and Popular Literature
R. Jahn, University of Minnesota
Tolstoy's time the phrase "popular literature" (narodnaia
literatura, "literature for or of the common people") subsumed a
variety of related products. It included, first, the literature of the people,
especially the narrative forms of folklore: heroic songs, fairy tales,
religious legends, and the like. Produced
and orally perpetuated among the common people themselves, usually by
quasi-professional performers, this category of popular literature assumed
written or printed form only through the efforts of folklorists and other
transcribers of its oral performance. Once such works became known it was not
long before stylizations of them followed. These are clearly not "of the
people" but imitate as closely as possible the spirit and forms of their
models. Stylizations, particularly of the skazka (the Russian fairy
tale, or wonder tale), are well represented in 19th-century Russian
literature. Well-known examples are Pushkin's "Tale of the Fisherman and
the Fish" ("Skazka o rybake i rybke"), V. F. Odoevsky's "Moroz
Ivanovich," S. T. Aksakov's "The Little Crimson Flower" ("Alen'kii
tsvetochek"), and P. P. Ershov's "The Little Humpbacked Horse"
wrote many works, in particular his score or
so of "Stories for the People" (narodnye rasskazy)
which may be assigned to this category, but, as will appear below, not
exclusively to it.
life and customs of the common people was the subject of a second category of
popular literature, produced by and for the educated sectors of society.
Motivated in part by the penetration into Russian intellectual life of
German philosophy and particularly Herder's ideas about the unique genius of
the nation (Russian narod), this sort of writing originated in the late
1820s and early 1830s. It
was promoted by the important Russian literary critic V. G. Belinsky and
blossomed in the mid-1840s into the "Natural School," which produced
such works as D. V. Grigorovich's The Fisher Folk (Rybaki) and
the anthologies The Attics of St. Petersburg and The Organ Grinders
of St. Petersburg. Following this precedent, literature about the people
continued to be marked by the realistic style and a tone sympathetic to folk
life. Famous early examples are certain of Turgenev's Sportsman's Sketches (Zapiski
okhotnika) from the late 1840s. Literature
about the people gained renewed support from the populist critics of the 1870s
and 1880s, especially N. K. Mixailovsky, and continued to be a powerful
movement in literature even well into the twentieth century. A main tenet of
Socialist Realism was that same sympathetic and realistic approach to the
lives of common folk for which Belinsky called in the 1840s. Tolstoy's story
of the early 1860s, "Polikushka," is one example among many that he
wrote in this category.
made his most distinct contribution, however, to the third category of popular
literature: works created by
writers from the educated classes for a popular audience.
There were two main subdivisions of this "literature for the
people." The more successful, purely commercial in character, had formed
an identifiable part of Russian literary culture since the early 18th century
when, because of the developing literary taste of educated society, there
began to be an unmet demand for works to satisfy the relatively static taste
of readers from the lower social classes. In the middle of the nineteenth
century this type of literature remained what it had been at its beginnings.
Song books, books on the interpretation of dreams, casual collections of
folklore, and stories of romance and adventure comprised the main store of the
commercial inventory. Chapbooks (i.e.,
naive tales of romance and adventure) like "Bova Korolevich" and
"Peter of the Golden Keys" together with picaresque stories such as
those attributed to Matvei Komarov, "inhabitant of the city of
Moscow," continued to fascinate the popular reader.
Standard titles were
printed over and over again, while around this core there gathered a fairly
numerous crowd of hack writers who earned their bread by producing quantities
of similar works, always mindful of the cardinal rule that one should never
stray far from a successful formula. The
works of such now-forgotten writers as Evstigneev, Volgin, V. Suvorov,
Kassirov, the brothers Pazukhin, Kuz'michev and many others provided the
staple printed diet of the popular reader in Tolstoy's time.
second, and lesser, category of literature for the people, more idealistic in
its purposes, sought to enlighten or edify the masses rather than to profit by
entertaining them. Its history was much shorter than that of its commercial
counterpart. Its first notable success was the journal Village Reading (Sel'skoe
chtenie), published (1843-48) by V. F. Odoevsky (who dabbled also in
folklore stylization) and A. P. Zablotsky-Desiatovsky.
Conducted on a very high level, Village Reading contained
contributions from such well-known writers as M. N. Zagoskin, A. F. Vel'tman,
and V. I. Dal' (who also, under the pen name "The Cossack Lugansky,"
contributed very significantly, as a leading writer of the Natural School,
to the development of literature about the common people). In the late 1850s and 1860s the efforts of A. F. Pogossky,
whose magazines Soldier Talk (Soldatskaia beseda), Peasant
Talk (Narodnaia beseda), and Leisure and Labor (Dosug i
delo) enjoyed some popular success.
the 1870s, interest in raising the quality of the literature available to the
people led to the formation of enterprises devoted solely to this goal. The
most representative of these was V. N. Marakuev's Popular Library (Narodnaia
biblioteka) founded in 1872 and engaged mainly in the production of
inexpensive editions of the classics of Russian and other national
literatures. Most of the concerns established for such purposes failed
because they lacked adequate means of distributing their products to the
common folk, mostly rural, for whom they were intended.
