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Leo Tolstoy Biography

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, known in English as Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a Russian author, considered one of the best writers of all time. His novels War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877) are masterworks in the genre of Realist fiction.

Tolstoy was a direct descendent of old Russian nobility, the fourth of five children; his father was Count Nikolai Ilyich Tolstoy. The young Tolstoy served in Crimea in the War of 1812, which influenced much of his work. He wrote numerous plays, short stories and novellas, including The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) and Family Happiness (1859).

Tolstoy visited Europe in 1860-61, which shaped his political and literary development, particularly his meeting with Victor Hugo, who had spent the last thirty years completing his epic saga set in the aftermath of the anti-monarchist insurrection in France, Les Miserables.

Tolstoy’s philosophical works in the 1870’s included A Confession (1879), in which he chronicles his profound existential crisis, becoming a pacifist and Christian anarchist. After interpreting the ethical teachings of Jesus, his work during this period explores the question: “If God does not exist, since death is inevitable, what is the meaning of life?”

Tolstoy’s writings about nonviolent resistance inspired 20th century world leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Tolstoy’s work is featured in our Realism Study Guide and favorite Russian Writers.

Here are a few of our favorite Tolstoy quotes:

  • “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”
  • “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
  • “There is no greatness where simplicity, goodness, and truth are absent.” (War and Peace, Book 14, chpt 18)
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