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Salt of the Earth: The Duality of the Peasant in Anna Karenina

Updated on September 17, 2013


In addition to their inherent value as exemplary literary works, the major Russian novels of the 18th and 19th centuries are invaluable as a primer on the social self-identity of the time. Although the majority of novels written during this time period concern themselves primarily with the Russian state’s upper echelon, every facet of these works is structured on the complicated fabric of imperial Russian life, a system of stratification in which members of all levels of society affect the population as a whole. Although this is true in a very tangible sense – for the Russian empire was sustained on the sweat of an overwhelmingly large peasant class – this concept is also an integral component to the moral and spiritual stratification of Russian society. The Russian peasant, though being a the landslide statistical majority in the empire, was nonetheless the social inferior to the noble populations. Deprived of freedom, education, and committed to a life of hard physical labor (both as serf and later as peasant) the majority class found themselves at the mercy of the powerful landowner and businessman. This is not to say the peasant was utterly bereft of power; throughout Russian literature, in works such as Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Dead Souls, and countless novels, short stories and historical documents, the peasant acts as the bedrock of the Russian spiritual and moral establishment.

Serfs and Landholders

The relationship between peasant and noble is a complex one, for they are at once a symbol the necessity of labor to the continuation of the Russian state, and the extreme plutocracy of the prevailing system of government. Without the peasant, Russian society would not survive; they were a necessary evil, a mechanism for production in the eyes of the moneyed few. This relationship was no less complicated in the days of serfdom, although the institution allowed the wealthy a greater degree of control over the lives of the nation’s workforce. Informed in part by Tolstoy’s own political views and sympathy to the struggle of the Russian peasant, Anna Karenina offers a comprehensive view of this complex relationship, and the dualism inherent in the representation of Russia’s most populous social class.

A Nation Built By Workers

The lay perception of the Russian peasant conforms to a very narrow ideal, although this perception of a communal society of tightly knit families, working on private estates for generations often neglects the full scale of Russia’s peasant class. Russia is a nation whose prosperity is built nearly entirely on the sweat of the serf, the population of over one hundred million emancipated by Emperor Alexander II – commonly referred to as Alexander the Liberator – as part of the Emancipation Reform of 1861. It is unsurprising the peasantry formed the backbone of literary inquiry, for theirs was the most populous, if not the most powerful social class in Imperial Russia, represented in literature as the God-fearing and industrious counterpoint to the ennui and dissolute upper classes. “Through the early literature of Russia run the three great strands of Russian life – the People, the Church, and the State. The better Russian writers have all been in a peculiar degree writers of the people, that is, of the nation. The peasants were themselves an admirable literary foundation.” (Pares, 219) Tolstoy inhabited an interesting position somewhere between the worlds of “the people”: born to noble society, he turned his back on the burdens of money and government upon finding his spiritual and ethical convictions best reflected in the lives of the nation’s poor. “For Tolstoy the peasants were real people – those who work with their hands and feed the world with what they produce; they are close to nature and therefore closest to God.” (A. Tolstoy)

The Serf Relationship in Anna Karenina

Within the context of Anna Karenina, the difficult and multilayered relationship between the peasants and the aristocracy is best illustrated by the one of the novels protagonists, Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin. Levin, a wealthy landowner who spends a considerable portion of the novel under the influence of deep philosophical conflict, embodies the uncertainty and ambivalence towards the peasants. Like Tolstoy himself, Levin believes in the ability of the peasant to rise up from his humble roots and become a more educated and respected force within Russian society. Despite this belief in their ability to rise above, Levin at times finds within himself a sense of frustration with the humble ways of the peasant population on the estate:

“Constantine regarded the peasants as the chief partners in a common undertaking… though often filled with admiration for the strength, meekness and justice of these people, was very often (when the business required other qualities) exasperated with them for their carelessness, untidiness, drunkenness, and untruthfulness. Had Constantine been asked whether he liked the peasants, he would not have known what to answer.” (Tolstoy, 234)

This one passage exemplifies the complexities of the “Peasant Question” in 19th century Russia. The incomparably small population of Russian nobility and aristocracy recognizes that the peasant is the source of their wealth and industry. By the same token, the aristocracy sees the peasant as a child-like figure, their ward just as it is their commodity. “The muzhiks come, and say, ' Batyushka, help us, father.' Well, all these muzhiks are neighbors; I pity 'em. Well, I advance 'em the first third. Only I say, ' Remember, children, I help you; and you must help me when I need you, — sowing the oats, getting in the hay, harvesting.' Now, I get along with them as with my own family.” (Tolstoy)

Global Parallels To Russian Serfdom

This view is not unlike the prevailing sentiment of the British Empire towards occupied India during the same time period. The main distinction between the noble-peasant relationship in Russia and that in Imperial India, is in the fact that the British in India were an occupying force, contenting themselves with the idea of “civilizing” the Indian population, while subjugating the nation’s citizens and appropriating its resources to fuel the industrial revolution taking place back at home. In the case of the Russian serf, the aristocracy owned a large domestic force of its own subjects, using their labor to farm and develop its own native soil.

