On this day in 1881, Count Leo Tolstoy sets off on a pilgrimage to a monastery disguised as a peasant. Tolstoy had already produced his two greatest masterpieces War and Peace (1865-1869) and Anna Karenina (1875-1877). The Russian nobleman was engaged in a spiritual struggle and felt torn between his responsibility as a wealthy landlord to improve the lot of the people, and his desire to give up his property and wander the land as an ascetic. He had started giving away his possessions and declared that the public owned his works, but his wife, Sofya, worried about the financial stability of the couple’s 13 children, gained control of the copyrights for all his work published before 1880.
Tolstoy was born in 1828. His parents died when he was a child, and he was raised by relatives. He went to Kazan University at age 16 but was disappointed in the quality of education there and returned to his estate in 1847 without a degree. He lived a wild and dissolute life in Moscow and St. Petersburg until 1851, when he joined the army. He fought in the Crimean war, and his experiences in the defense of Sevastopol became a successful literary memoir, Sevastopol Sketches, in 1855. While in the army, he wrote several other autobiographical works.
In 1857, Tolstoy visited Europe and became interested in education. He started a school for peasant children on his estate and studied progressive educational techniques. In 1862, he married, and the following year he published a successful novel, The Cossacks. Later in his life, Tolstoy embraced Christian anarchism and was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1910, he fled his home secretly with his youngest daughter but caught pneumonia and died at a remote railway station a few days later.