Born Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy on his aristocratic family’s Russian estate in September 1828, Leo Tolstoy is widely considered one of the greatest authors of all time. After achieving widespread success with epic works including “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy abandoned many of the trappings of his privileged youth; instead focusing on spiritual matters and espousing a moral philosophy, steeped in simple living and pacifism, which inspired thousands of followers, including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Tolstoy was a self-improvement junkie.

leo tolstoy
Tolstoy circa 1855. (Credit: Imagno/Getty Images) [Der russische Autor Lew Nikolajewitsch Tolstoj. Photographie. Um 1855.]

Inspired in part by the 13 virtues Benjamin Franklin spelled out in his autobiography, Tolstoy created a seemingly endless list of rules by which he aspired to live. While some seem pretty accessible by today’s standards (in bed by 10 and up at 5, with no more than a 2-hour nap; eat moderately and avoid sweet foods), others offer insight into Tolstoy’s lifelong struggle with his personal demons; such as his desire to limit his brothel visits to just two a month, and his self-admonition over his youthful gambling habits. Beginning in his late teens, he would sporadically keep a “Journal of Daily Occupations,” minutely accounting for how he spent his day and clearly plotting out how he intended to spend the following day. As if that wasn’t enough, he also compiled an ever-growing list of his moral failures, and even found time to create guides governing everything from listening to music to playing cards while in Moscow.

Tolstoy’s wife helped get “War and Peace” over the finish line.

leo tolstoy
Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, in 1885. (Credit:: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)

In 1862, 34-year-old Tolstoy married 18-year-old Sophia Behrs, the daughter of a court physician, just weeks after the pair met. That same year, Tolstoy began work on what would become “War and Peace,” completing the first draft in 1865. Almost immediately, Tolstoy set about revising…and revising…and revising, with Sophia responsible for writing each version by hand (often using a magnifying glass to decipher Tolstoy’s scribbling on every bit of space on the page, including the margins). Over the next seven years, she rewrote the complete manuscript eight times (and some individual sections nearly 30 times), all while giving birth to four of the couple’s 13 children and managing their estate and business affairs.

The Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him.

FB tolstoyFollowing the successful publication of “Anna Karenina” in the 1870s, Tolstoy, increasingly uncomfortable with his aristocratic background and ever-increasing wealth, underwent a series of emotional and spiritual crises that ultimately left him questioning his belief in the tenets of organized religion, which he saw as corrupt and at odds with his interpretation of the teachings of Jesus Christ. Tolstoy’s rejection of religious rituals—and his attacks on the role of the state and the concept of property rights—put him on a collision course with Russia’s two most powerful entities. Despite his aristocratic lineage, the czarist government put him under police surveillance, and the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him in 1901.

He inspired a cult—and Gandhi.

leo tolstoy
Credit: The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

While Russia’s religious and royal leaders hoped to diminish Tolstoy’s popularity, he quickly began to attract adherents to his new faith, which mixed pacifism with Christian anarchism and advocated living a morally and physically ascetic lifestyle. Dozens of these new “Tolstoyans” moved onto the author’s estate to be nearer to their spiritual leader, while thousands of others established settlements in Russia and around the world. While many of these communes were short-lived, some remain operational to this day, including at least two in England. Among those influenced by Tolstoy’s social beliefs was Mahatma Gandhi, who established a cooperative colony named after Tolstoy in South Africa and corresponded with the author, crediting him with his own spiritual and philosophical evolution, particularly with regards to Tolstoy’s teachings on peaceful nonresistance to evil.

Tolstoy and his wife had one of the worst marriages in literary history.

leo tolstoy
Tolstoy and Sophia in the garden of their home. (Credit: Archiv Gerstenberg/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Despite the couple’s initial attraction and Sophia’s invaluable assistance to his work, the Tolstoy marriage was far from serene. Things got off to a rocky start when he forced her to read his diaries—chock full of his premarital sexual exploits—the night before their wedding. As Tolstoy’s interest in spiritual matters grew, his interest in his family waned, leaving Sophia to shoulder the burden of running their ever-increasing businesses and navigating Tolstoy’s ever-fluctuating moods. By the 1880s, with Tolstoy’s disciples living on the family estate and the author cobbling his own shoes and wearing peasant clothing, an increasingly angry Sophia demanded he sign over control of his publishing royalties, lest he bankrupt his family. By 1910, the deeply unhappy 82-year-old author had seen enough. He fled the family home in the middle of the night with one of his daughters, intending to settle on a small parcel of land owned by his sister. His disappearance caused a media sensation, and when he turned up at a railway station a few days later, so did a news crew (with film camera in tow), a huge crowd and his wife. Already in ill health, Tolstoy refused to return home, and after developing pneumonia, he died at the rural outpost on November 20, 1910.