Lev (Leo) Nikolaevich Tolstoy was born into a large and wealthy Russian landowning family in 1828, on the family estate of Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy’s mother died when he was only two years old, and he idealized her memory throughout his life. Indeed, many critics believe that the angelic Princess Mary in War and Peace is modeled on this idealized memory of the author’s mother. The family moved to Moscow when Tolstoy was nine. Shortly afterward, his father was murdered while traveling. Being orphaned before the age of ten, albeit without financial worries, left Tolstoy with an acute awareness of the power of death—an idea central to all his great works.
Though an intelligent child, Tolstoy had little interest in academics. His aunt had to work hard to persuade him to go to university, and he failed his entrance exam on his first attempt. Eventually, at the age of sixteen, Tolstoy matriculated at Kazan University. He studied law and Oriental languages, showing an interest in the grand heroic cultures of Persia, Turkey, and the Caucasus that persisted throughout his life. He was not popular at the university, and was very self-conscious about his large nose and thick eyebrows. Ultimately, Tolstoy was dissatisfied with his education, and he left the university in 1847, without a degree.
In 1851, Tolstoy visited his brother in the Russian army and then decided to enlist himself shortly afterward. He served in the Crimean War (1854–1856) and recorded his experience in his Sevastopol Stories (1855), in which he developed techniques of representing military actions and deaths that he would later use in War and Peace. During his time in the army, Tolstoy produced a well-received autobiographical novel, Childhood (1852), followed by two others, Boyhood (1854) and Youth (1857).
In 1862, Tolstoy married Sofya Andreevna Behrs. He devoted most of the next two decades to raising a large family, managing his estate, and writing his two greatest novels, War and Peace (1865–1869) and Anna Karenina (1875–1877). In the years just prior to his marriage, Tolstoy had visited western Europe, partly to observe educational methods abroad. Upon returning, he founded and taught at schools for his peasants. His contact with his own peasants led to a heightened appreciation of their morality, camaraderie, and enjoyment of life, as evidenced in his celebration of Platon Karataev in War and Peace. Indeed, Tolstoy became quite critical of the superficiality of upper class Russians, as we can sense in his portraits of the Kuragin family in War and Peace. Ultimately, Tolstoy developed a desire to seek spiritual regeneration by renouncing his family’s possessions, much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife.
Tolstoy’s life spanned a period of intense development for Russia. The country was transformed from a backward agricultural economy into a major industrialized world power by the time of Tolstoy’s death in 1910. This period witnessed major debates between two intellectual groups in Russia: the Slavophiles, who believed Russian culture and institutions to be exceptional and superior to European culture, and the Westernizers, who believed that Russia needed to follow more liberal, Western modes of thought and government. We see traces of this debate about the destiny of Russia—whether it should join Europe in its march toward secular values and scientific thought, or reject modernization and cherish the traditional, Asiatic elements of its culture—in Nicholas Rostov’s dismissal of modern Western farming techniques in War and Peace and his distinctly Russian style of land management. We also see this debate in the novel’s contrast between the logical Western mind of the arrogant Napoleon and the more holistic and humanitarian Russian minds of Pierre and Kutuzov. During this time, Russia was also undergoing a crisis of political thought, with a series of authoritarian tsars provoking liberal and radical intellectuals who demanded European constitutional rights—or even revolution—in Russia. Tolstoy’s critical portrayal of leadership in War and Peace owes much to the Russian liberals’ attack on authoritarian politics.
Tolstoy’s turn to religion in his own life left an imprint on all his later writings. Works such as A Confession (1882) and The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893) focused on the biblical Gospels’ ideals of brotherly love and nonresistance to evil. The character of Pierre in War and Peace illustrates Tolstoy’s moral commitment to humanity in a way that transcends class and nationality. Developing a reputation as a prophet of social thought, Tolstoy attracted disciples who came to his estate at Yasnaya Polyana seeking out his wisdom.
In 1898, Tolstoy published a radical essay called What Is Art?, in which he argued that the sole aim of great art must be moral instruction, and that on these grounds Shakespeare’s plays and even Tolstoy’s own novels are artistic failures. Increasingly frustrated by the disparity between his personal moral philosophy and his wealth, and by his frequent quarrels with his wife, Tolstoy secretly left home in November 1910, at the age of eighty-two. He fell ill with pneumonia during his travels and died several days later in a faraway railway station. Tolstoy was mourned by admirers and followers around the world, and to this day is regarded as one of the greatest novelists in history.
To English-speaking readers, the names of the characters in War and Peace may be somewhat confusing, as there are a number of name-related conventions in Russian that do not exist in English.
Each Russian has a first name, a patronymic, and a surname. A person’s patronymic consists of his or her father’s first name accompanied by a suffix meaning “son of” or “daughter of.” Hence, Princess Drubetskaya is addressed as Anna Mikhaylovna (daughter of Mikhail), Count Bezukhov is called Kyril Vladimirovich (son of Vladimir), and so on. Characters in the novel frequently address each other in this formal manner, using both the first name and patronymic.
When characters do not address each other formally, they may use informal nicknames, or diminutives. Sometimes, these nicknames bear little resemblance to the characters’ full names. For instance, Nicholas is sometimes called Kolya (the standard nickname for Nicholas or Nikolai); Natasha is sometimes called Natalya (her full name, for which Natasha is the diminutive).
Furthermore, surnames in Russian take on both masculine and feminine forms. In War and Peace, for instance, Andrew’s surname is Bolkonski, while his sister Mary’s surname takes the feminine form, Bolkonskaya. Likewise, Count Rostov is married to Countess Rostova, and their sons have the surname Rostov while their daughters have the surname Rostova.
Keeping these conventions in mind helps to distinguish characters as they are addressed by different names throughout the novel. However, the use of these conventions varies in different editions of War and Peace, as some translators choose to simplify or eliminate name variants in order to make the novel more accessible to an English-speaking audience.