Tolstoy the Snob.

It goes without saying that Tolstoy was a great writer, but the more I read about his life the more I realize that, like so many great writers, he was a horrible person, and not the least of it is his appalling snobbery, on view at impressive length here in a passage from the magazine publication of War and Peace, sensibly omitted from the book version (the translation is R. F. Christian’s, from his Tolstoy’s ‘War And Peace’: A Study):

Up to now I have been writing only about princes, counts, ministers, senators and their children, and I am afraid that there will be no other people in my story later on either.

Perhaps this is not a good thing and the public may not like it: perhaps a story of peasants, merchants and theological students would be more interesting and instructive for them; but for all my desire to have as many readers as possible, I cannot satisfy this taste for many reasons. In the first place because the historical monuments of the time I am writing about have survived only in the correspondence and memoirs of people of the highest circle – literate people; the interesting and clever stories which I have managed to hear, I also heard only from people of that circle. In the second place because the lives of merchants, coachmen, theological students, convicts and peasants seem to me boring and monotonous, and all the actions of these people seem to me to stem, for the most part, from one and the same motives: envy of the more fortunate orders, self-interest and the material passions. If all the actions of these people do not in fact stem from these motives, their actions are so obscured by these impulses that it is difficult to understand them and therefore to describe them.

In the third place because the lives of these people (the lower orders) bear less of the imprint of the time.

In the fourth place because the lives of these people are ugly.

In the fifth place because I cannot understand what a policeman thinks as he stands by his box, or what a shopkeeper thinks and feels as he invites people to buy braces and ties, or what a theological student thinks when he is being taken to be flogged for the hundredth time etc. I cannot understand this any more than I can understand what a cow thinks when it is being milked or what a horse thinks when it is carrying a barrel.

Finally, in the sixth place (and this, I know, is the best reason) because I myself belong to the highest order of society and like it.

I am not a bourgeois [meshchanin], as Pushkin boldly said, and I say boldly that I am an aristocrat by birth, by habits and by position. I am an aristocrat because I am not only not ashamed, but positively glad to remember my ancestors — fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers. I am an aristocrat because I was brought up from childhood in love and respect for the highest orders of society and in love for the refined as expressed not only in Homer, Bach, and Raphael, but also in all the small things of life. I am an aristocrat because I was sufficiently fortunate that neither I, nor my father, nor my grandfather knew want or the struggle between conscience and want, nor had any necessity ever to envy anyone or sue for favours, nor knew the need to be educated for money or a position in society and so on – ordeals to which people in want are subjected. I see that this was a great fortune and I thank God for it, but if this fortune does not belong to everybody, I do not see any reason to renounce it or not to take advantage of it.

I am an aristocrat because I cannot believe in the high intellect, the refined taste, or the absolute honesty of a man who picks his nose and whose soul converses with God.

Makes me want to dump a bucket of slops over him, or wish that he had undergone Dostoevsky’s experience of being arrested and sent off to Siberia with a bunch of common criminals. And don’t tell me about how he changed his mind and decided it was really the common peasant who was the highest form of humanity, because that’s just inverted snobbery. Feh, I say. Feh.

Unrelated, but has anybody used Google Payments? Google Books only wants $3.79 for the e-book of Dolinin’s Комментарий к роману Владимира Набокова «Дар», but all that verbiage makes me nervous — I have no idea whether it’s just standard boilerplate of the kind I accept without qualms all the time or whether I’m signing away my life to Big Brother Google.


  1. It isn’t a magazine publication really – it’s a preamble to the unpublished 1866 version, which is substantially different from the one Tolstoy published 3 years later. Although the author was reportedly offered a chance to publish it in “Русский вестник” in installments. A story of this version’s creation, and eventual 1983 publication, can be found here (along with the complete text)

    Sounds like Tolstoy was on the same page with Engels, denying that freedom of will is available to the animals and uneducated people alike 🙂

    (And yes, I use Google Payments, mostly for airfare through Google flights)

  2. The Lumpenproletariat are people so poor, that even communists hate them.

  3. It isn’t a magazine publication really – it’s a preamble to the unpublished 1866 version

    Ah, I misunderstood — thanks. And thanks too for the reassurance about Google Payments; I really want that book, so maybe I’ll trust them with my information.

  4. I loved this line:

    I cannot understand this any more than I can understand what a cow thinks when it is being milked or what a horse thinks when it is carrying a barrel.

