On August 28, 1828 Leo Tolstoy was born into a wealthy aristocratic family that resided at a country estate called Yasnaya Polyana, about 120 miles south of Moscow. Death visited the Tolstoy family early. When Tolstoy was only two, his mother died while giving birth to her fifth child. And Tolstoy's father followed suddenly in 1837. Orphaned but well off, Tolstoy was cared for by a succession of female relatives until he attained his maturity in 1848. Although he attended Kazan University for three years, he never completed a degree, choosing instead to return to Yasnaya Polyana to take up permanent residence.

The life of a wealthy Russian master was not for him, however, and in 1851 he joined his brother on active duty with the Russian army. It was during his tour of duty that Tolstoy published his first work, Childhood, an account of the life and experiences of a young boy. The novel garnered him immediate literary recognition. His celebrity status only grew throughout subsequent years as he published more stories and completed two sequels to Childhood: Boyhood and Youth. Yet in 1859, disillusioned with his calling as a writer, Tolstoy returned to Yasnaya Polyana where he devoted himself to estate management and the study of educational practices. In 1862 Tolstoy married Sofia Andreevna Bers and seven years later, in 1869, published his epic work, War and Peace. Anna Karenina, the second long novel on which Tolstoy's fame as a writer is mainly based, followed in 1877.

From 1875–1878 Tolstoy experienced a period of increasing depression and psychological crisis that was to alter both his philosophy and his art. In A Confession, an autobiographical account of his life and moral struggle written after the crisis, Tolstoy writes that the principal cause of his depression was his inability to find an acceptable meaning in human life. The inevitability of death overwhelmed him, and all formulations of life's meaning appeared to him shallow and valueless. Neither the great philosophers of the past nor his contemporaries could provide him with satisfying answers. Desperate, he turned to the Russian people. Tolstoy found that the uneducated peasants possessed a definite conception of the meaning of a life, a comfort and security derived from "irrational knowledge," from faith in a creator God. This faith rescued them from despair and suffering and infused their life with meaning. Confronted with the choice of irrational faith or meaningless despair, Tolstoy chose faith. At first attempting to renew contact with the church of his childhood, Tolstoy eventually resolved to develop his own system of belief. And devoting the four years after his crisis (1878–1882) to that purpose, Tolstoy published a series of four works elaborating upon and explaining his unique religious philosophy, works that Tolstoy regarded as his most important achievement as a writer.

It is not insignificant that The Death of Ivan Ilych, written in 1886, was the first major fictional work published by Tolstoy after his crisis and conversion. Tolstoy's religious philosophy serves as a background to the understanding of the novel. Brotherly love, mutual support, and Christian charity, values that became essential to Tolstoy in the second half of his life, emerge as the dominant moral principles in The Death of Ivan Ilych. And just as Tolstoy's discovery of the true meaning of life led him to fulfillment and an acceptance of death, so too, Ivan Ilych's awakening exposes him to the light of a meaningful life and assuages his fear of dying. Thus, The Death of Ivan Ilych can be seen as a reflection and an elaboration of Tolstoy's post- conversion philosophical concerns. The novel is a fictional answer to the questions that plagued Tolstoy during the mid 1870s.

From the time of his conversion to his death, Tolstoy remained actively engaged in publicizing his religious beliefs. He wrote various pieces on social, political, and economic topics ranging from vegetarianism to capital punishment. In hopeless opposition to the government, nearly all of his writings were censored or banned. Tolstoy died in 1910 after nearly a decade of continuing ill health.