Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, better known as the 19th and 20th-century Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, is thought to be one of the best novelists of all time by many people. There are epic novels and short stories that show the Russian society where he grew up, as well as nonfiction stories about how he had a spiritual crisis and then woke up again.
Anna Karenina (1887)
Anna Karenina is the best book ever written, according to both top authors and people who don’t know much about literature. It’s the 1877 masterpiece that paints a clear picture of modern Russian society. Anna Karenina is Tolstoy’s first book that he wrote on his own. It tells the story of Anna Karenina, a wealthy Russian socialite who leaves her loveless marriage for an illicit love and meets with tragic consequences. The Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky called Anna Karenina a “flawless work of art,” so if you’re only going to read one Tolstoy novel, this should be the one.
War and Peace (1869)
War and Peace is more than 1,000 pages long and has 580 different characters, some of them real and some of them made up. If you’re looking for a light, easy read, you could skip it in favor of something a little less intimidating. This piece of Russian literature should not be taken lightly, though, because anyone who reads it will be sure to get a lot of good things out of it, even though it looks like a huge task. Les Misérables had a big impact on the story of War and Peace, which is about a group of wealthy Russian families at the time Napoleon invaded.
The Kreutzer Sonata (1889)
The Kreutzer Sonata is a controversial and politically charged short story that was quickly censored by the Russian government after it was published in 1889. Its name comes from Mozart’s musical score of the same name. The Kreutzer Sonata, by Tolstoy, is about the hypocrisy of 19th-century marriage rules. The main character, Pozdnyshev, grows jealous of his wife and her relationship with her music partner. This insightful critique should not be missed. It looks at how music, art, love, and lust play a role in society, as well as how the sexes have a complicated and complicated relationship.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886)
Another of Tolstoy’s best-known short stories, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, deals with the sensitive subject of death and dying. The high court judge and protagonist Ilyich is confronted for the first time with his inevitable and inescapable death. Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich at a time when he was going through a major spiritual crisis in his own life. It is the artistic culmination of a nine-year break from work after the publication of Anna Karenina. Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church because he was interested in philosophy and the redeeming power of Christianity. This artful novella also expands on that topic.
Sevastopol Sketches (1855)
When Tolstoy was a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment during the Crimean War, he wrote these three short stories. They are some of his first works. The stories, “Sevastopol in December,” “Sevastopol in May,” and “Sevastopol in August,” are based on Tolstoy’s own experiences in the war. Tolstoy’s main goal was to show the Russian people what war was really like. Many of the events that happened in these three short “sketches” were precursors to stories in War and Peace, so read it first to get your feet wet.
Tolstoy wrote this late 19th-century novel about the nobleman Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov’s efforts to become a better person after a life of sin. It is his last major work before he died in 1910. People who read this book will have a complicated relationship with the tormented protagonist and his desperate attempts to make amends and forgive, because Nekhlyudov’s misguided decisions and youthful errors aren’t that different from our own. Resurrection is a scathing look at the man-made justice system and the hypocrisy of the establishment. It also looks at the economic philosophy of Georgism, which Tolstoy became a strong supporter of at the end of his life.
The Cossacks (1863)
Originally called “Young Manhood,” this short story is about a nobleman named Dmitri Olenin who, like Tolstoy, leaves his privileged life and joins the army. Part of the story is based on Tolstoy’s own military experiences at the end of the Caucasian War. The fictional story of the Russian aristocrat who falls in love with a Cossack girl has a lot in common with Anna Karenina, which is based on a true story. After losing a lot of money at cards, Tolstoy started writing The Cossacks in 1857, but he didn’t finish it until six years later because he had to pay off his debts. This doesn’t make the book any less valuable.
A Confession (1882)
By the time Tolstoy turned 50, he had already written the books that would make him one of the greats of Russian literature, but on a personal level, he had a deep moral and spiritual crisis. On the verge of taking his own life, he vowed to find the “meaning of life” by reading a wide and voracious amount of major religious texts. The autobiographical A Confession is a painfully honest and extraordinarily open account of this difficult time. It tells the story of how he went from a moral crisis to a spiritual awakening.
The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894)
Tolstoy wrote a philosophical treatise in 1894 that he wrote after he had a deep spiritual crisis and converted to fervent Christianity. In it, he talks about the important relationship between pacifism and religion. It was Tolstoy’s unwavering belief in “turning the other cheek” that caused this book to be banned in Russia because its message was seen as a threat to both the Church and the State. However, this did not stop the spread of Tolstoy’s ideas on nonviolent resistance. The themes in The Kingdom of God is Within You had a big impact on some of the most important people of the 20th century, like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
What I Believe (1885)
Tolstoy’s follow-up to A Confession was one of a series of books he wrote after he had a major existential crisis in his 50s. What I Believe is a non-fiction account of Tolstoy’s own interpretation of Christian teaching and theology. It’s a very honest look at this very difficult time in his life. As a whole, What I Believe is a world away from Tolstoy’s first novels. It shows how he became disillusioned with the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as the hypocrisy of organized religion. To learn more about the philosophy of one of the best novelists of all time, read this.