Aleksey was the son of Count Nikolay Alexandrovich Tolstoy (1849–1900) and Alexandra Leontievna Turgeneva (1854–1906). His mother was a grand-niece of Decembrist Nikolay Turgenev and a relative of the renowned Russian writer Ivan Turgenev. His father belonged to the Tolstoy family of Russian nobles and was a remote relative of Leo Tolstoy.
According to author and historian Nikolai Tolstoy, a distant relative,
The circumstances of Alexei Tolstoy's birth parallel in striking resemblance those of another relative, Alexei Constantinovich, the great lyric poet, after whom he was named. His father had been a rake—hell cavalry officer, whose rowdy excesses proved too much even for his fellow hussars. He was obliged to leave his regiment and the two capital cities, and retired to an estate in Samara, Russia. There he met and married Alexandra Leontievna Turgenev, a lively girl of good family, but slender means. She bore him two sons, Alexander and Mstislav, and a daughter Elizabeth. But the wild blood of the Tolstoys did not allow him to settle down to an existing domestic harmony. Within a year the retired hussar had been exiled to Kostroma for insulting the Governor of Samara. When strings were eventually pulled to arrange his return, he celebrated it by provoking a fellow-noble to a duel. This was more than his high-spirited wife could stand. She found life intolerable with the turbulent Count and inevitably fell in love with a staid, kindly young gentleman of suitably liberal and anti-aristocratic proclivities named Alexei Appollonovich Bostrom. In May 1882, already two months pregnant with her fourth child, Alexandra fled into the arms of her lover. The scandal that followed was appalling. The Count loosed off his revolver at Bostrom and was exculpated by the courts, whilst the ecclesiastical court in granting a divorce ruled that the guilty wife should never be allowed to remarry. In order to keep the expected baby, Alexandra was compelled to assert that it was Bostrom's child. Ostracized by society and even for some years by her own parents, she left with her lover for Nikolaevsk, where he held a modest post in local government.
Due in part to their rejection by both the Russian nobility and the Church, Aleksei Bostrom and Alexandra Tolstoy raised Aleksei in a staunchly atheistic and anti-monarchist environment. Aleksei would insist in later years that they were also great admirers of the writings of Karl Marx and Georgi Plekhanov.
Although he was officially registered as the son of Count Tolstoy, until the age of thirteen, Aleksey had lived under the name of Bostrom and never suspected that Aleksey Bostrom was not his biological father. Even after learning the truth, he still considered Aleksey Bostrom his true father and refused ever to see Count Nikolai Tolstoy or his older siblings.
Nikolai Tolstoy comments that
As with so many Russian children at that time, little Alexei picked up his earliest education at home. There were lessons with his not over-strict tutor, his mother taught him to read and write, and his step-father read aloud to them in the evenings from the writings of Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev (to both of whom Alexei was related through his parents). His attention was perfunctory, and in his earliest years it was his imagination and dreams which absorbed his energy. His mother was an amateur writer and poetess of modest abilities but infectious enthusiasm. When he was ten, she urged Alexei to write stories. He did so, and both were delighted to find how easily prose flowed from his pen, despite his inattentiveness at formal instruction. His mother's encouragement bore swift fruit, and with every year his talent became more apparent.
In 1896, the fourteen-year-old boy was sent to school, and in the following year he attended the high school in Samara. There he studied physics, chemistry, engineering, and other more practical subjects than he would have learned had he attended the aristocratic gymnasium. That he resented the unjust discrepancy is attested by his adoption of his true surname.
After his family sold their farm and moved to Samara, the family's meagre finances were even further reduced. There were still benefits for Aleksei, however. Samara possessed a large public library, where the young boy first encountered the adventure stories of James Fenimore Cooper, Jules Verne, Thomas Mayne Reid, and Victor Hugo. It was the latter writer who awakened the most enthusiasm in him. Aleksei later wrote,
With angry sweeps of his broom, he dispelled the dreary world of petit-bourgeois existence, and drew me into the world of the Great Man.