In 1884 Tolstoy and two collaborators, V. G. Chertkov and P. I.
Biriukov (later Tolstoy's authorized biographer), founded The Intermediary
(Posrednik), a publishing house for works intended for the popular
audience. They planned to employ the distribution methods of the commercial
producers of literature for the people (a combination of regional distribution
centers and networks of itinerant peddlers) in the service of the goals of the
idealistic category. Their efforts succeeded to an extent previously unheard
of in the realm of educative literature for the common people. Biriukov
estimated that in the 1890s The Intermediary distributed some 3,500,000
copies of various works per year. This
must be accounted one of Tolstoy's most significant contributions to popular
interest in literature for the people is well-attested. In February, 1884, he
wrote to V. G. Chertkov that the literature for the people then being produced
was neither good, nor even useful, and some of it was actually harmful.
In an address to an audience at his Moscow home on 14 February
1884 he elaborated his views. He
asserted that writers engaged in such work for profit rather than to satisfy
the "true needs" of their readers.
They did not provide their prospective readers with works of the same
quality they would demand for themselves.
Even if they wanted to do this, they could not, because their own
literary tradition (that of Pushkin and Gogol') was defective.
Tolstoy expressed these ideas with the rhetorical heat characteristic
of him at that period:
see only three reasons [for the failure of contemporary writing for the
popular audience]: one, that the
satiated wish not to feed the hungry, but to deal with them in a way
profitable to themselves; second, that the satiated do not want to give that
which is their own food, but give only the leftovers, which even the dogs
won't eat; third, that the satiated are not in fact as full as they imagine,
but only inflated, and their own food is not that good." (25:524)
stressed the need for artistry of an especially high order in works intended
for the popular audience. He
criticized contemporary authors for writing "for the most part in an
untalented and stupid manner" and for their "naive persuasion"
that important matters of spirit and life "could be communicated by the
first words and images which come to hand" (25:524).
He was especially hard on what he saw as the unwarranted condescension
of writers and publishers for their audience.
He had long believed and frequently said that the standard Russian
literary language was distinctly inferior to that of the common people
themselves. (His best known
assertion of this belief had been in an article which he had published in his
own pedagogical journal, Yasnaya Polyana, in 1863.
To the question posed by the title of the article,
"Who Should Learn to Write from Whom: The Peasant Children from Us or We from the Peasant
Children?," Tolstoy had
answered: the children.) In his
speech to his Moscow audience, he exempted none of the contemporary writers of
literature for the people from the criticism that their works were artistic
failures, but he reserved his strongest words for writers with a commercial
motive. Speaking on behalf of and
from the viewpoint of the popular reader, Tolstoy said:
and Gentlemen, writers of our native land, cast into our mouths mental
sustenance which is worthy both of yourselves and of us; write for us, who
thirst for the living literary word; save us from all of these Eruslan
Lazareviches, Milord Georges [characters from popular chapbooks], and other
such food from the bazaar." (25:526)
I have suggested, Tolstoy made notable contributions to each of the three
major categories of popular literature. Many
works throughout his long career contain minor and major characters drawn from
among the people. In this he was
hardly remarkable; writing "about the people" was one of the
hallmarks of developing Russian realism from its inception in the 1840s.
For this reason, Tolstoy's contribution to literature about the people
will not be considered further in this discussion.
Much more striking was his contribution, mostly but not entirely after
1880, to the literature of folklore stylization and to writing specifically
for the popular audience. Here he found a way of combining the forms
associated with the literature of the people themselves with the intentions
characteristic of those writing for the popular audience.
To these achievements, notably his many "stories for the
people" and his two popular dramas, we now turn our attention.
February,1886, already hard at work on his own stories for the popular
audience, Tolstoy wrote a letter to F. F. Tishchenko, a would-be author for
the people, in which he outlined his requirements for such writing.
It should be altruistic rather than produced for profit; it should communicate feelings
; and it should be written expressly for the popular audience,
making no concession to the literary expectations of the educated upper
classes. Tolstoy demanded a
simplification of language and style, specifically in comparison with the
literary tradition of the recent past. He
advised the avoidance of both lexical and syntactic elements foreign to
Russian as spoken by common people. The exposition should be logical,
straightforward, and economical with an eye to creating the strongest possible
impression within the smallest possible compass.
Finally, he believed that the most suitable subject matter of works for
the common people was that based upon the ethical teachings of Christ
score of stories and two plays for the popular audience amply illustrate these
principles. Taken together they
represent a combination, unique as far as I know, of the use and adaptation of
familiar popular forms as a stylistic foundation, the overtly didactic
presentation of ethically significant thematic material, and the artistic
skill and power of a great literary master.
In his effort to present his version of the Christian teaching in works
for the common people Tolstoy re-invented the mediaeval ecclesiastical genre
of the exemplum, a story told, usually as part of a homily or sermon,
to illustrate a particular point of doctrine.
