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Tolstoy, Leo

Category: Writer

Ilya Efimovich Repin (1844-1930) -  Portrait of Leo Tolstoy (1887)

Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Russian: Лев Никола́евич Толсто́й,; 9 September [O.S. 28 August] 1828 – 20 November [O.S. 7 November] 1910), usually referred to in English as Leo Tolstoy, was a Russian novelist, playwright, pacifist and philosophical essayist.

His works include the long novels War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877; dozens of short stories; novellas such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), Family Happiness(1859), and Hadji Murad (1912);  and numerous philosophical essays.  His plays include The Power of Darkness (1886), The Light Shines in Darkness (1890); The Fruits of Enlightenment (1891) and The Cause of it All (1910).

Tolstoy's earliest works, the autobiographical novels Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth (1852–1856), tell of a rich landowner's son and his slow realisation of the chasm between himself and his peasants. Though he later rejected the works as sentimental, a great deal of Tolstoy's own life is revealed in them.


Throughout his life Tolstoy drew from his own life experiences and in many of his books he is clearly one of the characters.  Tolstoy served as a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment during the Crimean War, for example, and this is recounted in his Sevastopol Sketches (1855). His experiences in battle helped stir his subsequent pacifism and gave him material for realistic depiction of the horrors of war in his later work.

Tolstoy’s later work Resurrection (1899), attempts to expose the injustice of man-made laws and the hypocrisy of the institutionalized church. This work and his later novels such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) and What Is to Be Done? led to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901.

In 1884, Tolstoy wrote the book "What I Believe".  This was the start of his campaign for non-violence.  Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and his injunction to turn the other cheek, were combined with the promotion of non-violence found in Quaker Christian works by George Fox, William Penn and Jonathan Dymond. Tolstoy believed being a Christian required him to be a pacifist.  At the time, as most Governments appeared to be only interested in war, this set him on a collision course with Governments and earned him the label ‘philosophical anarchist’.

In 1908, Tolstoy wrote A Letter to a Hindu outlining his belief in non-violence as a means for India to gain independence from British colonial rule. In 1909, a copy of the letter was read by Mohandas Gandhi, who was working as a lawyer in South Africa at the time and just becoming an activist. Tolstoy's ideas on non-violent resistance were also expressed in The Kingdom of God Is Within You, which had a profound impact on not only Mohandas Gandhi, but Martin Luther King, Jr.


Gandhi acknowledged Tolstoy in his autobiography, calling Tolstoy "the greatest apostle of non-violence that the present age has produced".

Besides non-violent resistance, the two men shared a common belief in the merits of vegetarianism, (The First Step: on vegetarianism - 1892) the subject of several of Tolstoy's essays.

Why is he on the site?

In the 1870s, Tolstoy experienced a profound moral crisis, followed by what he regarded as an equally profound spiritual awakening, which was described in his non-fiction work A Confession (1879).  We have taken a number of passages from this work as observations. As the original work was in Russian and we worked from a French translation of this, you may find that the exact wording has not been used, but the French translation from which we worked was made by someone who was very sympathetic to Tolstoy and also understood the underlying meaning of his words, as such the extracts are faithful to his intent.

Early Life

Tolstoy was born at Yasnaya Polyana, a family estate located 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) southwest of Tula, Russia and 200 kilometers (120 mi) south of Moscow. The Tolstoys were a well-known family of old Russian nobility, however, Tolstoy's parents died when he was young, so he and his siblings were brought up by relatives.

In 1851, after running up heavy gambling debts, he went with his older brother to the Caucasus and joined the army. His conversion from a dissolute and privileged society author to the non-violent and religious anarchist of his latter days was brought about by his experience in the army as well as two trips around Europe in 1857 and 1860–61. During his 1857 visit, Tolstoy witnessed a public execution in Paris, a traumatic experience that would mark the rest of his life.