In 1900, Count Nikolai Tolstoy died, having left his estranged son with an inheritance of 30,000 rubles and an ancient name. According to biographers, this in itself is a testimony to Alexei's paternity, as a Russian nobleman of the time would never have left such an inheritance to another man's bastard.
Nikolai Tolstoy reports that,
Thanks to the unexpected legacy received from his real father, who had died abroad the previous year, Alexei was now able to take up further studies in St. Petersburg. Eager to join the exciting throng of student life, he enrolled in a coaching establishment outside the city. Overcoming his former lethargy, he was soon studying for thirteen hours a day. By September, he had applied himself sufficiently to obtain a place at the St. Petersburg Technological Institute. After the intensive work required to enter, he found life there delightfully free and easy. Attendance at lectures was not compulsory at any case, and increasing political unrest caused alternating student strikes and police closure to disrupt whatever work was in progress. To a boy from Alexei Tolstoy's sheltered upbringing, it was all intoxicatingly exciting. Like most of his comrades, he was hostile to the government and spent much time in heated political discussions. On 12 February 1902, he took part in a protest march on Nevsky Prospekt which was broken up by police and Cossacks, and he was enrolled in the Institute's Social Democratic Party. He was popular with the students, who elected him to their committees. But his enthusiasm for politics was perfunctory and eclectic, and when the Social Democratic Party split into Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, he joined neither grouping. He was essentially a liberal humanist at this impressionable stage of his life. He intensely dislike the existing social system, but thought Socialist promises of a coming society as terrestrial heaven too absurd for contemplation.
In June 1902, the nineteen-year-old Aleksei married Julia Rozhansky – the daughter of a provincial doctor – who was also studying in St. Petersburg. After several years of marriage, Aleksei travelled to Dresden, Germany, where he met Sophia Dymshits, the sister of Leo Dymshits, his friend and fellow student. Aleksei was instantly smitten and, desiring to protect his sister's reputation, Leo Dymshits immediately fled with her back to St. Petersburg. Aleksei, however, was not put off.
He also returned to St. Petersburg and began openly pursuing Sophia at her parents' home. Although hopelessly in love, Sophia was well aware that they were both still married to other people. Therefore, she suggested that Aleksei take a trip abroad with his wife before coming to a final decision. After a trip to Italy in the summer of 1907, Aleksei left his horrified wife and infant son and began a common law marriage with Sophia.
Aleksei and Sophia took a "second honeymoon" in Karelia, where the young Count wrote obsessively in a retreat they both christened "The Cat House."
According to Nikolai Tolstoy,
After returning to St. Petersburg from their love-nest, the young couple took the well trodden path to the Russian Mecca, Paris. Whilst there, he heard from Julia that his three-year-old son had died of meningitis, the same dreadful scourge that had struck down his mother. Sophia claimed in a pious official memoir published in Moscow in 1973 that Alexei, 'took the child's death very much to heart.' One may question this. The father, after all, made no attempt to visit his ailing son before his lonely end, nor did he return for the funeral (though he did make another, business journey to Petersburg from Paris). As subsequent events were to show, he could evince extraordinary callousness toward individual members of the human race, whatever his broadly liberal viewpoint toward the species at large.
