Alyosha the Pot by Leo Tolstoy
Powered by RedCircle
*As partners with Bookshop and Amazon, we earn money from qualifying purchases.
This week, Matt and Cameron will be reading “Alyosha the Pot,” a short story by Leo Tolstoy which was once called one of his “most perfect creations,” by literary historian Dmitri Mirsky.
Tolstoy is a writer who needs no introduction. Most famously known as the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy also wrote prolifically about Russian life, semi-autobiographically, and his religious and political convictions. His beliefs about life often come across in his works, especially his short stories, as we’ll be exploring today!
Major themes: Peasanthood, Christianity, morality
19:20 - Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief, plays down the element of miracle rather than removes it altogether.
Hello and welcome. You are listening to Tipsy Tolstoy: Russian Literature for the Inebriated.
I'm Matt Gerasimovich, studying to be a doctor. Not that kind of doctor though.
And I'm Cameron Lallana. now officially free from COVID. I didn't have it before, but I got tested. So now I officially can say that I don't have it. But let's move on.
And I'm proud of you for that. This is a podcast where me and my good pal Cameron get to unwind from our week with some Russian literature and a drink or two or three or four. This week, we're going to be taking a look at "Alyosha the Pot" by Leo Tolstoy.
Yes. And Matt, before we get going, I have to ask the most important question of the day.
Ask it. Do it.
What are you drinking?
I am, tonight, drinking like a degenerate because I am placing together... mixing together just whatever I have on hand. And tonight is vodka mixed into Coke. Coca Cola soda. And it's a little pick me up from my terrible, terrible day.
There you go. You get a little bit of alcohol and a little bit of stimulant from the caffeine and maybe cocaine. I don't know what kind of coke you buy.
No, it should be cocaine-free.
Okay. All right. Well, we're getting the ethical Coca Cola this week. I see.
Yes. All about ethics here on this podcast.
Yes. Coca Cola, notably an ethical corporation.
Yes. They could pay me to say that if they sponsored me.
Aramark, where are you at? We're here for sponsors.
Cameron, what are you drinking this week?
I am drinking the Russian Imperial stout Wake Up Dead from Left Hand Brewing, which is an employee owned company, which is cool by the way. I actually I started imposing some rules on myself. And I think I'm gonna do it going forward, where when I go out and buy beer for this show, I'm only going to buy it from independent brewers. And I can't buy anything that I have had before. So we're gonna have an exploration of independent breweries on the West Coast, I guess.
Yeah, I think I do the same thing, usually when I go out to buy beer, but only accidentally because I can't ever remember like, what it is that I've had before. So I end up just getting something new, something flashy, something that catches my eyes each week.
There you go. Let's get into "Alyosha the Pot."
So I have a little bit of... a little bit of background to sprinkle into this reading of "Alyosha the Pot" that Cameron will shortly summarize. And I didn't want to get too much into Tolstoy's backstory, because I have two books of... two biographies of Tolstoy sitting on my bookshelf that I still need to read. And they're quite thick. And that could take literally like 10 episodes of this podcast to do. So the way that I thought would be best to approach this would be just to talk about some of the things that are more relevant to the story. And then we could see how they apply as we get kind of into the, into the story a little bit more. So one of the immediate things that anybody will notice about "Alyosha the Pot" is that it is about a peasant named Alyosha. And Tolstoy who was a nobleman, he was a landowner, he really wasn't comfortable with his identity as such. And he always was looking to his peasants to kind of teach him life lessons, ethical lessons about how he should live, he was really obsessed, you could say, with this idea of trying to live authentically. And so he didn't necessarily idealize the peasants themselves. He really idolized the way that they lived, because he felt that it was authentic, it was truly Russian. And he admired the simplicity of their lives and their beliefs. And that plays into kind of his own beliefs of Christianity, and that were eventually really problematic for him. He was excommunicated from the Church in 1901. That is, four years before he wrote this story, which was in 1905, which was towards the end of his life, he died in 1910. It's worth noting that this story wasn't actually published until a year after his death in 1911. So this is already the later end of Tolstoy when he's had time throughout his life to develop these ideals, these ways of thinking about Christianity and the world around him. And so Alyosha really comes to epitomize some of his religious principles which we will be able to get into a little bit later. And with that, I think... Cameron, what did you think about the story? I feel like that's kind of all the relevant background that's needed here.