Tolstoy – Confessions
[At this time] a belief in me took the form that it has in most educated men of our time. She spoke by the word "progress."
From time to time, however, my emotions - I'm not saying my mind – were revolted against this general prejudice of our time, behind which men take refuge when they cannot give an explanation for life.  Thus, during my stay in Paris, the sight of an execution was enough to show me the fragility of my confidence in ‘progress’.
When I saw the head coming off the body and fall with a dismal thud, I realized, not by the mind but with all my being, that no theory of reason could justify this action.  And even if men and ‘progress’ would try to show me that this punishment is beneficial and necessary, my heart is my judge and would always deny it.


His European trip in 1860–61 shaped both his political and literary development when he met Victor Hugo, whose literary talents Tolstoy praised after reading Hugo's newly finished Les Misérables.

One other event also had a profound effect on Tolstoy at that time:

Tolstoy – Confessions
Another circumstance came to prove the invalidity of my faith in ‘progress:’ it was the death of my brother.  Spiritual, good, serious, he fell ill, being still young. He suffered more than a year and painfully died without understanding why he had lived and still less why he died.
No theory could come to his aid or answer his questions or mine during his slow and cruel agony.


Tolstoy's political philosophy was also influenced by a March 1861 visit to French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, then living in exile under an assumed name in Brussels. Apart from reviewing Proudhon's forthcoming publication, La Guerre et la Paix (War and Peace), whose title Tolstoy would borrow, the two men discussed education, as Tolstoy wrote in his educational notebooks:

 If I recount this conversation with Proudhon, it is to show that, in my personal experience, he was the only man who understood the significance of education and of the printing press in our time.

Fired by enthusiasm, Tolstoy returned to Yasnaya Polyana and founded 13 schools for the children of Russia's peasants, who had just been emancipated from serfdom in 1861.

Beliefs and influences

One of the principle influences on Tolstoy’s whole philosophy was Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation.  In Chapter VI of A Confession, Tolstoy even quotes the final paragraph of Schopenhauer's book:

Do you know what this summer has meant for me? Constant raptures over Schopenhauer and a whole series of spiritual delights which I've never experienced before. ... no student has ever studied so much on his course, and learned so much, as I have this summer.

Schopenhauer’s work is a form of philosophical union of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, and emphasises the need to ‘squash the big I am’, effectively erasing the ego and also reducing desires to almost nothing, just enough to mean one had some purpose for living, even if it had nothing to do with oneself.

It contains absolute gems of thinking, but one has to read it alongside spiritual works to get the insights into perspective.  Read on its own, it is a rather bleak work. 

Schopenhauer was a believer in the effectiveness of hardship, misery and pain as drivers to creativity rather than comfort and pleasure.  For Schopenhauer, human desire was futile, illogical, directionless, and, by extension, so was all human action in the world – but he presented a good argument on why desire got us into trouble.  His book is a philosophical work, not a spiritual work.  One does not become enlightened by reading Schopenhauer.

Tolstoy’s other main influence was the Chinese thinker and philosopher, Confucius. Again, a philosopher and not a mystic.

It appears that Tolstoy initially took Schopenhauer’s book to be a sort of Bible of thought, a universal solution, and tried to follow it to the letter.  He also appears to have taken Schopenhauer’s philosophical ideas way beyond anything Schopenhauer probably envisaged, taking up asceticism rather than simple denial, and choosing “poverty and formal denial of the will”.

Tolstoy – Confessions
…. in the desire to learn and to hide that I knew nothing, I fell ill, morally and physically.  So I abandoned everything and I left for the desert, among Bashkirs.  I breathed the air, drank the koumyss and lived an animal life ....  When I returned, I married.  The influence of a happy family life turned me from all research into the meaning of life. All my life in that time focused on my family, my wife, my children.

Ilya Repin - Portrait of Leo Tolstoy, with his Wife in Yasnaya Polyana

On September 23, 1862, Tolstoy married Sophia Andreevna Behrs, who was 16 years his junior.

She was called Sonya, the Russian diminutive of Sofia, by her family and friends.

