Everyone has heard of Leo Tolstoy; after all, the nineteenth-century Russian author was responsible for classic works of world literature, including the popular novels Anna Karenina and War and Peace. But lesser-known is the author’s penchant for vegetarianism and his propagation of the diet during the last 25 years of his life.

Tolstoy became an outspoken vegetarian at the age of 50 after meeting the positivist and vegetarian William Frey, who, according to Tolstoy’s son Sergei Lvovich, visited the great writer in the autumn of 1885. Tolstoy was attempting to live a life of harmony and spiritual development, something he believed was only possible by not eating meat and avoiding idleness, aggression, and gluttony. Tolstoy believed that if people were less aggressive and stopped destroying all the things in nature that gave them life, the world would live in complete harmony.

His lifestyle was not, however, always this way. In the 1860s and ’70s, he smoked cigarettes, drank wine and herb-flavored liqueurs, and ate meat and hunted animals. But starting in the 1880s, particularly after he met Frey, he began to make changes. He became a vegetarian one (although he still drank milk and ate eggs). He began to rise early, tidy his room, saw and chop wood, pump water from a well and bring the water to the house in a large tub. 

Tolstoy strikes a pose. Image via Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons.

He learned the craft of cobbling and began to sew his own shoes. He stopped drinking alcohol and began to wean himself off smoking (he finally kicked the habit in 1888). He also began to promote vegetarianism by writing and sending articles to magazines and welcoming the opening of vegetarian taverns. His daughters soon became vegetarians and his wife, Sophia Andreevna, would also become one toward the end of her life.

Sophia was instrumental in the role that food played in Tolstoy’s life, despite the fact that she was not a vegetarian for much of the time that Tolstoy was. In her diary, the wife of the famed author kept a detailed account of favorite recipes of her family and friends, as well as stories and details from their everyday life. Eventually, Sophia’s brother, Stepan Andreevich Bers, secretly borrowed this diary and created a gift book of recipes for his sister. The Cookery Book was published in 1874 and serves as the  inspiration for my book,Leo Tolstoy: A Vegetarian’s Tale: Tolstoy’s Family Vegetarian Recipes Adapted For the Modern Kitchen. Each original recipe is printed with a modernized version with adapted measurements.