I really enjoyed the story. I know I say that every time. But this was really interesting because it itself touches upon a lot of features that you'll hear often talked about if you read literature of this era, but it doesn't actually directly address those things, but kind of presents a character who... I've read that this is not a moralizing tale. I disagree. I think it kind of is. But it is in a very subtle way. And it's an interesting way of expressing Tolstoy's beliefs, as well as being a good character piece in really... the word economy's great in here. I enjoyed reading it. How about you? What was your initial reaction when you read this?
Well, I should say it's worth mentioning, I don't think we did, that this is one of Tolstoy's shortest stories, if not his shortest one that I'm aware of. It's only, in my copy, it's about five and a half pages, six pages long. It's pretty... it's pretty short. So when you talk about the word economy, that's definitely true. I think he accomplishes a lot within a very little. This was... I first read this probably four or five years ago when I was taking Intro to Russian Lit. And it was, I think the first thing that I actually read in that course, and it was super interesting. After that, beginning to tie in kind of these ideals of Tolstoy and how he thinks about life, I found it very easy. Or I find it much easier to start with the shorter works of Tolstoy before launching into something like Anna Karenina or War and Peace, just because these are... there are a lot of these issues that he brings up in the short stories that he kind of expands on in the later works. And religion for Tolstoy, obviously, will be a big one. I mean, you don't just get excommunicated from the Church for no reason. You really have to have some really strong beliefs. So yeah, so this is one that I like a lot. I think there's a lot here, and I think it's worthy of a good analysis.
Yeah. So let's get into it.
"Alyosha the Pot." I'm going to start off by reading the opening paragraph of "Alyosha the Pot" to explain Alyosha's basic background. Alyoshka was the younger brother. He'd been nicknamed "the pot" because once his mother sent him to take a pot of milk to the deacon's wife and he stumbled and broke it. His mother gave him a beating. The other children started to tease him by calling him "the pot." Alyosha Gorshok, Alyosha "the pot," that's how he got his name. And then after that we follow Alyoshka through his life as he begins to work while he's a very young lad, although other children teased him for being somewhat uneducated, he was really hard working. Even from the age of six, he began to start tending cows and sheep. And as he got older, he'd tend to the horses. And no matter what he was going through, no matter how hardly he was being scolded, he always took it with a smile. And when he's 19, his brother, who has been working in the town, is drafted into the army. So his father sends Alyosha to replace his brother at this household as the yard keeper. And while here Alyosha is a very hard worker, although, initially, the family there is kind of not super welcoming, because they see kind of a lanky, young boy. And they think, well, how is he going to do all the work we're going to ask him to do and his dad's like, No, no, you can, you can trust him. He's a really hard worker. So this family, which is comprised of a merchant, his wife, his three kids: an older, married son, son who has been expelled from university, and a daughter in high school, who basically order Alyoshka around all the time. And he does everything, and he does it willingly and quickly. They'll ask him to fetch this or fix that, and he fetches and fixes and he never complained about his job. And no matter what happened, no matter how hard the work was, no matter how cold it was, in the morning, he was ready to get up before dawn, chop firewood, sweep the courtyards feeding everything there, and just generally be a good servant to this family. After he's there for certain amount of time. Alyosha discovers that there is actually another way to relate to people around him. That is when he and the cook Ustinya begin to fall in love. Both of them have had kind of a hard life. Ustinya is an orphan who was taken in by her aunt and later comes to work at this household and begin to spend a lot of time together. And she always saves him food and mends pants, and he always listens to her when she talks and they grow closer and closer and start to flirt. Until one day she kind of asks him if he's going to be married. He says he doesn't know, he wasn't really eager to get married. And she says, Have you picked someone? Well, I'd pick you, he says, would you have me or not? And she says, oh, Gorshok, Gorshok, you put it so cunningly. And why shouldn't I have you? The family does not react very well to this plan between the two to get married, and they asked Alexei's father or Alyosha's father, to dissuade them. Alyosha's father comes to him and tells him what's what, and says, I thought you were a sensible lad, don't do this. And Alyosha, ever the obedient son, goes to Ustinya and says, it's off, this isn't going to work. And they're both very sad. And this is actually one of the saddest parts of the story for Alyosha. And the only time when he does not express happiness in his lot in life, when the merchants wife asks him, Have you given up that foolish idea? He says, Yes, I did, said Alyosha. And he began laughing, then immediately started to cry. Soon after that he's cleaning the roof of the merchants house and slips and he falls, when Ustinya runs up asks him, are you okay? He says, I'm fine, but he can't get up. And when the doctor's assistant comes, they move him into the house, and they can't really help him. So he lays there for two days and two nights. And the third day, they get the priest. And then finally, Alyosha, as ever happy with his lot, prays with the grace with his hands and his heart. He said very little. He asked for something to drink, and then felt this growing sense of wonder, and overcome with that wonder, he stretches out and dies.
