Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy is best known as the author of some of the world’s most famous literature, specifically the epic novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Tolstoy naturally merits this distinction: his works changed the face of Russian literature, allowing for a previously unsurpassed international appreciation of Russia’s authors of fiction. As Russian cultural historian James H. Billington states, “Tolstoy was such a formidable figure that transcended the environment in which he lived…by the end of his long life many people spoke of their ‘two Tsars’: the crowned Tsar in St. Petersburg and the uncrowned Tsar in Yasnaya Polyana.” Tolstoy experienced numerous spiritual crises in his life, nearly lost his estate due to bouts of drinking and gambling, and ultimately renounced the Russian Church, state, and before his death, his own family. As a result, throughout nearly his entire literary career, Tolstoy played an active role in the Russian struggle, as Billington and other historians have stated, to “answer life’s ‘cursed questions'” in both his personal life and society. 
One of these “questions” served as a constant source of contention in Tolstoy’s Russia: what was the role of the peasants in society? By the time of the 1860 Census, when Tolstoy was 32 years old, the peasant class numbered twenty three million – nearly one-third of the entire population. Serfs,individuals bound to the property of wealthy landowners, made up a considerable portion of this peasant class. Despite over a century of educational reforms, Russia’s peasants remained primarily uneducated. Historian Ben Eklof, in his extensive work Russia’s Peasant Schools states:
The history of Russian popular education before 1864 is one of sweeping projects occasionally passed as laws but almost never carried out in practice. [Empress Catherine II] is known to have felt that too much education for the chern’ (plebes) was dangerous for the social order…there was no provision for the funding of peasant schools.
In the late 1850s, Tolstoy began investigating popular education, as well as contemplating the establishment of his own peasant schools on his Yasnaya Polyana estate. At the turn of the decade, Tolstoy founded his school. While this venture lasted only about three years, it represented the concerted effort of one of the world’s most famous literary figures to alter the state of Russia’s educational system. Furthermore, this event illustrates the multifaceted nature of Tolstoy himself; even in this early stage of Tolstoy’s literary career, he shows signs of radical dissent from the established order in the desire to improve Russian society.
I. Early Life and Philosophy on Education
To understand Tolstoy’s views on education, it is important to first examine his own schooling. Tolstoy was the product of neither “popular” education, nor the regimented government or theological schools so prevalent at the time of his youth. As Alan Pinch notes, “Tolstoy never attended a school…his own education was conducted by tutors at home, the usual solution for aristocratic Russian families of his day.” This situation continued after Tolstoy’s mother and father both died before Tolstoy turned eight – his legal guardians continued to appoint tutors for him. This private educational system hardly limited the young Tolstoy. In his earliest years he attained a level of near-fluency in both French and German, while simultaneously learning the skills of writing, reading, and mathematics. Before entering formal university, Tolstoy was fluent in English and was “also well-versed in Arabic, Tartar, and Turkish…with the help of several specialized tutors.”
Upon entering the University of Kazan in 1844, Tolstoy studied Oriental Languages and Law. The university quickly managed to stoke the already growing fires of Tolstoy’s opposition to authority, particularly in the realm of education. Tolstoy stated, “My work on [Catherine the Great’s] Instructions and [Montesquieu’s] Espirit des lois opened up for me a new field of independent mental endeavor whereas the university with its demands…hindered me.” Tolstoy failed his initial examinations in Oriental Languages — despite his prior grasp of three foreign languages — and left the University after only three years, having never earned a degree. Pinch acknowledges that, “Tolstoy never came to understand what a really good university could give. At Kazan he observed…the backward aspects of an institution still suffering from…the close of [Rector Nikolai] Lobachevsky’s patient struggle to animate and organize a true centre of higher learning.” Regardless of this lack of understanding, this period laid the groundwork for the earliest development of Tolstoy’s theories on education.