    Had me in stitches.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    “Theological student” presumably actually refers to something rather more plebeian than this English translation would suggest? Either that or Tolstoy really had a bee in his bonnet about theologians.

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    What, you don’t naturally slot seminarians right in between coachmen and convicts?

  7. Dmitry Pruss says

    A bee? Was there ever any love lost between Tolstoy and the official Church. Even in the early 1860s he complains about seminarians sent to teach in the villages around his estate, how they just turn into useless drunkards. And a bit later he was already a Judas, a godless traitor and even порождение ехидны (seed of echidna???)

  8. Ok, just to remind everyone, that’s the guy who wrote Cossacks, Hadji Murat, and Kholstomer (the latter one, if you must know, is a horse). The incredibly stupid preamble, quoted in the OP, is most probably the preemptive defense against criticism that it is not possible to get a definitive picture of the war of 1812 just writing about aristocracy.

  9. γεννημα εχιδνων

    As a short stroll on Internet shows, it is rather banal vipers or generation of vipers, offspring of snakes and the like in English. Matthew, who wrote in Greek, but probably was thinking in Aramaic, or JC himself who most definitely spoke Aramaic might have meant something different, but Internet didn’t reveal this secret to me.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    Casts a somewhat baleful light in all that stuff in Anna Karenina where Levin gets all into harvesting alongside his peasants after Kitty gives him the brush-off because she’s infatuated with Vronsky.

    Peasants are all very well for spiritual exercises, but one cannot actually expect to connect with them as if they were people.

    Bad as bloody Seneca.

  11. I have a feeling that popularity of Tolstoy in the West was not due to his talents as a great writer (how much of it got through in early translations anyway), but rather owes to desire of lower orders in Europe to read about glamorous lives of rich aristocrats.

    Tolstoy as a 19th century equivalent of tabloids…

  12. Stu Clayton says

    all that verbiage

    You may want to “opt out” of info sharing, I always do. The following part of the verbiage explains what that means and how to do it:

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  13. Thanks, that’s very useful!

  14. David Eddyshaw says


    It certainly does come through in translation, and he is beyond question a great writer. As Hat rightly points out, however, this is entirely compatible with being a vile person.

    I think the reason this is so surprising is that to actually be a literary artist of Tolstoys’s stature surely entails far-above-common sensitivity to other minds; it seems (doubtless naively) weird that this should coexist with such thoroughgoing indifference to the the actual feelings and aspirations of those other minds.

    I suppose this is a manifestation of the distinction between empathy, the ability to enter into the feelings of others, and sympathy, actually giving a damn about said feelings. They don’t necessarily correlate at all. On the one hand, perfectly nice and virtuous young people often fail surprisingly at understanding the intentions and motives of others (it’s one of the latest-developing of human psychological skills), which is why (as any insurance company can tell you) they make notably more dangerous car drivers; on the other, you have people (like some presidents, perhaps) who are virtuosi at getting under others’ skins and pushing their buttons but have no concern whatsoever about other people as such.

  15. Tolstoy’s views are unfashionable now. He wouldn’t wish to hold them today, but I bet they weren’t uncommon even by the 19C; Keats was ridiculed because of his lower-middle class background and London accent, innit. However, it’s interesting that Tolstoy didn’t give a damn whether his audience agreed with his views. Nietzsche wouldn’t be half as popular today if he’d made snide horse comments.

    And Coleridge was a flaming Tory. Thanks be to JC for that link.

  16. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Up to now I have been writing only about princes, counts, ministers, senators and their children,

    It’s been obvious to me for a long time the word princ(ess) when translated into English from Russian does not mean “princ(ess)” as normally understood in English, i.e. a son or daughter of the monarch. What would be a better word in English?

  17. Prince in Russia and Germany is a title of a sovereign (usually formerly sovereign) ruler.

    In other words, Princes Obolensky were once rulers of a sovereign Obolensky principality similar to Luxembourg or Lichtenstein today. Their statelet was absorbed into Russian state back in late 15th century, but the title remained.

    It doesn’t mean son of the ruling monarch of Russia – he would be Grand Duke.

    The English translation of the title as a ‘prince’ is correct I believe, because that’s one of the meanings of the word ‘prince’ – title of a ruler of a small principality.

    Tolstoy’s Prince Andrei Bolkonsky is based on actual Princes Volkonsky – descendants of Chernigov princes who ruled lands along Volkhonka river in the future Tula province. They served rulers of Moscow since 14th century, their ancestor having participated in the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380.

