During Leo Tolstoy's lifetime (1828-1910), Russia and Europe went through a number of political and intellectual changes. Writing evolved from Romanticism to Realism during the period. As the term "realism" implies the realistic novelists like Tolstoy focused on observation and attention to detail. In Russia the czars retained absolute power by preventing the political and social changes that the Western European countries were experiencing. Intellectuals including Tolstoy led the effort toward reform. The reform efforts met with considerable resistance until the twentieth century. For the writers, retention of power by the czars meant repression of writing. This repression had a severe impact on the realistic writers like Tolstoy who presented a true picture of political and social conditions. Nicholas I, who ruled until 1855, was particularly repressive. In spite of his conservatism, Russian literature experienced a tremendous upsurge during his reign and that of this son, Alexander II. In addition to Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky contributed significantly to a literary "golden age" in Russia. In his later years, his religious conversion played an all-encompassing role.
In the early years of Tolstoy's writing, czar Nicholas I ruled Russia. He maintained a tight grip on power. He tolerated no dissent and employed secret police to see that his policies were obeyed. The hallmarks of his philosophy were the practice of state religion, the state above all else, and total dedication to the czar. In such an environment it would be expected that literature would suffer. However in spite Nicholas' best efforts literature flourished during his reign. Ironically the writers, including Tolstoy, born into gentry sought to undermine the Russian institutions. As mentioned in the first paragraph, realism marked the period when Tolstoy wrote his most famous novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Realism entailed a dedication to accurately represent real life and real people. These were not topics that Nicholas wanted covered during his reign. The books exposed the inadequacies of Russian life under the strict leadership of the czars. The excessive detail of realistic writing successfully exposed the specific, individual, and particular as opposed to the general and the group.
Nicholas' preoccupation with maintenance of absolute power encouraged him to support any efforts by other countries to suppress revolution. Unfortunately for him this was a costly approach and eventually led to peasant revolts. Tolstoy's early efforts to enlighten peasants and have them protest their situation had been unsuccessful prior to Nicholas' ill-advised military efforts. This environment did not negatively influence Tolstoy's ability to express his feelings about the condition of peasants in Russia. Although realism was a reaction to romanticism, some elements of romanticism influenced Tolstoy's view of the world and his work. As with the romantics, Tolstoy saw over-civilized man as unnatural man who has drifted far away from the ideal man. On the other hand, man who is closest to nature is the natural man who should be considered much closer to ideal than the over-civilized man. The over-civilized man consists of materialistic and self-conscious motives, while the natural man operates in an unconscious environment. The over-civilized man resembles the selfish, over-privileged rich of the West. The natural man represents all that is noble about man.
Tolstoy's work focused on the psychological and broke down the most complex behavior into small comprehendible units. Tolstoy's interest in the natural man and his dislike for the institutions and culture that occupy the unnatural man creates a version of anarchism because all structure is disposed of. This approach also implies that Tolstoy's writing does not revolve around Russian issues of the day. All issues develop at the individual psychological level, not at the general societal level. Another implication of Tolstoy's focus on individual is his emphasis on clean, clear writing making his work relevant to the middle class. At the same time a great division between Russians who strove to emulate Western culture and those who felt that Russian had its' own unique qualities. The latter group represented the Slavophiles.
The problems associated with the serf economic system grew more and more difficult. Nicholas I recognized the fragile condition of serfdom. However he made no moves toward alleviating the problem. At the beginning of his reign, Alexander II started addressing the problem by appointing to committees to recommend what changes made sense. The Russian nobility stood in the way of reform and minimal changes occurred. The lack of real progress stimulated protest by the intellectuals such as Tolstoy. Tolstoy's acquaintance with peasants serving in the army showed the dual nature of his personality. In some of his books he presented peasants as hard-working people and then he would characterize them as lacking in trustworthiness. Regardless of this dual nature, Tolstoy constantly refined his skills of observation. This skill would eventually lead Tolstoy to honing his ability to affectively put reality into the words of his novels.
Tolstoy's experience in the military resulted in another aspect of realism. He saw heroism as another example of conscious and self-centered action instead of the ideal of unconscious action. Tolstoy's military experience also led him to document a soldiers' song degrading the performance of Russian officers during the disastrous Crimean War. Tolstoy's unmatched novel War and Peace epitomizes the themes that Tolstoy worked toward in his earlier writing. The elevation of the natural man and disgust with the over-civilized man underlies the novel. The quality that makes this great novel is Tolstoy's ability to improve on the presentation of realism in writing.
War and Peace marked a period when Tolstoy embarked on representing historical events through his writing. Tolstoy's gift to historical writing was his adherence to the facts of the Napoleonic wars. As always the true "heroes" of his novel are not the officers and commanders, but the everyday soldier who fights and really determines the outcome of battles and the outcome of the war. Tolstoy treats each character as an individual and paints a detailed picture of the numerous characters developed in the epic novel. Tolstoy's portrayal of the common soldiers as the true heroes created controversy when compared the traditional thinking that the decisions made by commanders determined the result of the war. The soldiers who were traditionally characterized as the heroes were simply unnatural men in Tolstoy's view. In later wars the reporting by correspondents showed the impact of Tolstoy's realistic representation of the Napoleonic war. Tolstoy's characterization of Napoleon as anything but a hero showed Tolstoy's consistent message that leaders who had thoroughly adopted Western culture were the unnatural men. These men had separated themselves from the connection to nature that needed to meet their ideal. He continued along this path by studying the life of Peter the Great with the intention of writing a novel for that time period. However he discontinued that exercise because of Peter the Great's introduction of Western values that Tolstoy saw as manifestations of the materialistic unnatural man. Personal rather than historical events would influence Tolstoy's after publication of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. His conversion from state mandated religion to personal, moral religious beliefs affected the writing for the rest of his life.
Going along with the realistic nature of his writing, Tolstoy exposes his rationalistic tendencies. His powers of observation resemble the scientific orientation of rationalism. The publication of The Cossacks was delayed for a number of years while the move toward reform of the system of serfdom was under consideration. Here again the emphasis on the natural man to whom the serfs were related caused great concern and debate and therefore the delayed publication of the book. Aside from his writing Tolstoy proposed radical reforms including the creation of schools for serfs where the students would dictate the direction of their education rather than the standard direction of the teachers mandating the direction of…