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Article

“Devilish Money” and Peasant Ethics: Leo Tolstoy’s Economic Imagination and Emplotment in “Polikushka”

The Russian Review. 2017. Vol. 76. No. 1 (January). P. 53-71.

The article investigates how Leo Tolstoy’s economic ideas are embodied in the plot of his short-story “Polikushka” (1863). Research shows that the fluctuation in the name of a sum of money the protagonist Polikey loses can be explained by the “double exchange rate“ of the ruble, i.e the lag between the rate of the silver ruble and assignation ruble (1:3.5) which existed in Russia from 1839 to 1851. As the main character loses the paper (called “devilish” in the drafts) money, “Polikushka” fits into the ramified European literary mythology of banknotes as the tricks of the devil. In addition to European parallels, the article discusses possible Russian plot sources dating back to Nekrasov’s poetry and the prose of Pogodin, Potekhin and Dostoevsky. In the second section, the article explores the narrative patterns of the story and demonstrates that it is impossible to see the reason for Polikey’s death only as his mistress’ desire to test and rehabilitate him. The narration is organized as a network of mutually exclusive viewpoints, correlation of which develops an ugly portrait of both the old landlady and Polikey, equally guilty in the tragic ending of the story. In the last two sections, the article reveals the ideological underpinnings of such a skeptical Tolstoy’s view on communication between peasants and the educated elite in his pedagogical writings of 1861-62. Here Tolstoy wrote how harmful philanthropy, wrong education, false ideology and unreasonable circulation of money could be for peasants. In conclusion, the article offers a possible source for Tolstoy’s viewpoint in the political and economic ideas of P.-J. Proudhon, with whom Tolstoy communicated in Brussels when writing “Polikushka”.