  18. It should be added that the right to the title ‘prince’ and the right to rule a principality in medieval Russia was restricted to descendants of Rurik (and later same right was recognized for descendants of Lithuanian prince Gediminas).

    So, real princes in the Russian empire were Rurikids (with genealogy going back to the founder of Russia in 9th century) or Gediminovichi (genealogy traced to the founder of the Lithuanian state in 14th century).

    Later on, German princes and smaller Lithuanian (not descendants of Gediminas) princes were also recognized as well as a number of princes of Oriental origin (Tatars, Circassians, Georgians).

    Main criteria was that at some point in the past, the ancestors of the presumed princely family must have had status of sovereign rulers.

  19. Dmitry Pruss says

    Main criteria was that at some point in the past, the ancestors of the presumed princely family must have had status of sovereign rulers.
    but not in a continuous fashion. At various time, Russian and Austrian crowns, Holy Roman Empire, and Polish Parliament, all conferred princely titles of ksiaz / knyaz to people with (variably tenuous) connections with sovereign princes of the past (like Menshikov’s ancestors may have possessed, and lost, an estate in Vitebsk area, which arguably made him an unrecognized member of the Lithuanian gentry, perhaps of Gediminas lineage, when Peter I elevated him to princes; his detractors maintained that Menshikov was born to a commoner, and made living selling hot pies)
    There is a lot of title-inflation and competing officlal equivalency rules. It’s sort of like, Russian Cand. Sci. is often considered an equivalent to the Western Master’s degree alongside with Chinese MD, but just as often is taken for a Ph.D., right?
    Etymologically of course knyaz is cognate with king. But in Latin Catholic equivalency Gediminas family were dukes, a half-step lower than a prince. And Russian equivalency rules are more akin to a continuous scale (mestnichestvo) where nobody was strictly equivalent to nobody else, but the seniority dictated that X was a tiny bit righer than Y but a bit lower than Z. So Gedimin descendants were a bit more seniour than certain Rurikids, and the latter weren’t included in Latin equivalency rules, and proclaimed themselves to be princes. Ergo, Gediminas was a prince too.

  20. John Cowan says

    perfectly nice and virtuous young people often fail surprisingly at understanding the intentions and motives of others

    This reasonably nice and virtuous old fart is absolutely crappy at it.

    one of the meanings of the word ‘prince’ – title of a ruler of a small principality

    Quite so. The Prince of Wales is always the monarch’s male heir apparent, but the monarch’s male heir apparent (typically but not necessarily the eldest son) is by no means always the Prince of Wales. Charles was not made Tywysog Cymru until he was ten, and Edward III never was. Note that the title is in some sense an honorary one, as it does not make the holder a peer of the realm (though the present holder is a peer as Duke of Cornwall) and it carries no specific rights or duties towards Wales or anywhere else.

  21. The Prince of Wales is always simultaneously made Earl of Chester, which is a peerage.

  22. I think Jane Goodall established that in chimpanzee colonies, you get to be the alpha male by fighting and intimidating other males.

    You can’t just say, in chimpspeak, that your daddy was the alpha and you’re his oldest son, so now you get to be the new alpha.

    I wonder when human societies abandoned this sort of strategy and invented the idea of aristocracy instead. Probably when wealth became a substitute for physical power.

  23. Stu Clayton says

    For your argument you apparently assume that members of “aristocracies” don’t fight among themselves. But they do and always have done, the weapons ranging from duels and marriage to wars over land and the right to collect taxes.

    When wealth becomes a substitute for physical power, it is still power – by the definition of substitute, namely equifinal means. A fist in a glove. Chimps can’t afford gloves.

  24. Different ape species and subspecies have very different social and territorial organizations. Anyway Tolstoy’s preamble makes it clear that we wasn’t concerned with the eternal prehistory of the upper classes, but rather with contemporary threats to the nobility’s claims to cultural and educational dominance. He opens and closes his passage with admonishments to the reader who expects to see some commoners portrayed in the novels, and may go jump from the roof.
    The threats to the noble classes’ exclusive hold on culture were exemplified by the swift proliferation of the raznochintsy, literally “variously titled / misc. classes”, discussed among other places here:
    These people of low birth were allowed, by virtue of their education and professionalism, to ascend from the twin lower classes of peasantry and townspeople, sometimes as high as to personal and even hereditary noble status. The old nobility understandably dismissed these new educated classes as shallow and undeserving. Yet only decades later, the former raznochintsy formed the core part of the intelligentsia, soon to become equally concerned that the new wave of educated classes threatens their role of the keepers of Culture

