Scroguely Works: “How much land does a man need?” by Leo Tolstoy

How much land does a man need? by Leo Tolstoy, first published 1886, collected short-stories 256 pages, ISBN 978-0140445060

What things one does dream, thought [Pahom]. – “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”

leotolstoy.jpg The greatest struggle in the American experience is the one between democracy and capitalism. As de Tocqueville observed, “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” Americans like to think of themselves as the people who brought the world the bellwether concepts of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But the “pursuit of happiness” for Americans has tended to follow the Coolidge dictum: “The business of America is business.”

garboanna.jpg Perhaps, then, it only makes sense that when Americans, even well educated Americans, think of a literary artist like Leo Tolstoy, only a couple of images come to mind: the daunting reading length of a copy of War and Peace – and the breathtaking beauty and inscrutability of Greta Garbo as the title character in Tolstoy’s equally daunting Anna Karenina. As Mark Twain observed all too accurately of too many of us, “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.

So let us ease into our acquaintance with the great Russian master through his short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” The story can be synopsized easily enough:

After slowly accumulating more and more property, a greedy Russian named Pahom hears that the Bashkirs, a minority race in Russia, are practically giving their land away. He decides to visit them and they offer him as much land as he wants, provided he can walk its perimeter in one day. Pahom agrees and goes out on his trek, but when the sun starts to set, he finds he has walked too far. Running back, Pahom collapses at the starting point just as the sun disappears behind the horizon. The Bashkirs try to congratulate him, only to find him dead. In answer to the question posed in the title, the Bashkirs bury him in a hole six feet long by two feet wide.

Tolstoy’s message in the story is clear enough – Pahom destroys himself because he allows the sin of greed to guide his life. For Tolstoy, a Russian nobleman who, after a dissolute youth, reformed his behavior and eventually became a Christian mystic, it seemed clear that the devil had to be the catalyst of Pahom’s destruction. Pahom, who’s been a contented peasant working his own small farm and sharing in the community pastures – and in the community – becomes the devil’s plaything once he expresses this weakness in the devil’s hearing:

Busy as we are from childhood tilling mother earth, we peasants have no time to let any nonsense settle in our heads. Our only trouble is that we haven’t land enough. If I had plenty of land, I shouldn’t fear the Devil himself!

So Pahom schemes and plans and executes – and gradually becomes a large land owner – but with each successive business deal that makes him richer and that gives him more land, he finds himself less and less satisfied. The land is never fertile enough – or he has problems with his neighbors – or, as in the case of the Bashkiri steppes where he meets his fate, greater amounts of land, seemingly too good to be true, are available for the taking:

There is more land there than you could cover if you walked a year, and it all belongs to the Bashkirs. They are as simple as sheep, and land can be got almost for nothing.

Of course Pahom can’t resist such an opportunity. He accompanies the tradesman who told him of this “deal of a lifetime” (actually the devil in disguise) to the land of the Bashkirs and makes a deal with a Bashkir chief that he can, for 1000 rubles, have all the land he can walk around in a day if he starts at sunrise and returns to the spot he began by sundown. But a night of restless sleep brings a dream that it wouldn’t take a Joseph to interpret:

Hardly were his eyes closed when he had a dream. He thought he was lying in that same tent and heard somebody chuckling outside. He wondered who it could be, and rose and went out, and he saw the Bashkir Chief sitting in front of the tent holding his sides and rolling about with laughter. Going nearer to the Chief, Pahom asked: What are you laughing at?  But he saw that it was no longer the Chief, but the dealer who had recently stopped at his house and had told him about the land. Just as Pahom was going to ask, Have you been here long? He saw that it was not the dealer, but the peasant who had come up from the Volga, long ago, to Pahom’s old home. Then he saw that it was not the peasant either, but the Devil himself with hoofs and horns, sitting there and chuckling, and before him lay a man barefoot, prostrate on the ground, with only trousers and a shirt on. And Pahom dreamt that he looked more attentively to see what sort of a man it was that was lying there, and he saw that the man was dead, and that it was himself! He awoke horror-struck.

As the opening quote of this essay notes, Pahom dismisses the dream as foolishness. He sets out the next sunrise and his greed drives him to walk too far before starting back toward his starting point, the cap of the Bashkir chief which sits upon the ground before the leader as he awaits Pahom’s return. Pahom has to run as hard as he can to reach the cap just as the sun disappears below the horizon. But he realizes that his dream was, like that of the second Joseph, a warning – which in his own case he did not heed:

Ah, that’s a fine fellow! exclaimed the Chief. He has gained much land!