Many of the works which he so created are exemplary also in the sense
of illustrating what gems may be produced by the close study, adaptation, and
application of popular and collective forms to an individual author's specific
STORIES FOR THE PEOPLE
to exemplify certain ethical truths, the stories for the people resemble the
other late works of Tolstoy, which are also, for the most part, overtly
didactic. To the extent that he consciously, from an early date, sought
to portray the "truth," as he understood it, in his fiction,
even his early works reflect his didactic proclivities. Thus, it
is not the themes or the motives of Tolstoy which ultimately set the stories
for the people apart from the rest of his work, but their style, which was
developed specifically and consciously as an apt and accessible medium for
conveying moral concepts to the popular audience.
still argue over exactly which works should be classified as stories for the
people, but certainly a number of sories written in the 1880s belong to the
Four of the more
complete editions of Tolstoy's collected works contain a volume or clearly
marked section of a volume designated Stories for the People (Narodnye
A total of some two
dozen stories appeared in one or more of these editions, but only sixteen of
them were included in every one.
Of these the most
celebrated are "What Men Live By", "Two Old Men",
"Where Love Is, There Is God Also", "How Much Land Does a Man
Need", "The Tale of Ivan the Fool", and "The Three
In 1887 Tolstoy
consented to the publication by The Intermediary of a volume to be
titled Stories for the People. Forbidden by the censorship, the book
never appeared, but its proposed contents included fifteen of the sixteen
stories. To this number may
doubtless be added stories written earlier, such as "God Sees the Truth,
and later, such as "Alesha Gorshok," which share the
same stylistic and thematic profile.
of the stories are told by a third person narrator. Most commonly the
narrator's voice closely resembles that of the popular characters, and his
outlook is sympathetic to them. The degree of his sympathy may vary, however.
Often, as in "What Men Live By," "Two Old Men," and
"The Tale of Ivan the Fool," the narrator identifies closely with
the characters. Occasionally the narrator's stance is more objective and
neutral, as in "Two Brothers and the Gold." In no case is the voice
of the narrator sarcastic, as it can often be in Tolstoy's depiction of upper
setting of the stories may be popular and Russian, or legendary or exotic.
Major characters are drawn from among the common people, most
frequently the peasants. Characters from other backgrounds appear in major and
sympathetic roles only when they are distanced in some way. For example,
"A Grain As Big As a Hen's Egg," in which a king has a major role,
takes place in the distant past. In "Il'ias," featuring a rich
landowner, the setting, vaguely middle-eastern, is far away. Supernatural
characters, both angels and demons (including the Devil himself), appear in
all but three of the stories.
By contrast. In other, non-popular, late works by Tolstoy popular
characters play only supporting or comparative roles, and the supernatural is
almost never introduced. When it
is, as in The Fruits of Enlightenment (Plody prosveshcheniia, a
play about the attempts of a group of occultists to contact the spirits of the
dead), it is ridiculed.
the most distinctive feature of the stories for the people is their language. The syntactic foundation of all the stories is the
simple sentence, pruned of all but essential elements and frequently
elliptical. Longer sentences tend to be constructed of a string of principal
clauses rather than subordinate clauses grouped around a main one.
Constructions have either a Biblical or a popular coloring, or both. In most
of the stories, the narrative is markedly popular. The popular flavor is
achieved by the consistent inversion of literary word order in the sentence (e.g.,
"Ne mog eshche ia poniat'. . ." ["not able still was I to
understand . . ."] instead of "ia eshche ne mog poniat'. . ."
["I still was not able to understand . . ."]) and the use of popular
lexical material. This material is often proverbial and sometimes from
folklore, for example, the traditional opening phrase of the skazka, "zhil-byl"
(literally, "there lived-there was")
which appears in many of these stories. On the other hand Tolstoy
often, especially in the moralizing conclusions of the stories, introduced a
tone of solemnity reminiscent of Biblical language.
The Bible is actually quoted in nine of the stories, either in text or
as epigraph. The influence of Biblical language affects nearly all of the
stories. It is clearest in the language of divine characters (the angels in
"What Men Live By" and "Two Brothers and the Gold," the
heavenly voice in "Where Love Is, There Is God Also") and generally
whenever the narrative touches directly upon the underlying thematic sense of
the work, as in the moralizing conclusion of "The Candle."
stories for the people, with their absence of complex metaphorical language,
maximally simplified syntax, syntactic inversion, peasant words and
expressions, and the use of many devices and motifs from both folklore and
Scripture, exemplify an innovative and coherent writing style. We may
confidently agree with B. M. Eikhenbaum and S. P. Bychkov
that they represent a remarkable stylistic departure from
Tolstoy's earlier work. Tolstoy's use of language was studied, conscious,
deliberate, and directed both at the creation of a popular tonal quality and
at the avoidance of his former "literary" style, with its tendency
to syntactic and lexical complexity, foreignisms, and lengthy periodicity.
the stories for the people are more or less openly didactic and may even
present a moral formally, as in "The Godson."
