After the crop failure of 1873, Tolstoy decided to stop writing Anna Karenina for a year to organize aid for the starving, remarking to a relative, "I cannot tear myself away from living creatures to bother about imaginary ones." His friends and family thought it crazy that one of the finest novelists in the world would put one of his works of genius on the backburner. He did it again after the famine in 1891, and with other members of his family spent the next two years raising money from around the world and working in soup kitchens.Can you imagine a bestselling author today setting aside their latest book to do humanitarian relief work for two years?
For a blue-blooded count, such actions were nothing short of remarkable.
Although no doubt tinged with paternalism, Tolstoy enjoyed the company of peasants and consciously began to shun the literary and aristocratic elite in the cities.
He wrote to a friend, "The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens...
Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere." Tolstoy was on his way to becoming an anarchist.
He also founded an experimental school for peasant children based on the libertarian and egalitarian ideas of Rousseau and Proudhon, and even taught there himself.
Unlike many of his fellow aristocrats who claimed solidarity with rural laborers, Tolstoy believed you could never understand the reality of their lives unless you had a taste of it yourself. Tolstoy regularly put down his pen to work in the fields.
In the late 1870s, unable to find any answers, he had a mental breakdown and was on the verge of suicide.
But after immersing himself in the German philosopher Schopenhauer, Buddhist texts, and the Bible, he adopted a revolutionary brand of Christianity which rejected all organized religion, including the Orthodox Church he had grown up in, and turned toward a life of spiritual and material austerity.
Lesson 2: Practice Empathy Tolstoy was one of the great empathic adventurers of the 19th century, displaying an unusual desire to step into the shoes of people whose lives were vastly different from his own.
Following the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861, and influenced by a growing movement across Russia which extolled the virtues of the peasantry, Tolstoy not only adopted traditional peasant dress, but worked alongside the laborers on his estate, ploughing the fields and repairing their homes with his own hands.