Posted On : September 27 2017
One of the greatest authors of all time, Leo Tolstoy, was born on September 9. He was born to an
aristocratic Russian family in 1828, he is best known for the novels War and Peace (1869) and
Anna Karenina (1877), often cited as pinnacles of realist fiction.
I was introduced to Russian literature at a friend’s home when I was in school, her father was a
voracious reader and I would often stand by his bookshelves and browse through his collections.
Soon, I started reading from his collection, this is when I got hold of Anna Karenina. The novel
mesmerised me, I found the story romantic, passionate, wonderful then, and still do. In those
days, in Bhopal there was a small Russian literature bookshop in New Market, just across the
road from Top n Town ice cream parlour, I remember spending whatever little pocket-money I
had on Russian literature and magazines. It was my favourite haunt.
Later on, I was lucky to marry into a family of literature lovers, here every family member had
read and loved Russian literature. My father-in- law Dr Vijay Mohan Singh was a renowned
literary figure from the Hindi literature world, he was a talking walking encyclopedia as far as
books and authors were concerned. Once he came to know of my love for books, he encouraged
me, discussed with me and suggested books and authors to read. I learnt a lot about Leo Tolstoy
from him. I remember discussing War and Peace at length with him. Same with my spouse, an
ex-army man now in central police service. He believes that reading Leo Tolstoy inspired him to
join the army.
So, my association and love for Russian literature has been long.
I have always believed that Leo Tolstoy deserved a Nobel Prize for Literature. But he was not
awarded one; I read an interesting piece on why he was not awarded the prize and what his
reaction was. For the very first Nobel Prize award Leo Tolstoy was in the reckoning, but the first
Nobel Prize was awarded to French poet Sully Prudhomme in 1901. The public opinion in
Sweden and other countries showed the shock of such a decision of the Nobel Academy. A
month after the award, Leo Tolstoy received a letter from a group of Swedish writers and artists
“In connection with the first award of the Nobel Prize, we would like to express our admiration
to you. We see you not only as a respectable patriarch of the up-to- date literature. We also see
you as one of those powerfully moving poets that are worth recalling first and foremost. We feel
the need to address to you with this welcoming letter, because we believe that the institution that
was in charge of the award does not represent either the public, or writers’ opinion. Let
everybody know that the true art is the art that is based on the freedom of thought and
The letter was signed by more than 40 conspicuous Swedish writers and artists. Everybody in the
world knew: there was only one writer that deserved the highest award in the world. This writer
is Leo Tolstoy.
Numerous letters and addresses made Leo Tolstoy write something in response: “Dear friends, I
was very happy to know that the Nobel Prize was not awarded to me. First of all, it deprived me
of a big problem of how to use this money. I am certain that this money, as well as money as it
is, can only bring evil. Second of all, I was honoured to get so many letters of sympathy and
support from the people that I don’t know. I really enjoyed them. Please accept my sincerest
gratitude”- Leo Tolstoy
The story continues thus…Tolstoy’s new work Great Sin was published in 1905. The Russian
Academy of Sciences decided to nominate Tolstoy for the competition to win the Nobel Prize in
literature. The nomination note was approved by Russia’s highest literature institutions. In 1906
the note was sent to Sweden together with a copy of Tolstoy’s Great Sin.”
As soon as Tolstoy learnt about this honour, he wrote a letter to his Finnish friend, writer Arvid
Ernefeld: “If it was meant to happen, then it would be very unpleasant for me to refuse it. That is
why; I have a favour to ask. If you have any links in Sweden (I think you have), please try to
make it so I would not be awarded with the prize. Please, try to do the best you can to avoid the
award of the prize to me.”
So, why did he not want the prize? We all know money makes the world go round. But it also
brings along with it evil. It seems that Leo Tolstoy was the first to realise that. He did not want
his name to be used for such a horrid idea. So, why wasn’t the Nobel Prize awarded to Tolstoy?
He wouldn’t have accepted it…this is what I would like to believe…he was beyond all awards
If anybody wants to read Leo Tolstoy…here are some recommendations…
1. War and Peace
2. Anna Karenina
3. The first novel in Leo Tolstoy's autobiographical trilogy - Childhood (1852), Boyhood
(1854), and Youth (1856). These works launched his writing career.
4. The Resurrection
5. The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886)