Characters are most often developed through their actions and words.
Occasionally the narrator characterizes his heroes directly, but usually he
confines himself to brief physical descriptions. Very rarely, and nowhere at
length, are the psychological processes of the characters described directly.
This is another important distinction between the stories for the people and
Tolstoy's other works, both early and late, where one continues to encounter
the frequent use of devices such as interior monologue and stream of
consciousness. The reason for this is surely to be found in Tolstoy's desire
to remain true to the spirit of folklore in developing his popular style.
Events usually occur in simple chronological order, but they also occur,
according to folk conventions, in groups of three, as in "What Men Live
By," "Where Love Is, There Is God Also," "The Tale of Ivan
the Fool," and several others. Plot
in these stories does not take on the complex forms with which Tolstoy
experimented in such non-popular late works as The Death of Ivan Il'ich and
Resurrection (Voskresenie), with their use of flashbacks and
shifting points of view on the events described.
"Stories for the People" are united thematically by the Christian
teaching as Tolstoy had come to understand it in the late 1870s and 1880s. In
his long essay What I Believe (V chem moia vera, 1882) he
reduced Christianity to five moral imperatives, derived from the "Sermon
on the Mount" (Matt. v-vii and parallels). Briefly stated, the five
commandments are: (1) do not be angry; (2) do not lust; (3) do not swear--that
is, do not, through an oath, surrender free moral choice to the will of
others; (4) do not resist the evil doer with force; and (5) love all people
alike. These commandments, their corollaries, and the effects of disobeying
them (or, more generally, the will of God which they represent) provide a
complete thematic summary of the "Stories for the People."
commandment to avoid anger is prominent in "Evil Allures, But Good
Endures," "A Spark Neglected Burns the House," and "Little
Girls Wiser Than Their Elders"; its corollary, forgiveness, is the theme
of "The Repentant Sinner.'' The injunction against lust never appears in
the stories for the people. We may surmise that Tolstoy discerned no need to
preach this commandment among the people, and, judging by the frequency of the
sexual theme in the non-popular late works (Father Sergius (Otets
Sergii), The Kreutzer Sonata (Kreicerova sonata), Resurrection,
and others), he regarded infractions of it as an essentially upper-class
phenomenon. The injunction against oath-taking appears as a theme in "The
Tale of Ivan the Fool" when the devil is unable to raise an army in
Ivan's kingdom because the people refuse to promise allegiance. In "Two
Old Men," Elisei, the morally superior of the two characters, attaches
little importance to the vow he has sworn to make a pilgrimage to the Holy
Land when it conflicts with an obligation to assist others who are in need.
The fourth commandment, not to resist evil with force, is the subject of
"The Candle," "The Tale of Ivan the Fool," and "The
Godson." The only positive commandment, to love all people alike, is at
the heart of most of the best known stories for the people: "What Men
Live By," "Two Old Men, "The Three Hermits," and
"Where Love Is, There Is God Also."
five remaining stories deal with the evil that comes from ignorance of or
disobedience to the Christian teaching. Their theme is excess. In "How
Much Land Does a Man Need," it takes the form of greed for more land than
needed; in "The Imp and the Crust"--the misuse of a bumper crop of
grain to produce strong drink; in "Il'ias@--the contrast between the
hero's current contentedness with poverty and his former anxiety with wealth.
"Two Brothers and the Gold" and "A Grain As Big As a
Hen's Egg" condemn the use of money as a replacement for active human
stylistic unity of the stories for the people is the product of a number of
linguistic and larger structural devices which they share. Proverbs, sayings,
and other bits of popular wisdom were incorporated into the stories. As early
as 1862, Tolstoy stated that he intended to write a series of brief stories,
each of which was to be inspired by, and offer an explanation of, a striking
popular saying (8:302). Often such sayings were used as the titles of stories,
for example. "Gde liubov', tam i Bog" ("Where Love Is, There Is
God Also"), "Bog pravdu vidit, da ne skoro skazhet" ("God
Sees the Truth, But Waits"), "Vrazh'e lepko, a Bozh'e krepko"
("Evil Allures, But Good Endures"), and "Upustish' ogon'--ne
potushish'" ("A Spark Neglected Burns the House").
majority of the stories rework existing popular narratives, such as those of
the famous skazitel' ("teller of tales"), V. P. Shchegelenok,
from whom Tolstoy obtained the subjects of "What Men Live By" and
"Two Old Men.''
Another familiar model used by Tolstoy was the lubok or
illustrated text. Not itself a
form of folklore, it was well-known to the popular audience.
The word lubok (from lub, the inner bark of the lime
tree, or from lubochnaia koroba, the phrase designating the box used by
peddlers to transport their goods) was known from the early 17th century.
Essentially, the lubok consisted of a picture (or a series of
pictures) accompanied by a printed text which might be explanatory or
narrative as the case required.
