Life In The Country by Leo Tolstoy

Story type: Essay

But what is to be done? Surely it is not we who have done this? And if not we, who then?

We say: “We have not done this, this has done itself;” as the children say, when they break any thing, that it broke itself. We say, that, so long as there is a city already in existence, we, by living in it, support the people, by purchasing their labor and services. But this is not so. And this is why. We only need to look ourselves, at the way we have in the country, and at the manner in which we support people there.

The winter passes in town. Easter Week passes. On the boulevards, in the gardens in the parks, on the river, there is music. There are theatres, water-trips, walks, all sorts of illuminations and fireworks. But in the country there is something even better,–there are better air, trees and meadows, and the flowers are fresher. One should go thither where all these things have unfolded and blossomed forth. And the majority of wealthy people do go to the country to breathe the superior air, to survey these superior forests and meadows. And there the wealthy settle down in the country, and the gray peasants, who nourish themselves on bread and onions, who toil eighteen hours a day, who get no sound sleep by night, and who are clad in blouses. Here no one has led these people astray. There have been no factories nor industrial establishments, and there are none of those idle hands, of which there are so many in the city. Here the whole population never succeeds, all summer long, in completing all their tasks in season; and not only are there no idle hands, but a vast quantity of property is ruined for the lack of hands, and a throng of people, children, old men, and women, will perish through overstraining their powers in work which is beyond their strength. How do the rich order their lives there? In this fashion:–

If there is an old-fashioned house, built under the serf regime, that house is repaired and embellished; if there is none, then a new one is erected, of two or three stories. The rooms, of which there are from twelve to twenty, and even more, are all six arshins in height. {1} Wood floors are laid down. The windows consist of one sheet of glass. There are rich rugs and costly furniture. The roads around the house are macadamized, the ground is levelled, flower-beds are laid out, croquet- grounds are prepared, swinging-rings for gymnastics are erected, reflecting globes, often orangeries, and hotbeds, and lofty stables always with complicated scroll-work on the gables and ridges.

[Note:
{1} An arshin is twenty-eight inches.]

And here, in the country, an honest educated official, or noble family dwells. All the members of the family and their guests have assembled in the middle of June, because up to June, that is to say, up to the beginning of mowing-time, they have been studying and undergoing examinations; and they live there until September, that is to say, until harvest and sowing-time. The members of this family (as is the case with nearly every one in that circle) have lived in the country from the beginning of the press of work, the suffering time, not until the end of the season of toil (for in September sowing is still in progress, as well as the digging of potatoes), but until the strain of work has relaxed a little. During the whole of their residence in the country, all around them and beside them, that summer toil of the peasantry has been going on, of whose fatigues, no matter how much we may have heard, no matter how much we may have heard about it, no matter how much we may have gazed upon it, we can form no idea, unless we have had personal experience of it. And the members of this family, about ten in number, live exactly as they do in the city.

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At St. Peter’s Day, {2} a strict fast, when the people’s food consists of kvas, bread, and onions, the mowing begins.

[Note:
{2} The fast extends from the 5th to the
30th of June, O.S. (June 27 to July 12, N.S.)]

The business which is effected in mowing is one of the most important in the commune. Nearly every year, through the lack of hands and time, the hay crop may be lost by rain; and more or less strain of toil decides the question, as to whether twenty or more per cent of hay is to be added to the wealth of the people, or whether it is to rot or die where it stands. And additional hay means additional meat for the old, and additional milk for the children. Thus, in general and in particular, the question of bread for each one of the mowers, and of milk for himself and his children, in the ensuing winter, is then decided. Every one of the toilers, both male and female, knows this; even the children know that this is an important matter, and that it is necessary to strain every nerve to carry the jug of kvas to their father in the meadow at his mowing, and, shifting the heavy pitcher from hand to hand, to run barefooted as rapidly as possible, two versts from the village, in order to get there in season for dinner, and so that their fathers may not scold them.

Every one knows, that, from the mowing season until the hay is got in, there will be no break in the work, and that there will be no time to breathe. And there is not the mowing alone. Every one of them has other affairs to attend to besides the mowing: the ground must be turned up and harrowed; and the women have linen and bread and washing to attend to; and the peasants have to go to the mill, and to town, and there are communal matters to attend to, and legal matters before the judge and the commissary of police; and the wagons to see to, and the horses to feed at night: and all, old and young, and sickly, labor to the last extent of their powers. The peasants toil so, that on every occasion, the mowers, before the end of the third stint, whether weak, young, or old, can hardly walk as they totter past the last rows, and only with difficulty are they able to rise after the breathing-spell; and the women, often pregnant, or nursing infants, work in the same way. The toil is intense and incessant. All work to the extreme bounds of their strength, and expend in this toil, not only the entire stock of their scanty nourishment, but all their previous stock. All of them–and they are not fat to begin with–grow gaunt after the “suffering” season.

