Ever wonder what kind of family raised the brilliant, albeit long-winded, man who was horrible to his wife and wrote Anna Karenina and War and Peace? The Tolstoys were an aristocratic Russian clan with deep ties to the military, the arts, and corruption, whether of the gambling, Punk-ing, or murderous variety...
1. Fyodor Ivanovich Tolstoy, a soldier who got lost in Alaska and played pranks with monkeys
In the early nineteenth century, Count Fyodor Ivanovich Tolstoy (not to be confused with a cousin, Fyodor Petrovich Tolstoy) became a seriously problematic princeling for his family. Recruited into the Preobrazhensky Guards, a regiment very close to the tsar, at sixteen, Fyo decided to immediately challenge his commander to a duel. This became a habit; Fyodor wound up killing eleven people in duels over his lifetime.
A few years later, Fyo hopped on a ship that was planning to complete the first Russian trip around the world. He got tattooed in the South Pacific, stuck an orangutan in his captain's cabin for fun, and at one point was supposedly stranded (or forced off ship) in the Aleutian Islands, an incident that gave him the nickname of "the American." But perhaps his greatest prank was getting the ship's priest drunk and gluing his beard to the deck with wax. Later sent to Siberia, Fyo redeemed himself in battle, then later became really religious.
2. A.K. (Alexei Konstantinovich) Tolstoy, satirist and poet:
A nineteenth-century writer, Aleksey, who often was known by his initials, "A.K.," was a funny guy. He and a few of his cousins collaborated to publish comedic poems under the pseudonym "Kozma Prutkov." "Kozma," a French bureaucrat, jokingly advised that the government should print and distribute official opinions on every possible topic. The cousins even penned an obituary for "Kozma" when "he" kicked the bucket.
A.K. strikes a pose. Image via Antoine-Pierre-Charles Favart/Wikimedia Commons.
A.K. also held a deep interest in his country's history. A fan of William Shakespeare's historical plays, he himself wrote a trilogy about three different Russian tsars. He brought his acid tongue to works like The History of the Russian State, in which he mused that Russia was a state that never really had any order.
3. Pyotr Andreyevich Tolstoy, who got his title as count from tricking a prince to his death:
One of the founders of the Tolstoy clan, Pyotr Andreyevich was a sycophant who played a big role in the administration of Tsar Peter I ("the Great"), even though he once supported Peter's half-sister as ruler. The first ambassador from Russia to the Ottoman Empire in 1701, Pyotr rose quickly under Tsar Peter and in his administration.
But he was perhaps most infamous for one of the ways he helped alleviate the Tsar's concern over the succession. Peter I's heir was his eldest son, the Tsarevich Alexei, but the sensitive, reclusive young man was the exact opposite of his macho dad. The two quarreled at length, and Alexei, who wanted nothing more than to be normal and hang out with his serf girlfriend, fled Russia, heading west to the domains of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Peter needed his son back and out of the claws of one of his rivals, so he sent Pyotr to convince Alexei to come home.
Tolstoy's machinations worked in 1718, and he succeeded in getting the Tsarevich back with promises galore. Sadly, Alexei came home, but was forced to give up his friends, who were tortured. Convinced that Alexei could be a rallying point for any discontented nobles and was involved in treason, Peter had his son killed.
4. Dmitri Tolstoy, autocratic and oppressive minister:
This Tolstoy couldn't have been more different than his cousin Leo, who expressed anarchist tendencies. Under the conservative Tsar Alexander III, Count Dmitri Tolstoy found a man to serve who matched his ideals. He served as Russia's minister of the interior, bringing reactionary politics to a vast empire. For example, Dmitri set up a schooling system that taught the Russian people Latin, supposedly to provide education without offering up any room for new thought. Writer Vladimir Nabokov observed that his Latin teacher beat fear and oppression, not fascination with the classics, into his head. Perhaps it was meant to repress new thoughts, as some have indicated, in his general policy of preventing the spread of liberal ideas.
5. Aleksey Nikolaevich Tolstoy, the "Comrade Count" who inspired Stalin:
Here's another Aleksey Tolstoy, this one distinguished from his relative by a different patronymic, although he also wrote novels and short stories. Although he was descended from Russian aristocracy, Aleksey became an avid supporter of the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. Once exiled after the Bolshevik Revolution, Aleksey returned home to Russia and penned works of science fiction and fiction.
Joseph Stalin even loved his work, especially anything to do with Peter the Great. A revised work of Tolstoy's depicted Peter as a man who dragged his backwards country into the twentieth century and sacrificed himself to do so, basically casting Stalin as the modern version of that tsar. He also put emphasis on patriotism and duty to one's country in a Stalinist mode. He also wrote a nice version of Tsar Ivan the Terrible that portrayed a Stalin-esque hero. Due to these works and his nationalistic writings, he was awarded several Stalin Prizes.
Feature image of Fyodor Tolstoy with his family via Wikimedia Commons.