Many of the shorter stories for the people (e.g.,
"Little Girls Wiser Than Their Elders," ''Evil Allures, But Good
Endures," and "Il'ias") were modeled on the lubok and
printed, often as separate sheets, with an accompanying picture.
Finally, Tolstoy made use of folklore anthologies as sources for
the stories. "The Godson," "The Repentant Sinner,"
"The Workman Emel'ian and the Empty Drum," "The Three
Hermits" and "The Imp and the Crust" are all closely modeled on
religious legends or fairy tales found recorded in the collections made by A.
N. Afanas'ev and other folklorists.
stories contain several elements common to folk narratives and not found in
Tolstoy's usual literary style. As
previously mentioned, angels and demons frequently appear as do events and
characters in groups of three, the latter in distinct contrast to Tolstoy's
preference in his "literary" style for comparison and contrast based
upon binary groupings. There is evidence in the form of notebooks kept by
Tolstoy, especially in the late 1870s, of his deliberate attempt to gather
striking turns of phrase from common folk.
From time to time he would conceal himself behind bushes growing by the
entrance to the drive leading to the manor house at Yasnaya Polyana (his
country estate). He would
eavesdrop upon the conversation of those passing by along the road on foot.
When he would overhear some particularly choice or juicy example of
popular speech he would discreetly emerge from his hiding place, catch up with
the travelers, and engage them in further conversation as they walked along
together. Having thus gathered some gems of the popular lexicon or
syntax he would return to his ambush and make careful notes of the discoveries
he had made, not a few of which later found their way into his stories.
Tolstoy quoted freely from scripture and adopted some mannerisms typical of
the Bible and other religious literature.
This element is most frequently found in the epigraph (where it
has a significance not unlike that of the proverbs used as titles) or at the
climax of the story or, where there is a moral, in the passage where it is
explained. Assuming that to the
popular, Orthodox reader Biblical language would be both familiar and
authoritative, Tolstoy may have used it to add weight to the moral teaching of
may be thought unlikely that works so overtly burdened with didactic purpose
and directed at so specific an audience would have much chance of being
artistically memorable. In the case of many of these stories, especially the
very brief ones, this prediction proves all too accurate. Yet such stories as
"God Sees the Truth, But Waits," "What Men Live By,"
"Two Old Men,'' "The Three Hermits," "Where Love Is, There
Is God Also," and "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" possess high
artistic value. They represent a masterful achievement in the creation--from
heterogeneous, although related, elements--of a unified style which yet
permits a modicum of flexibility and is singularly well adapted to its solemn
1880 Tolstoy produced some half dozen dramatic works of varying length.
He had made some rather tentative experiments in writing plays in his
earlier career, primarily in the late 1850s and the first half of the 1860s.
None of these early experiments were either published or produced
during Tolstoy's lifetime.
It was also the fate of much of Tolstoy's later dramatic writing
to remain "in the drawer," as the Russian phrase has it.
Both of the plays which he wrote for the popular theatre, however, were
produced, although in one case not as its author had planned.
creation of the "Stories for the People" and their publication by The
Intermediary attracted the attention of persons interested in producing
plays for the common people, and Tolstoy wrote two plays for them.
The first, called
"The First Distiller" ("Pervyi vinokur"), was an enlarged,
dramatized version of "The Imp and the Crust."
It follows very closely the plot and style of this story for the
people, which concerns the attempts of the Devil to seduce a stolid,
hard-working peasant away from his life of virtue.
First staged in 1886 at an open-air theatre in the factory village of
Aleksandrovskoe, near St. Petersburg, it
was Tolstoy's only play "for the people" actually to be performed in
such a venue. Its success
frightened the censorship, and further popular performances of plays by
Tolstoy were banned.
much larger significance is Tolstoy's second popular drama, The Power of
Darkness (Vlast' t'my), also written in 1886.
At the particular insistence of K. P. Pobedonostsev, the Procurator of
the Holy Synod and an intimate adviser of Tsar Alexander III, its production
was forbidden in any theater. It
was first produced only a decade later, in 1895, by various theaters,
including the Maly Theater in Moscow and the Aleksandriinskii Theater in St.
In 1902 the play was
one of the first great successes of Konstantin Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art
Power of Darkness
is a curious amalgam of traditional (i.e., literary) dramatic forms and
devices and the style of language and speech which Tolstoy developed in
writing the "Stories for the People." Organized in the manner of the
well-made play of the neo-classical era, it is divided into five acts with an
introductory exposition in Act I, the further development of characters and
situation in Acts II and III, the catastrophe in Act IV, and the denouement in
Act V. The neo-classical unity of
place is carefully preserved (the entire action of the piece is set in the
interior of the leading character's house)
and the one incident of gross violence which the play contains,
the murder of an illegitimate baby, takes place off stage.
main theme of the play is expressed by its epigraph which, as so often in the
"Stories for the People," takes the form of a folk saying:
"When the claw is caught, the whole bird is lost" ("Kogotok
uviaz, vsei ptichke propast'"). The
play's main character, a peasant named Nikita, commits a small sin by dallying
with the wife of his aged master and is, by degrees, led into the commission
of one further crime after another. The action of the play is centered upon
the slow moral destruction of Nikita as he sinks gradually into a morass of
evil, culminating, however, in his final repentance and redemption.
main characters are all peasants. They
and their lives are depicted realistically, more unsparingly, in fact, than in
any of the "Stories for the People."
