Leo TolstoyLeo Tolstoy 1828-1910

Russian writer, one of the world's greatest novelists. The scion of prominent aristocrats, Tolstoy spent much of his life at his family estate of Yasnaya Polyana. After a somewhat dissolute youth, he served in the army and traveled in Europe before returning home and starting a school for peasant children. He was already known as a brilliant writer for the short stories in Sevastopol Sketches (185556) and the novel The Cossacks (1863) when War and Peace (186569) established him as Russia's preeminent novelist. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, it examines the lives of a large group of characters, centring on the partly autobiographical figure of the spiritually questing Pierre. Its structure, with its flawless placement of complex characters in a turbulent historical setting, is regarded as one of the great technical achievements in the history of the Western novel. His other great novel, Anna Karenina (187577), focuses on an aristocratic woman who deserts her husband for a lover and on the search for meaning by another autobiographical character, Levin. After its publication Tolstoy underwent a spiritual crisis and turned to a form of Christian anarchism. Advocating simplicity and nonviolence, he devoted himself to social reform. His later works include The Death of Ivan Ilich (1886), often considered the greatest novella in Russian literature, and What Is Art? (1898), which condemns fashionable aestheticism and celebrates art's moral and religious functions. He lived like a peasant on his great estate, practicing a radical asceticism. Finding his marriage unbearable, he departed suddenly for the local railway station, where he contracted a fatal pneumonia in the cold.

Courtesy of Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. 2003.