Not long after his withdrawal from the University of Kazan in 1847, Tolstoy entered the Russian army with his brother, Nikolai, who was serving in the Caucasus. This period was pivotal in the life of young Tolstoy. At this time he wrote some of his earliest works such as Childhood (1852) — a fictional account of his own youth —and Sevastopol Sketches (1855) — based on a battle during the Crimean War. Furthermore, his interaction with the various groups of this region would inspire later works such as The Cossacks (1863) and Prisoner of the Caucasus (1870), as well as offer him a model for interaction with the peasantry. By 1855, Tolstoy began to experience a growing disenchantment with army life. He wrote to his aunt, “Over these last few days the idea of leaving the army had occurred to me more and more often. I see that it would be easy for me.” In 1856, Tolstoy finally withdrew from the army.
Following his military service, Tolstoy began writing more, publishing several stories in the most popular Russian periodicals such as Sovremennik, which had been started by national poet Aleksander Pushkin, and at that point operated by revolutionary thinker Nikolai Chernyshevsky. He gained popularity, becoming acquainted with the authors Ivan Turgenev, Ivan Goncharov, and the dramatist Aleksander Ostrovskii. Simultaneously however, Tolstoy struggled in his personal life: he rapidly injected himself into Moscow society, drinking heavily and gambling recklessly. In his later work Confession, Tolstoy described his lifestyle:
I cannot think of those years without horror, loathing and heartache. I killed men in war and challenged men to duels in order to kill them. I lost at cards, consumed the labor of the peasants, sentenced them to punishments, lived loosely and deceived people. Lying, robbery, adultery of all kinds, drunkenness, violence, murder – there was no crime I didn’t commit…so I lived for ten years.
As a result, Tolstoy frequently attempted to redeem himself for these actions in regard to the peasantry. He tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to liberate the serfs on his Yasnaya Polyana estate. In 1856, he noted in his correspondence: “My business with the peasants is going badly…words about emancipation have reached them with various additions and embellishments, and as a result of their vague idea about whom the landowners’ land belongs to, they have rejected my very favourable proposals.”
Tolstoy attempted to flee Moscow – as well as Yasnaya Polyana – on an 1857 trip throughout Western Europe. While Tolstoy’s lifestyle did not change on the trip, it did spark his interest in the analysis of education. His travels at this point, however, primarily consisted of sightseeing, touring museums, and living as recklessly as he had in Moscow. Tolstoy’s sudden desire to educate the peasants on his estate seemed to appear randomly: in a single diary entry in June 1857, he stated, “A strong and distinct idea has occurred to me of setting up a school in my village for the whole district.” Tolstoy returned to Moscow and Yasnaya Polyana later that year, and approximately a year and a half later, he established the first Yasnaya Polyana School.
This first school was an experiment, as Tolstoy developed his theories regarding education. In March 1860, he wrote to traveller and geologist Y.P. Kovalevsky:
I’ve been busy with a school for boys and girls…progress…has been quite unexpected. [The state-run academies] are useful but in the same way as dinner at the English Club would be useful if it were all eaten up by the steward and the cook. These things are produced by all 70,000,000 Russians, but are used by several thousand…The most vital need of the Russian people is Public education…[This] hasn’t begun, and never will it begin as long as the government is in charge of it.
Tolstoy continued to grapple with the larger problem of spreading public education to the peasantry. He even brainstormed —in the same letter to Kovalevsky —the foundation of a “Society for Public Education.” Tolstoy’s idea, however, was never presented to the government as would have been required for such a Russia-wide organization to be founded.
In October of 1860, Tolstoy’s educational ambitions were temporarily sidelined by the death of his brother, Nikolai, of tuberculosis in France. Tolstoy wrote to the poet A.A. Fet:
He died, literally, in my arms. Nothing in life has made such an impression on me…The truth I’ve taken away from my 32 years is that the situation in which someone has placed us is the most terrible fraud and crime…I accept life as it is, as a most mean, detestable and false condition…I’m spending the winter here for the simple reason that I am here, and it makes no difference where I live.
Despite Tolstoy’s evident depression, he used that winter to his advantage; beginning in France, he continued travelling abroad researching education throughout Europe.
In an article entitled “On Popular Education,” Tolstoy wrote,
I could write whole books about the ignorance that I witnessed in the schools of France, Switzerland, and Germany. Anyone who cares about education should study schools not from the reports of public examinations, but from extended visits and conversations with teachers and pupils in the schools and outside the schools.