The institution of slave labor in Russia dates back to the 11th century, and therefore operated as a well-established, quasi-hereditary system until the Emancipation at the end of the 19th century. The authors of the 19th and 20th century were not so foolish as to believe that the position of the serf was correct, making the representation of the serf in works by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky even more peculiar:

“The prospect of an imminent end to serfdom met with a wide range of reactions from the gentry; the overwhelming reaction on the part of literary intellectuals, though, was one of joy. Tolstoy’s reaction to the prospect of an end to serfdom was considerably more ambivalent. A few years earlier, in 1854, Tolstoy had written in his diary, “It’s true that slavery is an evil, but it is an extremely lovable evil.” Images of serfdom, especially in Tolstoy’s early works, tend to reflect both sides of this statement—to show the inherent injustice of serfdom, while implying that love and familial stability are based in part on that very injustice.” (Hruska)

These serfs, whose survival and enslavement both rest in the hands of the nobility, are nonetheless inculcated into the institution by the longstanding nature of the practice. Unlike slaves in the American south, whose first generations were brought into slavery through brutal means, the institution of serfdom in Russia dates back many centuries. Contrary to families torn apart by the trade in the new world, the Russian peasant has generations of family tied to the same area, in some cases even the same landowner. In these circumstances, the line between the possessor and possessed is easily blurred. Indeed, Tolstoy himself fathered a child by one of the peasant women on his estate.

A Population Freed: The Serf Emancipation

The emancipation of the serfs represents a prominent milestone in the moral evolution of the Russian state. For the first time, the labor force that drove the agricultural progress of the nation was no longer a commodity but a population, freed from the tether that bound them for hundreds of years. Under the Emancipation Reform of 1861 in Russia, newly freed serfs enjoyed many rights previously denied them, such as the right to marry without the need to seek permission from their master, the right to own land and take part in the process of government. However, the perception of the serf that persisted for centuries before the emancipation persisted, and indeed still persists today: “For centuries Russia has rightly been considered a peasant country. But in a paradoxical way, our views of the essence of peasant life are a long way from reality—complicated and distorted. Landless and horseless, impoverished and illiterate, untidy and humiliated—this is the “classic” image of peasants that we hold in our minds.” (Mel’Nikov) In examining the life of the peasant, reducing them to this disparaging stereotype is simply not possible.

The Demonization

The peasant in Anna Karenina is demonized by the majority of landowners, a reflection of the social sentiment of the time. For the landowner, the emancipation of the serfs, and the subsequent disruption of the old ways of industry, is a disgrace. In conversation with the landowners of the region, Tolstoy outlines the stereotype of the “Landless and horseless, impoverished and illiterate “ peasant, engendering all the vices of the working class. “Hired men will not work well, or work with good tools. Our laborers know how to do only one thing, — to drink like pigs, and, when they are drunk, to ruin everything you intrust them with. They water your horses to death, destroy your best harnesses, take the tires off your wheels and sell them to get drink.” The landowner laments the fall of the institution of serfdom, despite the objections of the others, declaring that “All progress is accomplished by force alone.” He outlines the opposition to the emancipation in terms of its effect on the wealthy. “Because we had the power; (innovations could be instituted) and the muzhiks at first would oppose, and then would imitate us. But now, by the abrogation of serfage, they have taken away our authority.” It is this pillory of the effectiveness of the freed peasant, on their morality and intelligence, which is so repugnant to Tolstoy. After his separation from the conventions of wealth and government, he would go on to combat this defamation of the peasant class through education. “Tolstoy had several times started on educational work. As far back as 1849, when he returned to Yasnaya Polyana from St. Petersburg, along with other institutions and reforms by means of which he tried to approach the people, he established a school for peasant children.” (Biriukov) These attempts met with varying degrees of success, perhaps owing to mistrust of changes coming from a landowner, regardless of his political or social intentions.

