Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoi (or Tolstoy) (Russian: Алексей Николаевич Толстой) (January 10, 1883 – February 23, 1945), nicknamed the Comrade Count, was a Russian Soviet writer who wrote in many genres but specialized in science fiction and historical novels. He won several prizes and also produced literature for the communist party in Russia. From his writing, it would be easy to conclude that he was committed to the ideology of the Soviet Union. However, he appears to have lent his art to the cause of state propaganda more out of pragmatic reasons than from any deeply cherished convictions. In fact, his art does not appear to have been informed by any deep sense of moral awareness. The fact that some of his work merits serious consideration as literature suggests that he did possess a rare and a real talent. His legacy perhaps serves to show how literature and art can be used in service of ideology, so that even great talent can be corrupted by state power. He did not mind using his art to serve the state even though he did not strongly support the state ideology that his writing endorsed.
Tolstoy was born in Nikolaevsk (now Pugachyov, Saratov Oblast) in 1883 into an impoverished branch of the counts Tolstoy. His father was a retired hussar and landowner, Count Nikolay Alexandrovich Tolstoy, and his mother was a children's writer, Alexandra Leonievna Bostrom (born Turgeneva, also known as Alexandra Tolstoy). Tolstoy was the fourth child in the family. When his mother was two months pregnant with him, she fled the family with her lover, Aleksei Apollonovich Bostrom, leaving three other children behind. In accordance with the divorce law of the time, the guilty party (Alexandra) was forbidden to remarry, and the only way for her to keep her newborn son was to register him as a son of Bostrom. Thus, until the age of thirteen, Tolstoy had lived under the name of Aleksei Bostrom and had not suspected that Aleksei Bostrom, Sr. was not his biological parent. In 1896 both Tolstoy and Bostrom families went into bureaucratic pains to re-register Aleksei as Count Tolstoy. Still, he considered Bostrom his true father and had hardly ever seen Nikolai Tolstoy and his older siblings.
In 1900 Nikolai Tolstoy died, leaving Tolstoy with 30,000 rubles (a considerable fortune for the time) and a famous family name. Later, he assumed a rather humorous attitude towards the Tolstoy's heritage. He was known for filling the walls of his apartment with old, darkened portraits and telling newcomers tales about his Tolstoy ancestors; then he would explain to his friends that all the portraits were purchased at random from a nearby secondhand store and that the stories were complete fiction. From 1901-1908, Tolstoy studied at Saint Petersburg Technological Institute, which could have contributed to his interest in science fiction. Tolstoy's early short stories were panned by Alexander Blok and other leading critics of the time for their excessive naturalism, wanton eroticism, and general lack of taste in the manner of Mikhail Artsybashev. Some pornographic stories published under Tolstoy's name in the early 1900s were purportedly penned by him; however, most critics remain skeptical as to whether Tolstoy is the real author.
From 1914-1916 Tolstoy worked as a war correspondent for the newspaper Russkie vedomosti (“Russian Bulletin”). He made several visits to the front lines, and traveled in France and England, both Russian allies in World War I. Tolstoy's war experiences formed the background of Na Voyne (“In the War”) (1914-1916), a collection of stories.
In 1917 Tolstoy worked for General Anton Denikin's propaganda section. Unable to accept the Russian Revolution, he emigrated next year with his family to Paris. Gradually, he changed his mind and few years later Tolstoy moved to Berlin, where he joined a pro-Communist émigré group and became the editor of the Bolshevik newspaper Nakanune (“On the Eve”). With a change in his political beliefs, Tolstoy broke with the émigré circles and repatriated accepting the Soviet regime.
From the West, Tolstoy brought with him the novel Syostry (“Sisters”, 1922), the first part of his trilogy "Road to Calvary" (1922-1942), tracking the period from 1914 to 1919 including the Russian Civil War. After an uneasy period, when he was suspected because of his aristocratic origins, Tolstoy established himself among the leading Soviet writers. He became a staunch supporter of the Communist Party to the end, writing stories eulogizing Stalin and collaborating with Maxim Gorky on the infamous account of their trip to the White Sea-Baltic Canal.
In 1936 he was elected chairman of the Writer's Union and a deputy to the Supreme Soviet in 1937. Two years later he was elected member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (1939). During World War II he served as a journalist and propagandist. His patriotic articles were collected in Chto my zashchishchayem (“What We Defend,” (1942) and Rodina (“Motherland,” 1943).
Beside The Road to Calvary trilogy, Tolstoy published another lengthy historical novel, Peter the First (1929-1945), in which he sought to liken Peter's policies to those of Stalin. He has also written several plays.
Tolstoy is usually credited with having produced some of the earliest (and best) science fiction in the Russian language. His novels Aelita (1923) about a journey to Mars and Engineer Garin's Hyperboloid (1927) about a laser beam generator have gained immense public popularity. The former spawned a pioneering science-fiction movie in 1924, and the second had at least two screen versions. Besides these two, several other movies released in the Soviet Union are based on Tolstoy’s novels.
Tolstoy has also penned several books for children, starting with Nikita's Childhood, a memorable account of his son's early years. Most notably, in 1936, he created Russian adaptation of the famous Italian fairy tale about Pinocchio entitled the Adventures of Buratino or The Golden Key, whose main character, Buratino, quickly became hugely popular among the Soviet populace and was later adapted into films.
Tolstoy became a full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1939. He died in Moscow on February 23, 1945.
Tolstoy was married four times. His first wife was Yulia Vasilievna Rozhanskaya and his second was Sophia Isaakovna Dymshits. In 1915 he married his third wife, Natalia Vasilyevna Grandievskaya. He married his fourth wife, Lyudmila Ilyinichna Krestinskaya, in 1935. He had one daughter, Maryana, and two sons, Nikita (physicist) and Dmitriy (composer). His grandchildren are Mikhail (physicist), Natalya (philologist) and Tatyana (writer).
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