East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter 1997, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

How Much Land Does a Man Need?

Mark Elliott

In late July 1995 I had the opportunity to visit Yasnaya Polyana, Leo Tolstoy's home, several hours' drive south of Moscow.  I could not help contrasting Lenin's enormous mausoleum on Red Square with Tolstoy's simple burial plot deep in the woods of his ancestral estate, marked not by any headstone, but by a simple mound of grass.  I thought of Tolstoy's short story, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?," which has Pahom, an ambitious peasant of central Russia, seeking his fortune east of the Volga. Clever Bashkir tribesmen offered him a deal he was eager to accept:  1,000 rubles for as much land as he could walk around in a day.  Pahom set out at dawn and would have realized a rich estate but for his obsession to encompass more land than a day's walk would allow.  He did manage to return to his starting point before sunset, but only to collapse on the spot with blood trickling from his mouth.   It was over; Pahom was dead; and his servant buried him at this beginning and end of his dream.  The last line of Tolstoy's story, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?," answers the question: "Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed." (The Portable Tolstoy, New York: Penguin, 1978, 506-22.)

As I think of this tale of deadly greed, as I observe the post-Soviet new rich scrambling for luxury cars, opulent mansions, and elaborate summer dachas, and as I think of the same acquisitive spirit in the West, and in me, my soul cries out, can we hear Tolstoy's plea for moderation?  And more importantly, can we hear Christ's teaching, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth where moth and rust corrupt and where thieves break through and steal" (Matthew 6:19)?

In 1893 Ivan Prokhanov, one of Russia's greatest Evangelical leaders, visited Tolstoy's estate as a young man fresh out of engineering school.  The renowned author, dressed in peasant garb, greeted Prokhanov and a friend kindly, and after some pleasantries, asked them if, before dinner, they would rather pick mushrooms with him, or read his new manuscript, "The Kingdom of God is Within You."  They eagerly chose to read Tolstoy's latest thinking on religion and nonviolence.  After the evening meal, which included Tolstoy's mushrooms and theological discussions, Prokhanov wrote that he "became more firmly convinced that the salvation of the world is in the simple Gospel, not in a part of the Gospel," as Tolstoy would have it.  Tolstoy's faith, which excluded Christ's miracles and resurrection,

Think of the difference between Tolstoy's religion of frustration before impossibly high moral standards and the religion of Christ's grace which makes possible a degree of human transparency and purity that literally is out of this world.  Paradoxically, the craving for the good life that drove Pahom, and drives us, East and West, to distraction will never be satisfied by seeking self-fulfillment, but rather only by Christlike sacrifice.  And, paradoxically, modern Russians' and our own recognition of the need for moral foundations will remain quicksand, as was the case with Tolstoy, without Christ the Cornerstone.

Adapted excerpt from  "In Marx's Wake--Uprooting and Planting," Crux 32 (July 1996), 30-32, reprinted with permission. 

Mark Elliott is professor of history and director, Institute for East-West Christian Studies, Wheaton College, and editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Mark Elliott, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" East-West Church & Ministry Report, 5 (Winter 1997), 16.

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1997 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664

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