Schopenhauer could best be described as a miserable old bachelor later in life, and it is clear that Tolstoy found it almost impossible to reconcile Schopenhauer’s admonition for reducing desires and return to ascetic values with his marriage to Sonya. Schopenhauer once wrote that

Marrying means to halve one's rights and double one's duties

It is extremely clear that Tolstoy was deeply in love with Sonya and she him.  He and Sonya’s marriage was marked from the outset by ‘sexual passion’.   Passion on both sides.


Sonya was a tolerant gentle lady and helped him, acting as his secretary, proof-reader and financial manager. 

However, their later life together became extremely turbulent, principally because of the crisis he experienced and described in his Confession.   In much of what is reported by biographers, not enough account is taken of the effect the crisis described in his Confessions had on him.  At certain stages in this process, which lasted around two years he had thoughts of suicide.  Some today might call this depression, but it was not, it was a sort of trial of him, a severe test of his beliefs, a fundamental awakening and the one that propelled him on the path to non-violence:

Tolstoy – Confessions
This happened at a time when all things were to me what can be regarded as complete happiness; I had not yet fifty years; I had a wife, good, loving and beloved; good children, a large property that grew without any trouble from me.  I was respected by my family and my knowledge, more than ever I had been; I was showered with praise by strangers and without exaggeration could believe my name famous.  With that I was not mad or mentally ill. Rather, I enjoyed a moral and physical strength, I have rarely encountered among people my age. Physically I could mow all as well as farmers. Intellectually I could work eight hours in a row without experiencing any unfortunate consequence of such an effort.
And it is in this state that I arrived at not being able to live; -- with the reflection My Life is a wicked and stupid joke being played on me by someone.

The conversion gave him a deep understanding of where he had 'gone wrong', but he still became progressively confused about what to do that was 'right'.  It  saw him seeking to reject his inherited and earned wealth, and agonising over the effects this  had on his family.  It became a severe trial of their relationship.  As you will see from all the photos, they were together up until his death, but only due to her tolerance and understanding.

It is unclear whether Tolstoy always understood the purpose of all his later rather fervent views.  For a while he opposed the institution of marriage [even though he was married] and promoted the idea of chastity and sexual abstinence.  He failed.  He and Sonya had 13 children, eight of whom survived childhood.  The crisis of faith that had started in adolescence continued unabated throughout his life, but it drove his writing in extraordinary ways.  

with Gorky

All this austerity and self-denial, extreme emotion and fervour, had an enormous  influence on his creativity.  Tolstoy's later work derives a ‘passion and verve from the depth of his austere moral views’.  Tolstoy once read his “temptation of Sergius” in Father Sergius, to Gorky and Chekhov and ‘was moved to tears by the end of the reading’. Perhaps a reflection of his own struggles. 

Last years

In hundreds of essays over the last 20 years of his life, Tolstoy reiterated the anarchist critique of the state, whilst rejecting anarchism's espousal of violent revolutionary means. In the 1900 essay, "On Anarchy", he wrote;

The Anarchists are right in everything; in the negation of the existing order, and in the assertion that, without Authority, there could not be worse violence than that of Authority under existing conditions.
They are mistaken only in thinking that Anarchy can be instituted by a revolution.
But it will be instituted only by there being more and more people who do not require the protection of governmental power ...
There can be only one permanent revolution—a moral one: the regeneration of the inner man."

There is a very sad irony in his writings given what happened.  In Tolstoy's 1899 novel Resurrection he explores his thoughts on the kind of communities he envisaged.  It suggests the possibility of small communities with some form of local governance.

Tolstoy died in 1910, at the age of 82. During his last few days, he had spoken and written about dying.  He died of pneumonia at Astapovo train station, after a day's rail journey south.

The Tolstoy family left Russia in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and Leo Tolstoy's descendants today live in Sweden, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and the United States.

A portrait of Leo Tolstoy, 1909 by I. E. Repin (Tolstoy State Museum)


Leo Tolstoy

Everything in the world is alive.  Everything that seems to us dead seems so only because it is either too large or, on the contrary too small. 
We do not see microbes, and heavenly bodies seem dead to us, for the same reason we seem dead to an ant. 
The earth is undoubtedly alive, and a stone on the earth is the same as a nail on the finger.



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