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

Part III

Chapter XXVIII

LEVIN was insufferably bored that evening with the ladies; he was stirred as he had never been before by the idea that the dissatisfaction he was feeling with his system of managing his land was not an exceptional case, but the general condition of things in Russia; that the organisation of some relation of the laborers to the soil in which they would work, as with the peasant he had met half-way to the Sviazhskys’ was not a dream, but a problem which must be solved. And it seemed to him that the problem could be solved, and that he ought to try and solve it.

After saying good-night to the ladies, and promising to stay the whole of the next day, so as to make an expedition on horseback with them to see an interesting ruin in the crown forest, Levin went, before going to bed, into his host’s study to get the books on the labour question that Sviazhsky had offered him. Sviazhsky’s study was a huge room, surrounded by bookcases and with two tables in it—one a massive writing-table, standing in the middle of the room, and the other a round table, covered with recent numbers of reviews and journals in different languages, ranged like the rays of a star round the lamp. On the writing-table was a stand of drawers marked with gold lettering, and full of papers of various sorts.

Sviazhsky took out the books, and sat down in a rocking- chair.

‘What are you looking at there?’ he said to Levin, who was standing at the round table looking through the reviews.

‘Oh yes, there’s a very interesting article here,’ said Sviazhsky of the review Levin was holding in his hand. ‘It appears,’ he went on, with eager interest, ‘that Friedrich was not, after all, the person chiefly responsible for the partition of Poland. It is proved…’

And, with his characteristic clearness, he summed up those new, very important, and interesting revelations. Although Levin was engrossed at the moment by his ideas about the problem of the land, he wondered, as he heard Sviazhsky: ‘What is there inside him? And why, why is he interested in the partition of Poland?’ When Sviazhsky had finished, Levin could not help asking: ‘Well, and what then?’ But there was nothing to follow. It was simply interesting that it had been proved to be so and so. But Sviazhsky did not explain, and saw no need to explain why it was interesting to him.

‘Yes, but I was very much interested by your irritable neighbour,’ said Levin, sighing. ‘He’s a clever fellow, and said a lot that was true.’

‘Oh, get along with you! An inveterate supporter of serfdom at heart, like all of them!’ said Sviazhsky.

‘Whose marshal you are.’

‘Yes, only I marshal them in the other direction,’ said Sviazhsky, laughing.

‘I’ll tell you what interests me very much,’ said Levin. ‘He’s right that our system, that’s to say of rational farming, doesn’t answer, that the only thing that answers is the money-lender system, like that meek-looking gentleman’s, or else the very simplest … Whose fault is it?’

‘Our own, of course. Besides, it’s not true that it doesn’t answer. It answers with Vassiltchikov.’

‘A factory…’

‘But I really don’t know what it is you are surprised at. The people are at such a low stage of rational and moral development, that it’s obvious they’re bound to oppose everything that’s strange to them. In Europe, a rational system answers because the people are educated: it follows that we must educate the people—that’s all.’

‘But how are we to educate the people?’

‘To educate the people three things are needed: schools, and schools, and schools.’

‘But you said yourself the people are at such a low stage of material development: what help are schools for that?’

‘Do you know, you remind me of the story of the advice given to the sick man—You should try purgative medicine, Taken: worse. Try leeches. Tried them: worse. Well, then, there’s nothing left but to pray to God. Tried it: worse. That’s just how it is with us. I say political economy; you say—worse. I say socialism: worse. Education: worse.’

‘But how do schools help matters?’

‘They give the peasant fresh wants.’

‘Well, that’s a thing I’ve never understood,’ Levin replied with heat. ‘In what way are schools going to help the people to improve their material position? You say schools, education, will give them fresh wants. So much the worse, since they won’t be capable of satisfying them. And in what way a knowledge of addition and subtraction and the catechism is going to improve their material condition, I never could make out. The day before yesterday, I met a peasant woman in the evening with a little baby, and asked her where she was going. She said “she was going to the wise woman; her boy had screaming fits, so she was taking him to be doctored.” I asked, “Why, how does the wise woman cure screaming fits?” “She puts the child on the hen-roost and repeats some charm…”’

‘Well, you’re saying it yourself! What’s wanted to prevent her taking her child to the hen-roost to cure it of screaming fits is just…’ Sviazhsky said, smiling good- humouredly.

