TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: Tolstoy wrote “Alyósha Gorshok” (literally, “Alyósha-the-Pot”) in 1905. The only mention of the story in his diary is an entry for February 28 of that year: “Have been writing Alyósha. Quite bad. Gave it up.” The story was published posthumously in 1911 with several other works of his late, post-conversion period. Prince Dmitry Mirsky in his pioneering survey, The History of Russian Literature (1949), regarded the story as a masterpiece. “Concentrated into its six pages . . . [it] is one of [Tolstoy’s] most perfect creations, and one of the few which make one forget the bedrock Luciferianism and pride of the author.” The story is indeed remarkable for the simplicity of its language, the austerity of its outline, and the absence of the moralizing that characterizes many of Tolstoy’s late works.
Note for non-Russian readers: The full form of the hero’s name is Alekséi, but he’s most often referred to by the two diminutive forms, Alyósha or Alyóshka. The heroine’s name is Ustínya, and she is also called Ustyúsha.
Alyósha Gorshok: Alyósha-the-Pot
Alyóshka was the younger brother. He’d been nicknamed Gorshok, or “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.” Alyósha Gorshok, Alyósha-the-Pot—that’s how he got his name.
Alyóshka was a skinny, lop-eared lad (his ears stuck out like wings), and he had a large nose. Children would tease him, saying: “Alyóshka’s nose looks like a mutt on a mound.” There was a school in the village but he just couldn’t learn how to read and write; besides, he had no time to study. His older brother lived with a merchant in town; since childhood Alyóshka had been helping his father. When he was only six, he and his little sister would tend the cows and sheep in the pasture; when he got a little older, he’d tend the horses night and day. By the age of twelve he’d already begun to plow the field and drive the cart. He wasn’t very strong, but he had the knack. He was always cheerful. Whenever other children laughed at him, he would either laugh or keep silent. When his father scolded him, he would keep silent and listen. And, as soon as the scolding stopped, he’d smile and set about doing whatever task needed to be done.
Alyósha was nineteen when his brother was drafted into the army. His father sent him to replace his brother and become the merchant’s yard-keeper. They gave Alyósha his brother’s old boots, his father’s cap and long coat, and then took him into town. Alyósha couldn’t get enough of admiring his new clothes, but the merchant didn’t like the way he looked.
“I thought you’d send me a real replacement for Semyon,” the merchant said, looking Alyósha over. “But you’ve brought me a little snot-nosed kid. What good is he?”
“He can do everything—harness the horses, go where you send him, and work like a fiend; he only looks as thin as rail. But he’s really wiry.”
“Well, we’ll see about that.”
“And most of all—he’s humble. Very eager to work.”
“Well, what can I do? Leave him here.”
And so, Alyósha began to work at the merchant’s house.
The merchant’s family wasn’t large: his wife, her old mother, an older married son who’d had only a primary education and now worked with his father; another son, educated—who’d finished high school, gone off to university, been expelled, and now lived at home; and a daughter who was still a pupil at the high school.
At first they didn’t much like Alyóshka—he behaved like a peasant and was dressed poorly; he didn’t have any manners, addressed everyone familiarly; but they soon got used to him. He worked even harder than his brother. He really was humble: whatever they sent him to do, he did willingly and quickly, moving from one task to another without stopping. And, just as at home, so too at the merchant’s house, all sorts of tasks were piled upon him. The more he did, the more they gave him to do. The wife, and her mother, and her daughter, and her son, and the shop assistant, and the cook—all sent him here and there, asking him to do this and that. All you could hear was: “Go fetch this, Alyósha,” or “Fix that, brother.” “Hey, what’s wrong? Did you forget, Alyósha?” “Take care and don’t forget, Alyósha.” And Alyósha fetched, and fixed, and took care, and didn’t forget; he managed to do everything, smiling all the while.
He soon wore out his brother’s boots and the merchant berated him for going around with holes in his boots and his toes sticking out, and ordered him to buy some new boots at the market. Alyósha bought some and was delighted with them, but his feet were the same old feet, and by evening they were aching from all his running around, and he got angry at the new boots. Alyósha was afraid that when his father came to collect his salary, he’d be angry that the merchant had deducted the cost of the boots.
During the winter Alyósha would get up before dawn, chop the firewood, sweep the courtyard, feed the cow and horses, and give them water. Then he’d stoke the stove, brush the clothes and boots, then clean and prepare the samovars; following that, either the shop assistant would call him to unpack the goods or the cook would tell him to knead the dough and scrub the saucepans. Then they’d send him into town, either with a note to deliver, or to take their daughter to school, or to buy oil for the old woman’s icon lamps. “Where are you off to, damn you,” one or another would say. “Why go yourself? Alyósha will fetch it. Alyóshka! Hey, Alyóshka!” And Alyósha ran and fetched.
