Stories for my Children is a selection from Tolstoy’s Primer, published in 1872. This, in turn, was based on the notebooks he had kept since the founding of his first school for peasant children in 1849.
Tolstoy inherited the family country estate of Yasnaya Polyana when he was nineteen. For the previous ten years, after the successive deaths of most of his close adult relatives, he had been living an upper-middle class, provincial town life in the care of a distant aunt. At his particularly idealistic age, the realities of the Russian rural life of the period, which he had remembered as a childish idyll, came as a traumatic shock. Although a trickle of reform had begun, the emancipation of serfs was still some ten years in the future and Tolstoy felt deeply responsible for the plight of ‘his’ people.
At that time illiteracy was the norm. Children were expected to work a twelve hour day and unpaid schooling seemed to offer few advantages. Simultaneously, however, the many rival factions in Russia were coming to recognise the enormous potential power that might come from filling millions of untutored minds with their own particular creed, Tolstoy was almost unique in his desire to educate solely for the sake of the individual’s own development.
After an abortive attempt to start a school at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy spent several months on a ‘fact-finding’ tour of European state schools. Even a meeting with Matthew Arnold couldn’t alleviate the gloom he felt at the dreariness of the systems that he encountered. On his return, his next and