Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy was born on September 9, 1828, in his ancestral estate Yasnaya Polyana, South of Moscow, Russia. He was the fourth of five children in a wealthy family of Russian landed Gentry. His parents died when he was a child, and he was brought up by his elder brothers and relatives.
Leo Tolstoy studied languages and law at Kazan University for three years. He was dissatisfied with the school and left Kazan without a degree, returned to his estate and educated himself independently. In 1848 he moved to the capital, St. Petersburg, and there passed two tests for a law degree. He was abruptly called to return to his estate near Moscow, where he inherited 4000 acres of land and 350 serfs. There Tolstoy built a school for his serfs, and acted as a teacher. He briefly went to a Medical School in Moscow, but lost a fortune in gambling, and was pulled out by his brother. He took military training, became an Army officer, and moved to the Caucasus, where he lived a simple life for three years with Cossacs. There he wrote his first novel – “Childhood” (1852), it became a success. With writing “Boyhood” (1854) and “Youth” (1857) he concluded the autobiographical trilogy. In the Crimean War (1854-55) Tolstoy served as artillery commander in the Battle of Sevastopol, and was decorated for his courage. Between the battles he wrote three stories titled “Sevastopol Sketches”, that won him wide attention, and a complement from the Czar Aleksandr II.
After the war, Tolstoy returned to St. Petersburg, where he enjoyed the friendship of Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai A. Nekrasov, Ivan Goncharov, and other writers. On his trips to Europe, he had discussions with Gertsen in London, and attended Darwin’s lectures. In Brussels he had meetings with philosophers Prudhon and Lelewel. Tolstoy undertook a research of schools in Europe, and later he built and organized over 20 schools for poor people in Russia. At that time the secret police began surveillance, and searched his home. In 1862 he married Sofia Andreevna Bers, and fathered 13 children with his wife. Four of their babies died, and the couple raised the remaining nine children. His wife was also his literary secretary, and also contributed to his best works, “War and Peace” (1863-69) and “Anna Karenina” (1873-77). In his “Confession” (1879) Tolstoy revealed his own version of Christianity, blended with socialism, that won him many followers. Tolstoyan communities sprang up in America and Europe, and he assisted the Russian non-Orthodox Christians (Dukhobors) in migrating to USA and Canada. He split from aristocratic class and developed an ascetic lifestyle, becoming a vegetarian, and a farmer. He sponsored and organized free meals for the poor. He transfered his copyright on all of his writings after 1880 to public domain. In his later age Tolstoy was pursuing the path of a wandering ascetic. He corresponded with Mohandas K. Gandhi, who was directly influenced by Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God is Within You” (1894), which was praised by many nonviolent movements.
In 1900 Tolstoy criticized the Tsar’s government in a series of publications, calling for separation of Chuch and State. Tsar Nicholas II retaliated through the Church, by expulsion of Tolstoy from Orthodox Cristianity as a “heretic”. He fell ill, and suffered from a severe depression; he was suicidal and even had to eliminate all hunting guns from his home, because of his suicidal mode. He was treated by the famous doctor Dahl, and was visited by composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and basso Feodor Chaliapin Sr., who performed for Tolstoy on many occasions. Later he went to convalesce in Yalta, in Crimea, where he spent time with Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky. Tolstoy was an obvious candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but was initially omitted by the Nobel Committee for his views. The omission caused a strong response from a group of Swedish writers and artists. They sent an address to Tolstoy, but the writer answered by declining any future prize nomination.
In 1902 Tolstoy wrote a letter to the Tsar, calling for social justice, to prevent a civil war, and in 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War, Tolstoy wrote a condemnation of war. The Tsar replied by increasing police surveillance on Tolstoy. In November of 1910 he left his estate, probably taking the path of a wandering ascetic, which he had been pursuing for decades. He left home without explanations and took a train, in which he caught pneumonia, and died at a remote station of Astapovo. He was laid to rest in his estate of Yasnaya Polyana, which was made a Tolstoy National Museum.
His youngest daughter, named Alexandra Tolstoy, was the director of the Tolstoy Museum, and was arrested by the Communists five times. She emigrated from Russia to the United States, where she founded the Tolstoy Foundation. She helped many prominent Russian intellectuals, such as Vladimir Nabokov and Sergei Rachmaninoff among many others.