Leo Tolstoy Archive

The Feast of Enlightenment of January Twenty-Four

Written: 1889
Source: From RevoltLib.com
Transcription/Markup: Andy Carloff
Online Source: RevoltLib.com; 2021

Leo Tolstoy

"What can be more horrible than country festivals?" In nothing can the whole barbarism and ugliness of the life of the people be shown with such distinctness as in country festivals. Men live on weekdays; they eat and drink moderately of wholesome food, they labor industriously; they mingle in friendly intercourse. Thus pass weeks, sometimes months, and suddenly this good life is interrupted without any apparent cause. On some special day all simultaneously knock off work, and from noontime on begin to eat rich food to which they are not accustomed; they begin to drink beer and vodka. All drink; the aged compel young men and even children to drink. All congratulate one another, kiss one another, embrace one another, shout, sing songs. Now they are affected to tears, now they boast, now they insult one another, all talk, no one listens; voices are raised, quarrels ensue, sometimes fights. By evening some are staggering, falling prone, and going into a drunken stupor anywhere; others are being led home by those that are still steady enough on their feet, while still others are wallowing and grimacing, filling the air with vile alcoholic fumes.

On the next day all these men sleep off their illness, and when they have somewhat recovered, they again take up their work until the next day of the same kind comes.

What does this mean? Why is it?

Why, it is a festival—a church festival; for one place the Zrameniye,[1] in another the Vvedeniye,[2] in a third the ​Kazanskaya. What these terms mean no one knows. They know one thing, that there is an altar and that they must celebrate. And they look forward to this festivity, and after a burdensome life of toil are glad to fall greedily on the food.

Yes, this is one of the very rare expressions of savagery on the part of the working-people. The wine and carousing constitute for them such a temptation that they cannot resist it. The festival comes, and almost every one of them is ready to stupefy himself, and even lose all semblance of human form.

Yes, the people are savage.

But here comes the twenty-fourth of January, and in the newspapers is printed the following notice:—

"The social dinner of the former students of the Imperial Moscow University will take place on the anniversary of its establishment, January 24, at five o'clock in the afternoon, in the restaurant of the Bolshaya Moskovskaya Hotel, at the principal entrance. Tickets for the dinner, at six rubles, may be obtained " . . . Then follows a list of places where the tickets may be purchased.

But this is not the only dinner; there will be a dozen others in Moscow, and in Petersburg, and in the provinces. The twenty-fourth of January is the festival of the oldest Russian University, is the festival of Russian enlightenment. The flower of enlightenment celebrates its festival.

It would seem that men standing on the two extreme boundaries of enlightenment—the savage muzhiks and the most cultivated men of Russia—the muzhiks celebrating the "Presentation," or the Virgin of Kazan, and the cultivated men celebrating the festival of enlightenment itself, ought to celebrate their celebrations in an entirely different way. But in reality, it proves that the festival of the most cultivated of men differs in no respect, save in external form, from the festival of the most barbarous of men. The muzhiks seize the church festival without any relation to its meaning, as a pretext for eating and drinking; the enlightened take St. ​Tatyana's Day[3] as a pretext for eating and drinking to repletion, without the least reference to St. Tatyana.

The peasants eat striden'-jelly and vermicelli; the enlightened eat lobsters, cheeses, soups, fillets, and the like: the muzhiks drink beer and vodka; the enlightened drink liquors of various kinds—wines and brandies and liqueurs, dry and strong and sweet and bitter and red and white, and champagne.

The muzhiks' treat costs from twenty kopecks to a ruble; the entertainment of the enlightened comes to anywhere from six to twenty rubles apiece. The muzhiks speak of their love for their godparents, and sing Russian folksongs; the enlightened tell how much they love their alma mater, and with entangled tongues sing senseless Latin songs. The muzhiks fall into the mud; and the enlightened sprawl on velvet divans. The muzhiks are carried or led to their places by their wives and sons; the enlightened by lackeys, sober and derisive.

No, in reality this is horrible. It is horrible that men standing, according to their own notion, on the highest degree of human culture, are not able to signalize the festival of enlightenment in any other way than by eating, drinking, smoking, and shouting all manner of nonsense for several hours in succession. It is horrible that elderly men, the guides of the young, help poison them with alcohol—a poison which, like the poison of quicksilver, never entirely disappears, but leaves traces all their lives long. Hundreds and hundreds of young men, egged on by their teachers, have become dead drunk, and been ruined forever and debauched at this festival of enlightenment!

But more horrible than all else is the fact that men who do all this have to such a degree befogged themselves by their conceit, that they can no longer distinguish good from bad, the moral from the immoral. These men have so persuaded themselves that the situation in which they are placed is a situation of enlightenment and culture, and that enlightenment and culture confer the right of indulgence of all their weaknesses, ​that they cannot see the beam that is in their eye. These men, who give themselves up to what cannot be called anything else than ugly drunkenness, even in the midst of their ugliness, rejoice in themselves and complain of the unenlightened people.

