Book Review: How Much Land Does a Man Need by Leo Tolstoy

This is a book review of How Much Land Does a Man Need by Leo Tolstoy.  Book Review by Jeff McLain.
This is a book review of How Much Land Does a Man Need by Leo Tolstoy. This 2010 version of How Much Land Does a Man Need was translated by Boris Dralyuk and published by Calypso Editions. As a read, How Much Land Does a Man Need is a short reflective parable from a classic that was first released in 1886. This edition of a lesser celebrated work of Tolstoy is in Russian and English inside the book. 

Though not one of the most popular translations, Boris Dralyuk translates How Much Land Does a Man Need, a short work of Tolstoy, because of the way it speaks to our seasons that are “marred both environmentally and economically by the consequences of unbridled greed.”[1] To accurately translate Tolstoy into a modern era, his goal was “to recreate Tolstoy’s idiosyncratic voice with as much faith and color as possible.”[2] He mentions the ways he was hoping to capture the “subtly modulated version of what the Russians call skaz” that was utilized by Leo Tolstoy.[3] I agree with and appreciate the way Dralyuk explains Tolstoy’s work in this book as “a sermon fable,” that uses words in an artful way to “drive the moral home.”[4]

The story opens with two sisters who gather for a reunion. One sister is from the city, and the other is from the country. These sisters debate together about which of their lives is the most fulfilling. Though it is a friendly sibling rivalry and debate, the conversation is overheard by the rural husband, and it creates in him a desire to achieve and accomplish more. The husband’s conviction believes that the search for more will bring about even greater contentment. He is convinced that the only lack or grief he has in life is that they have “too little land,” and acquiring more land would create such contentment and satisfaction for him and their family.[5] That contentment and satisfaction that comes with having more land, he believes, would result in him not having any fear in life, not even of the devil.[6] This discontent, pride, and lust is overheard by the devil who says, “I’ll give you lots of land. And it’s the land [that] I’ll take you with.”[7] The book follows the journey of Pakhom, the husband, as he finds himself in an everlasting struggle for more until the land is what takes him. That journey for more enlists his complete self as he pursues land that is bigger, better, more beautiful, and fruitful. Though his lust for more becomes notable to the reader, Pakhom is lost in his human condition and ignores prophetic dreams and every logical warning as he puts on the back burner what good he does have, including his family. As one might imagine, the bold and blinding greed becomes the end of him, and the story ends with the harrowing truth that now “he lay dead.”[8] His pursuit of land throughout the years resulted in nothing except enough land to produce a grave.

Leo Tolstoy is a classic and renowned author, philosopher, and pacifist. He is among the greatest of Russian authors. Perhaps Tolstoy is most known for his defining work, War and Peace. Though a brilliant thinker, Tolstoy was driven into a panicked state and existential despair during the highlight of his career.[9] In this search for meaning in what seemed to be a pointless death, Tolstoy (from a Russian family of nobility) was reportedly drawn to the faith of the everyday people around him.[10] Returning to the Russian Orthodox Church in which he was born, Tolstoy becomes disillusioned with the practices of religion.[11] Though embracing Jesus and his teachings at some level, he was convinced that all Christian churches had somehow falsified what he saw to be true Christianity.[12] True Christianity for Tolstoy was moral and ethical. As a result of his disillusionment, Tolstoy defines his own faith, integrating what he wants from Christianity, and this results in him becoming excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church movement.[13] Simply put, he merely saw “the man Jesus” to be a truer form of life in which we should all pursue and experience.[14] The tenants of his faith were around not being angry, not giving into lust, not taking oaths, not resisting evil, and loving your enemies.[15] Though Tolstoy lost the divinity of Jesus, his struggles with the overreaching religious institutions of his day cannot be ignored, and some of what he pushes out theologically is a deeply reflective work on the life and teachings of Jesus that must be considered. Some of Tolstoy’s teachings on these things would give inspirational pillars to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and others.[16] Though, this increasingly radical faith would deeply affect the marriage and family life of Tolstoy, and the contrasting contradictions of what he believed and did would ultimately be his downfall put him on the run, and lead to his death.[17]

This book is an essential read for those who enjoy classic works. Tolstoy creatively plays with the mind through this short read. I highly recommend that readers – whether they be followers of Jesus, humanists, and/or others - wrestle with this sermon fable or parable that hauntedly causes us to reflect on our own conscious and unconscious pursuits and intentions. The lustful need for more battles in all our minds and souls, and Tolstoy holds up a mirror for us in a way that inspires us to pursue a life of downward mobility, rather than upward.

Buy on Calypso Editions

Read Highlights & Quotes



[1] Leo Tolstoy, How Much Land Does a Man Need (Philadelphia: Calypso Edition, 2010), XIII.

[2] Leo Tolstoy, How Much Land Does a Man Need (Philadelphia: Calypso Edition, 2010), XIII.

[3] Leo Tolstoy, How Much Land Does a Man Need (Philadelphia: Calypso Edition, 2010), XIII.

[4] Leo Tolstoy, How Much Land Does a Man Need (Philadelphia: Calypso Edition, 2010), XIV.

[5] Leo Tolstoy, How Much Land Does a Man Need (Philadelphia: Calypso Edition, 2010), 5.

[6] Leo Tolstoy, How Much Land Does a Man Need (Philadelphia: Calypso Edition, 2010), 5.

[7] Leo Tolstoy, How Much Land Does a Man Need (Philadelphia: Calypso Edition, 2010), 5.

[8] Leo Tolstoy, How Much Land Does a Man Need (Philadelphia: Calypso Edition, 2010), 47.

[9] “Leo Tolstoy | Biography, Books, Religion, & Facts.” Accessed September 15, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-Tolstoy.

[10] “Leo Tolstoy | Biography, Books, Religion, & Facts.” Accessed September 15, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-Tolstoy.; “Leo Tolstoy | Biography, Books, Religion, & Facts.” Accessed September 15, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-Tolstoy.

[11] “Leo Tolstoy | Biography, Books, Religion, & Facts.” Accessed September 15, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-Tolstoy.

[12] “Leo Tolstoy | Biography, Books, Religion, & Facts.” Accessed September 15, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-Tolstoy.

[13] “Leo Tolstoy | Biography, Books, Religion, & Facts.” Accessed September 15, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-Tolstoy.

[14] “Leo Tolstoy | Biography, Books, Religion, & Facts.” Accessed September 15, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-Tolstoy.

[15] “Leo Tolstoy | Biography, Books, Religion, & Facts.” Accessed September 15, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-Tolstoy.

[16] “Leo Tolstoy | Biography, Books, Religion, & Facts.” Accessed September 15, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-Tolstoy.

[17] “Leo Tolstoy | Biography, Books, Religion, & Facts.” Accessed September 15, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-Tolstoy.


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