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Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). Anna Karenin.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Part III

Chapter XXVII

‘IF I’d only the heart to throw up what’s been set going … such a lot of trouble wasted … I’d turn my back on the whole business, sell up, go off like Nikolay Ivanovitch … to hear La Belle Hélène,’ said the landowner, a pleasant smile lighting up his shrewd old face.

‘But you see you don’t throw it up,’ said Nikolay Ivanovitch Sviazhsky; ‘so there must be something gained.’

‘The only gain is that I live in my own house, neither bought nor hired. Besides, one keeps hoping the people will learn sense. Though, instead of that, you’d never believe it—the drunkenness, the immorality! They keep chopping and changing their bits of land. Not a sight of a horse or a cow. The peasant’s dying of hunger, but just go and take him on as a laborer, he’ll do his best to do you a mischief, and then bring you up before the justice of the peace.’

‘But then you make complaints to the justice too,’ said Sviazhsky.

‘I lodge complaints? Not for anything in the world! Such a talking, and such a to-do, that one would have cause to regret it. At the works, for instance, they pocketed the advance-money and made off. What did the justice do? Why, acquitted them. Nothing keeps them in order but their own communal court and their village elder. He’ll flog them in the good old style! But for that there’d be nothing for it but to give it all up and run away.’

Obviously the landowner was chaffing Sviazhsky, who, far from resenting it, was apparently amused by it.

‘But you see we manage our land without such extreme measures,’ said he, smiling: ‘Levin and I and this gentleman.’

He indicated the other landowner.

‘Yes, the thing’s done at Mihail Petrovitch’s, but ask him how it’s done. Do you call that a rational system?’ said the landowner, obviously rather proud of the word ‘rational.’

‘My system’s very simple,’ said Mihail Petrovitch, ‘thank God. All my management rests on getting the money ready for the autumn taxes, and the peasants come to me, “Father, master, help us!” Well, the peasants are all one’s neighbours; one feels for them. So one advances them a third, but one says: “Remember, lads, I have helped you, and you must help me when I need it—whether it’s the sowing of the oats, or the hay-cutting, or the harvest”; and well, one agrees, so much for each taxpayer—though there are dishonest ones among them too, it’s true.’

Levin, who had long been familiar with these patriarchal methods, exchanged glances with Sviazhsky and interrupted Mihail Petrovitch, turning again to the gentleman with the grey whiskers.

‘Then what do you think?’ he asked; ‘what system is one to adopt nowadays?’

‘Why, manage like Mihail Petrovitch, or let the land for half the crop or for rent to the peasants; that one can do—only that’s just how the general prosperity of the country is being ruined. Where the land with serf-labour and good management gave a yield of nine to one, on the half-crop system it yields three to one. Russia has been ruined by the emancipation!’

Sviazhsky looked with smiling eyes at Levin, and even made a faint gesture of irony to him; but Levin did not think the landowner’s words absurd, he understood them better than he did Sviazhsky. A great deal more of what the gentleman with the grey whiskers said to show in what way Russia was ruined by the emancipation struck him indeed as very true, new to him, and quite incontestable. The landowner unmistakably spoke his own individual thought—a thing that rarely happens—and a thought to which he had been brought not by a desire of finding some exercise for an idle brain, but a thought which had grown up out of the conditions of his life, which he had brooded over in the solitude of his village, and had considered in every aspect.

‘The point is, don’t you see, that progress of every sort is only made by the use of authority,’ he said, evidently wishing to show he was not without culture. ‘Take the reforms of Peter, of Catherine, of Alexander. Take European history. And progress in agriculture more than anything else—the potato, for instance, that was introduced among us by force. The wooden plough too wasn’t always used. It was introduced may be in the days before the Empire, but it was probably brought in by force. Now, in our own day, we landowners in the serf times used various improvements in our husbandry: drying-machines and thrashing-machines, and carting manure and all the modern implements—all that we brought into use by our authority, and the peasants opposed it at first, and ended by imitating us. Now, by the abolition of serfdom we have been deprived of our authority; and so our husbandry, where it had been raised to a high level, is bound to sink to the most savage primitive condition. That’s how I see it.’

‘But why so? If it’s rational, you’ll be able to keep up the same system with hired labour,’ said Sviazhsky.

‘We’ve no power over them. With whom am I going to work the system, allow me to ask?’

‘There it is—the labour force—the chief element in agriculture,’ thought Levin.

‘With laborers.’

‘The laborers won’t work well, and won’t work with good implements. Our laborer can do nothing but get drunk like a pig, and when he’s drunk he ruins everything you give him. He makes the horses ill with too much water, cuts good harness, barters the tyres of the wheels for drink, drops bits of iron into the thrashing-machine, so as to break it. He loathes the sight of anything that’s not after his fashion. And that’s how it is the whole level of husbandry has fallen. Lands gone out of cultivation, overgrown with weeds, or divided among the peasants, and where millions of bushels were raised you get a hundred thousand; the wealth of the country has decreased. If the same thing had been done, but with care that…’

And he proceeded to unfold his own scheme of emancipation by means of which these drawbacks might have been avoided.

This did not interest Levin, but when he had finished, Levin went back to his first position, and, addressing Sviazhsky, and trying to draw him into expressing his serious opinion:—

‘That the standard of culture is falling, and that with our present relations to the peasants there is no possibility of farming on a rational system to yield a profit—that’s perfectly true,’ said he.

‘I don’t believe it,’ Sviazhsky replied quite seriously; ‘all I see is that we don’t know how to cultivate the land, and that our system of agriculture in the serf-days was by no means too high, but too low. We have no machines, no good stock, no efficient supervision; we don’t even know how to keep accounts. Ask any landowner; he won’t be able to tell you what crop’s profitable, and what’s not.’