Tolstoy was disturbed by the educational systems that he viewed while travelling throughout Europe. He abhorred the compulsory nature of schools and the intense amount of regimentation in nearly every facet of the West European scholastic system. Tolstoy likely witnessed the implementation of educational philosophies similar to those discussed by Michel Foucault in his classic analysis of disciplinary tactics, both educational and otherwise:
It was possible to link, to the binary exercises of rivalry, a spatial disposition [of students] inspired by the [Roman] legion, with rank, hierarchy, pyramidal supervision…By assigning individual places it made possible the supervision of each individual and the simultaneous work of all…It made the educational space function like a learning machine, but also as a machine for supervising, hierarchizing, rewarding…Thus the classroom would form a single great table, with many different entries, under the scrupulously ‘classificatory’ eye of the master.
This standard in government-organized popular education represented – to Tolstoy – an environment counteractive to learning, and more broadly, the centralized, hierarchical exercise of power upon an otherwise voiceless mass.
He contrasted this with France’s cafe culture:
What I saw in Marseilles…takes place in all the other countries: everywhere the greater part of one’s education is acquired not at school but in life….The very boy who told me that Henry IV had been killed by Julius Caesar knew very well the story of the Three Musketeers and of Monte Cristo…Here is the unconscious school that has undermined the compulsory school and has made the latter’s substance dwindle down to almost nothing.
Thus, education could not and should not be compulsory, but rather should grow organically from within the life experience of the people themselves. As Blaisdell notes,
He was revolutionary but nondogmatic. He did not attack the popular cultural education of the day, but instead bowed to it and supplemented it with complementary material. At the same time, he eagerly offered children as much education as they desired.
II. The Flourishing School and Its Curriculum
In the spring of 1861, Tolstoy returned to Yasnaya Polyana and resumed his efforts in fostering the growth of his school. He immediately dove into work: “I’ve been busy…with the school, which had to be placed on a new and better footing right from the start.” Tolstoy appointed new teachers, all of whom — at Tolstoy’s discretion — taught according to his still-developing pedagogical philosophy: “The more convenient a method of instruction is for the teacher the less convenient for the pupils. The only right way of teaching is that which is satisfactory for the pupils.” He found his philosophy easier to employ himself: “[The children] are fonder of me [than of the teachers]. And we begin to chat for 3 or 4 hours, and nobody is bored.” Several of his pupils later published reminiscences regarding the school and Tolstoy as teacher. One, Vasily Morozov, wrote in his memoirs:
We had grown as close to Lev Nikolayevich as the cobbler’s wax is to the wax-end. We were miserable without Lev Nikolayevich, and [he] without us…our school was still growing and growing. By now it had become famous not only in our province but even in Moscow and Petersburg. What am I saying? It had become famous abroad, not to speak of Russia. Even then I realized what a centre and meeting-point Yasnaya Polyana had become.
The school at this point was expanding rapidly: it is estimated that as many as twenty “schools” were opened, and over fifty young boys, girls, and some adults attended lessons.
In January 1862, Tolstoy published the first journal of his school, entitled simply Yasnaya Polyana. This journal served primarily as a medium through which Tolstoy could voice his opinions regarding education and publicly display the successes and failures of his own efforts. One of his first major articles, entitled “The Yasnaya Polyana School in Months of November and December” offered a broad overview of his growing educational experiment. He stated,
We have no beginners…like any living organism, the school not only varies with each year, day and hour, but also is subject to temporary crises…We have four teachers…the school is housed in a two-story stone building.”
He continued in a style comparable to one of his novels, describing every last detail of the building and its inner workings, down to the amount of mud frequently coating the staircases.
The bulk of this work however, was a detailed description of the school’s non-compulsory curriculum, offering a glance not simply into the day-to-day classroom regimen, but also into the depths of Tolstoy’s pedagogical philosophy. Tolstoy wrote:
The youngest class reads, writes, and solves problems in the first three operations of arithmetic, and reads sacred history so that the course of study is divided in the following way: 1) reading mechanics and graded reading; 2) writing; 3) penmanship; 4) grammar; 5) sacred history; 6) Russian history; 7) drawing; 8) drafting; 9) singing; 10) mathematics; 11) natural sciences; 12) religion.