Every mother suffers—I don't say at the sight of her drunken son, but at the mere thought of such a possibility; every master gets rid of a drunken workman; every unspoiled man is ashamed of himself for having been drunk. All are aware that drunkenness is bad. But here cultured, enlightened men are getting drunk, and they are fully persuaded that in this there is nothing shameful or bad, but that it is very nice, and they laughingly relate the entertaining episodes of their past drunkenness.

It has gone so far that we have the most disgusting orgy, in which old and young get intoxicated together—an orgy annually repeated in the name of enlightenment and culture, and no one is offended, and no one is disturbed; and while they are intoxicated and afterwards, there is great enthusiasm over their elevated feelings and ideas, and they boldly criticize and apprize the morality of other men, and especially of the coarse and unenlightened people.

The muzhik, to a man, will feel that he was to blame if he was drunk, and will ask pardon of every one for his drunkenness. In spite of his temporary fall, he has a lively sense of what is right and wrong. In our society this is beginning to be lost.

Very good, then, you are accustomed to do this and cannot refrain; all right, continue to do so if you cannot restrain yourselves: but understand this only, that on the twenty-fourth or the twenty-seventh or the twenty-ninth of January or February or any other month, this is a vile and shameful thing; and knowing this, give yourselves up to your vicious tendencies, little by little, but do not do so as you are doing it at the present time, triumphantly, confusing and vitiating the young and your so-called youthful confraternity. Do not confuse the young by the teaching that there is any ​other civic morality than that founded on self-control, or any other civic immorality than that not founded on self-control.

Every one knows and you know that, before all other civic virtues, continence from vices is necessary; that all intemperance is bad; especially intemperance in the use of wine is the most dangerous, because it kills body and soul. All men know this, and, therefore, before speaking of any elevated feelings and objects, it is requisite for us to free ourselves from the low and savage vice of drunkenness, and not in drunken wise to talk about lofty feelings. So do not deceive yourselves and other men, especially do not deceive the young. The young understand that, by participating in a savage custom upheld by you, they are doing what they ought not to do, and are destroying something very precious and irredeemable.

And you know this—you know that there is nothing better or more important than the purity of soul and body which is destroyed by drunkenness; you know that all your rhetoric with your everlasting alma mater does not touch you when you are half-intoxicated, and that you have nothing to offer the young in place of that innocence and purity which they have destroyed by taking part in your orgies.

Therefore, do not prevent them and do not confuse them, but know that, as it was with Noah, as it is with every muzhik, so exactly will it be with every one, shameful, not only to drink so as to shout, to stagger, to leap up on tables and commit all sorts of follies, but shameful also even without any necessity on the occasion of the festival of enlightenment, to eat rich food and obfuscate yourselves with alcohol. Do not lead the young astray, do not by your example pervert them and the servants about you.

Here there are hundreds and hundreds of people serving you, handing you wines and rich foods, taking you home—here are all these people, and live people, before whom, as before all of us, stand the most serious questions of life: is it right, is it wrong? Whose ​example shall they follow? Here it is a fine thing that all these lackeys, izvoshchiks, Swisses—Russian men from the country—do not regard you as you regard yourselves, and would wish others to regard you as the representatives of enlightenment. If this were so, they, looking at you, would be disenchanted at every kind of enlightenment and would despise it; but even now, though they do not regard you as the representatives of enlightenment, they nevertheless see in you learned gentlemen who know everything, and, therefore, can and should be followed. And they can put the question to themselves: What will they, poor things, learn from you?

Which is the more powerful: the enlightenment which is spread among the people by public lectures and museums; or the savagery which is sustained and spread among the people by the spectacle of such festivals as the celebration of the twenty-fourth of January, supported by the most enlightened people of Russia?

I think that if all lectures and museums should be done away with, and at the same time all such celebrations and dinners should cease, but the cooks and servant-maids, the izvoshchiks and porters, should spread among themselves in conversations the announcement that all the enlightened men of Russia whom they serve never celebrated their festivals with gluttony and drunkenness, but were able to have good times and dine without wine, then enlightenment would not suffer in the least.

It is time to understand that enlightenment is not spread by a few obscure pictures, nor by verbal and printed words, but by the infectious example of the whole life of the people; and that enlightenment not based on a moral life never was and never will be enlightenment at all, but will always be only obfuscation and perversion.

  1. The Miraculous Appearance of the Virgin Mary.
  2. The Presentation of the Holy Virgin in the Temple.
  3. January 12, O. S.