The play's realism is
reminiscent of two works of the young Tolstoy ("A Landowner's
Morning" and "Polikushka") which portray the darker side of
peasant life, and anticipates the harsh realism of some of Anton Chekhov's
stories of peasant life, in particular his "Peasants" ("Muzhiki").
At the same time, the peasant characters symbolically represent
universal types and values. Thus, Matrena, the protagonist's mother, represents evil
while his father, Akim, represents good.
Nikita himself is cast between his two progenitors, played upon now by
the power of evil, now by the power of good.
Symbolically, the play becomes the representation of the struggle
between good and evil for the soul of a human being.
contrast to the very positive representation accorded to peasant characters in
general in the "Stories for the People," The Power of Darkness
is something of an anomaly among Tolstoy's writings for the popular audience. Not only is the power of evil much more palpably to be felt
here than in the stories, but the overtly sexual themes presented in the play
have no counterpart anywhere in the stories.
Even so, the play was
enthusiastically received by the popular audience. It remains the only dramatic work by Tolstoy to have received
positive acknowledgement during the writer's lifetime and to have stood the
test of time by becoming a part of the standard repertory of the Russian
"Stories for the People" and Tolstoy's two popular dramas have a
unique place in the context of "popular literature."
Just as they represent a synthesis of various elements on the stylistic
level, so too in the broader context they represent a synthesis of the various
categories of popular literature. They are "of the people" in their
language, their devices, and often in their sources. They are "about the
people" in their emphasis on popular characters and settings and the
patent tone of sympathy with the lot of the narod. And of course, they were "for the people," written
primarily for the improvement and appreciation of what Tolstoy was convinced
was the most discriminating of artistic audiences.
the last thirty years of his life Tolstoy's activity was threefold. He was an
artist, producing fictions in various genres and with various ends in view. He
was also a religious thinker and publicist, developing and explaining a
philosophical system which was mainly ethical in its emphasis. Finally, he was
an aesthetician, elaborating a theory of universally comprehensible art which,
in effect, provided the theoretical framework within which the artist and the
religious thinker could cooperate. His
writings for the people represent the unique confluence of these three modes
of activity: the moralism of the religious thinker was presented in a manner
which both pleased the artist and satisfied the requirements of the
For further information on Komarov and his milieu see Viktor Shklovskii, Matvei
Komarov: Zhitel’ goroda Moskvy (Leningrad, 1929).
In 1854 Tolstoy himself entertained the idea of publishing a journal for
soldiers to be called The Soldier=s Herald (Soldatskii vestnik).
George Rapall Noyes, Tolstoy (New York: Duffield, 1918), p. 287. See also
Thais Lindstrom, "From Chapbooks to Classics: The Story of the
Intermediary," American Slavic and East European Review, 2
L. N. Tolstoy, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, ed. V. G. Chertkov et
al. (Moscow, 1928-58), 85:30. All further volume-page references from
Tolstoy are in the text of the chapter and refer to this edition.
This letter makes it quite clear that in his own practice as a writer for
the popular audience Tolstoy was guided first of all by the principle which
he held to be crucial to the production of any kind of art whatever:
that it be a medium for the communication of the artist's feelings.
This belief was characteristic of Tolstoy throughout his career and is most
fully expressed in his tractate What Is Art? (Chto takoe iskusstvo?,
1897). Tolstoy’s concept of the communication of feelings is more subtle
than may at first appear. An
explanation of Tolstoy’s aesthetic views as expressed in What Is Art?
may be found in Gary R. Jahn, “The Aesthetic Theory of Leo Tolstoy’s What
Is Art?,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism,
34(1975):261-70. See also Rimvydas Silbajoris, Tolstoy’s Aesthetics and
His Art (Columbus, Ohio: Slavica
Tolstoy’s main source for his version of Christ’s ethical teaching was
the ”Sermon on the Mount” (especially Matthew, v-vii, and Luke, vi).
In concluding his “Sevastopol in May” ("Sevastopol' v mae,"
1855), Tolstoy wrote that the hero of his story was the truth and that truth
was, is, and would always be, for him, the hallmark of beauty.
If all of Tolstoy’s finished short stories are compared with the
description offered in this paper it appears that a complete list of Tolstoy’s
stories for the people would include, besides the sixteen stories discussed
here, the following: "Alesha Gorshok,'' God Sees the Truth, But Waits
("Bog pravdu vidit, da ne skoro skazhet"), “The Three Sons”
("Tri syna"), and “The Workman Emel’ian and the Empty Drum”
("Rabotnik Emel'ian i pustoi baraban").
