Count Tolstoy, the Russian Peasant, July 10, 1902

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Miss Jane Addams Reviews His Life and Sets Forth the Teachings of the Russian Peasant.

The Hall was crowded yesterday afternoon at 5 o'clock, to hear Miss Addams on "Count Tolstoy, the Russian Peasant," and many were unable to get within sound of her voice. Dr. George E. Vincent, in introducing Miss Addams, said it was so evident why the audience was there that a formal introduction of the speaker was hardly necessary. Miss Addams spoke as follows:

Russia has many times been called the land of the New Testament. It is the land where the New Testament is being taken not with the interpretation of scholars or the underlying traditions, but where it is being taken in its literal form. Whether it was ever meant to be taken literally and acted upon literally without the historical background, is another matter. However much we may differ in regard to that, there is no doubt that many Russian peasants are doing the things they believe the New Testament bids them do. Then, also, we have to acknowledge that the study of human life is gradually shaping itself from the study of the individual to the contemplation of the men at the base of society, the men who make possible for us the food we eat, the houses we live in, the clothes we wear, the nine-tenths or more of the people in the world who work with their hands. If we are interested in these phenomena, then, if for no other reason, Count Tolstoy, who tried so hard to get at and interpret the peasant point of view, must be of interest. Of late years he has refused to write anything which would not formulate itself so clearly that it formulated the experience and could be understood by the Russian peasant. He literally submits his writings to the peasants about him.

Count Tolstoy was born in 1828, of a Russian family who had lived always very closely with their own peasants. In spite of the governmental officialism of Russia there has always been between different classes of people a feeling of comradeship. This is partly due to the fact that they were scattered in little villages; and partly from the Russian land tenure. And this is the best kind of companionship. Companionship is engendered only when people have a mutual interest in a mutual cause. Some such companionship existed traditionally between the family and their tenants.

In the university, Tolstoy was awakened by a peasant. He went to an evening party, leaving outside his coachman, a peasant, to wait until the party should end. When he comes away, he finds his coachman frozen, as he thinks, to death. The man is resuscitated finally, but Tolstoy never recovered from that moment of horror, and he could not bear the thought that while he was enjoying himself the coachman without was waiting patiently, as he thought, for death. This doing what your hand is set to do seems to Tolstoy the burden of the life of the working people; never to know consciously what part you are playing, but to be obliged to work to do something which somebody else has told you, to lose your interest in life as well as the products of your labor -- that accordingly to Tolstoy is the tragedy of the people.

As we go into Tolstoy's life and character, we must remember that he is a Russian and deals with conditions as they are in Russia and not as they are in other European countries. Many things true for Russia would not be true for other people. This is what constitutes a genius – a man with a splendid mind and outlook, acting and reacting on his environment. He can only interpret the things which he sees; he does not dare to interpret the things he does not see. But he does know Russia and the peasants, and in formulating the griefs and joys of them he must formulate for other countries.

After Tolstoy left the university, which he did before he took his degree, and went to live on his estate, he tried various experiments to help the conditions of the peasants. In every agricultural reform, he maintained, there are three things which have to be taken into consideration -- the nature of the climate, the nature of the soil, and the temperament of the people, and in making any changes in any agricultural country, these three things must be reckoned with. The first thing he wanted to do was to consider the temperament of the people he was dealing with. He set up schools on his estate much after the manner of Pestalozzi, living with the children until they bore to him the relations that they bore to any familiar object, and could act before him naturally and unconsciously. These experiments have been written down. He published a little book recording all the data, and which will have to be considered when great educators are considered. But it seemed to him that to teach such people as he was dealing with to read and write was rather futile.

He went to Moscow, and was persuaded to go into the army, where he served two years. He had something to do with the Crimean war, and was in the siege of Sebastopol. He seems to have gained at that time a terrible experience of bloodshed and warfare which impressed him not so much with the horror as with the futility, of it all. Here he looked at war from the point of view of the man who does not know what it is all about. This, again, seemed to him analogous to the great industrial movement and the situation of the men who are behind all industrial society. He wrote during this period such books as "The Cossacks" and "The Siege of Sebastopol," which made him famous throughout Russia. While they expressed his idea of the futility of war, he did not become so strenuous that he frightened the authorities. His works were published in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and were very much lauded, so that he was greeted at the close of his service, as a great author. At that time [Turgenev] was in the height of his power also.