‘Italian book-keeping,’ said the gentleman of the grey whiskers ironically. ‘You may keep your books as you like, but if they spoil everything for you, there won’t be any profit.’

‘Why do they spoil things? A poor thrashing-machine, or your Russian presser, they will break, but my steam-press they don’t break. A wretched Russian nag they’ll ruin, but keep good dray-horses or cart-horses—they won’t ruin them. And so it is all round. We must raise our farming to a higher level.’

‘Oh, if one only had the means to do it, Nikolay Ivanovitch! It’s all very well for you; but for me, with a son to keep at the university, lads to be educated at the high school—how am I going to buy these dray-horses?’

‘Well, that’s what the land banks are for.’

‘To get what’s left me sold by auction? No, thank you.’

‘I don’t agree that it’s necessary or possible to raise the level of agriculture still higher,’ said Levin. ‘I devote myself to it, and I have means, but I can do nothing. As to the banks, I don’t know to whom they’re any good. For my part, anyway, whatever I’ve spent money on in the way of husbandry, it has been a loss: stock—a loss, machinery—a loss.’

‘That’s true enough,’ the gentleman with the grey whiskers chimed in, positively laughing with satisfaction.

‘And I’m not the only one,’ pursued Levin. ‘I mix with all the neighbouring landowners, who are cultivating their land on a rational system; they all, with rare exceptions, are doing so at a loss. Come, tell us how does your land do—does it pay?’ said Levin, and at once in Sviazhsky’s eyes he detected that fleeting expression of alarm which he had noticed whenever he had tried to penetrate beyond the outer chambers of Sviazhsky’s mind.

Moreover, this question on Levin’s part was not quite in good faith. Madame Sviazhsky had just told him at tea that they had that summer invited a German expert in book- keeping from Moscow, who for a consideration of five hundred roubles had investigated the management of their property, and found that it was costing them a loss of three thousand odd roubles. She did not remember the precise sum, but it appeared that the German had worked it out to the fraction of a farthing.

The grey-whiskered landowner smiled at the mention of the profits of Sviazhsky’s farming, obviously aware how much gain his neighbour and marshal was likely to be making.

‘Possibly it does not pay,’ answered Sviazhsky. ‘That merely proves either that I’m a bad manager, or that I’ve sunk my capital for the increase of my rents.’

‘Oh, rent!’ Levin cried with horror. ‘Rent there may be in Europe, where land has been improved by the labour put into it; but with us all the land is deteriorating from the labour put into it—in other words, they’re working it out; so there’s no question of rent.’

‘How no rent? It’s a law.’

‘Then we’re outside the law; rent explains nothing for us, but simply muddles us. No, tell me how there can be a theory of rent?…’

‘Will you have some junket? Masha, pass us some junket or raspberries.’ He turned to his wife. ‘Extraordinarily late the raspberries are lasting this year.’

And in the happiest frame of mind Sviazhsky got up and walked off, apparently supposing the conversation to have ended at the very point when to Levin it seemed that it was only just beginning.

Having lost his antagonist, Levin continued the conversation with the grey-whiskered landowner, trying to prove to him that all the difficulty arises from the fact that we don’t find out the peculiarities and habits of our laborer; but the landowner, like all men who think independently and in isolation, was slow in taking in any other person’s idea, and particularly partial to his own. He stuck to it that the Russian peasant is a swine and likes swinishness, and that to get him out of his swinishness one must have authority, and there is none; one must have the stick, and we have become so liberal that we have all of and a sudden replaced the stick that served us for a thousand years by lawyers and model prisons, where the worthless, stinking peasant is fed on good soup and has a fixed allowance of cubic feet of air.

‘What makes you think,’ said Levin, trying to get back to the question, ‘that it’s impossible to find some relation to the laborer in which the labour would become productive?’

‘That never could be so with the Russian peasantry; we’ve no power over them,’ answered the landowner.

‘How can new conditions be found?’ said Sviazhsky. Having eaten some junket and lighted a cigarette, he came back to the discussion. ‘All possible relations to the labour force have been defined and studied,’ he said. ‘The relic of barbarism, the primitive commune with each guarantee for all, will disappear of itself; serfdom has been abolished—there remains nothing but free labour, and its forms are fixed and ready made, and must be adopted. Permanent hands, day-labourers, farmers—you can’t get out of those forms.’

‘But Europe is dissatisfied with these forms.’

‘Dissatisfied, and seeking new ones. And will find them, in all probability.’

‘That’s just what I was meaning,’ answered Levin. ‘Why shouldn’t we seek them for ourselves?’

‘Because it would be just like inventing afresh the means for constructing railways. They are ready, invented.’

‘But if they don’t do for us, if they’re stupid?’ said Levin. And again he detected the expression of alarm in the eyes of Sviazhsky.

‘Oh yes; we’ll bury the world under our caps! We’ve found the secret Europe was seeking for! I’ve heard all that; but, excuse me, do you know all that’s been done in Europe on the question of the organisation of labour?’

‘No, very little.’

‘That question is now absorbing the best minds in Europe. The Schulze-Delitsch movement.… And then all this enormous literature of the labour question, the most liberal Lassalle movement … the Mulhausen experiment? That’s a fact by now, as you’re probably aware.’

‘I have some idea of it, but very vague.’

‘No, you only say that; no doubt you know all about it as well as I do. I’m not a professor of sociology, of course, but it interested me, and really, if it interests you, you ought to study it.’

‘But what conclusion have they come to?’

‘Excuse me…’

The two neighbours had risen, and Sviazhsky, once more checking Levin in his inconvenient habit of peeping into what was beyond the outer chambers of his mind, went to see his guests out.