An examination of the work of Leo Tolstoy – nihilism, the human condition and Russian political upheavals 

Leo Tolstoy is one of a small number of authors who needs little introduction. His stand-out novels War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1878), his short stories and his works on Christian morality are widely read and renowned. Beyond their complex and multi-layered plots, his fiction can also be interpreted as works of philosophy which delve into the bleakest corners of the human condition and the social and political hardships of 19th-century Russia. Tolstoy’s work is prominent on university curricula around the world, and there has been a vibrant critical tradition around him since his death in 1910. Soviet historian Nikolai Gudzii aimed to tie him to the interests of the totalitarian state in the 1940s. ‘Tolstoyan movements,’ based on his ideas of passive resistance and nonviolence, spread across the world in the 20th century, and Mahatma Gandhi’s first ashram in South Africa was christened ‘Tolstoy Farm.’ In 2010, Russian writer Victor Erofeyev wrote that ‘his name has become synonymous around the world with the greatness of Russian literature,’ indicating that over a century after his death, new authors and trends have not displaced Tolstoy.

To truly understand Tolstoy, it must be emphasised that his work contains a relatively well-defined philosophy, one which delves into the struggles of the human experience but points to improvement through these struggles. He lived from 1828 to 1910, thereby witnessing a transformative period in Russian history. Whilst he was not one of a number of Russian authors who was hounded by the state and whose persecution had a visceral impact on their writing – see Pushkin in the 19th century and Solzhenitsyn in the 20th – Tolstoy’s work responded to a historical context of reform and uncertainty. 

Like many renowned writers, an existential crisis of sorts defined Tolstoy’s later career. In the early 1870s, Tolstoy wrote in his diary that ‘life on earth has nothing to give.’ What followed was a period in which the author’s humanitarian values developed into fervent Christianity which bordered on asceticism. In A Confession, Tolstoy recalled the extent of this crisis. ‘My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep…but there was no life.’ Therefore, he exhorted his readership to ‘Live seeking God, and then you will not live without God.’ This Christian morality defined his later work, What I Believe focusing on Jesus’s teachings on passive resistance and his play The Cause of It All criticising alcohol and advocating sobriety.

However, Tolstoy’s meditations did not begin with Christianity, and readers of all backgrounds will be intrigued by his philosophy which relates to many parts of the human experience. His descriptions of war’s brutality in War and Peace, the misery of relationships in Anna Karenina and the grinding cycle of life in Work, Death, and Sickness were influenced by the pessimism which defined 19th-century Russian literature. This attitude is not confined to Tolstoy’s writings; the raw description of peasant life in Chekhov’s My Life and the debates on human suffering in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov will stay with any reader. But closer scrutiny of Tolstoy’s work indicates that he is much more than a nihilist and, despite harsh realities, improvement is central to his idea of the human experience. The stand-out character in War and Peace was not a member of the vainglorious aristocracy but Pierre Bezukhov, a nobleman so concerned with social problems that he renounced his wealth. Despite the tragedy at the heart of Anna Karenina, the most striking character arc is that of a landowner who eventually decides to follow a more righteous path. And even though The Death of Ivan Ilyich seems bleak at times, Ivan’s acceptance of death leads him towards a final peace. 

Having not studied English from an academic perspective since A-level, I can understand the reservations of casual readers regarding literary criticism. However, there is an interpretation about Russian literature that I would like to share, simply because I feel it is striking and reflects  Tolstoy’s intentions as a writer. In 2014, American novelist and critic Francine Prose identified 4 key features of 19th-century Russian authors which make them so distinctive and widely read. These were ‘the force, the directness, the honesty and accuracy’ with which ‘they depicted the most essential aspects of human experience.’ I feel this description is especially applicable to Tolstoy because as a History student, I have found few other works of fiction which, despite anachronisms, are so illuminating about a period. I have found that whilst one cannot look to Tolstoy for accurate history, his use of history is far deeper and more interesting as, by describing how wider dynamics affected individuals, he highlighted the human element behind history. 

A lesser author might have turned War and Peace into a catalogue of battles, events and ‘great men.’ However, Tolstoy diminishes Napoleon to a comparatively insignificant figure in a ‘white glove,’ and his famous conclusion that ‘a king is the slave to history’ reflects the importance of wider forces. His equally arresting but shorter works, The Cossacks and After the Ball, have a military background but shy away from geopolitics and are more concerned with themes of romance, loss and the allure of tradition. Tolstoy is no mere chronicler and in his connection of  historical events to attitudes, personal struggles and relationships, he sets a new benchmark for historical fiction. 

Perhaps one of the greatest testaments to Leo Tolstoy’s abilities as a writer was that even a monumental snub did not diminish his popularity amongst readers and ubiquity in academic circles. Despite being one of the most nominated figures for the Nobel Prizes, receiving annual nominations for Literature from 1902-06 and for Peace 3 times in 1901-09, this award eluded him. But looking at the final colourised photographs of Tolstoy taken in 1908-10, which depict a contented hermit with few riches and possessions, it is clear that later in his career and his life, he veered away from worldly concerns as the ascetic morality and philosophy which had been so central to his work increasingly shaped his existence. It is this interplay between literature and reality which explains why Tolstoy’s work is so visceral and evocative and why over a century after his death, it is still so popular and relevant.