In Tolstoy’s Time


Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) wrote what are generally agreed to be two of the greatest novels of all time, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But in addition to writing epic novels, Tolstoy lived an epic life. The young Tolstoy was a dissolute aristocrat who won literary fame with stories about his experiences as a soldier during the Crimean War. As he aged, Tolstoy became increasing preoccupied with spiritual questions and with the sufferings of Russia’s peasants. His spiritual turmoil eventually precipitated a conversion that transformed Tolstoy into the champion of a drastically simplified Christianity and a pioneer advocate of nonviolence who, as such, greatly influenced Gandhi. By the end of his life, Tolstoy was one of the world’s most famous people, a moral teacher who was an object of adulation to millions inside and outside Russia. But the leaders of Russian culture, while admiring his novels and his advocacy for the oppressed, were meanwhile articulating visions of their country’s future completely at odds with the principles for which Tolstoy stood. In this seminar, we will study the intertwining of one man’s biography with the history of the country that produced him—a country that he, in turn, portrayed with brilliant insight in his novels and stories. Students will be introduced to Tolstoy’s remarkable life and to his extraordinary achievement as a writer. We will read and discuss his major novels and some of his smaller works. The course will also provide an introduction to the history of Russia during Tolstoy’s long lifetime. We will examine how his Russian upbringing shaped him, how the problems of Russian society are reflected in his novels, and how Russians responded to the preaching and humanitarian activism in which he engaged from 1880 onwards. The course is intended to help students acquire a sophisticated understanding of Russian culture and society at the dawn of the 20th century.