Pahom’s servant came running up and tried to raise him, but he saw that blood was flowing from his mouth. Pahom was dead!

The Bashkirs clicked their tongues to show their pity.

His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.

The truths in Tolstoy’s story can be rationalized, of course. Pahom makes choices of his own free will – and those choices lead him to destruction. And one can say that Tolstoy’s religiosity (after all, the story bears striking resemblance to one of Christ’s parables) seems quaint and out of tune with our complicated times.

It might be good to remember de Tocqueville again: “The Americans combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other.” For what Walker Percy called “…the most religious nation in the world” maybe a writer like Tolstoy speaks to and for us more than we know….

It might also be useful in our complicated times to do some simple substitutions for the word “land” and see if the warning Tolstoy’s simple parable offers has a different ring. How about if one substituted – oil? convenience food? cheap goods? clean water and air? war? power? money? (I’m sure others are occurring to you….)

Tolstoy seems to get complicated enough for us pretty quickly then… and well worth the reading…..

11 replies »

  1. good review

    Marcuse has also written, albeit non-fictionally, about the virtues of a lifestyle where we only take that which we need to live comfortably, anything beyond that suggests a fixation or neurosis.

  2. Your rebuttal to Atlas Shrugged? 😉

    My favourite Tolstoy short-story is one I’ve lost track of and involves an Angel who falls to earth and goes to work as a shoe-maker. He had argued with God over the nature of Man and God had sent him down to find out for himself. Can’t remember what it was called, though.

    Although, without swiping at business one can certainly swipe at greed. They don’t have to be related. As Rand said, “No person can be smaller than their money.”

    If greed compels you to eat more than you need you certainly get fat and may die of heart-disease. But that doesn’t make fast-food (or the culture that created it) bad / evil / wrong. It’s eating more than you can handle that’s the problem.

    The same goes for taking on anything that is more than you can handle. If you do so in business you lose the business along with the investment entrusted in you by others. On the other hand, if you take on as much as you can handle, then your investment is repaid not only in cash, but also in jobs for others, and new products for consumers.

    It’s a thin line, of course. As Tolstoy points out here, you can become so enamoured with the vision of your own greatness that you lose sight of what you can actually handle. For the greedy, your reach exceeds your grasp.

  3. This was prompted more by your “Bush is a liberal” romp, Gavin. 😉

    Although debunking Ayn Rand is never a bad thing – to me…. 😉

    Yes, of course, an industry or a human activity in itself isn’t inherently evil. But the fact that humans engage in the industry or activity makes it possible that evil, of which humans are all too capable, I think we can agree, can enter into that industry or activity.

    And the problem is that because people demand cheap goods Wal-Mart engages in unscrupulous trading with an unscrupulous partner, China. Because people demand convenience food, the fast food giants encourage destructive farming practices in South America that exhaust fragile land and denude the rain forests with long term effects on our global environment. And of course our dependence on oil….I think we have to ask ourselves if maybe some of this stuff we demand mightn’t be our human evil creeping into otherwise neutral industry and activity….

    I’d never claim it’s wrong to have needs – or wants, Gavin. But I would suggest that it’s important that we examine both and try not to, as you say exceed our grasp….

  4. Thanks for bringing that story of Tolstoy’s to our attention, Jim. Its message is universal and timeless. Also, its punch line, as it were, more than fulfills the cleverness quotient that fiction and movies these days seem to require.

    It’s just that today, with costs sky-high and public services decreasing, it would be disingenous of a writer to pretend that every American mustn’t be disporportionately concerned with amassing what might have once been considered a fortune. If you go into retirement today with less than half a million, your’e a loser who’s on a fast track to Medicaid.

    To me, the funamental fallacy of life in America as it’s constructed today is that it operates on the assumption that every American must be a mini-financier. But many of us have no interest in the field of investments. Trying to make us invest in a 401(k) or mutual fund is like leading a horse to water.

    We can’t have a country in which everybody is forced to concern himself with amassing a small fortune. There has to be a place for people who just want to be of service to exist without living in poverty (outside a convent, that is).

    P.S. When I read “Anna Karenina” years ago, I didn’t find it daunting. It was one of the most dazzling books I’ve ever read. (Of course, you never know how much that’s the work of the particular translator [perhaps Constance Bennett]).