The Idyllic Peasant

Despite this demonization on the part of the other landowners (and by extension the greater part of Russian society,) the peasants are nonetheless looked upon as a benevolent figure for the majority of the story, characterized as friendly towards others, charitable, and industrious in their work. Though Levin himself regards them at times with ambivalence, Tolstoy paints the peasant in the colors of the moral superior. Tolstoy’s true peasant is the image of honesty, work ethic, contentedness and asceticism, being disposed to a communal existence of shared labor and social existence. Resembling the Buddhist in many regards (adhering to tenets of correct living such as charity, faith, and honest occupation) the way of life of the peasant appeals to the aristocrat in times of moral quandary or spiritual hardship.

Tolstoy regards the common man in much the same way as those of the Romantic era. “ The happiest, the best, is he who thinks least, and who dies in / the simplest way." According to that, the peasant is better than the lord, the tree is better than the peasant, and the death of an old oak tree is a greater loss to the world than the death of an old princess. “ (Vogüé)The ideal of the peasant life is seen, as Coleridge would later observe, as one removed from the superficial cares of the material world. The peasants on Levin’s estate are depicted as happy in their labor, and possessing of strong, stable family relations, whose lives are guided by deep ethical convictions, piety, and kinship with land and landowner.

The peasant is often (rightfully) portrayed as having little, and yet despite this poverty exhibits an overwhelming sense of charity to those around them. During the hunting expedition of Levin, Stepan Arkadyevich and Vasenka Vaslofky, the peasants entreat the noblemen to join in their festivities.

“Hullo you sportsmen!’ shouted one of several peasants who were sitting beside a cart from which the horses had been taken out. ‘Come and have something with us! A drink of vodka!’ Levin turned round. ‘Come along! Never mind!’ shouted a merry, bearded, red-faced peasant, showing a row of white teeth and holding aloft a greenish vodka bottled that glittered in the sunshine.” When Levin asks why the peasants are offering it (commerce-minded as he is) Oblonsky replies, “Oh, they are only making merry.” (Tolstoy)

This characterization of the peasant as being generous to their former masters and employers is curious, as one would expect the peasant - having little - to show reluctance to share his meager earnings with those whose fortunes were made with the sweat of common man’s brow. This fraternal sentiment between peasant and gentry prevails in the novel. The balance is delicate however; that same convivial nature can be twisted into the ugly stereotype of the hard-drinking, unreliable worker.

The "Enlightenment" of Levin

Levin’s desire for a reprieve from the burdens and disappointments of noble live are largely caused by his difficulties within Moscow and Petersburg society. For the better part of the novel, Levin suffers for his love of the Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (known throughout the novel simply as “Kitty”) the youngest daughter of a prominent family. He retreats to the country to tend to his estate and forget the humiliation of having been rejected in an offer of marriage, throwing himself into the daily affairs of the estate and conducting research on the improvement of crops and irrigation, to substitute his love for Kitty with a love of the country life and its simplicity.

During this period of mourning and convalescence, Levin becomes increasingly disillusioned by the material wealth and concerns of the “city,” seeing the society of Moscow as materialistic, disingenuous. Levin views country life as the basis of civilized life, and removed from the issues of Moscow comes to empathize with the peasant existence, free from the burdens of inconsequential politics and gossip. Levin eventually takes to the fields – in effect “going native” – and works shoulder to shoulder with the peasant population he has so come to admire during his period of disillusionment with city life.

Levin comes to view the peasant life as preferable to the burdensome issues he endures as a member of the social elite, his perception of peasant life is unfortunately colored by misconceptions – ironically and inadvertently perpetuated by the peasants themselves. “In the mowing scene Levin moves toward what he perceives to be true community with the peasants… On the other hand, there is considerable evidence that his conviction that the peasants have fully accepted him is illusory.” (Hruska) The problem lay in the inherent social inequity between the peasant class and their landowning masters.

“He cannot transcend his own social class. Eventually Levin comes to feel that his role as master puts him in a position of natural “hostility” to the peasants (18:290 [275]). (Hruska) This “hostility,” while carefully masked by the peasants themselves, is hinted at in a subtle parallel to the situation. To the peasant, the earnest Levin must seem somewhat of a dilettante, donning garb of a peasant for a short while as some sort of experiment or release mechanism.

Themes of the Dilettante

An interesting parallel to this dilettantism in Levin exists much later in the book (after Levin has achieved his desires in courting and marrying Kitty Shcherbatskaya.) The visit to Levin’s estate by Vasenka Vaslovsky, an earnest if awkward social acquaintance of the newly married Levins, creates a source of conflict in the lives of the married couple. Levin detects something of the fraud in Vaslofsky, whose smart appearance and city ways are distinctly at odds with the rural environment. Vaslovsky’s awkwardness concerning hunting inspires in Levin something similar to the peasant’s good-natured sympathy (but mild distaste) toward their master at his insistence to engage in mowing.

