This September 9 was the 190th birthday of Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy, the famous Russian novelist and moral philosopher who wrote War and Peace (1865-69) and many other works of literature including Hadji- Murad (1912), Anna Karenina (1877-78), The Cossacks, Confession. It came and passed quietly as has often happened. Drawing from reports by various agencies and his own ‘reference library’, long-serving Tanzanian journalist Saidi Nguba reports:
Leo Tolstoy was born on September 9, 1828 at Yasnaya Polana in Russia’s Tula Province. He was the youngest of four sons born into an aristocratic family. Although he was born into nobility, Leo Tolstoy spent much of his life as a champion of Russia’s peasant class, notably in the field of education.
Tolstoy’s parents died when he was still very young, and he and his siblings were sent to Kazan, also Russia, to live with their father’s sister – Pelageya Yushkova.
In 1843 Tolstoy started his studies at Kazan University, initially joining the faculty of Oriental languages chiefly because he dreamed of a diplomatic career. But he soon found the studies too demanding for his comfort and after two years he changed to law before shooting out of college in 1847 without a degree.
He then moved back to Yasnaya Polana, where he tried to become a model farmer, and during which time he also began to making his the diary entries that were later to provide a lot of the material for his future novels.
In 1848, after running up heavy gambling debts, Tolstoy moved to the South, where his eldest brother Nikolay served in the military. Не also joined the army as a volunteer and it was during that time that he began to write. In 1852 he sent his autobiographical sketch, Childhood, to one of the leading publishing houses. Its editor was ecstatic and soon published it.
Tolstoy served as a young artillery officer during the Crimean War and in 1854-1855 was in Sevastopol during the 11-month siege of Sevastopol.
He meanwhile managed to write Youth and Sevastopol Tales, which revealed his vision of the war as a place of unparalleled confusion and heroism. After the war he left the army and, largely because of his roaring success as a writer, lie was welcomed into the cream of Russia’s literature society and was treated as a celebrity.
Tolstoy developed deep interest in seeking greater understanding and justification of life, and began to travel across Europe. But he became increasingly disenchanted with the materialism of the European bourgeoisie and often argued with those who disagreed with his views - among them Turgenev, one of the greatest Russian writers of his generation.
Tolstoy also developed immense sympathy for peasants, the poor, and the downtrodden, and went out of his way to help and serve them.
In 1862 he married Sofia Andreyevna Behrs, a beautiful and intelligent woman 16 years younger, daughter of a prominent Moscow doctor. This marriage accorded Tolstoy a lot of stability, and hence his writing of his great epic War and Peace and the novel Anna Karenina.
War and Peace represents a high point in the history of world literature as well as the peak of Tolstoy’s personal life. The characters in the novel represent everyone he had ever met, and battles, birth and death were all described in great detail.
The theme of the novel suggests making the best of life: “Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is the one thing we are interested in here.”
Anna Karenina was Tolstoy’s next masterpiece. It was, in part, based on events that had occurred on a neighbouring estate, where a nobleman’s rejected mistress tragically threw herself under a train.
After his two masterpieces, Tolstoy went through a religious and philosophical change in his personal life. He was influenced by Buddhism and Jesus Christ’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’, and he developed a pacifist/anarchist philosophy. He also began to support civil disobedience to improve the welfare of the oppressed, and he expresses his views in ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you’ and ‘Confessions’.
“The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity by contributing to the Kingdom of God, which can only be done by the recognition and profession of the truth by every man.” (The Kingdom of Heaven is within You).
Tolstoy’s philosophy began to attract more and more people and his idealistic communes began to form. Although he was ex-communicated from the Orthodox Church, his legacy as a writer and unique thinker was enhanced throughout the world and he became known as one of the world's leading writers.
Tolstoy developed a close relationship with young Mahatma Gandhi, who was hugely impressed with the writer’s belief in non-violent resistance, vegetarianism and ‘anarchist Christianity’.
Tolstoy died of pneumonia on November 20, 1910, aged 82, and was buried in Yasnaya Polana. Gandhi said of him: “The greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced.”
In The Greatest Books of All Time competition in 2012, Tolstoy held an 11-point lead over Shakespeare in the literary opinion polls. In an article published in the UK’s Huffington Post, it was stated that War and Peace was “the greatest novel ever written”.
Below are extracts from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace: “Anna Pavlovna’s drawing room was graduallyfilling. The highest Petersburg society was assembled there: people differing widely in age and character but alike in the social circle to which they belonged. Prince Vasili’s daughter, the beautiful Helene, came to take her father to the ambassador’s entertainment; she wore a ball dress and her badge as maid of honor. The youthful little Princess Bolkonskaya known as la femme la plus seduisante de Petersbourg (the most fascinating woman in Petersburg), was also there. She had been married during the previous winter and, being pregnant, did not go to any large gatherings but only to small receptions. Prince Vasili’s son, Hippolyte, had come with Mortemart, whom he introduced. The Abbe Morio and many others had also come.
“To each new arrival Anna Pavlovna said: ‘You have not yet seen my aunt,’ or ‘You do not know my aunt?’ and very gravely conducted him or her to a little old lady, wearing large bows of ribbon in her cap, who had come sailing in from another room as soon as the guests began to arrive; and slowly turning her eyes from the visitor to her aunt, Anna Pavlovna, mentioned each one’s name and then left them.
