The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 14

CHAPTER XIV

THE YEARS OF FAMINE

In the summer of 1891 a complete failure of the spring, as well as the winter, corn was experienced throughout nearly half the area of Russia. Towards the end of the summer alarming rumours of a coming famine had already begun to spread.

As he had done eighteen years earlier, Tolstoy took the initiative in giving assistance to the starving peasantry. In the autumn he visited many districts of the Tula province, and with anxiety observed the empty cornfields of the peasants. It was evident to him that the population would be unable to feed itself till the next harvest without outside help. Hostile to any complicated artificial system, Tolstoy decided to begin at once to help personally, without any organised plan for the future.

In the beginning of November, he, two of his daughters, and a niece, and having only £50 with them, went to the estate of a friend, J. Raevsky, in the Ryazan province, and there established themselves with the purpose, as he wrote, "to do what God orders—to feed, and distribute whatever there is." The place was one of the worst in the famine region. After a week he wrote:

"Everybody is busy at some good work—soup kitchens for the poorest. The girls have opened a school, and they try to help everybody in all ways. I am delighted with them. The time is critical; the conditions are strained and dangerous."

Thus modestly Tolstoy started to give assistance with his family, but rumours about his work soon spread. Besides the material aid, he published an article, "How to Help the Starving Population," in which he showed the inefficiency of the Government's method of distributing flour and grain among the poor. He set out the needs of the situation in the following way:

"Help to the starving population can be twofold: first by the upkeep of the peasants' homesteads; second, by saving them from the danger of illness and even death by the lack, or bad quality, of food."

He drew the following conclusions as to the best means of satisfying these two needs:

"In order to prevent the partial or total ruin of the peasants' homes, I believe there is only one remedy—to start public works.

"For the second purpose—to save the starving from illness caused by the lack, or bad quality, of food—there is, in my opinion, one effectual means: the creation in each village of a soup kitchen where each hungry person can be fed."

This dual purpose kept Tolstoy active. His work in connection with the famine soon began to be known, not only in Russia, but also in foreign countries. His wife wrote an appeal for help, pointing out that Tolstoy was already living and working among the starving peasants. Donations began to come in, and the means at the disposal of Tolstoy rapidly increased, and, consequently, enlarged his work. Towards the end of 1891 he had started as many as 72 soup kitchens, and placed them under numerous helpers of both sexes. In the following April he reported 187 soup kitchens, 246 in July, and the number of persons fed as 13,000. Besides this, he organised 124 "children's homes," where 3,000 small children were fed with milk porridge. Firewood, as well as food, was distributed, and fodder for the cattle and horses. Flax and bark were given out to make work for the peasants, and in the spring various seeds, such as oats, potatoes, hemp, and millet. Horses

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The Death-Mask of Tolstoy.

were bought and distributed among such peasants as had lost theirs. Bread was baked, and sold at a low price. In addition, incidental help was given in repairing and building peasants' huts, assistance in burials, gifts of books, etc. All these tasks were carried out under the direct supervision of Tolstoy in four districts of the two neighbouring provinces, Ryazan and Tula.

Tolstoy's example was soon followed, and in all the famine provinces numerous organisations were formed. In the Samara province, in two districts, Tolstoy's son Leo was engaged in the same work, for which part of the donations received by his father was sent to him. The following winter—1892–3—was no less severe, and aid to the people was continued; but this time Tolstoy himself was not present, and the work was carried on with less energy. He published reports periodically, and they were highly instructive documents.

During his activity as organiser, he occupied himself with a literary work of some magnitude—"The Kingdom of God Is Within You; or, Christianity Not as a Mystical Teaching, but as a New Conception of Life." In this work, as in "What is My Faith?" published ten years before, Tolstoy, with great power, develops his conception of Christianity, sharply criticises contemporary pagan ethics, shows the crying contradiction in which people are living who do not believe in Christ, and in conclusion indicates the way out of the difficulty.

As usual, the book was prohibited by the censor, and was circulated by hand-written, lithograph and hectograph copies, or in foreign editions. Soon it was translated into most of the European languages. Amongst other matters, Tolstoy deals in the work with the contemporary State and its organisation, which he severely condemns. For his condemnation of the State he was called an Anarchist, and, with a few reservations, this may be admitted as just. But his anarchism, which denies the enforced organisation of power, is based on the understanding that man, spiritually regenerated and imbued with Christian teaching, has in himself the unalterable divine law of truth and love, which has no need to be strengthened by human laws. Consequently Tolstoy's anarchism does not lead to disorder and licence, but to the highest moral order and perfect life.

This important work was followed by some smaller ones, such as "Christianity and Patriotism," in which, from a Christian point of view, he considers the tragi-comedy of the Franco-Russian Alliance. This he followed up by "Non-activity," which he wrote à propos of Zola's and Dumas' letters, the former of whom preached work without giving any conception of life or the aim of work, and the latter the necessity for a religious conception of the ideals of brotherhood and love amongst all men. Tolstoy points out that work itself cannot be an aim—that it is only an obligatory, unavoidable condition of life. If man has no true conception of the meaning of life, does not know where to go and what to do, it would be better for him to be in a state of non-activity and to think over his life and find its meaning; then, whatever work he undertakes will become productive and sacred.

At the same time Tolstoy was translating Guy de Maupassant, Bernardin de St. Pierre, Amiel, Mazzini, and other authors, for the publications of the Posrednik. In 1895 "Master and Servant" appeared, in which, in an original way, but in a truly Christian spirit, the question of the relation between masters and men is solved. In order to help and to save his worker, the master must sacrifice his own life; the worker spends his whole existence for his master, and consequently justice and equality can only be restored if the master be willing to give his life for his man.

In the same year Tolstoy took part in a great historical event: the breaking out with new force of the Dukhobor movement in the Caucasus.