An Introduction to the Life and Works of Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy was a Russian writer widely regarded as one of the greatest novelists of all time. Born in 1828 in Yasnaya Polyana, Russia, Tolstoy grew up in a wealthy aristocratic family and received a traditional education, studying languages, history, and literature. After serving in the army, Tolstoy began writing fiction, and his early works were heavily influenced by his experiences as a soldier.

Throughout his career, Tolstoy wrote several novels that have become classics of world literature, including “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.” His literary works were widely acclaimed, as evidenced by the fact that he has received both Nobel Prize in Literature and Nobel Peace Prize nominations numerous times. Despite being nominated for Nobel Prize in Literature every year from 1902 to 1906 and for Nobel Peace Prize in 1901, 1902, and 1909, Tolstoy never received either award. Tolstoy not receiving Nobel Prize became a subject of significant controversy among literary scholars and critics. Many believe that his contributions to literature and social activism deserved recognition through these prestigious awards, while others argue that the decision not to award him was based on political or personal biases. Nevertheless, Tolstoy’s influence and impact on literature and social reform continue to be widely recognized.

In addition to his literary accomplishments, Tolstoy was also a philosophical thinker and social critic. He embraced pacifism, vegetarianism, and asceticism, and wrote extensively on ethical and spiritual matters. His writings on nonviolent resistance and societal criticism influenced historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. 

Early Life

Tolstoy was born into an aristocratic family in Yasnaya Polyana, Russia. His father, Count Nikolai Ilyich Tolstoy, died when he was just nine years old, leaving his mother, Princess Maria Volkonskaya, to raise him and his siblings. Tolstoy’s mother died when he was only two years old, leaving him with a sense of abandonment that would haunt him throughout his life.

As a young man, Tolstoy was restless and dissatisfied with his life. He struggled with the constraints of his privileged upbringing and longed for meaning. In 1851, he joined the army and spent several years serving in the Caucasus. During his time of military service, he began to write.

Marriage and Family Life

During the time spent in the army, Tolstoy met Sophia Behrs. They married in 1862 and went on to have 13 children together. Their marriage, however, was not without its difficulties. Tolstoy’s growing disillusionment with the upper classes led him to adopt a more ascetic lifestyle, which put a strain on his relationship with his wife and children.

Becoming increasingly critical of the conventional educational system, and the wealthy life of the upper classes, Tolstoy insisted on not sending his children to school. Instead, he educated them himself and encouraged them to live simple lives.

Tolstoy’s relationship with his family was complex. He was a devoted father and spent a great deal of time with his children, while also imposing his increasingly radical ideals.

Spiritual crisis

Tolstoy’s ever-growing disillusionment with society led to a profound existential in the late 1870s. He became increasingly critical of the Orthodox Church and the Russian government and began to question the purpose of his life. He struggled with depression and anxiety and became increasingly drawn to a life of simplicity and poverty.

In 1910, Tolstoy left home and his family in the middle of the night and went on a journey to find meaning. He fell ill along the way and died at a railway station at the age of 82.


Tolstoy’s literary career spanned over half a century, during which he produced numerous works that have had a significant impact on literature and culture. Tolstoy is most well-known for his literary works. His epic novels “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” are universally regarded as classics of world literature. Tolstoy’s works are not, however, limited to the literature. He has written philosophical and critical essays, including “What Is Art?” (1897), and “The Kingdom of God Is Within You.”

Fictional Works

Leo Tolstoy is regarded as a towering figure in the annals of Russian literature. His most influential and critically acclaimed works include the novels “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”.

“War and Peace” was published in 1869. The novel is considered one of the greatest works of literature and Tolstoy’s magnum opus. The historical epic tells the story of several aristocratic families in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, covering the period between 1805 and 1820. In this novel, Tolstoy explores themes of war, love, politics, and the meaning of life, weaving together the personal stories of its characters with the historical events of the time. Tolstoy’s portrayal of the social and political context of the time provides a rich and detailed picture of life in Russia during this period. The novel’s treatment of war is particularly noteworthy. Tolstoy’s pacifism is evident throughout the novel, and the horrors of war are explored through detailed descriptions of the experiences of soldiers and civilians alike.

