Tolstoy and Popular Literature

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Tolstoy and Popular Literature

Gary R. Jahn, University of Minnesota


In 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" ("Konek-gorbunok").  Tolstoy 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.


The 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.


Tolstoy 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. [1]   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.


The 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. [2]


In 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 literature. [3]


Tolstoy's 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. [4] 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:


"I 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)


Tolstoy 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:


"Ladies 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)


As 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.


In 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 [5] ; 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 (63:325-27). [6]


Tolstoy's 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 artistic purposes.




Written 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, [7] 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.


Critics 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 genre. [8]   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 rasskazy). [9]   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. [10]   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 Hermits". [11]   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, But Waits", [12] and later, such as "Alesha Gorshok," which share the same stylistic and thematic profile.


All 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 class society.


The 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. [13] 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.


Perhaps 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") [14] 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."


The 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 [15] 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.


All 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.


The "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."


The 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."


The 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 concern.


The 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").


The 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.'' [16] 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. [17] 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. [18] 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.


The 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. [19]


Finally, Tolstoy quoted freely from scripture and adopted some mannerisms typical of the Bible and other religious literature. [20] 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 his stories.


It 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 moral purpose.




After 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. [21] 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.


Tolstoy's 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. [22]   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.


Of 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. Petersburg. [23]   In 1902 the play was one of the first great successes of Konstantin Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theater.


The 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) [24] and the one incident of gross violence which the play contains, the murder of an illegitimate baby, takes place off stage.


The 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.


The 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." [25]   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.


In 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 theater. [26]


The "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.


In 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 aesthetician.



[1] . For further information on Komarov and his milieu see Viktor Shklovskii, Matvei Komarov: Zhitel’ goroda Moskvy (Leningrad, 1929).

[2] . In 1854 Tolstoy himself entertained the idea of publishing a journal for soldiers to be called The Soldier=s Herald (Soldatskii vestnik).

[3] . 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 (1957), pp.190-201.

[4] . 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.

[5] . 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 Publishers, 1991).

[6] . 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).

[7] . 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.

[8] . 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").

[9] . 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 rasskazy.

[10] . "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 liubov', 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").

[11] . The bibliography contains references to studies devoted to several of these stories.

[12] . 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, 12(1975):261-70.


[13] . 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,” 1887).

[14] . 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”).

[15] . 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.

[16] . 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. 147-49(1990):135-50.

[17] . For further information and examples see V. Bakhtin and D. Moldavskii, Russkii lubok (Moscow, 1962).

[18] . "The Repentant Sinner" was also intended as a lubok but was never printed in that form (25:701).

[19] . 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.

[20] . 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."

[21] . 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 semeistvo").

[22] . 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.

[23] . 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.

[24] . 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.

[25] . It was the “dreadful” realism of the play which caused Pobedonostsev to take such a strongly censorious stand against its production in the first place.

[26] . 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).

Bibliography for “Tolstoy and Popular Literature”


Primary Sources

  Tolstoy, 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 Volume 26.

Tolstoy, L. N. Twenty-three Tales, ed. and trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude (London: Oxford University Press, 1971).


Secondary Sources

Apostolov, N. N. Tvorcheskii put' L. N. Tolstogo (Moscow, 1962).

Bakhtin, V. and D. Moldavskii, Russkii lubok (Moscow, 1962).

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.

Jahn, 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.

Jahn, 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).

David M. Matual, Tolstoj's Vlast' t'my: History and Analysis (Ph. D. Dissertation:  University of Wisconsin, 1971).

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. 369-89.

Noyes, George Rapall. Tolstoy (New York: Duffield, 1918).

A. I. Popovkin, Narodnye rasskazy L. N. Tolstogo (Tula: Muzei-usad'ba L. N. Tolstogo "Iasnaia poliana," 1957).

Sokolov, 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.

Sreznevskii, 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.