Russian author Leo Tolstoy was not only a very gifted and successful writer but also a philosopher, peace activist and educator. While his books are considered great classics, the little school he opened in a small town continues to inspire many teachers across the globe.
Tolstoy was born almost two centuries ago, in 1828, in a Russian town called Yasnaya Polyana, which is south of Moscow city. Young Tolstoy lived in an estate, which was bigger than ten farmhouses built together! His parents belonged to the Old Russian Nobility and had lots of serfs (farm labor) work for them.
Tolstoy faced tragedies at a very young age—his parents died when he was very young, and later his brothers and sisters were also separated from him and he was sent to live with several relatives around the country. Despite such tragedies, Tolstoy did not lose hope. He read a lot, tried to study many languages and at sixteen entered the Kazan University to study various languages like Arabic, Turkish, Latin, German, English and French. He also studied geography, history and religion.
Although Tolstoy did not complete his studies, he continued to teach himself by reading and traveling extensively in Europe. During his visits to different European countries, he hired tutors to teach him different languages. He also started maintaining a diary, in which he wrote honestly about his own failings.
The night that changed Tolstoy
One cold winter night, young Tolstoy, addressed by his title ‘Count Tolstoy’, was invited to a ball at the house of a rich nobleman. The ground was covered in snow and Tolstoy set out in a sleigh driven by a peasant-coachman. After a great party, Tolstoy left the house in the wee hours. When he stepped out of the nobleman’s house, warm in his thick fur coat, he was shocked to see his coachman almost frozen to death. It took many hours of rubbing and warming to bring the man back to life. This scene disturbed Tolstoy a lot. “Why should I, a young nobleman who has not been of any use to anybody, be allowed to enjoy rich foods and drinks in this magnificent house, while this poor man, who represents the working people who builds and heats these houses, is left out in the cold?” he thought. He felt disgusted at the injustice in society where a few rich people enjoyed the fruits of the hard work of a lot of poor people. This experience motivated Tolstoy to devote his life to serving those less fortunate than he was.
School at Yasnaya Polyana
Tolstoy was never happy with the Russian system of education. He was also very keen to start a school for peasants in Yasnaya Polyana which was free and open. Eventually, leaving his university studies midway, Tolstoy began a school which was very different—children could come to school whenever they wanted. Even so, there was hardly anyone missing in attendance.
The children were not punished for being late or for not paying attention, and they could sit wherever they wanted—on the tables, on the floor or on the window-sill. At this school children were never beaten and there was no homework or examinations. Tolstoy wanted children to enjoy learning. He wanted the students to be independent, creative thinkers who learnt more from nature than books.
For Tolstoy, the purpose of education was the happiness of the child, and to bring about the best in each individual. Gradually his school became very famous and his style of teaching was borrowed by many other educationists. Tolstoy was not so concerned with grades; he was more interested in helping children develop a creative personality and great character.
Tolstoy also worked hard to make the life of serfs less harsh and happier. Although society still treated the serfs like slaves, Tolstoy was considered a benevolent estate owner. When serfdom was abolished in 1861, Tolstoy changed his title from ‘Count’ to ‘mediator’.
Ideas for peace
When Tolstoy was 23 years old, he joined the army with his favorite brother Nikoli to fight in the Crimean War. When he saw how brutal war can be, he didn’t want to fight. It was also during this time that he began to write. Many of Tolstoy’s experiences in the war later inspired him to write one of the world’s greatest novels, ‘War and Peace’. It is an epic historical tale that takes place during French emperor Bonaparte Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Through its six volumes and over 500 characters, the novel describes the experiences of various individuals in society—the Russian tzar, peasants and soldiers—as they try to find meaning in their lives and in the madness of war.
Although Tolstoy is famous for his two works, ‘Work and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’, he was also a great short story writer. Besides writing powerful essays he also wrote on issues of religion, crime and philosophy. Tolstoy’s ideas about peace and nonviolence influenced many leaders of social justice and invention, including Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Albert Einstein. He believed that human beings should help those who are suffering and strive to remove wrong ideas from society.
In his last years, Tolstoy started living more like a monk. He wanted to gift the wealth he had earned from his books to his peasants. But his family didn’t agree. He left his home for good and after a few days died of Pneumonia in the house of a station master.