Sep 092015


Today is the birthday (1828) of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, usually referred to in English as Leo Tolstoy, a Russian novelist, essayist, and short story writer regarded as one of the greatest of all time. Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana, a family estate located 12 kilometers (7.5 mi) southwest of Tula and 200 kilometers (120 mi) south of Moscow. The Tolstoys were a well-known family of old Russian nobility, tracing their ancestry to a mythical Lithuanian noble Indris. He was the fourth of five children of Count Nikolai Ilyich Tolstoy, a veteran of the Patriotic War of 1812, and Countess Mariya Tolstaya (Volkonskaya). Tolstoy’s parents died when he was young, so he and his siblings were brought up by relatives. In 1844, he began studying law and oriental languages at Kazan University. His teachers described him as “both unable and unwilling to learn.” I note something of the kind so often here about famous people who cannot abide formal education for one reason or another. Many of my own students are the same way. I was the same way at Oxford. I still can’t and I have been a teacher all my adult life. Tolstoy left the university in the middle of his studies, returned to Yasnaya Polyana and then spent much of his time in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In 1851, after running up heavy gambling debts, he went with his older brother to the Caucasus and joined the army. It was about this time that he started writing.


His conversion from a dissolute and privileged society author to the non-violent and spiritual anarchist of his latter days was brought about by his experience in the army as well as two trips around Europe in 1857 and 1860–61. During his 1857 tour, Tolstoy witnessed a public execution in Paris, a traumatic experience that would mark the rest of his life. Writing in a letter to his friend Vasily Botkin: “The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens. Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere.”


His European trip in 1860–61 shaped both his political and literary development when he met Victor Hugo, whose literary talents Tolstoy praised after reading Hugo’s newly finished Les Misérables. The similar evocation of battle scenes in Hugo’s novel and Tolstoy’s War and Peace indicates this influence. Tolstoy’s political philosophy was also influenced by a March 1861 visit to French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, then living in exile under an assumed name in Brussels. Apart from reviewing Proudhon’s forthcoming publication, La Guerre et la Paix (“War and Peace”), whose title Tolstoy would borrow for his masterpiece, the two men discussed education, as Tolstoy wrote in his educational notebooks: “If I recount this conversation with Proudhon, it is to show that, in my personal experience, he was the only man who understood the significance of education and of the printing press in our time.”


Fired with enthusiasm, Tolstoy returned to Yasnaya Polyana and founded 13 schools for children of Russia’s peasants, who had just been emancipated from serfdom in 1861. Tolstoy described the school’s principles in his 1862 essay “The School at Yasnaya Polyana”. Tolstoy’s educational experiments were short-lived, partly due to harassment by the Tsarist secret police. However, as a direct forerunner to A. S. Neill’s Summerhill School, the school at Yasnaya Polyana can justifiably be claimed to be the first example of a coherent theory of democratic education.


Tolstoy died in 1910, at the age of 82. Just prior to his death, his health had been a concern of his family, who were actively engaged in his care on a daily basis. During his last few days, he had spoken and written about dying. Renouncing his aristocratic lifestyle, he had finally gathered the nerve to separate from his wife, and left home in the middle of Winter, in the dead of night. His secretive departure was an apparent attempt to escape unannounced from Sophia’s jealous tirades. She was outspokenly opposed to many of his teachings, and in recent years had grown envious of the attention which it seemed to her Tolstoy lavished upon his Tolstoyan “disciples”. I don’t know enough about Tolstoy’s private life to comment fairly. I find his Christianity with its devotion to the Sermon on the Mount inspiring, but I find it hard to reconcile that with his longstanding indifference to his wife. Maybe he should have been a monk. Many, many artists and intellectuals crave solitude to their work, and the company of like minds when they feel sociable.


Tolstoy died of pneumonia at Astapovo train station, after a day’s rail journey south. The station master took Tolstoy to his apartment, and his personal doctors were called to the scene. He was given injections of morphine and camphor for pain, which did little except ease his death. He is buried in an unmarked grave at Yasnaya Polyana.

Tolstoy is best known for War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), which people don’t read any more. He first achieved literary acclaim in his 20s with his semi-autobiographical trilogy, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth (1852–1856), and Sevastopol Sketches (1855), based upon his experiences in the Crimean War. Tolstoy’s fiction includes dozens of short stories and several novellas such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Family Happiness, and Hadji Murad. He also wrote plays and numerous philosophical essays. His ideas on nonviolent resistance, expressed in works such as The Kingdom of God Is Within You, were to have a profound impact on such pivotal 20th century figures as Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Bevel.


I have to say that I found War and Peace a slog which took me some time to get through (same with Moby Dick and Les Misérables). 19th century intellectuals had a tendency to say in 1,000 words what could be expressed in 10. Still, one does feel a duty to them. Nonetheless, I would recommend his short story, “The Three Hermits” over War and Peace. It sums up his ideas about the church and spirituality most succinctly. You can find the full text here.

We are also fortunate to have quite a few clips of Tolstoy and family pottering around Yasnaya Polyana.

In my researches I found this blog post for a lemon tart that the Tolstoy family loved. Sofia’s recipe book is now available as an iPhone app so you have ample opportunity to explore. Her lemon tart recipe is as follows:

One pound of flour, half a pound of butter, a quarter pound of crushed sugar, three yolks, one shot of water. Butter should be straight from the cellar, cold. The stuffing: Grate a quarter pound of butter, grate two boiled eggs with butter; half a pound of crushed sugar, grate the zest of two lemons and add the juice of three lemons. Boil until it grows thick as honey.

The call for “two boiled eggs” in the filling is a mistranslation for “two raw yolks” which makes much more sense, since you are creating a kind of lemon curd. This image is from the post and the URL is below. The post fully analyzes the brief recipe and gives a good conversion for modern cooks.


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