Black and white photograph of Russian author Leo Tolstoy.

Leo Tolstoy

(1828 - 1910)

The son of prominent Russian aristocrats, Leo Tolstoy left the University of Kazan in 1847 without a degree and moved to his family’s estate Yasnaya Polyana, where he began to write by keeping a diary. After serving in the Russian army during the Crimean War, he married in 1862 and published War and Peace serially from 1865 to 1869 and Anna Karenina from 1875 to 1877. He then entered an extended bout of despair that caused him to revisit the Christianity of his youth. For his philosophical and theological formulations, which garnered him followers called Tolstoyans, he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. Generally regarded as one of the world’s greatest novelists, Tolstoy died in 1910 of heart failure at a railway station in the town of Astapovo.

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Although many New York City theaters closed during the influenza pandemic of 1918, Broadway’s Plymouth Theater went ahead with its October 3 premiere of Leo Tolstoy’s Redemption. Frustrated by the audience’s coughing at one performance, lead actor John Barrymore returned to the stage after intermission and threw a “fair-sized sea bass” into the crowd, shouting, “Busy yourselves with this, you damned walruses!”


In his autobiographical novel Boyhood, Leo Tolstoy describes his youthful joy in philosophical abstraction: “I frequently imagined myself a great man, who was discovering new truths for the good of mankind, and I looked on all other mortals with a proud consciousness of my dignity.” His euphoria didn’t last. “Strange to say,” he wrote, “whenever I came in contact with these mortals, I grew timid.” Soon he was “ashamed of every simplest word and motion.”


Leo Tolstoy, who opened a school for peasant children on his estate and organized relief efforts during famines in 1873 and 1891, later lost his charitable spirit. In 1903, in response to a visitor describing the poor at Moscow’s Khitrov market eating rotten eggs, fish, and fruit, Tolstoy declared that drunkenness and debauchery were responsible for such conditions, not misfortune. “They always have been bosyaki,” said Tolstoy about the beggars there, “and they always will be. They drink, are lazy, and that is all there is to it.” 

Voices In Time

1892 | Yasnaya Polyana

Leo Tolstoy Is Not an Ostrich

“We cannot believe that if we do not look there will not be what we do not wish to see.”More

Every revolution by force only puts more violent means of enslavement into the hands of the persons in power.

—Leo Tolstoy, 1893

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