In one of the images from Tuesday's Google doodle, a man and a woman stare deeply into each other's eyes, each clad in elegant winter attire, framed against the backdrop of a cold Russian evening. The scale is at once magisterial and intimate, a setting that simultaneously encompasses a grand city while drawing one's eyes to the minute details of a relationship between lovers.
It's a fitting tribute to the 186th birthday of Leo Tolstoy, the legendary Russian author, who wrote stories of epic proportion that were powerful as much for their descriptions of characters' everyday actions as they were for the monumental events they depicted. "War and Peace," arguably his most well-known work, is considered by many to be the one of the greatest novels of all time.
Born to a wealthy Russian family and raised at the estate of Yasnaya Polyana in Russia's Tula Province, Tolstoy lost both of his parents at an early age. Proving unsuccessful as a student, he dropped out of university and, following a short-lived stint as a farmer on his family's estate, joined the army and fought in the Crimean War.
Having developed the habit of keeping a journal while working as a farmer, Tolstoy began to write more seriously while in the army. His first story was called "Childhood," which was based on his best childhood memories. The story was accepted at a prominent publication and put Tolstoy on the beginning of his path toward literary success. He continued writing throughout his time in the military and produced several other stories, including a sequel to "Childhood" called "Boyhood" – forming the first two novels of his autobiographical trilogy – as well as stories that experimented with a stream-of-consciousness style.
Upon returning from war, he continued his work as a writer, for which he eventually earned a stature of celebrity. Between 1869 and 1877, he produced his two greatest works: "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina."
"War and Peace," set during the Napoleonic Wars, describes the French invasion of Russia as told from the perspective of five different wealthy Russian families. "Anna Karenina," however, tells a smaller story, detailing the tragic affair of a married aristocratic woman with a wealthy count. Fictionalizing events from his own romantic past, and using Russia's war with Turkey as a backdrop, the novel has been praised over the years for its realism and style. The book's first line is emblematic both of the book's themes and of Tolstoy's virtuosity as a writer: "All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Later in life, he experienced severe spiritual, religious, and political controversies. He broke with Christianity, having come to believe in the inherent corruption of the church, and began to voice his own separate, controversial beliefs – which attracted attention from the Russian secret police. On a more personal level, he became obsessed with his own mortality, an obsession that fueled the creation of one of his most notable later works, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," published in 1886. In the short novella, a judge named Ivan Ilyich fatally injures himself while hanging curtains in his apartment. As the character subsequently struggles with his impending death, he realizes that his life has been a waste, a selfish existence full of trivial, pointless matters.
Tolstoy's final years were, in part, consumed with more overt political activity, often imbued with an anarchist spirit and a desire to champion the downtrodden and the poor. He supported the Boxers in the Boxer Rebellion against foreign intervention in China at the end of the 19th Century. He circulated the work of anarchist intellectuals in Russia. And in 1908, he penned a letter espousing his belief in non-violent resistance as a means for India to break from British colonial rule. That letter made its way into the hands of a young Indian lawyer working in South Africa at the time named Mohandas Gandhi. The letter was influential to Gandhi as he embarked on his life as an activist. It also sparked a correspondence between the two men.
Tolstoy died in 1910. While his fervent political and religious beliefs, much of which he captured eloquently in letters and essays, added to his place in history, it was his ability as a storyteller and prose stylist that continues to inspire readers and fellow writers to this day. A 2007 list in Time of the top 10 greatest books of all time placed "Anna Karenina" at No. 1 and "War and Peace" at No. 3.
Tuesday's doodle is a testament to the richness of the worlds Tolstoy created – complex, tragic, beautiful stories complemented by a vast landscape that is also hauntingly personal. Portraying scenes from "Ivan Ilyich," "Anna Karenina," and "War and Peace," the images are laid out in a "stagelike format." As one clicks the doodle, the images move from left to right, each scene portraying key moments from the books. Like the writer did with his inimitable style, these scenes reveal the power of domestic moments – a couple holding hands, figures at a party exchanging mischievous glances. They show that everyday moments say much, quietly.
In a description of how the doodle was conceived, artist Roman Muradov writes, "It seemed fitting to focus on Tolstoy's central theme of dualism and to highlight his stylistic nuances through the rhythm of the sequences – the almost full moon against the almost starless night, the red of Anna's handbag, Ivan's fatal curtains that stand between him and the light of his spiritual awakening."