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The Death of Ivan Ilych l Leo Tolstoy / RAC 2023-24

This guide is designed to support the Reading Across Campus


Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born in 1828, on his family’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana (which translates as “Bright Glade”), located 12 kilometers from Tula and 120 kilometers south of Moscow. He studied law at Kazan University, where he failed to finish a degree, and later joined the army, in order to get out from under his debts, but left in 1856 after the Crimean War.

His subsequent travels led him to review his privileged status and to deplore capital punishment, as well as to distrust all forms of government. In later life, he committed himself to the causes of education, pacifism, and vegetarianism. He wrote three major novels, including War and Peace and Anna Karenina; his third, Resurrection, published in 1899, was reflective of his life in that it involved an aristocrat on a voyage of spiritual self-discovery and advanced the cause of Georgism, an economic system based on the philosophy of American Henry George (aka the single tax movement) that said whatever was produced on the land  belonged to everyone and should be returned to the people by means of a land value tax. In addition to his novels and short fiction, Tolstoy wrote books on philosophy, art, and education, as well as dramatic works. He was nominated several times for both the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Nobel Peace Prize, but never won. In 1862, Tolstoy married Sophia Andreevna Behrs, who was sixteen years his junior. They had thirteen children, eight of whom survived into adulthood. Their marriage began, but did not end, well. “Sonya,” as she was called, is said to have copied out War and Peace six times in longhand and was an author and memoirist in her own right. They apparently fell out over the fact that Tolstoy had abjured personal property and threatened to place his writings in the public domain. He died in 1910, aged 82, after “running away” from home and coming down with pneumonia. A German film called The Last Station, by Michael Hoffman and starring Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, Paul Giamatti, and James McAvoy, was written about this incident and received several awards. It was produced in English in 2009 and is a brilliant evocation of the Tolstoyan movement. Sonya survived her husband by nine years. Her memoirs were published by Hogarth Press in 1922, and her novellas, Whose Fault? and Song Without Words, appeared in 2000. Both are considered to have been written in response to her husband’s Kreuzer Sonata (1889), which is about an unhappy marriage.

[1] Ilyich is spelled with or without the lower case i: Ilyich/Ilych.