  25. Re: Dmitry’s comment about the proliferation of kniazes and various degrees of nobility

    Funnily enough, in Bosnia and Serbia “knez” drifted downmarket, semantically speaking, as it was the title used for the village “mayor” during the Ottoman era. Each village had a knez, which was an elected position though it typically went to the wealthiest guy in town -and then there was an obor-knez who was in charge of all the knezes in his nahija (a district roughtly equivalent to a county, ie comprising several villages), though his title was hereditary so you could say it was a kind of extremely minor nobility. Nowadays “Seoski knez” – ie “the village knez” – is mostly used as an epithet directed at overambitious politicians and the like.

  26. Dmitry Pruss says


    I don’t know the history of it, but I would assume that a conqueror would rarely put an esteemed title to a much wider use. Perhaps the loss of princely importance predated the Ottomans?

    In the Siberian Czardom (Khanate), the next-highest noble rank after Khan was apparently that of a chieftain of a tribal band. So within any tribe, they would have been a number of princes, with hardly a village worth of subjects. They are called knyaz’ki, “petty princes” in the documents of XV-XVI c., a title which in XIX c. was also used to tribal chiefs of Africa

    (LH – btw my comment is stuck in moderation because of a link to LH thread about raznochintsy, quite relevant here IMVHO)

  27. (Freed!)

  28. There is also the West Slavic move of the ‘prince’ word into the territory of ‘priest’; Czech kněz “priest” versus kníže “prince”, with similar developments in Slovak (kňaz/knieža), and Polish ksiądz having both meanings.

  29. anhweol, that’s neat. Of course, there was a lot of room for movement in that semantic space after the Slavs were apparently so taken with Charlemagne that they decided to use his name as the generic word for “king” – (kralj/kral/krol etc).

  30. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    It could also be from the Germanic common name *karlaz “elder”. The toponym Κραλη occurred in Peloponnese Slavic, which seems suspicious if it’s from Charlemagne – wasn’t the incursion earlier?

  31. David Marjanović says

    Oh, it meant “elder”? I thought it was just “regular dude”, “commoner” ( > churl).

  32. His Majesty Regular Dude of Poland, Grand Priest of Lithuania and Priest of Ruthenia, Prussia, Masovia, Samogitia, Kiev, Volhynia, Podolia, Podlasie, Livonia, Smolensk, Severia and Chernihiv.

  33. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    “Elder” is considered the primitive meaning (cognate to Greek gerōn). Apparently there was also Old Icelandic karl “man of noble origin”. In a society composed of clans, “freeman” (a common meaning in Germanic languages) and “elder/head of clan” were actually very close (cf. Slavic otrok “child” in some languages and “slave” in others, from ot- “apart; [negator]” and -rok, ablauted verbal noun from *rekti “speak”; both children and slaves were considered dependents, limited in their freedom/rights).

  34. I thought an elder was a kind of tree

  35. David Marjanović says

    In a society composed of clans, “freeman” (a common meaning in Germanic languages) and “elder/head of clan” were actually very close

    Good point.

  36. @David L.: I attended a talk by Jane Goodall when I was in college. It had been heavily advertised down the road at Harvard, so the room was full to overflowing with students from both the Oxford and Cambridge of Cambridge*.

    What Goodall said about dominance hierarchies among the chimps was very interesting. There actually was a strong inherited component to the ranking. The eldest son of the previous dominant male automatically got a lot of deference, although ultimately that authority did need to be backed up with physical force. One chimp, for example, who might otherwise have been expected to become the dominant male, lost the use of one arm to polio. This precluded him leading the group, but he still maintained a very high-ranking position when his younger brother and, later, nephew were the dominant males.

    * On the discussion boards at the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site, it was (and presumably still is, but I stopped visiting the site about a decade ago) conventional to include “(intertheaduality)” when referencing something being discussed in another thread.

  37. Didn’t know Byzantine emperors were chimps.

  38. The Catholic Church is run by primates.

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    William Faulkner’s fictional somewhat-Chickasaw-like Yoknapatawpha Indians call their chief “The Man.” He calls himself “Doom” (from the French, of course.)