“Each visitor performed the ceremony of greeting this old aunt whom not one of them knew, not one of them wanted to know, and not one of them cared about; Anna Pavlovna observed these greetings with mournful and solemn interest and silent approval. The aunt spoke to each of them the same words, about their health and her own, and the health of Her Majesty, ‘who, thank God, was better today.’ And each visitor, though politeness prevented his showing impatience, left the old woman with a sense of relief at having performed a vexatious duty and did not return to her the whole evening.
“The young Princess Bolkonskaya had brought some work in a gold- embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty little upper lip, on which a delicate dark down was just perceptible, was too short for her teeth, but it lifted all the more sweetly, and was especially charming when she occasionally drew it down to meet the lower lip.
“As is always the case with a thoroughly attractive woman, her defect - the shortness of her upper lip and her half-open mouth - seemed to be her own special and peculiar form of beauty. Everyone brightened at the sight of this pretty young woman, so soon to become a mother, so full of life and health, and carrying her burden so lightly.
“Old men and dull dispirited young ones who looked at her, after being in her company and talking to her a little while, felt as if they too were becoming, like her, full of life and health. All who talked to her, and at each word saw her bright smile and the constant gleam of her white teeth, thought that they were in an especially amiable mood that day.
“The little princess went round the table with quick, short, swaying steps, her workbag on her arm, and gaily spreading out her dress sat down on a sofa near the silver samovar, as if all she was doing was a pleasure to herself and to all around her. ‘I have brought my work,’ said she in French, displaying her bag and addressing all present. ‘Mind, Annette, I hope you have not played a wicked trick on me,’ she added, turning to her hostess. ‘You wrote that it was to be quite a small reception, and just see how badly I am dressed.’ And she spread out her arms to show her short-waisted, lace-trimmed, dainty gray dress, girdled with a broad ribbon just below the breast.
“Soyez tranquille, Lise, you will always be prettier than anyone else,’ replied Anna Pavlovna. ‘You know,’ said the princess in the same tone of voice and still in French, turning to a general,
‘My husband is deserting me. He is going to get himself killed. Tell me what this wretched war is for?’ she added, addressing Prince Vasili, and without waiting for an answer she turned to speak to his daughter, the beautiful Helene. ‘What a delightful woman this little princess is!’ said Prince Vasili to Anna Pavlovna.
“One of the next arrivals was a stout, heavily built young man with close- cropped hair, spectacles, the light- colored breeches fashionable at that time, a very high ruffle, and a brown dress coat. This stout young man was an illegitimate son of Count Bezukhov, a well-known grandee of Catherine’s time who now lay dying in Moscow.
“The young man had not yet entered either the military or civil service, as he had only just returned from abroad where he had been educated, and this was his first appearance in society. Anna Pavlovna greeted him with the nod she accorded to the lowest hierarchy in her drawing room.
“But in spite of this lowest-grade greeting, a look of anxiety and fear, as at the sight of something too large and unsuited to the place, came over her face when she saw Pierre enter. Though he was certainly rather bigger than the other men in the room, her anxiety could only have reference to the clever though shy, but observant and natural, expression which distinguished him from everyone else in that drawing room. ‘It is very good of you, Monsieur Pierre, to come and visit a poor invalid,’ said Anna Pavlovna, exchanging an alarmed glance with her aunt as she conducted him to her.
“Pierre murmured something unintelligible, and continued to look round as if in search of something. On his way to the aunt he bowed to the little princess with a pleased smile, as to an intimate acquaintance. Anna Pavlovna’s alarm was justified, for Pierre turned away from the aunt without waiting to hear her speech about Her Majesty’s health. Anna Pavlovna in dismay detained him with the words: ‘Do you know the AbbeMorio? He is a most interesting man’.
‘Yes, I have heard of his Scheme for perpetual peace, and it is very interesting but hardly feasible.’
‘You think so?’ rejoined Anna Pavlovna in order to say something and get away to attend to her duties as hostess. But Pierre now committed a reverse act of impoliteness. First he had left a lady before she had finished speaking to him, and now he continued to speak to another who wished to get away. With his head bent, and his big feet spread apart, he began explaining his reasons for thinking the abbe’s plan chimerical. ‘We will talk of it later,’ said Anna Pavlovna with a smile.
“And having got rid of this young man who did not know how to behave, she resumed her duties as hostess and continued to listen and watch, ready to help at any point where the conversation might happen to flag.
“As the foreman of a spinning mill, when he has set the hands to work, goes round and notices here a spindle that has stopped or there one that creaks or makes more noise than it should, and hastens to check the machine or set it in proper motion, so Anna Pavlovna moved about her drawing room, approaching now a silent, now a too-noisy group, and by a word or slight rearrangement kept the conversational machine in steady, proper, and regular motion.
But amid these cares her anxiety about Pierre was evident. She kept an anxious watch on him when he approached the group round Mortemart to listen to what was being said there, and again when he passed to another group whose center was the abbe.
Pierre had been educated abroad, and this reception at Anna Pavlovna’s was the first he had attended in Russia. He knew that all the intellectual lights of Petersburg were gathered there and, like a child in a toyshop, did not know which way to look, afraid of missing any clever conversation that was to be heard.
“Seeing the self-confident and refined expression on the faces of those present, he was always expecting to hear something very profound. At last he came up to Morio. Here the conversation seemed interesting and he stood waiting for an opportunity to express his own views, as young people are fond of doing.”
Saidi Nguba e-mailed this piece exclusively to The Guardian, saying he felt compelled to appreciate the efforts of philosophers, literary giants and other distinguished personalities from all civilisations and comers of the world.