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Tolstoy on Mowing

Akalkot How an excerpt from a Russian classic fits within the context of this web site will be readily apparent – Tolstoy wholeheartedly endorsed the use of our favourite tool…


Within several chapters of Anna Karenina (*1) the subject of hand mowing is given primary attention; there, numerous statements reaffirm Tolstoy’s affinity for the scythe. (In this novel, it is through the nobleman Levin that Tolstoy expresses some of his own despairs, passions and introspection.)

Levin initially takes up the scythe simply as physical exercise to help him deal with his temper. He becomes “awfully fond of it” and decides to join the peasants for a full working day of haymaking on his own estate, whereupon his opinion of mowing as psychotherapy intensifies: “You can’t imagine what an effectual remedy it is for all sorts of foolishness.” In addition, he experiences “…a pleasure such as I have never known in my life.”

Yet Tolstoy reaches beyond the personal bliss of hand mowing and takes the reader to a place which, as a humanist, he shares with King Wenceslas and Gandhi alike. His social philosophy embraces the view that it is mutually beneficial for the aristocracy to ‘take a walk in the peasants’ shoes’. Levin’s day in the field was just that. While there, he also forsakes his own dinner for the simple fare of his servant.

“The old man crumbled up some bread in a cup, stirred it with the handle of a spoon, poured water on it from the dipper, broke up some more bread, and having seasoned it with salt, he turned to the east to say his prayer.

“Come, master, taste my sop,” said he, kneeling down before the cup.

The sop was so good that Levin gave up the idea of going home. He dined with the old man, and talked to him about his family affairs and all the circumstances that could be of interest to the old man. He felt much nearer to him than to his brother, and could not help smiling at the affection he felt for this man.”

In a sense, Levin “touches the untouchables” and is rewarded by a deeply moving sensory experience. It carries him into the dimension where affinity and respect flow freely between nobleman and serf.

Although by the end of the novel some of Levin’s deep longings remain unfulfilled, the metamorphosis has begun.

Tolstoy’s later works document a gradual process of inner growth which transforms an aristocrat into a 19th century activist and an articulate voice for the common people. “Tolstoy farms”, which were also a model for Gandhi during his years in South Africa, may well have had their origin in the act of one nobleman picking up the scythe.