Within Paris's Russian community, Aleksei's eccentricities quickly caught the notice of other emigres. In Nikolai Tolstoy's account,
Alexei was at pains to stress his Russian origin, appearing everywhere in a fur coat and hat. When spring arrived, he took to more resplendent garb, sporting a top hat and English frock coat. He was beginning to relish the belated discovery that there were distinct advantages to being Count Alexei Tolstoy, now that he was among people who knew nothing of his humiliated upbringing. It was a happy time. Russian poets and painters crowded Paris, and long and noisy sessions continued deep into the night at the restaurant La Closerie des Lilas. There Tolstoy came to know the poet Constantine Balmont, the painter Elizabeth Kruglikova, and the writers Ilya Ehrenburg and Maximilian Voloshin. In August, he wrote to his stepfather that his continued success in writing had earned him extraordinary acclaim among the Paris Russians. The only sour note was scarcely a fair one, 'With such a name, he ought to do better.' Voloshin more shrewdly suggested that Alexei, with his real talent, could profit by it. 'You know, you are an extremely talented and interesting man,' he ventured one day. 'You certainly ought to be the one to carry on the old tradition of the literary, "nest of gentlefolk,"' Tolstoy, he added, should achieve a suitable style and write a massive epic.
Aleksei and Sophia returned to Russia in the summer of 1910 and set up house in a flat along Nevsky Prospekt. By this time, Aleksei's writings had earned the praise of Maxim Gorky, who urged his readers to, "look to the new Tolstoy," for a powerful depiction of the collapse of the Russian provincial gentry.
Meanwhile, Aleksei wrote and published his "Trans-Volga" series. According to Sophia,
Usually … Alexei Nikolaevich read them to me, avoiding the presence of visitors. But this time, he was so thrilled with his stories, and so proud of them, that he did not wait for the departure of our guest (a waitress) but came out of his study with the manuscript in his hands and straight into the dining room and, resting his elbows on the back of a chair, stood reading the story. We both responded enthusiastically."
The success of the "Trans-Volga" stories brought further financial stability to Aleksei and Sophia. After another journey to Paris and the birth of their daughter Mariana, the Tolstoy family began renting quarters in the Moscow palace of Prince Scherbatov. As a successful writer, Aleksei and his "wife" were soon in demand at the homes of both titled nobles and newly moneyed industrialists.
Nikolai Tolstoy writes that,
Despite these triumphs, the couple's home life was entering on a troubled period. On holiday in the Crimea in the spring of 1914, Alexei became greatly drawn to a young ballerina, Margarita Kandaurov. The break with Sophia was as abrupt as it had been with Julia. Out on a stroll, Alexei said significantly, 'I feel that this winter you're going to leave me.' Sophia did not reply, but took the hint and departed for another visit to Paris. The baby Mariana was deposited with an aunt. The outbreak of war in August caused Sophia to return to Russia, but though his seventeen-year-old ballerina soon left him, he and his mistress lived separate lives thereafter. Mariana, however, came to live with her father two years later. By December, Tolstoy had established himself with another mistress, Natalia Vasilievna Volkenstein, who was separated from her husband. They did not marry until after the February Revolution, as Natalia was unable to secure a divorce.
By the time the Romanov Dynasty was replaced by Aleksandr Kerensky's Russian Provisional Government, Aleksei's liaison with Natalia had produced a son, Nikita Tolstoy. At first despising the Bolsheviks, Aleksei once vowed to put out the eyes of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky if they fell into his hands. As a result, he sided with the White Army during the civil war which followed the October Revolution. After the defeat of Wrangel's Army in 1920, the Tolstoys were evacuated from Odessa and settled in Paris as White emigres.
Historian Nikolai Tolstoy writes,
The city was crowded with Russian refugees of every type and class. Princes and generals swept streets, waited on cafes and, if they were lucky, drove taxis. The Tolstoys were no exception amid the general misery. Staying at first with friends, and later in a flat crowded with other Russians, they were totally dependent on what work Natalia could find as a seamstress. Alexei was greatly depressed at this life of privation, which was not many degrees better than that which they had left Moscow to escape. He missed acutely the old life of ease and amusement. The Revolution had come at just the wrong moment. After years of struggle, he had begun to achieve artistic recognition and material success, while here he was worse off than he had been in 1908, when he had only a hundred rubles in the world. Now, as then, he found his refuge in, 'the troubled waters of literature.'
