“And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.” —Ecclesiastes 1:17
Death of Leo Tolstoy, November 20, 1910
everal Russian novelists produced works that appear on almost every list of “the greatest novels ever written;” Count Lev Nickolayevich Tolstoy usually sits atop that list. On November 20, 1910, he died of pneumonia after collapsing in a train station at age 83, while apparently trying to escape his wife’s tirades. He spent his last hours preaching love, non-violence, and the value of a single tax system to anyone on the train who would listen.
Count Lev “Leo” Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910)
Tsar Peter I, “The Great,” granted the title of Count to Pyotr Tolstoy in the early 18th Century, a grandee of an ancient noble family of Russia. Lev, usually known as Leo, was born in 1828 at the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, 130 miles south of Moscow. He was the fourth of five children born to Count Nickolai Ilyich Tolstoy—a hero of the war against Napoleon—and Princess Mariya Volkonskaya, who died when Leo was two years old. Upon the death of his father seven years later, Tolstoy’s very loving relatives, grandmother and aunts, took him and his siblings and raised them as their own. He was schooled by tutors until he entered The University of Kazan in 1844.
The Yasnaya Polyana estate, birthplace and childhood home of Tolstoy
Leo was not a great student, trying out several majors and transferring to another school. He pursued literature and ethics academically, attracted to the writing of Charles Dickens and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Tolstoy tried to conform to the social conventions of his day by gambling, drinking, and debauchery, finally just abandoning the University and returning to the estate, where he hoped to learn management of the property and the serfs, and live the life of an autodidact (self-taught learner).