I suppose in this age any thoughtful person would have to admit that at certain times he labored under something which we cannot very well formulate but which we might call a conviction of sin in regard to a social conscience. Many of us see no clear way out, but we are at least not comfortable with things as they are. No one has as yet formulated that for America. Carlyle and others have done it for England. In Russia this conviction of sin in regard to the condition of the peasantry was first taken up by [Turgenev], and from this time on by Tolstoy. [Turgenev] regretted that he had given up so much time to it and that he had given over art to the simpler conception of conscience and religion. These two men were not friends, and the efforts of others to bring them together always resulted in friction, though when the two were apart they performed many kindly acts for each other.

Tolstoy lived in Moscow for some time, the life of the young men of the town. He was very much sought after and invited around, but he was always drawn back from these pleasures by the thought of the laboring peasants. He finally went back to his estate to live in 1862. From that time on for perhaps fifteen years he lived a comparatively quiet life. He at this time wrote his novels and travels. In 1879, when fifty years old, he met a peasant, Sutayeff, who radically changed his point of view. Tolstoy was at this time feeling very strongly the great upheaval going on all through Russia. The early seventies had poured into it the fine sensibilities of the students of the universities, who felt the oppression of the government keenly, and that the ten years of the reign of Alexander II, had not justified the high hopes which the emancipation of the serfs had engendered. They were men and women who felt the futility of the situation, but who stir one's blood as one reads their heroic efforts. They thought the only way to help Russia was to teach Russia. So they went into all the villages and took any kind of position which would bring them face to face with the people and give them an opportunity to teach. They appealed always to Tolstoy to help them, but Tolstoy never quite saw how that was going to help. He said, "You come to the peasants to present a higher morality. But they have a higher morality; they live co-operatively; they are peaceable and quiet What could be gained by a revolt?"

In 1878 the movement resulted in the Terrorist Movement, and culminated with the assassination of the czar in 1881. During all this Tolstoy was outside the movement. He sympathized with their sense of wrong but not with their methods. At the time of the assassination of the czar, he said that the inciting of revolution against wrong is sure to end in resort to violence; it means that you may oppose one wrong with another wrong, and this is to get away from the teaching of the New Testament. He never could formulate this until he met two peasants, Sutayeff in 1879, and Bondereff in 1885. These men directed the power of his life. One must get information regarding Sutayeff more from Tolstoy's novels than from his direct statements. He feels so strongly about it that in his direct writings he overstates the matter. In "War and Peace" when Pierre is captured by the French he meets a Russian peasant. In the midst of his suffering and doubt and sense of futility he suddenly finds a philosophy in this man. This unattractive peasant with his simple rule of living changes the life of Pierre. He says in substance, "Live in the things of the soul, and remember God." Tolstoy would interpret it "Live in the right relationships with the people about you. Insist on knowing them on the better side, and maintain a recipience involving affection. Never allow yourself to dislike anyone. If you do not like him, it is because you do not see what in him is worth liking. Make yourself do so -- it is a matter of training. If we do not see the good in a man, we get farther and farther away from right relations." Tolstoy set himself to seeing what was right in the government itself, in the officials, and even in the weak, vacillating czar. When he preached this to the young enthusiasts they were much disappointed. They called him an enemy of the people.

Tolstoy formulated himself rather slowly. It took him several years to come to his principles of non-resistance. This principle is not negative. He would turn into moral forces all the forces that are used in war. Using our life as an active moral principle, there is nothing we could not do with it. He insists that the only end to strife is non-resistance, that this is the only way to live if one wants peace with his fellows. Kennan, after his travels in Siberia, among the exiles, went to Tolstoy, whom they considered the only person whom the czar respected among the reformers, and he told to Tolstoy the terrible tales of the exiles. Tolstoy listened to it all and then said he could tell even worse ones. He does not dull himself by not knowing the situation. Kennan tells him of the revolt of some of the women prisoners in Siberia who were underfed. Tolstoy exclaims, "What, have they not learned from all their suffering yet? They tried to incite force against the government. The government retaliated. And yet they still think they can do so." He tells the peasants, "If you think it is wrong to go to war, do not go. If you are put in prison for it, go to prison. If one has a glimmering of a moral principle, he should put it into action, and if one does not put it into action he does not believe it at all."