While living in France, Aleksei began writing a lengthy historical novel titled, The Road to Calvary, which tracked the period from 1914 to 1919 including the Russian Civil War. He also wrote several plays. However, by 1921, he was bothered by the Gallicisms appearing in his son's spoken Russian language. Declaring that his son was becoming a foreigner, Aleksei moved the family to Berlin, which was then one of the main centers of the Russian diaspora. While there, he eventually began collaborating with Maxim Gorky on the Pro-Soviet journal Nakanune.
Ilya Ehrenburg later recalled,
There was a place in Berlin that reminded one of Noah's Ark, where the clean and unclean met peacefully; it was called the House of Arts and was just a common German cafe where Russian writers gathered on Fridays. Stories were read aloud by Tolstoy, Remizov, Lidin, Pilnyak, Sokolov-Mikitov. Mayakovsky declaimed. Yesenin, Marina Tsvetayeva, Andrei Bely, Pasternak, Khodasevich recited poetry... On one occasion, E. Chirikov came in, sat down next to Mayakovsky, and listened quietly. Today this strikes me as almost incredible. Two or three years later, the poet Khodasevich (to say nothing of Chirikov) would not have dreamt of entering a place where Mayakovsky was present. Apparently, not all the dice had been cast yet. There were people who called Gorky the 'semi emigre'. Khodasevich, who later worked on the monarchist newspaper Vozrozhdeniye (Regeneration), edited a literary journal with Gorky and talked of going back to Russia. Alexey Tolstoy, surrounded by Smena Vekh (Change of Landmark) people, alternately praised the Bolsheviks as, 'unifiers of the Russian land,' and indulged in angry abuse. The fog was still swirling.
Eventually, however, Aleksei reached an end to his impasse. According to Ehrenburg,
Alexey Tolstoy sat in silent gloom puffing at his pipe, then, suddenly appeased, he would break into a smile. He once said to me, 'You'll see, no literature will come out of the emigration. Emigration can kill any author within two or three years.' He knew that he would soon be going home.
In May 1923, Aleksei returned to Russia for a brief visit and received a hero's welcome. After addressing packed audiences about, "the contemptible nature of the White emigration," he returned to Berlin to put his affairs in order.
In his farewell editorial printed in Nakanune, Aleksei wrote,
I am leaving with my family for the homeland forever. If there are people here abroad close to me, my words are addressed to them. Do I go to happiness? Oh, no: Russia is going through hard times. Once again she is enveloped by a wave of hatred... I am going home to a hard life.
Writing in 1983, Nikolai Tolstoy commented,
In fact, he never experienced the 'hard life' of which he wrote, and it seems certain that he never expected to do so. Clearly, he would not have contemplated return without the motives already noted: a profound patriotism and nostalgie de la boue. It was probably Mayakovsky who finally persuaded him to take the crucial step in Berlin, together with overtures from members of the Soviet diplomatic mission. (Some fifteen years ago, I received a similarly flattering invitation from a high Soviet official). They would certainly have assured him as to the social status that an artist would enjoy in a society where the artist was for the first time freed from the degrading shackles of bourgeois patronage. On a more prosaic note it was clear that Mayakovsky and artists like him enjoyed a comfortable standard of life, unaffected by the appalling tribulations suffered by ordinary Russians.
In 1937, Tolstoy was elected to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union.
Tolstoy became a full member of the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1939.
Alexey Nikolaevitch Tolstoy was credited by Counsellor Smirnov, a Soviet prosecution lawyer at the Nuremberg Trials of being the first person to 'ascertain without reasonable doubt' the use of gas vans by the Nazis to commit genocide. Approximately 600,000 people were murdered by the Nazis in gas vans during World War II. 153,000 at Chelmno extermination camp, Poland, where the gas vans were the main tool of Nazi genocide. He died on 23 February 1945 in Moscow.
