Leo Tolstoy was born to an upper-class Russian family on September 9, 1828, at the family’s estate in Tula province, Russia. His father was Count Nikolay Tolstoy, a nobleman and prestigious landowner. Tolstoy’s mother died when he was two years old. Tragically, his father died when Leo was nine, leaving the young boy to be raised in the home of his aunts. He went to the University of Kazan when he was sixteen, studying Oriental languages and then law, but he left in 1847 without completing his degree.
In 1851 he went to the Caucasus to live with his brother, and began writing his first novel Childhood. Published in 1852, it was followed by Boyhood (1854) and Youth (1856). During this time he served in the army at Sevastopol, fighting the Crimean War. His experience as a soldier in that war provided much of the experience that he drew upon in writing War and Peace.
After the war, Tolstoy returned to his family estate. In 1859 he started a school on his estate for peasant children. In 1861, after the emancipation of the serfs, Tolstoy served as Arbiter of the Peace, a temporary local judiciary position. The following year, after the deaths of two his brothers, he married Sophia Behrs, the daughter of a Moscow physician, and began an educational magazine, Yasnaya Polyana, which I. S. Aksakov called a “remarkable literary phenomenon” and “an extraordinarily important phenomenon in our social life.” Tolstoy edited the journal for a little more than a year.
After that a second phase of his literary career began, the phase that produced his two greatest masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He retired to his estate with his new wife, wrote, hunted, farmed, and socialized with his country neighbors. At the end of the 1860s, though, he found himself in a spiritual crisis, brought about by the deaths of several of his children and other relatives. He questioned the meaning of life and was not sure about whether he could or should go on. He drifted away from the Russian Orthodox Christianity he had been raised in and focused on a more rational world view that eliminated the need for church intervention between humanity and God. This religious conversion left him at odds with many members of his family, especially his wife.
Impacted by his evolving philosophical outlook, his later works of fiction were less ornamental and more direct. They include the novellas The Death of Ivan Ilych, Master and Man, and Memoirs of a Madman. Tolstoy also produced many philosophical works and religious tracts. His 1888 religious essay What Is Art? is still considered an important treatise on art and morality. Tolstoy died on November 20, 1910 of pneumonia.