This study will analyze several of the fictional works of Leo Tolstoy, discussing how his writing reflects the moral, cultural and political history of Russia in his time. Two major changes took place in Russian society during the time of Tolstoy's writing--the freeing of the serfs, and industrialization. Both changes brought great turbulence and confusion. The freeing of the serfs showed that morality had changed in Russia, and that it was no longer acceptable to own human beings. Industrialization promised a better life for all, but, like the freeing of the serfs, the results were not as good as many believed they would be. Also, the defeat of Russia in the Crimean War showed that Russia was not the great power its people believed it to be (Cracraft 313). These changes are important to Tolstoy not for the way they impacted on Russian society, but for the way they did not change the way people live and relate to one another.
Although Tolstoy's fiction is deeply rooted in the real world of society, economics, politics, and culture, he is first and foremost concerned with morality and spirituality, and, in the end, with religion, especially the religion of Christianity. The many changes in Russia in Tolstoy's time did not change basic human nature. Great changes were taking place, but human beings were still greedy, lustful, and selfish, and still had to wrestle with that sinfulness. Tolstoy is most concerned with the things that remain the same for all people in all times: how to live a good life, how to love, and how to face death and God.
The literature of the nineteenth century reflects this general uncertainty. As Gibian writes,
Compassion is an especially prized emotion in Russia.
. . . Interest in the individual, a talent for catching the essence of an idiosyncratic human being, may be the most appealing quality of Russian authors (Gibian xi).
This compassion for the common man is seen in all of Tolstoy's work...