The following is from trial transcript of 19 February 1946: "the mass extermination of people in gas vans was ascertained without reasonable doubt for the first time in the report of the Extraordinary State Commission on atrocities of the German occupiers in the Stavropol region. This document was submitted to the Tribunal by me earlier as Exhibit Number USSR-1 (Document USSR-1). Investigation of the crimes committed by the German fascists in the Stavropol region was directed by a prominent Soviet writer and member of the Extraordinary State Commission, Academician Alexey Nikolaevitch Tolstoy, who now is deceased."
Aleksey Tolstoy is credited with having produced some of the earliest works of science fiction in the Russian language. His novels Aelita (1923) about a journey to Mars and The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1927) have gained immense public popularity. The former spawned an pioneering sci-fi movie in 1924. His supernatural short story Count Cagliostro also inspired the 1984 film Formula of Love. In addition, several other movies released throughout the history of the USSR were based on Tolstoy's novels.
Tolstoy also penned several books for children, starting with Nikita's Childhood, a memorable account of his early years (the book is sometimes mistakenly believed to be about his son, Nikita; in truth, however, he only used the name because it was his favorite – and he would later give it to his eldest son). Most notably, in 1936, he created an 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.
According to his distant relative, the conservative author, historian and ardent monarchist Nikolai Tolstoy,
Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy's life remains in large part an enigma... It is not hard to believe that the degrading personal role he undertook in Soviet society exerted a damaging effect on his creative capacity. His personal character was without question beneath contempt, reflecting as it did the pitiful morality of many contemporary European intellectuals. His friend Ilya Ehrenburg wrote once that Tolstoy would do anything for a quiet life, and his personal philosophy rose no higher than this confessio vitae, uttered when an exile in Paris: 'I only know this: the thing that I loathe most of all is walking in town with empty pockets, looking in shop windows without the possibility of buying anything – that's real torture for me.' There was no lie, betrayal, or indignity which he would not hasten to commit in order to fill those empty pockets, and in Stalin he found a worthy master. Few families have produced a higher literary talent than Leo Tolstoy, but few have sunk to one as degraded as Alexei Nikolaevich.
Professor Gleb Struve, a former White Army soldier and committed anti-Communist, made the following assessment of the writer in 1941
Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy is, without doubt, one of the most gifted Russian writers of the 20th century…But—and this is the point—this man, endowed with so many extraordinary gifts and sharing the heritage of the great age of Russian literature, lacks one quality which distinguished all of the great Russian poets and writers : a sense of moral and social responsibility. His essence is that of a cynic and opportunist. After about five years' exile in Berlin, during which he professed to be a monarchist, he returned to Russia. His subsequent change over from monarchism to communism was too quick and effortless to be sincere. He surpassed his less able colleagues in the art of glorifying Stalin by drawing subtle analogies between the latter and Peter the Great. He made a rapid career, became one of the leaders of the officially sponsored Association of Authors, and was recently awarded the highest academic distinction in Russia, the Stalin Prize...I think this is sufficient to show that Alexei has not got a grain of that grandeur which made his namesake the undisputed moral authority in Russia, of whom even the most obscurantist Tsarist Ministers were afraid. No one in Russia, not even Alexei's most ardent admirers (and there are many), would dream of putting him into the same category as that great, sincere and fiery old heretic, Leo Tolstoy. There is, therefore, nothing remarkable in the fact that this brilliant and faithful bard of Stalin was called upon to extol Pan-Slavism, if that is what his master wanted.
In 1974, a minor planet was discovered by Soviet astronomer Lyudmila Zhuravlyova and named 3771 Alexejtolstoj after the Red Count.Lirika, a poetry collection (1907)
The Ordeal (1918)
Nikita's Childhood (1921)
The Road to Calvary, a trilogy (1921–40, Stalin Prize in 1943)
The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (aka The Garin Death Ray) (1926)
Peter I (1929–34, Stalin Prize in 1941)
A Week in Turenevo (published posthumously, 1958)
Count Cagliostro (supernatural short story)