The Death of Ivan Ilyich

By Leo Tolstoy

Biography and Background

Lev (Leo) Tolstoy was born on 28th August 1828 (Old style) into a wealthy and ancient Russian aristocratic family. The fourth of five children, his father, Count Nikolai Ilyich Tolstoy was a retired army officer, while his mother, Mariya Nikolayevna was a rich heiress from the famous Volkonsky family. The family lived at this time on one of their country estates, a place named Yasnaya Polyana, which was later to become Tolstoy's main residence and is situated about 120 miles south and slightly East of Moscow, not far from the city of Tula. In 1830, Tolstoy's mother died in childbirth, followed to the grave by her husband who died suddenly seven years later in 1837. In 1847, on achieving his majority Tolstoy inherited the family estate at Yasnaya Polyana, and thereafter, despite some prolonged absences, he kept it as his home. During the years 1837-44 the young Tolstoy was cared for by a succession of female relatives and typically for his social class was educated by tutors, showing a particular aptitude for foreign languages while being especially fond of literature, including fairy tales, the poetry of Pushkin and the Bible.

In 1841 Tolstoy and his other siblings were sent to live with an aunt of theirs in the Eastern provincial capital of Kazan, known by Russians as "the Gateway to the East". In 1844 Tolstoy enrolled in the university of Kazan, the same establishment that became famous for sending down the young Lenin several years later. Like Lenin's, Tolstoy's time at the university was remarkably unsuccessful and he failed to complete his degree, leaving the institution in 1847. However he did develop a keen interest in moral philosophy, reading the works of Rousseau with great enthusiasm and later listing Dickens, Schiller, Pushkin, Lermontov, D. V. Grigorovich, Turgenev and Sterne as having made a "great impression" on him as a young man.

On leaving university Tolstoy returned to Yasnaya Polyana, remaining there until going to the Caucasus to join his brother Nikolai in the army in 1851. He became a commissioned officer himself in 1854, serving first on the Danube and later in the Crimea during the Crimean War. His literary career began at this time and his first published work, Childhood, appeared in a literary journal under the pseudonym "L. N." in 1852 to great critical acclaim.

When Tolstoy retired from military life in 1856 and went to live in St. Petersburg he already held a considerable reputation as a writer, and as an active member of literary circles was much in demand in the city's fashionable salons. Tolstoy soon found, however that he did not really like his literary confreres and found his lifestyle as a literary celebrity somewhat unpalatable. He thus left the city and made his first visit to the West in 1857, and by 1859 had decided to abandon literature in favour of what he deemed "more useful" pursuits. He went back to Yasnaya Polyana where he devoted himself to the administration of his estate and to the education of the children of his serfs. He built a school for this latter purpose, and in 1860-1 he travelled extensively in Europe and especially in Germany in order to better acquaint himself with European teaching systems, and on returning to Russia he published twelve issues of a journal entitled "Yasnaya polyana" in which he described his teaching methods and pedagogical thoughts.

In 1862, he married Sofia Andreevna Bers, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a Moscow doctor, who was to remain his wife right until his death and bear him thirteen children, the last of which was born in 1888. In 1863, he published The Cossacks, a novel that he had been working on for the last ten years, in order to pay off his gambling debts, and shortly thereafter he began work on his masterwork, War and Peace, a work that occupied him until 1869.

From 1870 Tolstoy once again turned his back on literature in favour of his pedagogical activities, but in 1873 he changed his mind and began work on Anna Karenina, which was to take the next four years to write, and during the second half of its production Tolstoy became subject to ever more serious incidents of emotional distress. These were brought about by his increasing concern with and fear of omnipotent, inevitable death, and the idea that man's life is at the last reckoning useless, a theme that was to be very important in his novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich. He was occasionally so depressed that he even came close to suicide at times during the mid 1870's, but by 1878, after studying diverse philosophies and religions his "crisis" came to an end as he decided to convert to the ideals of human conduct he had found in the teachings of Jesus. This period was described by Tolstoy in his book named Confession of 1882, which he saw as the initial step in a new life for him which he hoped would be free from the dread of the force of death.

After Confession Tolstoy wrote three more books on religion which he thereafter considered to be his greatest work. These were: A Study of Dogmatic Theory, A Harmony and Translation of the Four Gospels, and What I Believe.

The remainder of Tolstoy's life was devoted to the propagation of his religious views through publicistic essays, works of fiction (which were in form and content significantly different from his earlier literary output), in personal contacts with visitors and through correspondence. Among the many views put forward in the works of this period was that that money should be abolished in favour of the direct exchange of services and the dis-establishment of private property rights. He also wrote many brief essays on topics such as the nature of religion, vegetarianism, famine relief, the evils of alcohol and tobacco, patriotism, military conscription, war, terrorism and capital punishment.

In the middle of the 1880's Tolstoy once again resumed his literary mantle, writing a series of pieces designed specifically with a popular or peasant audience in mind; these were called his Stories for the People and were published in 1884 using a non-profit making publishing house which Tolstoy set up with his friend and disciple, V. G. Chertkov, specially for that purpose. Around this time Tolstoy also wrote his only major piece of theatre, a play called The Power of Darkness, the two novels Resurrection and Hadji-Murad, and the short novels The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Master and Man as well as more than a dozen short stories.

In 1901 Tolstoy fell seriously ill, and despite recovering was dogged by increasingly ill-health for the remainder of his life. During this time he devoted himself to the compilation of anthologies of spiritual wisdom, collections of quotations of words and writings of noted sages of the past arranged for reading by the day, week or month. At this time he was described as "the sage of Yasnaya Polyana" and "the conscience of humanity", and despite having been excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901, Tolstoyan communities sprang up all over Europe and in the United States. However, at home he was the centre of an unpleasant struggle between his disciples and his family; a struggle that finally lead to him abruptly leaving Yasnaya Polyana accompanied by his youngest daughter and his personal doctor. During his journey by train he fell ill and died in the stationmaster's house at the tiny town of Astapovo, which is now named Lev Tolstoy. His body was returned to Yasnaya Polyana and buried their at the edge of a ravine where, as a young boy, he and his brothers used to play a game, the object of which was to find a mythical "green stick" on which was supposed to be inscribed the secret of human well-being and happiness.