An Interview with Count Ilya Tolstoy

Ralph Borsodi

[Reprinted from The Singltaxer, February 1918]

Count Ilya Tolstoy is a son of Leo Tolstoy.

I was tempted to write "the son" because of the resemblance between the father and son.

He is a very large man, satisfying one's preconceptions of Russians in this respect. In fact so large a man that we seemed cramped and crowded in the room in which we were sealed - a typical New York apartment room so far as size was concerned. Yet his movements are certain and graceful. There is no awkwardness despite the height and breadth of shoulders. Perhaps this is because there is not an ounce of superfluous flesh upon his frame.

The photograph, taken in Russia pictures him as a stern man. But he is in reality a rather kindly looking gentleman - a man sympathetic and appealing.

"Two things are bringing the principles of Henry George forward," Count Tolstoy said thoughtfully in answer to a question of mine. "The first is the rise of the working classes. The war will not be settled by Wilson or William the Second. It will be settled by the working classes. We are entering a new era. The working classes must find employment. Workers who cannot or do not wish to work in cities, must be freely able to work upon the land.

"The second thing," he continued, "is the fact that we are facing a world famine. The food shortage is a problem not only of the government here, but of every government in the world. Every possible acre of land must be used to grow food. As soon as this fact enters the consciousness of Americans - the land question will come to the front here, as it to the front in Russia now."

Count Tolstoy asked me about the progress of the Ideas of Henry George in America. I tried to give him an insight into American conditions - especially in the great agricultural states of the nation -and an outline of the progress of the Single Tax movement. I described the Great Adventure in California. I mentioned the emphasis placed upon the fiscal aspect of the Single Tax.

"The matter of the land," he said emphatically, "is a moral question. I feel that present conditions are unjust. And this is how the Russian peasant feels. The peasant considers that that land belongs to nobody but God. He is more accustomed to the idea that he himself is property than that land is property. The peasants used to be sold and bartered as we sell and exchange land today. The land, of which there seemed at that time an unlimited supply in Russia, was worth little to the nobles. Only by acquiring serfs with an estate could the landowners obtain anything from its possession.

It is a mistake to assume that the peasant thinks of land as he thinks of other property. I have here many pamphlets dealing with the land question," and he showed me quite a number of them "some of them printed in Russia itself, but they have been written by men educated in cities. Some of the Single Tax pamphlets speak of the Injustices of taxation. The peasant picks up a pamphlet dealing with taxation. The moment he sees the word, he throws it aside, saying "I already pay enough taxes."

I asked him how he thought the peasant should be approached. His eyes twinkled shrewdly.

"I would tell the peasant, that under our program be could have all the land he wants to till. Then I would point out that in paying for it, all his neighbors would be forced to pay just as much as be does for the use of the land."

Count Tolstoy pointed to some photographs upon the wall of his room. One was a large picture of a Russian hunting party on a hillside. Scattered in the snow about the group were the carcasses of ten wolves. He pointed to n figure in the group - the Count himself - and said: "This Is an oppressor of the Russian peasants. The wolves are the peasants."

Then he showed me another photograph of the same scene, but in this the hunters had taken the bodies of the wolves and set them upon their haunches. Some of tile wolves had rifles in their front paws. It was a picture in which the role of the hunted and hunter bad been reversed. In front of the formidable band of wolves one of the hunters was lying, apparently dead. Another was on his knees appealing for mercy. Count Tolstoy pointed to this second picture and said: "This is the situation today. The peasants have turned upon those who oppressed them."

We turned from the discussion of the Russian situation to America. I told him of ambitious plans for a revival of Single Tax activities In the political field - of the hopes which we had in the Single Tax Party.

"This is work which is near to my heart," he said. "If I can only trust my English I shall do what I can to help.

For nearly two hours we exchanged views. The American press, American culture, American agricultural conditions, political personages, were some of the subjects upon which we lighted now and then. I left feeling that Count Tolstoy had come, as if by inheritance, to rekindle amongst us the faith of olden days. Not only that, but I had the assurance that as soon as he freed himself from his present engagements - he is bout to leave on a lecture tour - he will endeavor to lend a hand to the task of awakening America. As he said: "We have nowhere an example of any country that has adopted the Single Tax. In New Zealand and Australia it is a method of taxation only. If we can but make an example of one of the States - the rest will prove comparatively a simpler tusk."