A good happy ending to a good story I really felt like... You get kind of a sad story all the way through. And yeah, good. A good pick me up, for sure, to start your day.
As we always get in Russian literature.
It is simple in its composition and structure. But its messaging and its themes are, I don't want to say incredibly complex, but they become more complex and nuanced when you understand Tolstoy and his attitudes towards peasants, to religion, and, you know, to everything kind of around him. So one of the things that I thought, that obviously would strike any reader, is just Alyosha's character. The fact that Tolstoy decided to highlight a peasant, is, I guess, a little strange. Most stories, though not necessarily by this point, though, earlier in the 19th century, generally are written about upper class nobility, you know, rich people. There's not as much of a concern with the peasant in a lot of respects. And in this story that's what you get. And you get it more or less from his perspective. And he's really happy with his role. I mean, this whole story, to me, it sucks. All he does is work. I would hate to have to do as many things as Alyosha has to do throughout the story, but he does everything with a smile. And to Tolstoy, that is good. He is somebody who appreciates the value of simple work, of errands, of just kind of this everyday life. And so, in a religious sense, Tolstoy really kind of resonates with Alyosha. In my opinion, in my reading of Tolstoy is that he likes to apply these general principles of life to religion. So Tolstoy obviously is not really a big fan of the Orthodox Church, which is at this point, really just an arm of the state. It's really... it's very, very meshed together. And so there are a lot of things that he takes issue with... the fact that the services are conducted in Church Slavonic, when the population doesn't really understand Church Slavonic. And really the, I don't want to say... the... I don't know what I'm looking for, like the ornateness of the services, the icons, the incense, the everything, it's a lot of... it's a very sensory experience. And Tolstoy does not like that. He wants something very simple, very pure, very to the point. And so Alyosha for him, represents the way that I think Tolstoy believed that true Christians should be living kind of their everyday life.
And I just want to echo Matt's point real quickly here about how elaborate Orthodox worship is. If you've never been inside an Orthodox church. The first time you go in, it can be kind of overwhelming. The walls are covered and icons and by icons, we mean depictions of saints or of stories from the Bible. And keep in mind that a lot of the origins of Orthodoxy come from teaching to a population who is widely illiterate. So if you go into really old churches, you're basically going to see the entire story of the g gospel in pictures along the walls. So it's incredibly ornate, you don't get to sit down, you stand in a crowd while the priest preaches to you. And it's, as Matt said, a very sensory experience, and you're not really involved in it, you are there to receive the message that the priest has for you of truth. And you're not able to actually really interpret that in any way which Tolstoy did take some... well not that Tolstoy wanted to interpret it, but his relationship to Christianity was one of... involved a lot of critical thought. And that was not something the Orthodox Church was necessarily down with.