Vasenka shows his inexperience as a genuine huntsman by his store-bought appearance “with a cartridge-belt of fragrant Russia leather, shod in high new boots, which reached hallway up his thighs, his Scotch cap, with ribbons on his head, and having an English gun of rather recent style.” The unassuming garb of the real hunters only heightens Veslovsky’s awkward appearance. Stepan Arkadyevitch, whose careworn hunting clothing and “ruin of what had once been a hat” speak of many hours in the field, make an impression on the dilettante, unfortunately a realization never reached by Levin in his own social juxtaposition. “Veslovsky had never before realized the fact that the height of elegance for a huntsman is to be in rags, but to have the equipment of the very finest quality… he made up his mind to profit by this example.” (Tolstoy, 90) While Levin realizes the “hostility” that comes of the inequitable relationship between himself and the peasants, he never fully acknowledges that, in the day of mowing, he as well cut the awkward figure so evident in Vaslofsky.

At best, the characteristics that lead Levin to believe in the deep camaraderie and communal spirit of the peasants comes from the fact that they, as his subordinates in agriculture, are wont to humor a master whose late experiences have sent him to “toil among the peasants” in the threshing fields, much as Levin is wont to humor his guest, even when his sportsmanship and skill with a gun are cursory at best.

“Levin took (the scythe) and began to try it. The mowers, having finished their line, were returning one after the other on their track, covered with sweat but gay and lively. They laughed timidly, and saluted the barin. All of them looked at him, but no one ventured to speak until at last a tall old man… thus addressed him. “Look here, barin, if you put your hand to the rope, you must not let go,” said he; and Levin heard the sound of stifled laughter among the mowers.” (17, Vol II)

Levin appears as a dilettante to the workers, although they would not overtly criticize or ridicule the “barin” for the fancy of taking to the fields. This agrarian pageantry, on which Levin basis his short-lived epiphany of “throwing it all up” in favor of the simple life is predicated on several elements inconsistent with the “true” peasant experience.

Levin’s preparation to go into the fields is not part of his “labors.” Levin sends his scythe off to be mended by a worker, requesting that the scythe be tended to and sharpened in anticipation of his day of exercise out in the fields. The peasants, having not the money to send out tools for costly improvements and repairs, would normally tend to their tools themselves. Levin potentially does not have the knowledge to conduct theses repairs, as he acts only in a managerial capacity on the estate. His greatest area of agricultural knowledge is not to be found in the operation of the estate on a mechanical level, but in streamlining processes and improving practices to extract a larger financial return from the efforts of the workers.

A Man Between Worlds

Levin’s experience in the fields, at least to the modern reader, brings to mind an element of tourism, in which the experience of the “peasant life” is considerably softened by the luxuries of his real life. For instance, Levin retires to his home for the noonday meal, so as not to dine on indulgent foods in front of the peasantry. “But how do you and they do about dinner?” inquires his brother, Sergei Ivanovich, when Levin announces his plan to labor in the fields. “You could hardly have a bottle of Lafitte and a roast turkey sent you out there.’” Replies Levin "No; I come home while the workmen have their nooning." (16, vol II) This approach to the task evokes the impression of a dabbler, priding himself in a day’s hard exercise, and returning home to the “reward” of rich food and comfortable accoutrements. While Levin returns to his duck and LaFitte, it is likely his peasant workforce is retreating to the shade of a nearby tree, restoring their strength with a course of stale bread and home-crafted cheeses and ale.

Levin’s perception of the peasant life is further skewed by his preoccupation with his household, a responsibility caused directly by his position as a landowner.

“Levin got up earlier than usual; but (finding) his duties about the house detained him…when he came to the mowing-field he found the men had already mowed the first time across. From the top of the slope the part of the meadow still in the shade, and already mowed, spread out before him, with its long windrows and the little black heaps of kaftans thrown down by the men when they went by the first time.” (Tolstoy)

The peasant experience is a far cry from this casual involvement with the physical labors in the field, entered into as a diversion from the idleness of home life, and the malaise most likely a symptom of his unhappines with bachelor life. The peasants by contrast rise early, most likely before dawn, to attend to the needs of the household and prepare themselves for the day’s work ahead. Laborers often worked from dawn until dusk, especially during planting and harvesting where the activities operate on a limited-time basis.

