Tolstoy is one of the few Russian writers to enjoy phenomenal popularity with Western audiences. But then, he is more than a writer. He is also a philosopher, a founder of a new religion, and a proverbial bearded old mystic who walked barefoot summer and winter. He is the mainstay of numerous jokes. A preacher. A guru. Lenin called him “the mirror of the Russian Revolution.” Tolstoy's entire life is a work of art. It could have constituted a plot at least as intricate as that of his War and Peace.
In his younger years he drilled himself in way a future superman would. No indulgence was permitted. He used to hold heavy dictionaries in his outstretched arms, and flogged himself on his bare back. He trained his willpower to become a man comme il faut, a true nobleman. He spoke perfect French, was gallant with the ladies, and enjoyed a game of cards or two – often running up gambling debts in the process. Once, walking along the street with his brother, he spotted a man coming in the opposite direction. Glancing at him, Tolstoy observed dismissively, “This gentleman is surely a rotten fellow.” “How so?” asked his brother. “He's got no gloves,” replied Tolstoy. Just so. A man wearing no gloves was not good enough.
Fired by an enthusiasm for new impressions, he went off to battle. He got impressions galore there. In the Caucasus, a grenade once burst out at his feet. Some time later, he was nearly captured by Chechens in the mountains, only escaping by the skin of his teeth after a breathless gallop away on horseback. Scarcely had he returned from the Caucasus than he hurried to the Danube to fight the Turks, taking a detour home by way of Sevastopol. At that time Russia was in and out of war, and so was Tolstoy. No wonder warfare is such a recurring theme in his books.
Back in Petersburg, his works were accepted for publication. Recognition was not long in coming - and at the very highest level. Nicholas I's widow was known to weep over his Sevastopol Sketches and Alexander II had the work translated into French. But Tolstoy then turned his back on everybody and abandoned the high life for his ancestral village. The writer seemed to be more invested in agricultural issues than in his burgeoning literary career.
His serfs were rather fond of him, though they thought their squire a crackpot: “You would come to the squire for your orders and what would you see but the squire himself dangling head-down from a bar by his knees, swinging to and fro; his hair tumbling and the face bloodshot; you never know whether to marvel at him or listen to his words.” This was the manner in which Tolstoy used to carry out his exercises.
In the countryside he was a Jack of all trades: He made hay, he ploughed, and he taught peasant children. Tolstoy even set up his own unorthodox school, featuring neither textbooks, nor copybooks, nor homework. He used to take his pupils for walks in the nearby woods, where, settling them down, he would speak to them of life, telling stories and answering their questions.
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