Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, more popularly known as the 19th and 20th-century Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, is regarded by many as one of the greatest novelists of all time. We take a look at his best works, from the epic novels and novellas that depict the Russian society in which he grew up to the non-fiction accounts of his spiritual crisis and subsequent reawakening.
The greatest novel ever written according to top authors and laymen alike, Anna Karenina is the 1877 masterpiece which paints a glaringly vivid picture of contemporary Russian society. Tolstoy’s first self-proclaimed novel, Anna Karenina, tells the story of the eponymous Russian society woman who, initially trapped by societal conventions, dares to leave her loveless marriage for an illicit love and meets with tragic consequences. Another titan of Russian literature, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, described Anna Karenina as a “flawless work of art”, so if you’re only going to read one Tolstoy novel, this should probably be the one.
At over 1,000 pages long and with 580 unique characters (some historical, many fictional), you’d be forgiven for skipping War and Peace in favor of something slightly less intimidating if you’re after a light, easy read. This masterpiece of Russian literature should not, however, be avoided lightly, as any who undertake this apparently mammoth task are sure to reap the abundant rewards buried within the pages of the dauntingly epic novel. Following the lives of a network of aristocratic Russian families at the time of Napoleon’s invasion, War and Peace was greatly influenced by the battle scenes in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
Taking its name from Mozart’s musical score of the same name, The Kreutzer Sonata is the controversial and polemic novella that was swiftly censored by the Russian authorities after its publication in 1889. Detailing the main character Pozdnyshev’s increasing jealousy and eventual all-consuming paranoia about his wife and her relationship with her music partner, The Kreutzer Sonata details Tolstoy’s take on the hypocrisy of 19th-century marital conventions. Evaluating the role music, art, love and lust play in society, and the complex and multifaceted relationship between the sexes, this illuminating critique should not be missed.
Another of Tolstoy’s celebrated novellas, The Death of Ivan Ilyich treats the sensitive theme of death and dying, when the high court judge and protagonist Ilyich is confronted, for the first time, with his inevitable and inescapable mortality. Written at a time of profound spiritual crisis in Tolstoy’s personal life, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the artistic culmination of a nine-year professional hiatus following the publication of Anna Karenina. Often darkly captivating and terrifyingly engrossing, this artistic novella also develops Tolstoy’s exploration of philosophy and the redeeming salvation of Christianity – the same exploration that led to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church.
Tolstoy’s spell as second lieutenant in an artillery regiment during the Crimean War forms the basis of these three short stories, which are among his first writings. The tales – ‘Sevastopol in December’, ‘Sevastopol in May’ and ‘Sevastopol in August’ – are loosely based on Tolstoy’s own experiences in the war, and his principal aims were to bring home to the Russian population the real atrocities of war. Many of the events related throughout these three short ‘sketches’ were the forerunners to episodes narrated in War and Peace, so read it first to dip your toes into the somewhat overwhelming waters.
This late 19th-century novel about nobleman Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov’s efforts at redemption after a life of sin is Tolstoy’s last major novel before his death in 1910. The readers will have a complex relationship with the tormented protagonist and his desperate attempts at redemption and forgiveness, since Nekhlyudov’s misguided decisions and youthful errors are often not so dissimilar from our own. Resurrection is a scathing exposition of the myriad prejudices of the man-made justice system and the hypocrisy of the establishment, while it also explores the economic philosophy of Georgism – of which Tolstoy had become a strong advocate toward the end of his life.
Originally entitled ‘Young Manhood’, this short novel follows nobleman Dmitri Olenin who, much like Tolstoy himself, joins the army after becoming disenchanted from his privileged life. Partly biographical, the story has its roots in Tolstoy’s own military experiences towards the later stages of the Caucasian War, but the fictional tale of the Russian aristocrat who falls in love with a Cossack girl has many parallels with Anna Karenina. Tolstoy began writing The Cossacks in 1857, only finishing it six years later to pay his debts after a particularly painful loss at cards, but its swift termination definitely does not take away from its worth.
By the time of his 50th birthday, Tolstoy had already written the hugely acclaimed novels that would guarantee his position as one of the giants of Russian literature, yet, on a personal level, he had succumbed to a profound moral and spiritual crisis. On the brink of suicide, he committed himself to finding the ‘meaning of life’ with a wide and voracious reading of major religious texts. The autobiographical A Confession is a painfully frank and extraordinarily honest account of this troubling time, and narrates his journey from deep moral crisis to his subsequent spiritual reawakening.
Tolstoy’s 1894 philosophical treatise, published after his deep spiritual crisis and consequent conversion to fervent Christianity, explores the crucial relationship – according to him – between pacifism and religion. It was Tolstoy’s unwavering belief in ‘turning the other cheek’ which, in actual fact, led this book to be banned in Russia since its message was deemed a threat to the Church and to the State. However, this did nothing to slow the spread of Tolstoy’s ideas on nonviolent resistance, and the themes explored within the pages of The Kingdom of God is Within You had a profound influence on some of the 20th century’s most pivotal figures, including Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Tolstoy’s follow-up to A Confession was one in a series of books published after the profound existential crisis suffered in his 50s. An exceptionally frank account of this tremendously turbulent period of his life, What I Believe is the non-fiction account of Tolstoy’s personal interpretation of Christian teaching and theology. Not being one of his easiest reads, What I Believe is a world away from his earliest works of fiction and charts Tolstoy’s disenchantment with the Russian Orthodox Church in particular, and the hypocrisy of organized religion more generally. Read this to gain a deeper understanding of the philosophy of one of the greatest novelists of all time.