    On the strength of your post, think I might take Tolstoy’s short stories out of the library. Would that his like were around today (in America, that is).

  5. Russ,

    If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion – in any good “intro to lit” anthology you might have lying around, it’s possible you’ll find the Tolstoy “novella/long story” “The Death of Ivan Illych.” You’ll find it a powerful piece of writing – both in content and in structure. It expands on some of the themes of “How Much Land….”

    Here’s a link to an on-line version:


    If you’re like me, though, you’ll probably want to read it with paper in your hand…. 😉

  6. I’d always argue that – for example – when a rain-forest is demolished without concern for destroying its capacity for regeneration, then we have a problem of pricing.

    Take the fishing industry. This is popularly called the “tragedy of the commons”. If everyone can fish in international waters (or in national waters unprotected by a navy) then everyone will. Since no-one “owns” the resource everyone has the desire to get as much out of it as he can before others get it first. This means that the resource gets used up.

    Perhaps oil would be included in this? Different companies feed off the same oil sources but from different spots. This is greed, but it is also an inability to price scarce goods appropriately. Oil pricing isn’t US oil companies fault – blame OPEC … a cartel with no thought but its own profit and no capacity for long-term investment.

    We are unlikely to run out of iPods since, if they become scarce, speculators leap in, stockpile, and then sell them at significantly higher prices. This reduces demand, allows others to get in to the market, and then supply increases lowering prices again.

    Harder to do with things that no-one owns, such as rain forests.

    If a single company owned a section of rainforest then, no matter how greedy they are, if they intend to make money sustainably, they have to manage that resource and ensure its survival.

    Only where people have no stake in the ownership of the resource beyond its immediate utility, or no vision for the future, can we speak of destruction and neglect.

    And you missed Anton Chekov’s response to Tolstoy over this essay: “It is a common saying that a man needs only six feet of earth. But six feet is what a corpse needs, not a man… Man needs not six feet of earth, not a farm, but the whole globe, all of nature, where unhindered he can display all the capacities and peculiarities of his free spirit.”

  7. Didn’t miss Chekov’s comment, Gavin. Chose to ignore it. I think Chekov’s comment is from an artist’s viewpoint – letting one as adept at delineating the “capacities and peculiarities” of humans as Chekov see human behavior is providing grist for his talents. And Chekov, too, is not interested in “getting and spending,” as Wordsworth would say. He’s interested in what Faulkner would call “…the old verities and truths of the heart….”

    You might find this piece by Chekov illluminating of that “whole wide world” thing…..


    BTW, your comments on the nature of “unowned” resources seem to me very reasonable. Now if you could explain why we feel no stake in the future of our natural resources when we know they’re running out…. Or is that where Tolstoy comes in…. 😉

  8. Not sure if that was a rhetorical question? However…

    Why do we use our natural resources when we know they’re running out?

    My first question would be: which ones? I’m not going to argue climate change. I accept it is happening and also that it is – with difficulty – within our power to do something about it.

    Let us look at some resources that are running out: gorillas (on my mind at present); they’re in a warzone in the Congo and get shot for food and sport by wandering bands of raiders … rain-forests; they’re cut down by poor people desperate for grazing land for their cows and with no property ownership possible they just wonder from area to area slashing and burning, trees also logged illegally to get sent to China to get made into cheap chipboard furniture … water (in some places) usually due to poor management and the popular belief that the delivery and maintenance of water systems should not lead to water being charged for. Fish; I’ve already discussed.

    Oil? But oil isn’t scarce, just controlled by a monopoly looter – OPEC.

    Any shortage is as a result of “the tragedy of the commons”; what we own as a collective resource and where everyone is supposed to be responsible ultimately means that no-one is. You remember that line from the movie The Incredibles “If everyone has super powers and is special, then no-one is.”?

    Commonly held grazing land often resulted in starvation as people overgrazed to take “more” than their neighbours did and hoped that others would make the necessary sacrifices.

    Gordon Gheko said, “Greed is good.” Which is all well and good, but if your political and economic system encourages people to consume more than they produce the result will be shortages.

    Say what you like about the evils of corporations, they don’t tend to run out of the goods they sell and produce from the fair ownership of the inputs they need for production.

    It is only where the inputs of production are either stolen or commonly held that we get shortages. Any production based on a lie will result in shortages and deprivations. Consider that when you think about your state pension system.