The following editions were consulted in obtaining the list of stories for
the people: (1) Vol. XI of the eleventh edition (1904) of Tolstoy's
collected works (the titles given under the heading Narodnye rasskazy);
(2) Vol. XVI of the first complete collected works (edited by P. I. Biriukov,
ca., 1913), under the heading Povesti i rasskazy dlia narodnykh
izdanii (Tales and Stories for Popular Editions); (3) Vol. X of Polnoe
sobranie khudozhestvennykh proizvedenii (edited by B. Eikhenbaum and K.
Khalabaev, 1930); (4) Vol. XXV of Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (edited by V. G. Chertkov, 1928-56) under the heading Narodnye
"What Men Live By" (“Chem liudi zhivy”), “Little Girls Wiser
Than Their Elders” ("Devchonki umnee starikov"), “Two Brothers
and the Gold” ("Dva brata i zoloto"), “Two Old Men” ("Dva
starika"), “Where Love Is, There Is God Also” ("Gde
tam i Bog"), "Il'ias," “The Repentant Sinner” ("Kaiushchiisia
greshnik"), “The Imp and the Crust” ("Kak chertenok kraiushku
vykupal"), “The Godson” ("Krestnik"), “How Much Land
Does a Man Need?” ("Mnogo li cheloveku zemli nuzhno?"), “The
Tale of Ivan the Fool . . .” ("Skazka ob Ivane durake . . ."),
“The Candle” (“Svechka”), “The Three Hermits” [also known as “The
Three Elders”] ("Tri startsa"), “A Spark Neglected Burns the
House” ("Upustish' ogon'--ne potushish'”), “Evil Allures, But
Good Endures” (“Vrazh'e lepko, a Bozh'e krepko"), and “A Grain As
Big As a Hen’s Egg” ("Zerno s kuriinoe iaico").
The bibliography contains references to studies devoted to several of these
In connection with a complete course of primary instruction (reading,
writing, arithmetic, basic history and science) which Tolstoy developed in
the early 1870s, he wrote four anthologies of readings for use in connection
with the course. These he called The Russian Books for Reading.
Most of the pieces in these anthologies are quite short, often only a
paragraph or two in length. Two of the longer pieces, however, are more substantial:
“God Sees the Truth, But Waits” and “The Prisoner of the
Caucasus.” The first of these
may be regarded as the prototype for Tolstoy’s later stories for the
people. For further discussion
of this story see Gary R. Jahn, “A Structural Analysis of Leo Tolstoy’s
‘God Sees the Truth, But Waits,’” Studies in Short Fiction,
So different was this from Tolstoy’s standard “literary” practice that
he felt obliged to offer a defense of the use of the supernatural in his “popular”
art. See his essay “On Truth in Art” (“O pravde v iskusstve,”
E.g., “In a certain kingdom, in a certain land, there lived-there
was a rich farmer” (“V nekotorom tsarstve, v nekotorom gosudarstve,
zhil-byl bogatyi muzhik”).
See S. P. Bychkov, L. N. Tolstoy: Ocherk tvorchestva (Moscow, 1954)
and B. M. Eikhenbaum, Lev Tolstoy: Semidesiatye gody (Leningrad:
Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1974). Eikhenbaum
is a strong exponent of the view that Tolstoy’s “popular style” was
the product in the main of the author’s desire for stylistic novelty and
experimentation rather than of the desire to make a special effort to reach
out to the common people.
See Iu. M. Sokolov, "Lev Tolstoy i skazitel' Shchegelenok," in L.
N. Tolstoy: K 120-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia (528-1948), N. N. Gusev,
ed., (in Letopisi, 12 [Moscow, 1948], II, 200-208).
See also Gary R. Jahn, “Tolstoj and Folklore: The Case of ‘Chem
ljudi zhivy’,” Russian Language Journal, vol. 44, nos.
For further information and examples see V. Bakhtin and D. Moldavskii, Russkii
lubok (Moscow, 1962).
"The Repentant Sinner" was also intended as a lubok but was
never printed in that form (25:701).
See V. I. Sreznevskii, "Iazyk i legendy v zapisiax L. N. Tolstogo,"
in S. F. Ol'denburgu: Sbornik statei (Leningrad, 1934) and K. S.
Shokhor-Trotskii, "Zapisnaia kniga 1879 goda," Literaturnoe
nasledstvo, Kn. 37-38 (1939):103-116.
Tolstoy drew especially on Prolog, a mediaeval compendium of brief
accounts of the lives and miraculous deeds of the saints, whence he also
derived the subject for "Two Brothers and the Gold."
These early dramatic experiments were primarily comedies, directed
satirically against the radical political and moral theories of the time.
Such, for instance, are "Free Love" ("Svobodnaia
liubov'") and "An Infected Family" ("Zarazhennoe
Tolstoy had dealings with both M. V. Lentovskii (organizer of the “Skomorokh”
theater for the common people in Moscow) and P. A. Denisenko (director of
the “Vasil’ev Island Theater for Workers” in St. Petersburg).