One passage in exemplifies the difficulties Levin encountered in moving once and for all from a life of privilege to one of spiritual wealth:

“Levin had often admired that kind of life, had often envied the folk who lived it; but that day, especially after what he had seen fro the first time of the relations between Vanka Parmenich and his young wife, it struck him that it depended upon himself to change his wearisome, idle, and artificial personal life for that pure, delightful life of common toil… He was distinctly conscious of the simplicity, purity, and rightness of that life, and was convinced that in it he would find satisfaction, peace, and dignity, the absence of which was so painful to him.” (Tolstoy)

This wholesale embrace of the peasant life is uninformed however, coming as it does from a short period of strenuous physical activity in a time of tremendous inner turmoil. Levin has caught glimpses of a life different from his own, both in the fields, and seeing the happiness of Vanka. Vanka represents the love Levin has failed to secure, and he is naïve in believing that this love and simplicity is solely a product of the agrarian lifestyle.

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy | Source

A Mirror On The Author

Levin’s retreat into the fields and infatuation with the peasant way of life is a direct reference to Tolstoy’s own, more violent rejection of the society and the material. Throughout the course of his adult life, Tolstoy suffered spiritual conflict over his birth into a financially endowed family of noble standing, reaching a critical stage following the publication of Anna Karenina. This disillusionment towards the moneyed classes began in earnest during his service in the Caucasus, culminating in an his witnessing an execution by guillotine in France.

Tolstoy writes of the experience to a friend, Vasily Petrovich Botkin: “The truth is that the state is a conspiracy design not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens.” The disgustingness of the guillotine remained for Tolstoy on of the most vivid and life-changing experiences.” (Wilson) He came to see all government as a machine perpetuating and confirming the supremacy of the wealthy. “He became austere in his habits, giving up his wealth, expensive clothes and house (though his wife and children continued to live in the family mansion, whereas he lived on the family farm, Yasnaya Polyana, and worked with the peasants.)” as well giving up indulgences such as tobacco and alcohol. (Santom) Unlike Levin, whose turn in the fields is brought to an abrupt halt by the reappearance of Kitty, whom he would later marry, Tolstoy’s rejection of the material world was lasting. “In about 1879, after completing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy began to experience the spiritual crisis that led to a religious conversion and a dramatic change in his life… In 1883 he renounced his property —In land, copyrights and money — and gave Sofia the income from all his works published before 1881.” (Meyers)

It is difficult to believe that Tolstoy’s peasant is as beatific as presented in Anna Karenina, just as impossible to believe that a nation of over one hundred million serfs were unanimously lazy, dishonest, or prone to drunkenness. The reality lay somewhere in the middle. “Literature” say Vucinich and Curtiss, “is a part of history, but an autonomous part; its truths may parallel what we take to be historical truth, but the are not to be confused with it.” (Vucinich, Curtiss) Peasant lives were excruciating, marked by poverty (both prior to and following the emancipation,) lack of education, a relative lack of social mobility, high mortality, and the host of difficulties inherent to the preceding conditions. Despite these overwhelming conditions, a population of millions led a life of relative peace and fraternal cooperation for centuries. In this, we find the best evidence for the overwhelmingly benevolent peasant depicted by Tolstoy.


Works Cited:

Biriukov, Pavel. Leo Tolstoy, his life and work: Volume 1. New York 
Charles Scribner’s Sons.1911

Caws, Peter. Moral Certainty in Tolstoy. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2000

Hruska, Anne. Love and Slavery: Serfdom, Emancipation, and Family in Tolstoy’s Fiction. The Russian Review 66. 627–46. October 2007

Mel'Nikov, Mikhail. Peasant Russia. Russian Politics & Law; Nov/Dec2007, Vol. 45 Issue 6, p53-75, 23p. 2007

Meyers, Jeffrey. Filial Memoirs of Tolstoy

Biography, Volume 11, Number 3, Summer 1988, pp. 236-252 (Article)

University of Hawai'i Press. 1998

Tolstoy, Alexandra. Tolstoy and the Russian Peasant.

Vol. 19, No. 2, [Special Issue: Leo Tolstoy] (Apr. 1960), pp. 150-156

Blackwell Publishing. 1960.

Tolstoy, Leo. Haskell Dole, Nathan. Anna Karenina. New York. Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. Publishers. 1890.

de Vogue, Eugène-Melchior. The Russian Novel. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. 1991

Vucinich, Wayne S. “The Peasant in Nineteenth-Century Russia” Stanford University Press. 1968

Wilson, A.N. Tolstoy: A Biography. New York. W.W. Norton & Co. Ltd. 1950.

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      Eugene 18 months ago

      "This one passage exemplifies the complexities of the “Peasant Question” in 19th century Russia. "

      -Which passage?

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