“Anna Karenina”, first published in 1878, is considered to be Tolstoy’s most famous work. The novel explores a wide range of themes including the role of women in society, the tension between individual desires and social norms, and the search for meaning. Through the titular character, Tolstoy explores the oppressed role of women in society. Anna is portrayed as a woman trapped by the conventions of her time and unable to express her desires and needs. Her affair with Vronsky is seen as a threat to the stability of her family and society. Due to the exploration of the oppressed role of women in society, “Anna Karenina” can be read as a feminist novel.

Tolstoy explores the search for meaning through the character of Konstantin Levin, a wealthy landowner plagued by the sense of emptiness of his existence. His search for meaning begins with his rejection of the superficialities of society, including the emphasis on wealth and status. He goes on to search for meaning through philosophy and self-reflection and finally experiences a moment of epiphany while mowing a field, realizing that the true meaning of life lies in the simple joys of nature and human connection. Through Levin’s character, Tolstoy criticizes the emptiness of modern society and its emphasis on wealth and status. Levin’s story can, however, be interpreted as an antithesis of Anna’s. While Anna’s story culminates with the tragedy, Levin’s story infers that it is possible to find meaning and fulfillment through a connection with nature and a deep understanding of one’s place in the world.

Tolstoy’s other notable fiction works include “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, which explores man’s confrontation with his mortality, and “Resurrection” which explores a quest for moral redemption.



In his literary works, Tolstoy’s writing style is characterized by realism and the usage of stream-of-consciousness narration and symbolism. Realism is a hallmark of Tolstoy’s style. His novels are characterized by detailed descriptions of everyday life and realistic portrayals of the harsh realities of existence.

The usage of stream-of-consciousness techniques allows readers to experience the character’s perspective in a deeply immersive way by presenting it as a continuous flow of the character’s thoughts and feelings. This technique is exemplified in the novel “Anan Karenina” in which characters’ inner lives are central to the plot.

Tolstoy’s usage of symbols to convey complex ideas can be illustrated in the example of “War and Peace”. The image of the burning of Moscow serves as a metaphor for the destruction and horrors of war.

Non-fictional Works

In addition to his literary works, Tolstoy was a prolific philosophical writer, exploring the topics of religion, politics, aesthetics, and education. His most influential theoretical works are “What is Art?” and “The Kingdom of God is Within You”.

In “What is Art?” Tolstoy argues that art should be accessible and meaningful to the general population, and have a clear moral purpose. According to Tolstoy, works of critically acclaimed artists of his time are, while esthetically successful, inaccessible to the masses, and lack clear moral meaning. For that reason, Tolstoy argues in favor of folk art. According to him, folk art is accessible to the general population and has a clear moral purpose.

In “The Kingdom of God is Within You“ Tolstoy criticizes the institution of the church. He sees the church as a tool of the ruling class to maintain its power and control over the population. The true essence of Christianity, however, lies in the rejection of political power and commitment to non-violence. State and institutions are viewed as a means of oppression. True change can, however, only come from a personal commitment to living a life of love and service to others, and not through violence.


Tolstoy’s literary works, particularly his novels “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”, left a lasting impact on literature and culture. His realism, emphasis on the life of the ordinary, and exploration of human continues to influence numerous authors around the world.

Tolstoy’s theoretical works have had an equally profound influence. The concept of non-violent resistance explored in “The Kingdom of God is Within You“ influenced figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Gandhi considered “The Kingdom of God is Within You“ to be one of his most important influences. Tolstoy’s writings influenced Gandi’s non-violent resistance, and they kept corresponding until Tolstoy died in 1910. Their letters included a discussion of practical applications of non-violence in achieving societal reform.

Tolstoy’s legacy is multifaceted and far-reaching. His literary works continue to inspire authors and readers around the world, while his commitment to social activism and theoretical works continue to influence thinkers and leaders.