one's sufferings, in innocent sufferings.'" The deep thinkers might sneer at Bezukhov's simplicity, but he has paid for this knowledge with severe pain and terror. A whole life stands behind this reflection. Eternal wisdom is born of circumstance, and sometimes ordinary men who have been through the grinder see more clearly than do highly efficient thinking engines; after all, the poisonous Heidegger and Sartre are often said to have been the foremost intelligences of the 20th century.

Pity and Terror

Like War and Peace, the great novel Anna Karenina, written between 1873 and 1877, shows tragedy come to pass and tragedy barely averted. Maxim Gorky quotes Tolstoy as saying that though man has survived earthquakes and epidemics and soul-tortures, the worst pain he knows or will know is "the tragedy of the bedroom." This might seem the perfect description of Anna Karenina, which relates the affair between a handsome cavalry officer and a beautiful woman married to an unendurable bureaucrat. Anna ends up throwing herself under the wheels of a train, and her lover, Vronsky, who had earlier tried to kill himself in a fit of wounded pride, goes off to war with the intention of getting himself killed. Yet the plot has another strand that complicates the theme. Constantin Levin, Tolstoy's alter ego, paragon of vitality and goodness, a landowner with great schemes for reform, who mows his fields with the peasants, loves Kitty Shcherbatsky; she rejects Levin's first proposal because she is in love with Vronsky, who has yet to meet Anna, but she comes around and marries Levin in due course, after much Russian suffering on both their parts.

But the worst suffering comes when they are together and have every reason to be happy; Levin's reason gets in the way, and nearly destroys him. It is not the tragedy of the bedroom but the icy solitude of the modern mind that provides the ultimate pity and terror. The unbelieving Levin had begun to pray while his wife was in childbirth, and he had believed then. But the religious feeling had passed and he found himself at a loss. He sought the truth obsessively: "‘What am I? Where am I? And why am I here?'" The anti-materialist philosophers such as Plato, Spinoza, Schopenhauer seemed mere word-spinners; the scientific materialists conceived a monstrous universe. Levin imagined himself in infinite space and time and matter as a bubble that would inevitably burst: "it was the cruel mockery of some evil power…. An end had to be put to that dependence on an evil power; and there was one means—death." Ropes and guns looked inviting, but somehow Levin went on living. Then one day, a peasant told him of another peasant, named Plato, who lived "‘rightly, in a godly way'": "‘He lives for his soul and remembers God.'" The light flooded Levin's mind. Reason did not hold the needed answers, for love of others is wonderfully unreasonable. He now possessed the wisdom required to live happily.

Living Godly

Levin's crisis was in fact Tolstoy's own, and so was its resolution, which he relates in the spiritual autobiography A Confession (1880). Yet Tolstoy could not in the end rest content like Levin. For a time he lived as an unexceptionable Orthodox believer, but the belief did not hold fast. A pilgrimage in 1879 to the Caves monastery in Kiev, Bartlett writes, began to steer him aside from the approved path: "as far as he could see, the holy relics on show were fakes, and the monk he went to talk to about faith turned him away, saying he was too busy." Tolstoy would make a daring and decisive break with spiritual authority. Reading the Eastern Christian fathers and apologists convinced him "that the apostles had actually distorted Christ's teaching. Indeed, when he had come to see that Orthodox doctrine was just an artificial confection of often opaque and contradictory expressions of faith, he said, he began to understand why Russian seminaries produced so many atheists." Rejecting miracle and sacrament and ceremony, Tolstoy cut Christ down to size, as a moral instructor, not unlike Tolstoy.

God expected men to be holy, and Tolstoy would show them how, by being holy in his own fashion. In A Confession he writes, "The aim of man in life is to save his soul, and to save his soul he must live ‘godly' and to live ‘godly' he must renounce all the pleasures of life, must labor, humble himself, suffer and be merciful." Living godly is the opposite of being god-like in the pagan manner that Gorky and Mann extolled. Tolstoy cobbled his own shoes and emptied his own chamber pot, or at least said one ought to. In time of famine he served as publicist and field worker to avert catastrophe. Intermittently he wrote fiction on religious themes, works still powerful, although tendentious by his old standards and maybe even somewhat unhinged: "The Death of Ivan Ilych" (1886), about a judge who has gotten his whole life wrong and finds ultimate joy in death; "The Devil" (1889), about a landowner's affair with a peasant woman that ends in his suicide; "The Kreutzer Sonata" (1889), about a husband who is driven to murder by his wife's romance with a musician, and who becomes a proselytizer for the abolition of sexual intercourse and the extinction of the human race; "Master and Man" (1895), about a merchant whose greed gets him and a servant caught in a blizzard, but who sacrifices himself to save the servant's life and thereby saves his own soul; "Father Sergius" (1898), about a monk who finds lust easier to overcome than amour-propre.

Hating his earlier self, the worldly author of worthless books, Tolstoy would spend his remaining days on his knees in repentance, in his own proud style. The Church, which was a state institution, and an instrument of tyranny, would make him pay for his pride and presumption. The Chief Procurator of the Holy Synod, Konstantin Pobedonostsev, led the counter-attack in what would be a protracted spiritual battle. Assorted loud priests denounced Tolstoy's consummate fiendishness. Icons depicted him roasting in hellfire. In 1901 Tolstoy was excommunicated. Officially damned and gone, he in fact proved stronger than before. Multitudes adored him as their spiritual guide. Bartlett reprints a 1901 political cartoon that shows Tolstoy with peasant garb, prophet's beard, and a scythe towering masterfully over a puny Tsar Nicholas II. No wonder the sometime powers hated and feared him.

But hatred and fear also dwelt within his very house. The new holiness did not impress Sonya. She wanted him to love her and write another War and Peace. She found her transformed husband irascible, hypocritical, insufferable. After all, Tolstoy dined on virtuous and insipid vegetarian fare served by waiters in white gloves. He preached sexual abstinence but was perpetually on her like a tireless ram. Wrangling about copyright and inheritance shattered the household. Sonya accused Tolstoy of homosexual relations with his favorite disciple, Vladimir Chertkov. Who was madder than whom? Hard to say. But here was the very tragedy of the bedroom.

In October 1910 Tolstoy fled his home under cover of darkness; he died a week later in the railway station at Astapovo—a media event to which Sonya was denied admission. In Russia's first civil burial, Tolstoy was interred at the site where his brother Nikolay's little green stick, with the secret of all happiness, was buried. For all Tolstoy's strain and striving, the secret remains secret, though the happy man who wrote War and Peace surely enjoyed an intimation of it, if for too brief a time.