His other family: The peasants

At times Leo Tolstoy sings the praises of the peasants and their way of life so loudly and spends such long hours working beside them in the fields that his wife Sophia feels threatened by their influence. She hates seeing Aksinya Bazykin, the mother of Tolstoy’s love child, and is paranoid about how many other women on the estate he has slept with.

Back in 1848 Tolstoy opened schools for the children of his serfs, closing them down when he joined the military. On his return in 1855, he reopens one in his home. Eventually there are 14 in the district although the students have no obligation to attend, are not expected to do homework, and are not punished for wrongdoing. Tolstoy wants them to learn out of interest, not in an authoritarian environment where they have to learn facts by rote. The teachers are students from the city paid per month per pupil. In 1859 an estimated one per cent of Russia’s 70 million people are literate (p56, Tolstoy, Simmons). After a few years he closes the schools again when he heads for Europe.

It is a tumultuous time for everyone in Russia because the ropes that bind masters and serfs are being untied. (Serfdom is a form of slavery.) When Tsar Alexander II comes to power in 1855 he promises to improve the legal rights of all his subjects. It would be better to officially put an end to serfdom, he says, not have it abolished from below, that is, via a revolution. Rather than wait for the wheels of government to turn, Tolstoy seeks permission to implement his own reform agenda. It is unsuccessful but he makes an offer to his own peasants anyway. At a meeting in the village square he tells the 300 or so household heads that he wants to grant them freedom by allowing them to lease back the land they have been farming for his sole profit so that in 30 years they can own it outright. To his frustration, they think he is playing a trick on them because it is rumoured that the land will be given to them outright.

Tolstoy likes to be a trend setter but abandons the plan until the emancipation manifesto is issued in 1861. He is appointed one of those who supervises the implementation of the new legislation and helps settle disputes between landowners and the serfs. The landowners in the district see him as a friend of the peasants and are displeased. After about 12 months of service he resigns, citing health reasons.

In early 1861 he brings home a German teacher from Europe and resumes his educational experiments. Again his interest wanes but in the year he brings home a wife, he starts a monthly educational magazine called, like his estate, Yasnaya Polyana. The 12 issues are full of Tolstoy’s theories on education, the goings on at his schools and reading matter for children. The minister of education is wary about the teaching methods advocated, and orders an investigation.

Generally Tolstoy’s schools get a favourable report. In part, it reads: “To establish a simple, easy and independent relationship between master and pupil; cultivate mutual affection and trust; free lessons from constraint and learning by rote; transform the school into a kind of family in which the teacher acts as parent; what could be better, more desirable more profitable for all?” There were some negative comments, however, about Tolstoy’s excusing the children from work, for relying on their taste to determine the quality of literature and other art forms – during this period Tolstoy was preoccupied with the fact that the simple tastes of the children should be respected. Perhaps the old folk tunes sung by boatmen were superior to the creations of the composers of the day, he argued, and the simple fairytales deserved as much praise as the work of the poets that had emerged in recent decades (p232, Tolstoy, Troyat).

Tolstoy’s enthusiasm for education reappears in the early 1870s when he produces a series of textbooks for children, reigniting his passion for teaching. Again he opens a school in the main house with he, Sophia and the children Sergey and Tanya acting as teachers. Within two years there are 70 schools throughout the district and, although it doesn’t eventuate, plans for an institution for training teachers.

Despite his efforts to educate the peasants, Tolstoy believes equality between people will flow not from educating the masses but from the upper classes disposing of their assets. This is the opposite attitude of his adoring young friend, the writer Anton Chekhov, who believes the position of peasants should be raised, through education and job opportunities and so on, not that the aristocracy should lower their living standards.