Tolstoy, instead of being on the side of the Nihilists, is held up as preaching a moral system which would weaken the peasantry. He not only urges them to use this principle of non-resistance, but he believes it is the only positive thing to do. All over the world this has to be learned. We know that as war goes on it means more expensive arms and other instruments of war, which the stronger has. Daily the fight becomes more unequal, until there is nothing left but this exertion of moral power, on which alone men are equal. So Tolstoy looks at it, as a matter of wisdom, that the only way to overthrow oppressive government, is by this [page 2] non-resistance. The only man in all the Russias, of all the men who have said things such as Tolstoy has said, is this man who counsels non-resistance. When I was in Russia, some people who had read his forbidden books surreptitiously were arrested and sent to Siberia. He wrote an open letter saying he thought it was unjust for the people who read his books to be exiled, and he, the author, not to be arrested. The czar did nothing: but his grandfather would have said, "You can do nothing with a genius."

His second principal came into his life much later, and this again from a peasant. After the assassination of Alexander II, all Russia subsided into a sort of quietude in which Tolstoy more or less shared. During the winter of 1884-5, there was a great deal of distress in Moscow, not unlike that in New York and Chicago in the winter of 1893-4, following the great financial panic. Tolstoy, who was living in Moscow, was moved to do what he could to relieve the distress of the poor people there. During this time he wrote his little book, "What To Do." He went about day after day investigating cases reported to him. Something came over him at the end of that time, a sense of self-reproach, a feeling that he had somehow failed in his life or things would not be as they were then. That sense of responsibility does come now and then to the individual. Unless that does not come from time to time, one does not see how social wrongs are ever to be righted. To Tolstoy there seems to be something wrong when he is living in idleness and at the same time people around him are seeking an opportunity to work. That contrast of plenty and want we have from time to time felt. Tolstoy, looked about, as he had before, for a cause, and as in the previous case, it was a peasant who gave him a formulation. This time he went to an old peasant named Bondereff, who had written a book (afterwards published through Tolstoy) called "Bread Labor," in which he "lays" down the rule that no man can be happy unless he labors enough with his hands to supply his own wants. After that let him do what he pleases to supply his own and other people's spiritual wants. The formulation of this character one finds in [Levin] in his novel, "Anna Karenina." Although [Levin] has his property, and is happily married, he still finds that he is altogether unhappy. He is often impelled to ask what it is all for, what is the significance of it all, why we are going round and round in this useless way. One day he sees some mowers working in his field. He is seized with the desire to mow, and so goes in and works with them for a day. He gets into the swing of the workmen. Quite unconsciously he gets into a sense of brotherhood He is working side by side with a peasant with whom he has a dispute. Near him is another peasant whom he, as a magistrate, has had to fine for beating his wife. He finds that all the men have grave faults, but as he mows along with them he feels that they are very fine fellows and that he is a very fine fellow, too, and all his unhappiness drops away. Although he gets very tired, he keeps on till the end of the day. The peasants, as they go home, all drop him a kind of fraternal good-night. When they all go away his loneliness comes on again, and he realizes that he is lonely because he is outside of this life. We are all surrounded by natural wants, and if we shift them off they drop onto the backs of other people. That, in many ways, is what Tolstoy says over and over again.

Tolstoy always acted on what he believed. For the sake of a principle he gave up his property, and lives very simply, and at the age of fifty began to live as a peasant, performing each day a certain amount of labor with his hands. A man fifty years old does not make a radical change in his habits very easily. Here, again, Tolstoy compelled attention by his deed. He believes enough in his principle, whether it is right or wrong, to work it out. He puts into action what he believes to be the moral values of life.