The Power of Darkness was written to fulfill a promise made in
correspondence with the latter.
The lifting of the ban on production of the play in 1895 was only partial. “Popular” theaters were still forbidden to present the
work. Nonetheless, the very
first performance was at the “Skomorokh” theater in Moscow, whose
organizer had first besought Tolstoy to write the play a decade before.
In order to make the performance possible, the “Skomorokh” was
required to cease designating itself as a popular theater.
For the Moscow Art Theater production in 1902, Stanislavsky purchased an
actual peasant house (izba) and had its interior set up on the stage.
The actors were costumed in used (and not always very hygienic)
clothing purchased at a flea market in the city.
It was the “dreadful” realism of the play which caused Pobedonostsev to
take such a strongly censorious stand against its production in the first
The best treatment of The Power of Darkness in English is a Ph.D.
dissertation: David M. Matual, Tolstoj's Vlast' t'my: History and
Analysis (University of Wisconsin, 1971).
L. N. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, ed. V. G. Chertkov et al.
(Moscow: GIKhL, 1928-58). The
stories for the people are contained in Volume 25; the popular dramas in
L. N. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, ed. V. G. Chertkov et al.
(Moscow: GIKhL, 1928-58). The
stories for the people are contained in Volume 25; the popular dramas in
L. N. Twenty-three Tales, ed. and trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude
(London: Oxford University Press, 1971).
N. N. Tvorcheskii put' L. N. Tolstogo (Moscow, 1962).
Bakhtin, V. and D. Moldavskii, Russkii lubok
Bychkov, S. P. L. N. Tolstoy: Ocherk tvorchestva (Moscow, 1954).
Eikhenbaum, B. M. Lev Tolstoy: Semidesiatye gody (Leningrad: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1974).
Gel'gardt, R. R. "K izucheniiu iazyka i stilia
narodnykh rasskazov L. N. Tolstogo," Izvestiia Tverskogo
pedagogicheskogo instituta, V(1929):89-106.
Gary R. L. N. Tolstoj's Stories for the People on the Theme of Brotherly
Love (Ph. D. Dissertation: University of Wisconsin, 1972).
Jahn, Gary R. “A Structural Analysis of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘God Sees the Truth, But Waits,’” Studies in Short Fiction, 12(1975):261-70.
Gary R. “L.
N. Tolstoj’s Narodnye rasskazy,” Russian Language Journal,
vol. 31, no. 109(1977):67-78.
Jahn, Gary R. “L. N. Tolstoj’s Vision of the Power of Death and ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’,” Slavic and East European Journal, 22(1978):442-53.
Jahn, Gary R. “Tolstoj and Folklore: The Case of ‘Chem ljudi zhivy’,” Russian Language Journal, vol. 44, nos. 147-49(1990):135-50.
Jahn, Gary R. “On the Style of a Story for the People,” Tolstoy Studies Journal, 10(1998):42-49.
Krasnov, G. V. “Narodnye rasskazy 70-kh godov,” in L. N. Tolstoy: Stat’I i materialy (Uchenye zapiski gor’kovskogo universiteta, vyp. 7: Gor’kii, 1966):201-11.
Lindstrom, Thais. "From Chapbooks to Classics: The Story of the Intermediary," American Slavic and East European Review, 2 (1957):190-201.
Lomunov, K. N. “L. N. Tolstoy i narodnyi teatr,” in Tvorchestvo L. N. Tolstogo: Sbornik statei (Moscow, 1959).
M. Matual, Tolstoj's Vlast' t'my: History and Analysis (Ph. D.
Dissertation: University of
Melkikh, Z. S. “Tolstoy I fol’klor (Narodnye rasskazy
70-80-kh godov),” in Voprosy literatury (Minsk: Izdatel’stvo
Belgosuniversiteta im. V. I. Lenina, 1960), pp. 3-20.
Myshkovskaia, L. M. "Narodnye rasskazy," in her
Masterstvo L. N. Tolstogo (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel', 1958), pp.
Noyes, George Rapall. Tolstoy (New York: Duffield,
A. I. Popovkin, Narodnye rasskazy L. N. Tolstogo (Tula:
Muzei-usad'ba L. N. Tolstogo "Iasnaia poliana," 1957).
Iu. M. "Lev Tolstoy i skazitel' Shchegelenok," in L. N. Tolstoy:
K 120-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia (528-1948), N. N. Gusev, ed., (in Letopisi,
12 [Moscow, 1948], II, 200-208
Shokhor-Trotskii, K. S. "Zapisnaia kniga 1879 goda," Literaturnoe nasledstvo, Kn. 37-38 (1939):103-116.
V. I. "Iazyk i legendy v zapisiax L. N. Tolstogo," in S. F.
Ol'denburgu: Sbornik statei (Leningrad, 1934).
Tseitlin, A. G. Istoriia russkoi literatury v trekh tomax, D. D. Blagoi, ed. (Moscow, 1964), vol. III.