He went to great lengths to explain each one of these subjects, typically offering an anecdote or two about a “typical” day in each of these classes. However, it is important to note that, as mentioned in Eklof’s extensive work on the peasant schooling system, this curriculum was not unique in structure. An “Abridged Program of Primary Schools,” quoted in Eklof’s modification of an 1809 English report on Russian education, indicated that nearly all of these subjects were taught in Russian primary schools, albeit in a perhaps more compact form than Tolstoy’s model.
How then did Tolstoy’s methods differ? Perhaps the most evident example of the distinctiveness of the Yasnaya Polyana School was its writing program. Tolstoy described this in great detail in a short essay entitled, “Are the Peasant Children to Learn to Write from Us?” This essay discussed the responsibility of the peasant children in educating themselves, “for the simple reason that the child stands closer than I do…to that ideal of truth, beauty, and goodness to which I, in my pride, wish to raise him.”
The basic method of teaching writing began as follows: “The chief goal in having children write compositions, consists not just in giving them themes but in presenting them with a large choice, in pointing out the scope of the composition, and in indicating the initial steps.” Tolstoy presented his class with a series of ideas and then set the children to work on them. The children found themselves incapable of coming up with a topic and instead demanded that Tolstoy begin it for them. He continued: “In the middle of the lesson I was obliged to leave them. They continued to write without me, and finished two pages that were just as good, just as well-felt, and just as true as the first page.” Tolstoy notes, however, that after the children completed the story, the manuscript was left lying unsupervised in the classroom of a fellow teacher. As a result, a group of students turned it into a paper toy, later discarded and burned with a stack of scrap papers. Tolstoy discovered the loss of the manuscript and alerted the student authors, who opted to spend the night at the schoolroom rewriting their story. After several hours of contemplation, one boy named Fedka finished the story, leading Tolstoy to state the following:
The feeling for artistic measure was stronger in him than in any authors I know…It seemed strange to me that a half-literate peasant boy should suddenly arrive at such conscious artistic powers…It seemed strange and offensive to me that I, the author of Childhood, who had garnered some success and earned recognition for artistic talent from a cultivated Russian public…should be unable to teach anything to young Semka or Fedka.
Although Tolstoy’s commentary may be viewed as a supportive exaggeration of these two young boys’ writing skills, it illustrates the very essence of Tolstoy’s philosophy on education. By simply offering his students a minimum number of ideas, they could continue on their own literary path. This non-compulsory method of teaching writing led to several things: the boys not only completed the assignment, but expressed a deep interest in the writing process. As a result, the final product produced — a story entitled “They Feed with the Spoon, Then Poke the Eye with the Handle” —was a story of great magnitude, comparable (in Tolstoy’s mind) if not superior, to his own writing. “There could no longer be any doubt,” he stated, “that our success was no accident: we had apparently found a method that was more natural and more conducive than anything tried before.”
Foucault’s eighteenth century concept of an educational “machine” could not be further from Tolstoy’s non-compulsory and unstructured pedagogy. Despite the increasing popularity of the school and the positive reviews from its students, lectures were not always well attended. In fact, Tolstoy and the teachers did not even require attendance. In his journal, Tolstoy recalled:
Suddenly without saying a word, two or three boys will suddenly rush into the room during the second or third afternoon class hour, hurriedly collecting their caps… “Going home.” And who are these boys who decided to go home, and how did they decide to? God knows…Such occurrences take place once or twice a week. They are aggravating and disagreeable for the teacher…But who will not admit that due to these events the five, six, and even seven lessons a day for each class…take on that much more significance?
He felt therefore, that quantity of attendance was subordinate to quality of learning in his classes, even at the risk of lessons rarely being heard by his students.
In addition, Tolstoy did not view grades as great disciplinary tools. He wrote:
Grades are, for the students, a measure of their work, and the students express dissatisfaction with grades only when they believe a grade has been given unfairly…Grades by the way, are left with us only from the old ways, and are beginning to fall into disuse.
Disciplinary measures as punishment, to Tolstoy, were equally vestigial:
Let the people who are themselves punished invent the rights and obligations of punishment. Our world of children —of simple, independent people — must remain pure, free from self-deception and the criminal faith of believing in punishment.