No, I think, you know, that's true. But I think Tolstoy did want to interpret it, he really did have very, very strong views. And that does seep through, if you're not, or it does seep through, if you read this closely. He talks about prayer, specifically several times. And Orthodox Christians do have a very specific way that they pray, and Alyosha does not. It is written that Alyosha did not know how to pray at all, that his mother had once taught him the words, but he had forgot everything, even as she spoke. Nonetheless, he did pray morning and evening, but simply just with his hands crossing himself. And this is referenced in the middle of the story. And then it's referenced at the end of the story, right before he dies, saying that he prayed only with his hands and his heart. And that to me is something that Tolstoy really resonated with, this idea that it doesn't matter what you say, it matters how you act. And true Christians will act a certain way. It doesn't matter how many prayers you say, if you don't believe what you're saying, if you don't understand what you're saying. So for Tolstoy, I think Alyosha really did this, he represented something more than obviously, just, you know, the peasant. This is, I'll preface it by saying this is not my idea. This is a an idea of a professor's that I shall adapt probably poorly for this podcast. He presented a paper where he said that he thought that Alyosha is an example of verbal iconography, which I thought was really interesting. So instead of a painting of a saint, my professor said that he thought that Tolstoy was painting a picture with his words of Alyosha as a saint. And there is evidence for that in the story, particularly I think, around the death scene. One of the things that you see in the Orthodox tradition, when it comes to saints is this kind of knowing that your time has come when you're dying. And Alyosha says that, as he approaches death, he kind of accepts his death, and he does it very peacefully. It's a very peaceful passing, it's not a sad, emotional thing. And the last line of the story that I have in translation is, then he seemed surprised at something, and stretched out and died. And so Tolstoy isn't saying that he is rewarded with this afterlife, with this anything. He kind of, I think nods to it, kind of hints at it here. And it is an appropriate kind of everyday ending, I guess, for what Alyosha represents, which is this very pure kind of everyday peasant.
Yeah. So when I... I was kind of curious after I read this, what other people took out from it. And when I kind of looked it up, I found a lot of people talking about the concept in Russian literature of the holy fool, which they ascribe to Alyosha. I don't really know enough about that concept to really elaborate on it. So when I was looking at that, I was kind of like, well, what is Tolstoy's perspective on this? So I followed some other lines of inquiry and kind of landed at another one of Tolstoy's books more so in his canon of literature texts, or excuse me, of his religious texts. And at one point in his life, I think this is in the late 1880s, Tolstoy writes the book The Gospel In Brief, which is essentially a retelling of the gospel, which largely removes the elements of miracle and boils down the gospel into 12 essential teachings. And when I read it, the most essential teaching, I think, for this story to know was perhaps the sixth one listed in the preface, which Tolstoy writes as the gratification of one's own will, is not necessary for man. In the context of that book, it's within the larger context of why you should serve the will of God rather than the will of oneself, and what that means essentially. And that's kind of how I started to read "Alyosha the Pot" as I went back through and reread a couple different versions, a lot of what Tolstoy writes about in the Gospel In Brief really centers around Jesus's teachings around, basically rejecting wealth and making sure that you focus on serving, you know, the God above. And it especially has a strong focus on the Sermon on the Mount, which is, among many other teachings that come from that speech that Jesus gives the people, I think the one most relevant here is the meek shall inherit the earth, because Alyosha is someone who's never really given respect. And the first paragraph of the story, he's referred to repeatedly as not Alyosha but as, in the Russian version, Alyoshka, which is like the name Alexei can be made a diminutive as Alyosha. But now we're into like the really, really familiar version of the name of the Alyoshka. And it's not about him, when it begins, it's Alyoshka is a younger brother. The important one is his brother in the very first sentence of the story. And throughout this entire thing, he's never really given that respect, and he doesn't demand it, he obeys. And he finds the good in what he's given. And at the very end, right before he dies, in his heart, it seems that it was good here, if you obeyed and didn't offend, and it would also be good there, referring to the afterlife. So this is, I think, maybe Tolstoy putting forth kind of his ideal of like, what you were talking about, a saint. And that saint is someone who rejects all personal happiness for the sake of, you know, greater goodness in the world, of putting forth just kind of a godliness, I guess. I would need to read the Gospel In Brief again before I could really fully elaborate on that. And I don't know if anyone who has not fully engaged in a study of Tolstoy's religious beliefs could elaborate his theory of religion. But that is what I was kind of reading as I was going through the second and third times.
Yeah, the the holy fool is something that's definitely relevant here. My understanding of the holy fool is it's this characterization that is, in some ways, it's important to Eastern Orthodoxy. It's particularly relevant as it pertains to asceticism, just this belief that you should live with less, that you should abstain from things. Tolstoy really, really believed in that. In his diaries, he has entries where he tries to, for instance, tries to abstain from having sex with his wife. And then the next day, you'll read and he'll be like, I was not successful. Which I kind of like wonder about that... Because, okay, so like, he was a writer who was really famous within his own time. So he probably would have known that somebody in the future would be reading his diaries. So I don't know, I just think that's funny. You know, he's letting the world know.
