Count Leo Tolstoy, that most Russian of Russian writers, fervent Christian, pacifist, and anarchist, is possibly one of the most influential writers of the 19th century. His work informs not only fiction, but social and political thought as well.
In Master and Man, it becomes clear that Tolstoy detested the monied classes. He found them foolish, thoughtless, and blind to everything but the making of more money. And these days? Well it’s impossible to disagree with his assessment. We see Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov, a wealthy businessman, set out on what should be a short trip to purchase some land for a fraction of what it’s worth. It’s winter, the weather is threatening, but he insists on going, and only his wife’s pleading makes him take his servant, Nikita.
Because of Brekhunov’s ineptness and stubbornness, the trip turns nightmarish as they lose their way over and over until finally they are trapped in a deep drift in the middle of a violent snowstorm. It is only at the very end of his life that Brekhunov discovers that his wealth is meaningless, and the only thing worth doing is to care for his fellow man.
Too little, too late, fella.
Tolstoy, who came from a wealthy, aristocratic family himself, has no real patience with either master or man, showing us that they’re both fools for believing the master to be superior. Nikita, a binge-drinker, has pledged not to drink, but longs for his vodka. He allows Brekhunov to cheat him of his rightful wages because he’s too intellectually lazy to figure out how to approach the issue, just as he’s too lazy to confront his wife about her affair with their boarder. As they travel, instead of recognizing the potential for disaster in their situation, Nikita dozes off over and over, trusting Brekhunov to get them where they’re going safely, and each time, he awakens to find themselves in worse straits. His unthinking trust in Brekhunov nearly kills him.
The story itself is a little heavy-handed, but Tolstoy was writing in the 19th century when moral tales were always a little obvious. In the 21st century, they seem clichéd. And yet it seems that we haven’t really learned these lessons. In many countries, the United States included, the people are being led by men who have no business being in charge of a sledge in the snow much less a country.
Master and Man is a short, worthwhile read, and a good introduction to Tolstoy’s thought. It’s certainly an easier place to begin than War and Peace, which is how I introduced myself to Tolstoy.