Time-travelling email to Tolstoy re: reminders, in the transition to post-print publishing, of you emancipating your serfs in 19th-century Russia

Manuscript pages of revolutionary, democratically-minded aristocrats: Tolstoy’s fourth draft of Anna Karenina (above); De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (below)

Manuscript pages of revolutionary, democratically-minded aristocrats: Tolstoy’s fourth draft of Anna Karenina (above); De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (below)


Zdrastvooytye Leo!

(Privyet! seems too much like hi for such a distinguished stranger)

You’ve had a century and a half to think about founding 13 schools for educating the children of peasants working on your estate, Yasnaia Poliana, in the 1870s, and your enthusiastic marrying of new agricultural technology to your attempts to share land-ownership with your serfs. You understood, as few of your fellow-aristocrats did, the late ripples through Russia of the implications of printing’s invention — that Tsar Alexander II’s orders for the emancipation of the serfs were part of what Michael Lynch has described as ‘a programme that included legal and administrative reform and the extension of press and university freedoms.’

Another aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, who — a few decades earlier — had educated his French countrymen about the inevitability of the spread of American democracy to the rest of the world, would have said that you were a fine example of his belief that …

… almost all the democratic convulsions which have agitated the world have been directed by nobles.

A most interesting idea, that. What advice do you have for editors and media captains floundering, like so many, in this post-Gutenberg transition? If only time travel, for you — not just your thoughts — were possible, you might speak on the subject at a TED conference that the rest of us could watch on YouTube. We were reminded of your revolutionary ardour by chance, in re-reading and listening to an audio-recording of Anna Karenina — about which practically no non-expert thinks, in reflecting on agricultural reform.

Let us say, frankly, that although we could have no quarrel with Virginia Woolf’s pigeonholing of you as the greatest great novelist, virtually the estimations also of Joyce, Mann, Proust, Faulkner and Nabokov (according to the Wikipedia), you are not one of our favourite writers. We have always found your stories almost peerlessly depressing: there is often delicious humour in them, yes, but not nearly enough — as much in, say, the work of your hero, Charles Dickens. Certainly in English translations of your work, there is no leavening by evocative passages — as by the class of writers we called magician-scribes in a post here last month. You deliberately wrote as plainly as possible, with powerful descriptions of people and keen psychological perception, but with almost no sense of place; no ability to conjure you-are-here sensations. Surviving the horror of the truth about life is intolerable without some poetry in prose.

But your cold rolled realism, and your deep anti-romanticism, make you an ideal reporter on the obstacles to democratisation. We smiled in recognition at the passages in Anna Karenina in which you describe the struggles of Levin — standing in for yourself, in your story — to convince the change-resistant peasants tied to his family’s estate by Russian tradition about 200 years old, then, that the changes he was bent on introducing reflected his heart-felt good intentions for them. What did we recognise? The suspicion and resistance to change are so like the reactions to attempts at reform in the digital revolution in publishing — recently noted by us in a Q&A post and in one other, doing our bit to keep the historical record straight.

Beneath our signature, we will post extracts to show what we mean. Of course it is ironic — not to mention tragic — that the clever peasants’ mistrustful and cynical reactions to the new system were partly justified by events elsewhere in Russia. Michael Lynch has shown how the reforms meant to liberate them were subverted by the landowners

But! Eventually, as everyone knows, one of the world’s most famous revolutions corrected all that — in 1917 — and proved that there was no turning back of the democratic tide. This is surely the thought that media editors and proprietors need to keep at the front of their minds.

Yours in hope,


… Levin continued the conversation with the gray-whiskered landowner, […who …] stuck to it that the Russian peasant is a swine and likes swinishness, and that to get him out of his swinishness one must have authority, and there is none; one must have the stick, and we have become so liberal that we have all of a sudden replaced the stick that served us for a thousand years by lawyers and model prisons, where the worthless, stinking peasant is fed on good soup and has a fixed allowance of cubic feet of air.

[…] The carrying out of Levin’s plan presented many difficulties; but he struggled on, doing his utmost, and attained a result which, though not what he desired, was enough to enable him, without self-deception, to believe that the attempt was worth the trouble. One of the chief difficulties was that the process of cultivating the land was in full swing, that it was impossible to stop everything and begin it all again from the beginning, and the machine had to be mended while in motion.

[…] As for the proposal made by Levin—to take a part as shareholder with his labourers in each agricultural undertaking … On beginning to talk to the peasants about it, and making a proposition to cede them the land on new terms, he came into collision with the same great difficulty that they were so much absorbed by the current work of the day, that they had not time to consider the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed scheme.

[…] Another difficulty lay in the invincible disbelief of the peasant that a landowner’s object could be anything else than a desire to squeeze all he could out of them. They were firmly convinced that his real aim (whatever he might say to them) would always be in what he did not say to them. And they themselves, in giving their opinion, said a great deal but never said what was their real object. Moreover (Levin felt that the irascible landowner had been right) the peasants made their first and unalterable condition of any agreement whatever that they should not be forced to any new methods of tillage of any kind, nor to use new implements. They agreed that the modern plough ploughed better, that the scarifier did the work more quickly, but they found thousands of reasons that made it out of the question for them to use either of them; and though he had accepted the conviction that he would have to lower the standard of cultivation, he felt sorry to give up improved methods, the advantages of which were so obvious. But in spite of all these difficulties he got his way, and by autumn the system was working, or at least so it seemed to him.

[…] A distant part of the estate, a tract of waste land that had lain fallow for eight years, was with the help of the clever carpenter, Fyodor Ryezunov, taken by six families of peasants on new conditions of partnership, and the peasant Shuraev took the management of all the vegetable gardens on the same terms. The remainder of the land was still worked on the old system, but these three associated partnerships were the first step to a new organization of the whole, and they completely took up Levin’s time.

It is true that in the cattle-yard things went no better than before, and Ivan strenuously opposed warm housing for the cows and butter made of fresh cream, affirming that cows require less food if kept cold, and that butter is more profitable made from sour cream, and he asked for wages just as under the old system, and took not the slightest interest in the fact that the money he received was not wages but an advance out of his future share in the profits.

It is true that Fyodor Ryezunov’s company did not plough over the ground twice before sowing, as had been agreed, justifying themselves on the plea that the time was too short. It is true that the peasants of the same company, though they had agreed to work the land on new conditions, always spoke of the land, not as held in partnership, but as rented for half the crop, and more than once the peasants and Ryezunov himself said to Levin, “If you would take a rent for the land, it would save you trouble, and we should be more free.” Moreover the same peasants kept putting off, on various excuses, the building of a cattleyard and barn on the land as agreed upon, and delayed doing it till the winter.

[…] Often, too, talking to the peasants and explaining to them all the advantages of the plan, Levin felt that the peasants heard nothing but the sound of his voice, and were firmly resolved, whatever he might say, not to let themselves be taken in.

[…] But in spite of all this Levin thought the system worked, and that by keeping accounts strictly and insisting on his own way, he would prove to them in the future the advantages of the arrangement, and then the system would go of itself.

… At the end of September the timber had been carted for building the cattleyard on the land that had been allocated to the association of peasants, and the butter from the cows was sold and the profits divided. In practice the system worked capitally, or, at least, so it seemed to Levin. In order to work out the whole subject theoretically, … all that was left to do was to make a tour abroad, …