I think the holy fool as I was doing a little bit of brushing up, shall we say on it for this episode, the language that I found that I think best encapsulates how it applies to Alyosha is the use of unconventional behavior to challenge accepted norms. So this whole story is a story of kind of Russian society at the time... of this part of Russian society at the time, and Alyosha doesn't fit in with it. I mean, he fits in in the sense that he doesn't challenge it. But that is, in and of itself, the challenge that Tolstoy is presenting the reader and those who are involved with the text.
I think it's also may be worthwhile to mention the role Ustinya plays in the story. Because up until her introduction really, Alyosha is basically playing the role that's been asked of him. And everyone's really happy with that, actually. And it's not until he starts to express himself and his own desires and wants, in this case, the desire of not only him, but also the desire and want of him and Ustinya to marry because they enjoy each other's company. And like, as is mentioned the story, sometimes relations are not of, you know, having to do something, sometimes their relations happen because of a mutual need for one another. And sometimes you can just do something for a person just because you like them, not for any special reason. And they have that bond.
I thought that that was sad that it took him so long to notice. Because the way it's phrased is that he had only known of the first kind of relationship where somebody needs something from you and tells you to do something. Whereas after living here for a year and a half the first time that he had experienced that other kind of relationship was with Ustinya.
Yeah. Now late in his life, he's suddenly understood the sort of relationship which is only for him actually. And everyone pushes back on him and I guess in something that's really telling the story, he does not try to break out of this. In many other stories, maybe you'd have a character who suddenly finds something that everyone does not expect of him and they would fight to break out of that. But that's not what Alyosha is all about. He is not about pushing back against society, but rather kind of suffering within that. And when his father tells him do not do this, he's like, yeah, and he's very apologetic to Ustinya about it. I'm sorry, it just can't work out. But he continues to live within this really strict social role that he has to play.
Yeah, it's even a little bit comical at the very, like, second to last paragraph of the story. When he's lying on his deathbed talking to Ustinya and the last thing that he says to her is, see, it's better that didn't let us marry because nothing would have come of it. And now everything's fine. So, yeah. Pretty sad.
People have told me that I personally, like just accept whatever the world throws at me, but I can only really aspire to that level of just accepting the lot you've been given in life.
No, I don't know, I feel like you interact with the world, it's just, you're not always happy with the result that you get from interacting.
Okay, so I think the last theme that I had to touch on, as it like kind of applies to this, I think that it plays more into other works by Tolstoy. But the idea of good and evil very broadly speaking, Tolstoy is really concerned... And this is something that other scholars have pointed out that I've found interesting and find true and relevant, that Tolstoy is not really concerned with characters that do like large amounts of good and evil in kind of one go, he's really concerned with how your very small actions add up over time to affect people and things around you. So he's really concerned with your everyday tasks, the kind of things that may not get any coverage in other stories or novels, just, I mean, this is essentially a story of Alyosha doing chores. That's basically the action that happens in the story. And if it didn't have I guess, like this ethical dimension to it, it probably would be kind of a boring story, of course. But for Tolstoy, that's one of the things that he's really interested in. And I think for him, Alyosha is a character that represents really an overwhelming good. I mean, you got anything else to talk about? That was a little bit of a shorter episode.
