Today marks the birthday of one of literature’s most significant and celebrated authors, Leo Tolstoy. Although he's best known for the voluminous and influential works War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's preoccupations went beyond literature; he was also extremely interested in religion, social reform, and anarchism. Here are six things you probably didn’t know about the Russian author.
It’s always fascinating to read about important writers, scholars, and inventors who didn’t exactly succeed at school. Albert Einstein's parents were concerned that he had a learning disability, both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs dropped out of college, and Jacques Derrida failed the entrance exam to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure — twice. As such, Leo Tolstoy is in good company. When he enrolled in the Oriental languages program at the University of Kazan, he consistently received low grades, and was described by his teachers as, “both unable and unwilling to learn.” Though he would go on to become a polyglot with a working knowledge of at least a dozen languages, he was never comfortable with the university. He left after two years, and never finished his degree.
Though this number probably wasn’t such a big deal back in 1862, it is still astounding to think of a family with 13 children (three of whom died in infancy). Some of Tolstoy's children would go on to write, and his daughters led particularly interesting lives. While other literary legends produced little in the way of progeny (Dostoyevsky only had two children, for instance), the Tolstoy family line is still going strong. You can read some testimonials from Tolstoy’s descendants, as they discussed their heritage with the UK's Independent; one descendant describes himself as “Tolstoy number 178,” of about the 300-or-so progeny alive today.
Late in life, after the publication of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy became deeply involved in exploring his religious and social beliefs. He openly declared his Christian beliefs in 1884, with a book titled, What I Believe, and began developing a radical anarcho-pacifist Christian philosophy that would serve as a prominent theme in his later works. His writings on nonviolent resistance, especially in The Kingdom of God Is Within You, would go on to influence the philosophies of major figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Tolstoy even briefly corresponded with Gandhi, who acknowledged Tolstoy as a profound influence in his biography. In 1901, Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church for his beliefs.
Though Tolstoy didn't necessarily set out to create a specific movement or doctrine according to his beliefs, his work led to the birth of a religious and social movement, the adherents of which called themselves "Tolstoyans." The Tolstoyans sought to promote and live out Tolstoy’s ideas and beliefs, including participating in social activism and reform, becoming vegetarian, and living a life of asceticism. Communes sprang up in places as far afield as South Africa, India, Japan, and the United States. An interesting history of the movement can be found here.
As much as Tolstoy is widely acknowledged and celebrated throughout the world, the one country that is most uncomfortable with his legacy is his very own. Though Russia is usually quick to celebrate its many literary greats, Tolstoy receives much less fanfare than his peers. The Kremlin did nothing to celebrate the centenary of Tolstoy's death, November 20th, 2010, to the dismay of many. The oversight stood in contrast to 2010's nationwide festival surrounding the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth. Russian authors and critics attribute the government's unease with Tolstoy to his harsh critiques of Russian society, many of which remain relevant today. For its part, the Russian Orthodox Church has remained firm in its refusal to lift Tolstoy's excommunication, despite receiving several requests to pardon the author. It acknowledged Tolstoy's importance as a writer, but maintained that it cannot lift an excommunication after someone's death.
Finally, if all this has piqued your interest, you might be interested in watching The Last Station, a 2009 film based on a novel by Jay Parini, which stars Christopher Plummer as a very bearded Tolstoy, as well as Helen Mirren and James McAvoy. If you’re in the mood for shorter fare, check out this PolicyMic article that features rare footage of Tolstoy’s 80th birthday in 1908.