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Here a little association is working at the mowing; three peasants,–one an old man, the second his nephew, a young married man, and a shoemaker, a thin, sinewy man. This hay-harvest will decide the fate of all of them for the winter. They have been laboring incessantly for two weeks, without rest. The rain has delayed their work. After the rain, when the hay has dried, they have decided to stack it, and, in order to accomplish this as speedily as possible, that two women for each of them shall follow their scythes. On the part of the old man go his wife, a woman of fifty, who has become unfit for work, having borne eleven children, who is deaf, but still a tolerably stout worker; and a thirteen-year-old daughter, who is short of stature, but a strong and clever girl. On the part of his nephew go his wife, a woman as strong and well-grown as a sturdy peasant, and his daughter-in-law, a soldier’s wife, who is about to become a mother. On the part of the shoemaker go his wife, a stout laborer, and her aged mother, who has reached her eightieth year, and who generally goes begging. They all stand in line, and labor from morning till night, in the full fervor of the June sun. It is steaming hot, and rain threatens. Every hour of work is precious. It is a pity to tear one’s self from work to fetch water or kvas. A tiny boy, the old woman’s grandson, brings them water. The old woman, evidently only anxious lest she shall be driven away from her work, will not let the rake out of her hand, though it is evident that she can barely move, and only with difficulty. The little boy, all bent over, and stepping gently, with his tiny bare feet, drags along a jug of water, shifting it from hand to hand, for it is heavier than he. The young girl flings over her shoulder a load of hay which is also heavier than herself, advances a few steps, halts, and drops it, without the strength to carry it. The old woman of fifty rakes away without stopping, and with her kerchief awry she drags the hay, breathing heavily and tottering. The old woman of eighty only rakes the hay, but even this is beyond her strength; she slowly drags along her feet, shod with bast shoes, and, frowning, she gazes gloomily before her, like a seriously ill or dying person. The old man has intentionally sent her farther away than the rest, to rake near the cocks of hay, so that she may not keep in line with the others; but she does not fall in with this arrangement, and she toils on as long as the others do, with the same death-like, gloomy countenance. The sun is already setting behind the forest; but the cocks are not yet all heaped together, and much still remains to do. All feel that it is time to stop, but no one speaks, waiting until the others shall say it. Finally the shoemaker, conscious that his strength is exhausted, proposes to the old man, to leave the cocks until the morrow; and the old man consents, and the women instantly run for the garments, jugs, pitchforks; and the old woman immediately sits down just where she has been standings and then lies back with the same death-like look, staring straight in front of her. But the women are going; and she rises with a groan, and drags herself after them. And this will go on in July also, when the peasants, without obtaining sufficient sleep, reap the oats by night, lest it should fall, and the women rise gloomily to thresh out the straw for the bands to tie the sheaves; when this old woman, already utterly cramped by the labor of mowing, and the woman with child, and the young children, injure themselves overworking and over-drinking; and when neither hands, nor horses, nor carts will suffice to bring to the ricks that grain with which all men are nourished, and millions of poods {3} of which are daily required in Russia to keep people from perishing.

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[Note:

{3} A pood is thirty-six pounds.]

And we live as though there were no connection between the dying laundress, the prostitute of fourteen years, the toilsome manufacture of cigarettes by women, the strained, intolerable, insufficiently fed toil of old women and children around us; we live as though there were no connection between this and our own lives.

It seems to us, that suffering stands apart by itself, and our life apart by itself. We read the description of the life of the Romans, and we marvel at the inhumanity of those soulless Luculli, who satiated themselves on viands and wines while the populace were dying with hunger. We shake our heads, and we marvel at the savagery of our grandfathers, who were serf-owners, supporters of household orchestras and theatres, and of whole villages devoted to the care of their gardens; and we wonder, from the heights of our grandeur, at their inhumanity. We read the words of Isa. v. 8: “Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth! (11.) Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them! (12.) And the harp and the viol, and tabret and pipe, and wine are in their feasts; but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation of his hands. (18.) Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart- rope. (20.) Woe unto then that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (21.) Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight–(22.) Woe unto them that are mighty to drink wine, and men of strength to mingle strong drink.”

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We read these words, and it seems to us that this has no reference to us. We read in the Gospels (Matt. iii. 10): “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.”

And we are fully convinced that the good tree which bringeth forth good fruit is ourselves; and that these words are not spoken to us, but to some other and wicked people.

We read the words of Isa. vi. 10: “Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert and be healed. (11.) Then said I: Lord, how long? And he answered, Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate.”

We read, and are fully convinced that this marvellous deed is not performed on us, but on some other people. And because we see nothing it is, that this marvellous deed is performed, and has been performed, on us. We hear not, we see not, and we understand not with our heart. How has this happened?

Whether that God, or that natural law by virtue of which men exist in the world, has acted well or ill, yet the position of men in the world, ever since we have known it, has been such, that naked people, without any hair on their bodies, without lairs in which they could shelter themselves, without food which they could find in the fields,–like Robinson {4} on his island,–have all been reduced to the necessity of constantly and unweariedly contending with nature in order to cover their bodies, to make themselves clothing, to construct a roof over their heads, and to earn their bread, that two or three times a day they may satisfy their hunger and the hunger of their helpless children and of their old people who cannot work.

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[Note:

{4} Robinson Crusoe.]

Wherever, at whatever time, in whatever numbers we may have observed people, whether in Europe, in America, in China, or in Russia, whether we regard all humanity, or any small portion of it, in ancient times, in a nomad state, or in our own times, with steam-engines and sewing-machines, perfected agriculture, and electric lighting, we behold always one and the same thing,–that man, toiling intensely and incessantly, is not able to earn for himself and his little ones and his old people clothing, shelter, and food; and that a considerable portion of mankind, as in former times, so at the present day, perish through insufficiency of the necessaries of life, and intolerable toil in the effort to obtain them.

Wherever we have, if we draw a circle round us of a hundred thousand, a thousand, or ten versts, or of one verst, and examine into the lives of the people comprehended within the limits of our circle, we shall see within that circle prematurely-born children, old men, old women, women in labor, sick and weak persons, who toil beyond their strength, and who have not sufficient food and rest for life, and who therefore die before their time. We shall see people in the flower of their age actually slain by dangerous and injurious work.

We see that people have been struggling, ever since the world has endured, with fearful effort, privation, and suffering, against this universal want, and that they cannot overcome it . . . {5}

[Note:
{5} Here something has been omitted by the Censor, which I am unable to supply.–TRANS.]

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