  40. Brett: that’s fascinating. I had assumed that chimps were naturally libertarian or anarchic or something, but the notion of inherited ability evidently runs deep. I suppose you can make an evolutionary case for such deference, in that the offspring of a dominant animal are somewhat more likely to have the capacity for dominance themselves, but at the same time it wouldn’t be good if the oldest son automatically takes the alpha spot. Aristocrats and royalists take note!

  41. David Marjanović says

    naturally libertarian or anarchic or something

    That sounds more like the bonobos.

  42. One or two Anglicans are primates.

  43. David Eddyshaw says

    They’re probably actually lizard people. You know how it is.

  44. I’m rereading “Polikushka” at the moment & there is no problem with it: Tolstoy might have said he didn’t understand the working class & all that, but here is a story about a serf & it is excellent.

  45. Yes, I don’t really understand how that works. The conscious, everyday part of his mind despised the rabble (until he started deifying them, which is no better — see the goddess/whore dichotomy), but the artistic part understood everybody.

    By the way, I wrote about “Polikushka” here. And thanks very much for your Chekhov recommendation; I’m almost done with “Three Lives” and am enjoying it greatly.

  46. Yeah, that’s the magical thing about Tolstoy. He had certain views about women too, but I do think his female characters are better than anyone else’s.
    Glad you’re enjoying “Three Years”. Blog about it? I’ve just finished reading a Chekhov collection, “Peasants & Other Stories”.

  47. I probably won’t post about it, because I don’t really have anything to add to what you said — it’s an excellent story with many subtle effects, but there’s really nothing I can hang a post on. But I’m glad you got me to read it; I think I skipped it when I was reading Chekhov because it was long and not famous. Laziness!

  48. John Cowan says

    I don’t despise Tolstoy for this, I pity him, and that for two reasons: because he was taught to be proud of something he did not earn himself, and because he is also proud of his own ignorance.

  49. Languagehat,
    That’s good to hear.

    John Cowan,
    I wouldn’t say something so condescending about someone like Tolstoy. & in spite of his views, he’s capable of writing “Polikushka” & other great works about the working class.

  50. John Cowan says

    Sure, people can change.

  51. “whose soul converses with God. ”

    Рыгает он, рыгает, мужик-то.

    It is colloquial ironical explanation of belching.

    I suspect it was a joke by some seminary student how just got aquainted with medieval soliloquia (or: liber soliloquiourum) animae ad deum (Pseudo-Augustine), published in Moscow in Russian in 1783.

  52. @D.O.: “Ok, just to remind everyone, that’s the guy who wrote Cossacks, Hadji Murat, and Kholstomer (the latter one, if you must know, is a horse).”

    Although Hadji Murat and Kholstomer would come later, Tolstoy did have The Cossacks and Polikushka under his belt by 1866. Against this backdrop, this preface is a bizarre statement, perhaps a deliberate, brazen affront to the spirit of the 1860s (“jackboots above Shakespeare”). There’s none of this snobbery in Tolstoy’s diaries. And, of course, the “Arzamas episode” (1869) was still ahead of him.

  53. PlasticPaddy says

    Reading the passage from the Introduction, I feel that Tolstoy may have read Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France as part of his background research and been swayed by passages like:
    “The Chancellor of France at the opening of the states, said, in a tone of oratorical flourish, that all occupations were honourable. If he meant only, that no honest employment was disgraceful, he would not have gone beyond the truth. But in asserting that anything is honourable, we imply some distinction in its favour. The occupation of a hair-dresser, or of a working tallow-chandler, cannot be a matter of honour to any person—to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively are permitted to rule. In this you think you are combating prejudice, but you are at war with nature.”

  54. John Cowan, but Tolstoy is not saying that he was proud. He says that he doesn’t understand the lower classes and that the lower classes are so engrossed in the struggle for survival that they are not interesting as individuals for the Tolstoy’s esthetical purposes. This whole feat of rationalization is incredibly defensive against real or imaginary attacks and is in no way true as to how Tolstoy actually worked as a writer despite all his protestations.

    By the way, there is another paragraph to the Preamble which either Hat or R. F. Christian ommited. Restoring it for completeness (Russian text is referenced in the first comment by Dmitry Pruss back in 2019)

    “All this is very stupid, maybe maleficent, impudent, but it is so. But I announce to the reader in advance what kind of person I am and what he can expect from me. There’s still time to close the book and denounce me as an idiot, a retrograde, and Askochensky, to whom I, taking this opportunity, hasten to express the sincere and deep respect that I have long felt.”

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