Although Tolstoy quite freely and happily published his journal of pedagogical theories, he nevertheless knew that his opinions would be contentious. He wrote to Vasily Botkin, “I hope that they kick up a terrible fuss about me in the press, and I hope that as a result of it I shan’t cease to think and feel just the same.” Rather than receiving outright criticism however, as Blaisdell notes, “his contemporaries —when they bothered to respond —dismissed the ideas and opinions of Yasnaya Polyana as unimportant or impractical.” Therefore, while the journal continued to broadcast Tolstoy’s educational doctrines throughout Russia, it did little to support the growth of the schools themselves.
III. Collapse and Revival
By late May, 1862, Tolstoy had exhausted himself from work at the school. Additionally, he had begun to suffer from symptoms of consumption and was instructed by his doctor to recuperate in Samara province. Shortly thereafter, agents from the Tsarist “Third Department” began a search of Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana estate for revolutionary publications written by either Tolstoy himself or his teachers. This group of “secret police” ransacked Yasnaya Polyana, questioned Tolstoy’s family and staff, and subjected them to the public reading of his diaries and letters. Tolstoy wrote to his aunt:
It was fortunate for me and for that friend of yours [a colonel from the ranks of the Third Department with whom Tolstoy’s aunt was acquainted] that I wasn’t there – I’d have killed him! Charming! Marvellous! That’s how the government makes its friends…I’ve always been completely indifferent to the government. I can’t say that now.”
This event severely disturbed and depressed Tolstoy. While Blaisdell argues that “Tolstoy never cited [the government’s intervention] as a cause for the school’s demise,” it is clear from Tolstoy’s letters that it was a major factor. On August 7, he wrote to his aunt:
All my activities in which I found happiness and solace have been ruined…There’ll be no school, the people are laughing up their sleeves, the gentry are gloating, while we think willy-nilly, at the sound of every bell, that they’ve come to take us away.
Tolstoy thus no longer found himself capable of adequately focusing on the school, but rather preoccupied himself with preparation for another raid of his estate. Furthermore, in defense of his honor following the search —and at his aunt’s recommendation —he wrote a pointed letter to Tsar Alexander II, hoping to clear both his and the Tsar’s name from blame in this situation.
There were, however, several other events that acted as turning points for the Yasnaya Polyana journal, the school, and Tolstoy’s life in general. The first of these is made evident in a letter written his aunt Alexandra shortly after his appeal to the Tsar:
I’ve been afflicted by every misfortune lately: the gendarmes, such censorship of my journal that I’m only publishing the June issue tomorrow…and the 3rd and chief misfortune or good fortune, depending on which way you choose to look at it: toothless old fool that I am, I’ve fallen in love.
Tolstoy met and fell in love with Sofia Andreyevna Behrs, the daughter of a high-ranking physician, whom he would marry on October 5, 1862, only months after their acquaintance. For Tolstoy, this fulfilled his long-standing desire to wed and raise a family. Despite its continued operation, over the next several months, Tolstoy made little or no mention of the Yasnaya Polyana School or the journal in his letters, instead focusing primarily on married life and the formation of his family. Vasily Morozov noted Tolstoy’s preoccupation, stating that, “Lev Nikolaevich rarely visited us and the school began to flag.”
The second life-altering event was Tolstoy’s resumption of fictional writing. R.F. Christian states that, “The years 1863-9 were, in Tolstoy’s literary biography, occupied entirely with the writing and publication of War and Peace, and if in one sense this was a momentous period of his life marked by almost continuous hard work, in another sense it was uneventful: there was only one literary event.”
In January 1871, his labours on the novel behind him, he wrote to Afanasy Fet, “I’ve stopped writing and will never again write verbose nonsense like War and Peace. I’m guilty, but I swear I’ll never do it again.” As occurred frequently throughout Tolstoy’s life, however, this self-deprecating commentary merely indicated a turn toward a nobler goal. He remarked, “There is just one difficulty: there are no good books for the people, not only in our country, but not even in Europe.” With this idea in mind, Tolstoy embarked upon the second wave of his educational experiment at Yasnaya Polyana.
