|The fourth son of a gentleman farmer, Tolstoy was born on the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, which he later inherited and where he lived much of his life. His mother, the Princess Marya Nicolayevna Volkonsky, died in childbirth when Leo was 2 years old; his father died seven years later. Tolstoy and his brother were cared for by tutors and various relatives, settling finally with an aunt in the city of Kazan in 1841. He studied Oriental languages at Kazan University for a year, but left to travel and educate himself, eventually learning Greek, Hebrew, German, French, and English, and becoming immersed in the works of Rousseau and other moral philosophers. For a time, he also traveled widely and mingled with the Russian aristocracy (Tolstoy himself was a count) until, disillusioned with society, he joined the army. This too proved unsatisfactory, but the experience of war was invaluable to him in his later depiction of the Battle of Austerlitz in WAR AND PEACE. He turned from the army to the management of his estate, devoting himself to improving the lot of the peasants who worked for him. He was particularly interested in educating them, and built a school for the purpose. (He also made his own shoes.) In 1862, when Tolstoy was 34, he married an 18-year-old girl, Sofia Andreyevna Bers, with whom he eventually had 13 children. He had already begun to write, but the stability of his life after marriage enabled him to produce his two masterpieces, WAR AND PEACE (1865-69) and ANNA KARENINA (1875-77). As he grew older, Tolstoy's interest in social issues intensified, and he wrote several vehement tracts attacking such institutions as the church and the army. He also became intensely preoccupied with the problem of finding meaning in a life that is doomed to end in death--a question that preoccupied him in the 1870s, during which time he was often suicidal. This tormented period (which he described in his 1882 CONFESSION) ended only when in 1878 he became a devout Christian. It was at this point that Tolstoy became a proselytizer for pacificism, vegetarianism, and abstention from alcohol and tobacco, and advocated the abolition of war and capital punishment. All this time he continued to write fiction, but his main interests were his essays and polemics--for which he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. Toward the end of his life, Tolstoy was plagued by ill health, conflicts with his wife, and his own fame and wealth. In November 1910, at the age of 82, he fled Yasnaya Polyana for the Caucasus, where he hoped to find peace, but died en route of pneumonia at a remote railway junction. Called by his contemporary Turgenev "the great writer of the Russian land," Tolstoy not only produced monumental works of fiction, but changed the novel forever, combining the social history of his time with deep psychological insight into character and an appreciation for the lives of common people. WAR AND PEACE is widely--and justly--considered the greatest novel ever written.
|A highly-regarded historian of Russian history, Orlando Figes was born in London, son of the writer, Eva Figes. He graduated with high honors from Cambridge University, and has taught at Trinity College, Cambridge, and Birkbeck College, the University of London. Figes is praised for his mastery of several approaches to history, and for his fresh yet scholarly explorations. His early work on the Russian Revolution, A PEOPLE'S TRAGEDY, won the distinguished Wolfson History Prize. NATASHA'S DANCE examines Russian cultural history, and THE WHISPERERS is about private life in Russia under Stalin. Figes is known to readers of the New York Review of Books, as well as to audiences of the BBC and PBS.