‘Oh no!’ said Levin with annoyance; ‘that method of doctoring I merely meant as a simile for doctoring the people with schools. The people are poor and ignorant—that we see as surely as the peasant woman sees the baby is ill because it screams. But in what way this trouble of poverty and ignorance is to be cured by schools is as incomprehensible as how the hen-roost affects the screaming. What has to be cured is what makes him poor.’

‘Well, in that, at least, you’re in agreement with Spencer, whom you dislike so much. He says, too, that education may be the consequence of greater prosperity and comfort, of more frequent washing, as he says, but not of being able to read and write…’

‘Well, then, I’m very glad—or the contrary, very sorry, that I’m in agreement with Spencer; only I’ve known it a long while. Schools can do no good; what will do good is an economic organisation in which the people will become richer, will have more leisure—and then there will be schools.’

‘Still, all over Europe now schools are obligatory.’

‘And how far do you agree with Spencer yourself about it?’ asked Levin.

But there was a gleam of alarm in Sviazhsky’s eyes, and he said smiling—

‘No; that screaming story is positively capital! Did you really hear it yourself?’

Levin saw that he was not to discover the connection between this man’s life and his thoughts. Obviously he did not care in the least what his reasoning led him to; all he wanted was the process of reasoning. And he did not like it when the process of reasoning brought him into a blind alley. That was the only thing he disliked, and avoided by changing the conversation to something agreeable and amusing.

All the impressions of the day, beginning with the impression made by the old peasant, which served, as it were, as the fundamental basis of all the conceptions and ideas of the day, threw Levin into violent excitement. This dear good Sviazhsky, keeping a stock of ideas simply for social purposes, and obviously having some other principles hidden from Levin, while with the crowd, whose name is legion, he guided public opinion by ideas he did not share; that irascible country gentleman, perfectly correct in the conclusions that he had been worried into by life, but wrong in his exasperation against a whole class, and that the best class in Russia; his own dissatisfaction with the work he had been doing, and the vague hope of finding a remedy for all this—all was blended in a sense of inward turmoil and anticipation of some solution near at hand.

Left alone in the room assigned him, lying on a spring mattress that yielded unexpectedly at every movement of his arm or his leg, Levin did not fall asleep for a long while. Not one conversation with Sviazhsky, though he had said a great deal that was clever, had interested Levin; but the conclusions of the irascible landowner required consideration. Levin could not help recalling every word he had said, and in imagination amending his own replies.

‘Yes, I ought to have said to him: You say that our husbandry does not answer because the peasant hates improvements, and that they must be forced on him by authority. If no system of husbandry answered at all without these improvements, you would be quite right. But the only system that does answer is when the laborer is working in accordance with his habits, just as on the old peasant’s land halfway here. Your and our general dissatisfaction with the system shows that either we are to blame or the laborers. We have gone our way—the European way—a long while, without asking ourselves about the qualities of our labour force. Let us try to look upon the labour force not as an abstract force, but as the Russian peasant with his instincts, and we shall arrange our system of culture in accordance with that. Imagine, I ought to have said to him, that you have the same system as the old peasant has, that you have found means of making your laborers take an interest in the success of the work, and have found the happy mean in the way of improvements which they will admit, and you will, without exhausting the soil, get twice or three times the yield you got before. Divide it in halves, give half as the share of labour, the surplus left you will be greater, and the share of labour will be greater too. And to do this one must lower the standard of husbandry and interest the laborers in its success. How to do this?—that’s a matter of detail; but undoubtedly it can be done.’

This idea threw Levin into great excitement. He did not sleep half the night, thinking over in detail the putting of his idea into practice. He had not intended to go away next day, but he now determined to go home early in the morning. Besides, the sister-in-law with her low-necked bodice aroused in him a feeling akin to shame and remorse for some utterly base action. Most important of all—he must get back without delay: he would have to make haste to put his new project to the peasants before the sowing of the winter wheat, so that the sowing might be undertaken on a new basis. He had made up his mind to revolutionise his whole system.