Few lives have been more examined, not least by himself, than Lev Tolstoy’s.

Born in 1828 into the Russian nobility, the future author of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” had reasons to take himself seriously. His father’s family had been important since the time of Peter the Great, but his mother’s, reaching back to the ninth century, was as august as the Romanovs. Till the year of his death, 1910, he wrote about his family and himself constantly, whether in diaries, letters, confessions or, with scant disguise, in his fiction. That outpouring, plus memoirs by his wife, children and cultic followers, provided abundant material for Russian researchers.

The social-realist constraints imposed by the Bolsheviks after 1917, however, meant that the best biographies would come from Frenchmen like Henri Troyat or, earlier, from Englishmen like Aylmer Maude, who with his wife, Louise, also reliably translated most of Tolstoy’s works. Indeed, for Anglophone readers, Tolstoy has been a figure shaped largely by translators like the Maudes and critics like George Orwell, Isaiah Berlin and Edward Crankshaw.

None of whom enters into the English scholar Rosamund Bartlett’s new life. She offers a full-length portrait of Tolstoy, sure to become standard, that is almost exclusively Russian in its sources and preoccupations.

Why standard? For one thing, Bartlett’s prose is limpid, even if her paragraphs are sometimes outsized; she has no theoretic ax to grind and is guilty of remarkably few longueurs. For another, she is faithful to all phases of Tolstoy’s career, including the long, final, theo- and egomaniacal one.

‘Tolstoy: A Russian Life’ by Rosamund Bartlett (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Even before finishing “Anna Karenina” in 1877, Tolstoy became convinced that everything he’d lived for — military glory, family happiness, artistic fame — was vanity, and that he must now care for one thing only: the achievement of moral perfection. Demythologizing the Christ of the Orthodoxy, he dedicated himself to what, even as a young officer in the Crimean War, he hoped would be “a new religion corresponding to the present state of mankind” and “giving bliss on earth.”

Rather than compressing the subsequent 30-plus years of Tolstoy’s barefoot pilgrimages to remote monasteries, his pontificating about the errors of church dogma, his rearranging of the Gospels in order to put morals in place of miracles, and his tireless campaigns on behalf of vegetarianism, teetotalism, pacifism and anarchism, Bartlett devotes nearly half of her story to them. We learn about his establishment-threatening efforts on behalf of famine relief, say, or of the emigration of the Dukhobors (“wrestlers in the name of the Holy Spirit”) to Canada.

The Orthodox clergy were so alarmed by Tolstoy’s activism that they excommunicated him in 1901, by which time he seemed, to enemies and allies alike, the uncrowned tsar of his country. In fact, by 1917 many regarded Tolstoy, rather than Karl Marx or the socialistic nihilists of the 1870s, as the Bolsheviks’ ideological father.

Wrong. As Bartlett insists, the pacifist Tolstoy would never have countenanced the communists’ reliance on violence — they conscripted, or imprisoned, Tolstoyans along with everyone else — just as the anarchist Tolstoy would have regarded left-wing totalitarianism as even less legitimate than the right-wing authoritarianism of his own day.

“Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.” So Orwell said of Gandhi, who was strongly influenced by Tolstoy’s pacifist writings. And many readers, reflecting on Tolstoy’s often cranky ideas about diet, education and sex, might agree. He came to believe that sexual intercourse was itself sinful, but even when he stopped preying on peasant women, one of whom bore him a son he never acknowledged, he kept after his wife, Sofya, who at age 44 bore him his 13th and final child. It’s hard not to think that Tolstoy’s bid for sainthood was a mistake.

His true vocation, the one that mattered most to posterity, was writing fiction — not just the mammoth masterpieces but also shorter works like “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and “Hadj Murat.” Bartlett elucidates the background for “Anna Karenina” especially well, now explaining the divorce laws in 1870s Russia, now underscoring the novelist’s central purpose, which was the “defence of marriage and conservative family values” against counter-cultural writers like Nikolay Chernyshevsky, who championed female emancipation and free love.

Tolstoy’s heart-felt ideas may have been simple, but when his brain kicked in they could become richly complicated. His questions about marital relations, for instance, and the general war between the sexes, remained mostly unsettled. The tale of his marriage with Sofya, not to say the tale of Anna Karenina, her husband, and her lover, alone disarms those who would render absolute judgment.

Bartlett is thorough and even-handed in her treatment of Tolstoy’s marriage, and of all other aspects of his representative life. Her epic and astutely indexed biography is so good that I shouldn’t be surprised if, for the edification of Tolstoy’s direct cultural descendants, it were translated into Russian.

Thomas L. Jeffers ’s biography of Norman Podhoretz came out last year.


A Russian Life

By Rosamund Bartlett

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 544 pp. $35