Of a noble family, Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana, his parents' estate near Tula. Orphaned at nine, he was brought up by his aunts and privately tutored. At 16 he was sent to the Univ. of Kazan, where he studied languages and law. His classes bored him, and he left without a degree. He returned to his estate in 1849 and made several abortive attempts to aid and educate the serfs there. Tolstoy then began a profligate life in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
In 1851 Tolstoy followed his brother into army service in the Caucasus, where he wrote Childhood (1852). This became the first part of an autobiographical trilogy, which includes Boyhood (1854) and Youth (1857). In 1854 he took part in the defense of Sevastopol, descriptions of which were published in Nekrasov's journal The Contemporary, attracting considerable attention for their unvarnished picture of war. He left army service in 1855 and for several years divided his time between his estate and the literary circles of St. Petersburg. His diary of the period reveals his intense dissatisfaction with his libertine existence. He set up a school for peasant children on his estate, emphasizing a spontaneous approach to learning. When his school proved impractical, he visited Western Europe and there began to question the bases of modern civilization.
In 1862 Tolstoy married Sophia Andreyevna Bers, a young, well-educated woman who bore him 13 children. His candor concerning his infidelities and his harsh conception of her wifely duties contributed to the instability of their marriage. During this time he wrote The Cossacks (1863) and his masterpieces War and Peace (1862-69) and Anna Karenina (1873-76). War and Peace is a vast prose epic of the Napoleonic invasion of 1812. It illustrates Tolstoy's view of history as proceeding inexorably to its own ends, a view in which mankind appears as an accidental instrument. This thesis is conveyed by a stream of brilliantly conceived characters and incidents. Anna Karenina, his most popular work, concerns the tragedy of a woman's faith in romantic love.
About 1876 the doubts that had beset Tolstoy since youth, fed by his puritan temperament in conflict with his sensuality, gathered force. The result of his painful self-examination was his conversion to the doctrine of Christian love and acceptance of the principle of nonresistance to evil. The steps in his conversion are set forth in his Confession (1879). For the rest of his life Tolstoy dedicated himself to the practice and propagation of his new faith, which he expounded in a series of works, among them A Short Exposition of the Gospels (1881), What I Believe In (1882), What Then Must We Do? (1886), and The Law of Love and the Law of Violence (1908).
Tolstoy preached nonviolence and a Rousseauistic simplicity of life. He was an anarchist to the extent that he considered wrong all organizations based on the premise of force, including both the government and the church. A Tolstoy cult grew up in Russia and abroad, and his estate became a place of pilgrimage. Because of his prestige the government did not interfere with his activities, although the Russian Church excommunicated him in 1901.
Moral questions are central to Tolstoy's later works, which include the story "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" (1884), the drama The Power of Darkness (1886), and the novel The Kreutzer Sonata (1889). To his last period belongs the essay What Is Art? (1897-98), in which he argued for the moral responsibility of the artist to make his work understandable to most people; he denounced acknowledged masterpieces, including his own earlier works. His last works also include the novels Hadji Murad (1896-1904) and Resurrection (1899-1900) and the drama The Living Corpse (pub. 1911).
Tolstoy's insistence on putting his beliefs into practice and abandoning all earthly goods led to a permanent breach between himself and his wife. His children, with the exception of the youngest daughter, Alexandra, sided with their mother. In 1910, at 83, Tolstoy left home with Alexandra without a specific destination. He caught a chill and died at the railroad stationmaster's house at Astapovo.
Tolstoy's works are available in many English translations. See also the reminiscences of his wife, Sophia (tr. 1928 and 1936); his children Sergei (tr. 1926), Tatiana (tr. 1951), Ilya (tr. 1971), and Alexandra (tr. 1953, repr. 1973); his friends M. Gorky (tr. 1920), A. B. Goldenweizer (tr. 1923, repr. 1969), V. Bulgakov (tr. 1971), and V. G. Chertkov (tr. 1922, repr. 1973); biographies by A. Maude (1931), E. J. Simmons (1946), and H. Troyat (tr. 1967); collections of critical essays, ed. by R. E. Matlaw (1967) and by H. Gifford (1972); I. Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953); W. L. Shirer, Love and Hatred: The Troubled Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy (1994).
See his Communications of an Advertising Man (1961) and 100 Leo's (1995).
See S. B. Drury, The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1987); S. B. Smith, Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism (2007).
See his memoirs (1928, tr. 1937); biography by his son, the actor Walter Slezak (1962).
See A. H. Friedlander, Leo Baeck, Teacher of Theresienstadt (1968).