May 28, 2015

#04-024: Count Leo Tolstoy

oil painting of a man in peasant clothing, short hair but very long white beard, hands tucked in a leather belt at the waist
Count Leo Tolstoy

Note: A Russian nobleman who took up the cause of the poor, Leo Tolstoy was a literary giant. Follow his spiritual journey in this lesson.

Get Ready: What is the reputation of the book War and Peace?

The great Russian novelist Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) lived at approximately the same time as the scientist Mendeleev (see Lesson #04-022), but their lives bore little resemblance.

Tolstoy was born on a family estate south of Moscow, the fourth of five children of a nobleman who had fought in the war against Napoleon (which was later celebrated in the "1812 Overture" by Tchaikovsky--see Lesson #04-023). Though his parents died while he was young, he was raised by relatives and never wanted for much.

Tolstoy joined the army while in his 20s, and later toured Europe twice. These experiences were to have a profound effect on him.

As a result of his battle experiences in the Crimean War, and after witnessing a beheading in Paris, he had what some would call a "spiritual awakening." He turned away from any violent behavior, becoming a pacifist. He took the ethical teachings of Jesus seriously, and began giving his wealth to the poor. For example, he built thirteen schools for the children of Russian peasants in the region around his estate.

Naturally, this sudden change of philosophy had a damaging effect on Tolstoy's marriage, which had been happy until then. While leaving his wife in the dead of winter, he died of pneumonia in a train station at age 82.

Several of Tolstoy's seven novels are still well known. One of them, War and Peace (1869), is set in the same war that his father fought in. It examines the effects of the French invasion on Moscow's society. To capture this important event, he wrote over 1,200 pages, making it one of the longest novels ever written.

Another long novel, Anna Karenina (1878), is about a married woman who is pursued by a Russian count. The novel ends tragically with Anna's suicide.

In his novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a dying man considers what makes up an "authentic life." 

In addition, Tolstoy wrote numerous short stories, as well as essays which explained his pacifist philosophy. Some of these later influenced people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Leo Tolstoy continues to be considered one of the greatest novelists of all time.


Read more:

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. authentic
  2. beheading
  3. ethical
  4. nobleman
  5. pacifist
  6. pneumonia
  7. profound
  8. resemblance
  9. spiritual awakening
  10. suicide

  1. cutting off of someone's head
  2. genuine; not artificial
  3. realizing the importance of developing one's "inner life"
  4. related to how people behave (not necessarily religious)
  5. deep; serious
  6. a person who believes in peace
  7. the act of killing oneself
  8. a person born in the highest class of society
  9. similarity; same appearance
  10. an illness like a very bad cold

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for May 28, 2015

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. a; 3. d; 4. h; 5. f; 6. j; 7. e; 8. i; 9. c; 10. g