POWELL: Leo Tolstoy - A flawed saint

March 15, 2012

“Tolstoy: A Russian Life,” written by Rosamund Bartlett, is a stellar, compelling, revealing and rewarding biography. Tolstoy was a larger-than-life personality who commands attention, admiration and disgust in about equal proportions. Like Charles Dickens, Tolstoy was driven by an inner compulsion to write about people, society and history. Like Dickens, he possessed several less-than-admirable human flaws.

Lev (Leo) Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana, an estate that he later inherited. Barely more than 100 miles south of Moscow, the estate was served by 159 serfs (white peasant slaves). Like other landed nobility, the servants were formed into a hierarchy of specializations from cooks, coach drivers and field laborers to storytellers, singers and musicians in the estate orchestra. They were set free in 1861 without a bloody civil war to force the change.

Tolstoy was surrounded by the trappings of nobility: servants and private teachers (usually from France, Germany or England), and association with educated guests who regularly visited the estate. Russian estates of size were self-sufficient kingdoms that required good management and successful plant and animal production to support the system.


Tolstoy had access to the writing of a wide range of well-known authors and was especially attracted to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s works. Tolstoy was 18 when he began a daily journal of his activities and compiled a list of rules by which to regulate his life. This came a bit late, since he took note of the fact that he made a visit to the college clinic to be treated for gonorrhea.

In spite of his stated intentions to study several languages and improve things on the home estate, Tolstoy began a decade-long period of hedonistic gratification which, unfortunately, included excessive gambling. He often was forced to borrow from friends and associates to pay off large debts. Sadly, he was driven to sell his ancestral home to cover his losses. Another bad habit was his addiction to seducing peasant girls (serfs) on his estate — knowing that this was an abuse of power. Another resolution was to limit his visits to brothels. 

We get a pretty clear idea of the character of Tolstoy from what has been written about him by friends and family. A sometime friend and writer, Ivan Turgenev, offers this view: “He is a strange person. I’ve never met anyone like him, and don’t quite understand him. A mixture of poet, Calvinist, fanatic, nobleman — something reminiscent of Rousseau, but more honest than Rousseau — highly moral and at the same time unattractive.” This might appear harsh, but other features of his character as a husband and father will validate that judgment.

One commendable constant was Tolstoy’s sincere interest in educating peasant children and eventually bringing freedom to the serfs. In 1859, he opened his own school in which he, his wife and hired tutors gave regular lessons to the serfs on his estate. In addition, Tolstoy traveled widely (Italy, France and England) to study how other countries educated their children. He then spent more than a decade in producing a textbook for Russian children. His ABC text included stories, fables, Bible verses, lives of saints, and elementary mathematics and science. It was published in 1872.

While this biography is primarily focused on the struggle for saintly redemption of Tolstoy, it might properly be awarded to Sonya, his long-suffering wife. Throughout Tolstoy’s long writing career, Sonya gave birth to 14 children while transcribing all of his writing from almost unreadable scratching to readable script for publication. She had an intimate acquaintance with “War and Peace,” “Anna Karenina” and volumes of other literature long before the public had that privilege. “War and Peace” took six years to complete. During that period of time, Sonya gave birth to four children and had one miscarriage.

The remaining years of Tolstoy’s life (he died in 1910 at age 82) kept him occupied in writing pacifist, anti-established church, anti-government and anti-land ownership articles. His admirers became legion, but he became persona non grata to the Tsarist regime. Tolstoy left this world a certified cult icon who struggled mightily for his vision of human perfection. It is not unfair to suggest that he was a flawed saint.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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