As in his first attempts at peasant education, Tolstoy began by focusing on the instruction of children, specifically in the realm of reading and writing. Throughout the early 1870s, Tolstoy focused primarily on the creation of an ABC Book and a Primer both of which, he hoped, would bring basic, rudimentary skills to the masses. In January 1872, he wrote to Alexandra Tolstaya:
These last years I’ve been writing a Primer, and now I’m having it published…My proud dreams about this Primer are: that two generations of all Russian children, from tsars’ to peasants’, will study with the aid of this Primer alone, and will receive their first poetic impressions from it, and that having written this Primer, I’ll be able to die peacefully.
These books contained a series of basic exercises, serving as a culmination of Tolstoy’s educational philosophy. A large portion of the texts included stemmed not only from Tolstoy’s own work, but also from folk stories. When released, however, the Primer received much of the same criticism incurred by his early educational theories and was ultimately dismissed. Tolstoy noted by 1873 that, “The Primer is an inscrutable mystery to me: if I meet anyone with children, I hear genuine praise, and complaints that there’s nothing of mine to read, but nobody buys the Primer, therefore nobody needs it.” His beloved project faded not only from importance in the public sphere, but also in Tolstoy’s personal life.
Regardless of this failure, Tolstoy resumed personally teaching at Yasnaya Polyana, reestablishing the peasant schools. Tolstoy maintained the methods and regimen of the first schools, and added a new set of factors more connected with his family life: his children. Although (at the request of Sofia Tolstaya) Tolstoy’s then five children were educated in a more traditional style, he often ordered that they participate in the lessons at Yasnaya Polyana on a daily basis. His daughter Tatyana noted, “We three children taught the absolute beginners their alphabet. Our classroom was the hall, and fat Ilya [Tolstoy, her brother], a big pointer clutched in one hand, would try to teach the alphabet to rows of stolid little children much the same size as himself.” His son Ilya recalled the following:
One day papa set me to teaching the alphabet to one of the boys. I tried my best, but he understood absolutely nothing. I lost my temper and began hitting him; we fought and both began to cry. Papa came and told me that I could never teach again because I didn’t know how…”It’s not for us to teach them, but for them to teach us,” he remarked.
By late 1873, however, Tolstoy found himself once again preoccupied and forced to close the schools. He gave no direct reasoning for this abrupt close, yet his letters reveal several occurrences that more than likely pulled him away from his efforts at peasant education. In 1874, a famine struck his property in the Samara province, inspiring Tolstoy to begin his first of many attempts at agricultural reform. He stated in a letter to his aunt Alexandra Tolstaya, “This year there was a very abundant harvest throughout the whole Samara province, and as far as I know, the only place in the whole Samara province that was missed by the rains was my estate… [I] suffered a big loss…the disaster would have been terrible if such friendly help hadn’t been given to the people there.” Furthermore, he noted the loss of his sixth child, and shortly thereafter, the expected birth of another. As his daughter Tatyana recalled, “When summer came, the school was closed, and the next year it didn’t reopen.”
While education remained one of Tolstoy’s interests throughout the duration of his life, the 1870s marked the end of his attempts at organizing schools for the peasantry. In the second half of the decade, he dedicated himself entirely to the writing and publication of his second great novel, Anna Karenina. Simultaneously, he became entirely preoccupied with religious ideas and the notion of impending death, culminating with a full spiritual crisis sometime around 1879, which he chronicled in his short work Confession. This period changed Tolstoy’s outlook on his own existence, society, and his writing, leading him to renounce his old life and begin on a path of religious contemplation lasting until his death. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly in the context of this study, it awakened him to further issues, both in a social and political context, within peasant society. He developed specific ideals regarding the role of the peasant in the social hierarchy of Russia and supported a notion of peasant self-sufficiency in education. Over the next several years, Tolstoy would turn his attention to these glaring problems, beginning projects in much the same manner as the peasant schools in the attempt to improve the peasant condition in Russia.
Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy frequently proved himself as a man of many abilities. His skills in prose caused him to be ranked not only as one of the foremost authors of his time, but as a timeless author whose extensive works have affected generations. Tolstoy, despite the brevity of his Yasnaya Polyana schools, acted not only as a voice for an ideology, but as a man of action, seeking to help the peasantry through a new form of popular education. Interaction with the Russian government and the balance between his personal and literary life—factors that frequently complicated Tolstoy’s remaining years—caused the gradual disintegration of this particular experiment in social change.
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