Yeah, yeah, I... Just a short thing at the very end. As I was reading the Gospel In Brief, I kind of saw maybe, I can't directly ascribe this to Tolstoy's line of thought as he was writing this. But I did see some parallels in that he kind of prizes a sort of naive faith. And what I mean by that is that he writes this in the preface to the Gospel In Brief: when I was 50, having asked myself and all the learned men around me what I am and what is the meaning of my life, I received the answer that I am a fortuitous concatenation of atoms and that life has no meaning, but it is itself an evil, and I fell into despair and wanted to put an end to my life. But I remembered that formerly in childhood, when I believed life had meaning for me, and that for the great mass of men about me who believe and are not corrupted by riches, life has a meaning. And, Alyosha kind of has like a childlike sort of appeal to the story that he never really grows up despite being in his early 20s by the time he dies. And I think that was sort of, as you're talking about this, this like sense of, I don't know, like doing small goods, that's kind of like a small good of Alyosha is that he remains in that almost childlike sense of he is not in the sort of faith of like what the Orthodox Church wants. And in this same preface, Tolstoy accuses the Church of engaging in all sorts of crimes and murder and oppression, basically, and he is just in it for like, a very simple, you know, he believes in... well, he believes. And one of the chapters in his revisited versions of the gospel, he focuses, very particularly on the story of a tax collector who comes to Christ and says, Oh, I'm... I've heard your words, and I'm deeply touched, and I want to give everything away. And Christ is like, frankly, actually, you don't even need to, because I mean... you should. But it's not really about the size of your sacrifice, merely that you were willingly giving yourself over to it. So to your point about this set of small things Alyosha does everyday, it's not about the size of what Alyosha does. It's about the fact that Alyosha truly is believing in this simple religion and wants to do it every day. And I think according to Dostoevsky's interpretation of this religious text, that might be kind of the ideal.
Yeah, it's really about believing with your whole heart. And that's what Alyosha does throughout the story. He's really, I think, Tolstoy's... one of his ideal characters. He displays the things that Tolstoy believes about religion very concisely, very concretely in a character over five and a half, six pages. And it's pretty clear, having understood even just a little bit of Tolstoy's background that this is what he was kind of aiming for in this short story.
Yeah. Although at the time it was published after he died, it was pretty widely liked. In an editor's note in the translation I read, or one of them, it mentions that the only mention of this particular story in Tolstoy's diary is an entry on February 28, of 1905, in which Tolstoy writes: have been writing Alyosha. Quite bad. Gave it up.
I think it's encouraging to see probably the world's greatest writer ever to have lived still had imposter syndrome.
Yeah. Had imposter syndrome about what is later considered to be an incredible work.
Yeah. Yeah, I wish I could say that's like me turning in a paper. But the imposter syndrome turns out to be accurate and I should have revised it more.
Well, c'est la vie. Tolstoy was quite old. I don't exactly know how old he was when he died. But at this point... at that point in your life, maybe it will be entirely fictitious when you have this level of imposter syndrome.
Well, we can we can cross our fingers.
I sure hope. I feel like I've said everything I need to say about this.
Yep, that is "Alyosha the Pot" by Leo Tolstoy.
If you had to rate yourself right now, top of your head, off the cuff, on a scale of one to Yeltsin. How drunk are you right now?
Whoa, I'm not a Yeltsin. But I am a pretty drunk Russian official. I've not done an intensive study of like the relative levels of drunkenness of like non either Soviet premiers or Russian presidents. But definitely not one of the teetotaling premiers. Yeah. How about you?
I think I have... I've surpassed like leveling or naming this. I just... I just feel hot. I'm just hot right now. I got too many layers..
Good, good. Well, I see last week has not left a lingering impression upon us, because we've really moved on at this point. This is an attempt by ourselves to become simple, like a child like Alyosha. Schieved rather than through religion, through...
Drinking through this podcast. Yeah, yeah yeah.
Yeah, that's true. What are we going to read next week? What do you think?
We are going to start reading the book Sankya by Zakhar Prilepin, which is a more modern book, and certainly a bit more... well, it's in the tradition of advocating for changes in the country of origin.
In a way.
Perhaps a bit more radical than the last three. If you're interested, I would actually recommend picking it up because it is a very interesting look into some of the modern Russian political margins.
Yeah, we're really bouncing around the timeline here. It's fun.
Yep, yep. Okay, well, I think we will see you all again next week.
The music used in this episode was "soviet march" by toasted tomatoes. You can find more of their stuff on toastedtomatoes.bandcamp.com and also on YouTube under the same username. If you enjoyed the episode, well, first of all, that makes us happy. But also grad school doesn't pay very well. So if you happen to have a few dollars to spare, you can find us on Patreon at patreon.com/tipsytolstoy. It'll help us buy the books we'll be reading in the future. If you're looking for other places to find us, you can also follow us on Instagram at tipsytolstoypodcast or visit our website tipsytolstoy.com. You'll hear from us again soon.