Tolstoy’s “Master and Man”: An Advent Sermon on Love

“The Christian doctrine shows man that the essence of his soul is love—that his happiness depends not on loving this or that object, but on loving the principle of the whole—God, whom he recognizes within himself as love, and therefore he loves all things and all men.”

― Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You

We begin not with a poem, as is so often my wont, but with one of the most striking and beautiful pieces of prose that I have ever read. Leo Tolstoy’s 1895 “Master and Man” is usually classified as a short story, but, like most things by Tolstoy, it is very long. One could be forgiven for calling it a novella. And if you plan to read it (and you should definitely plan to read it), you should exit now and read it before coming back. There will be spoilers.

The “Master” of “Master and Man” is Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov, a landowner and merchant in late Tsarist Russia. As the story begins, Vasili is trying to cheat his neighbor out of the timber on his property by offering a price several times less than what he plans to sell it for. He knows that he needs to get there first, cash in hand, to prevent someone else from grabbing the goods. The “Man” is his servant, Nikita, who agrees to accompany him on what is supposed to be a short ride in a horse-drawn sleigh to make the offer and buy the wood.

Things, of course, go drastically awry. In this case, the drastic awryness comes in the form of a blinding blizzard that makes their journey treacherous. They come to the house of another friend, who begs them to stay until the morning when they can travel safely. Byt Vasili can only think of being the first one to his neighbors, so he loads up the horse and departs with Nikita, saying only that this is business and nothing can be done.

But things become more drastic, and eventually, the road disappears underneath the snow, the horse can no longer pull the sled, and they stop in a ditch to the side of the road, where they decide to try to stay the night and weather the storm. Nikita has no interest in going on, but Vasili, still thinking of the profit he will make if he is the one to buy the timber, decides to set out on horseback, leaving Nikita to die. “It’s all the same to him whether he lives or dies,” Vasili reasons. “What is his life worth? He won’t grudge his life, but I have something to live for, thank God.’”

With this cheery thought, Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov sets off on horseback but goes in a circle, ending up right back where he began. By this time, Nikita has resigned himself to death.

But something happens to Vasili during the journey. He has become a different person. Tolstoy writes:

Vasili Andreevich stood silent and motionless for half a minute. Then suddenly, with the same resolution with which he used to strike hands when making a good purchase, he took a step back and turning up his sleeves began raking the snow off Nikita and out of the sledge. Having done this he hurriedly undid his girdle, opened out his fur coat, and having pushed Nikita down, lay down on top of him, covering him not only with his fur coat but with the whole of his body, which glowed with warmth. After pushing the skirts of his coat between Nikita and the sides of the sledge, and holding down its hem with his knees, Vasili Andreevich lay like that face down, with his head pressed against the front of the sledge. Here he no longer heard the horse’s movements or the whistling of the wind, but only Nikita’s breathing. At first and for a long time Nikita lay motionless, then he sighed deeply and moved.

‘There, and you say you are dying! Lie still and get warm, that’s our way…’ began Vasili Andreevich.

But to his great surprise he could say no more, for tears came to his eyes and his lower jaw began to quiver rapidly. He stopped speaking and only gulped down the risings in his throat. ‘Seems I was badly frightened and have gone quite weak,’ he thought. But this weakness was not only unpleasant, but gave him a peculiar joy such as he had never felt before.

When the blizzard stops and the morning comes, Nikita is alive and Vasili is dead. And yet, in another sense—the sense that Tolstoy intends for us to understand—Vasili only truly lived in the moments before his death:

He remembered that Nikita was lying under him and that he had got warm and was alive, and it seemed to him that he was Nikita and Nikita was he, and that his life was not in himself but in Nikita. He strained his ears and heard Nikita breathing and even slightly snoring. ‘Nikita is alive, so I too am alive!’ he said to himself triumphantly.

And he remembered his money, his shop, his house, the buying and selling, and Mironov’s millions, and it was hard for him to understand why that man, called Vasili Brekhunov, had troubled himself with all those things with which he had been troubled.

‘Well, it was because he did not know what the real thing was,’ he thought, concerning that Vasili Brekhunov. ‘He did not know, but now I know and know for sure. Now I know!’ And again he heard the voice of the one who had called him before. ‘I’m coming! Coming!’ he responded gladly, and his whole being was filled with joyful emotion. He felt himself free and that nothing could hold him back any longer.

After that Vasili Andreevich neither saw, heard, nor felt anything more in this world.

If we are paying attention at this point, we should realize that we had the title all wrong. Vasili was not the Master, but the Man, the servant of God, the actual Master, who charged Vasili (and everybody else) with only one key task: to learn that joy and meaning in life can only come from loving other people.

It is tempting, but I think inaccurate, to read Vasili as a Christ figure. The Christ figure in “Master and Man” is Christ; Vasili is an Us-figure. He is an absolutely typical human being of the time, place, and social level that he occupied, neither better nor worse than his contemporaries. For most of his life, he thinks of God abstractly and performs all of the religious duties expected of him. He is not abusive to his servant, but neither is he kind. Is is just . . . normal.

But the reason that I don’t read Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov as a Christ figure is that he does not truly sacrifice himself for Nikita. Rather, in saving his servant’s life, he experiences the only genuine joy of his life—joy so profound that, after he feels it, he concludes that his life had been organized on all of the wrong principles. But this does not cause him pain, only more joy that, before he died, he finally understood that love was his only purpose. To understand Tolstoy’s point here, we have to understand the power of his vision. After his own religious conversion, Tolstoy came to see love for others as the entire purpose of human existence and the only thing capable of transforming us into God’s children.

And here’s the most important thing: we don’t actually have to be five minutes away from dying to realize that love is the only thing worth living for. We can do it at any time, and, when we do, we can experience all of the joy that Tolstoy describes without freezing to death. Another word for this joy is The Kingdom of God—which, as Tolstoy himself wrote in the title of another book, is within you.

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