He’d eat breakfast on the run and rarely was he on time to have dinner with the others. The cook would scold him for not joining everyone, but she felt sorry for him and would save him leftovers for his dinner and supper. There was an even greater amount of work to be done around the holidays. Alyósha enjoyed the holidays especially because he would receive a few tips; even though these amounted to very little, only about sixty kopecks in all, it was still his own money. He could spend it however he chose. As for his salary, he never got to see that. His father would arrive, collect it from the merchant, and do nothing but rebuke Alyósha for having worn out his boots so quickly.
When he’d saved up two rubles from his tips, he bought, on the cook’s advice, a red knitted jacket; when he put it on, he couldn’t keep from smacking his lips with satisfaction.
He said little, and when he did speak, it was always abrupt and brief. Whenever anyone ordered him to do something or asked if he could do such and such, he always replied without the least hesitation: “Of course I can,” and he immediately rushed off to do it and he did it.
He didn’t know any prayers; he forgot those that his mother had taught him; nevertheless, he prayed both morning and evening—with his hands, crossing himself.
Thus Alyósha lived for a year and half; in the second half of the second year there occurred the most unusual event of his entire life. This event was as follows: much to his own surprise, he discovered that, in addition to relations between people deriving from their mutual need for one another, there also exist very special relations: not that a person has to clean someone’s boots, or carry a purchase, or harness a horse, but rather that a person—just like that, not for any special reason—could be needed by another; that it was necessary to serve that other person and be kind to him; and that he, Alyósha, was none other than that very person. He discovered this all through Ustínya. Ustyúsha was an orphan, young, and just as hardworking as Alyósha. She began to feel sorry for him; and, for the first time Alyósha felt that he, he himself, and not his services, but he himself, was important to another person. When his mother felt sorry for him, he didn’t even notice it; that seemed to be the way it was supposed to be, just as if he was feeling sorry for himself. But now, all of a sudden, he saw that Ustínya, a complete stranger, felt sorry for him. She left him some kasha and milk in the pot, and while he ate, she’d rest her chin on her bare arms and watch him. He’d glance up at her and she’d start to laugh; then he’d start to laugh, too.
It was all so new and strange that at first Alyósha was frightened. He felt that it interfered with his work. Still he was glad, and, when he looked at his trousers that she’d mended, he shook his head and smiled. Often while working or on the go, he’d think about Ustínya and say to himself, “Oh, that Ustínya!” She helped him when she could, and he helped her. She told him about her plight, how she’d been orphaned, how her aunt had taken her away, how she’d been sent into town, how the merchant’s son had tried to talk her into some foolishness, and how she’d put him in his place.
She loved to talk and he found it pleasant to listen to her. He heard about what often happens in towns: how hired servants up and marry cooks. Once she even asked if he was going to be married off soon. He answered that he didn’t know and wasn’t eager to take a wife from the village.
“Well, and have you picked someone?” she asked.
“I’d pick you,” he said. “Would you have me, or not?”
“Oh, gorshok, gorshok! You put it so cunningly,” she said, snapping her hand towel across his back. “And why shouldn’t I have you?”
At Shrovetide his father came to town to collect his salary. The merchant’s wife had learned that Alekséi had taken it into his head to marry Ustínya, and she didn’t like the idea. “She’ll get pregnant, and then what use will she be with a child?” she said to her husband.
The merchant paid the money to Alekséi’s father.
“So, how’s he doing, my boy?” asked the peasant. “I told you he was humble.”
“Humble he may be, but he’s come up with a foolish idea,” said the merchant. “He’s taken it into his head to marry our cook. I don’t keep married servants. That doesn’t suit us at all.”
“Simple he may be, but what an idea,” said the father. “Don’t worry. I’ll tell him to drop the whole thing.”
Entering the kitchen, the father sat down at the table to wait for his son. Alyósha was running around doing several tasks and came in all out of breath.
“Here I thought you were a sensible lad,” said his father. “What have you come up with now?”
“What do you mean, ‘nothing much’? You’ve decided to get married. I’ll marry you off when the time comes and to the person I choose, not to some slut from town.”
The father had a lot more to say. Alyósha stood there and sighed. When the father finished, Alyósha smiled.
“Well then, I can give it up.”
When the father had gone and Alyósha was left alone with Ustínya, he said to her (she’d been standing behind the door, listening while the father was talking to his son):
“Things aren’t so good for us; it didn’t work out. Do you hear? He’s angry and won’t allow it.”
She wept silently into her apron.
Alyósha clicked his tongue.
“But I have to obey him. It seems we have to give it up.”
In the evening when the merchant’s wife called for him to close the shutters, she said:
“Well, did you hear what your father said? Have you given up that foolish idea?”
“Yes, I did,” said Alyósha, and began laughing, and then immediately started crying.
From then on Alyósha didn’t mention marriage to Ustínya and resumed his former life.
One day the shop assistant sent him to clean the snow off the roof. He climbed up the ladder, cleaned off all the snow, and began to scrape the ice from the gutters; his feet slipped and he fell with his shovel. Unfortunately, he didn’t fall into the snow, but onto the iron roof over the doorway. Ustínya came running up to him, as did the merchant’s daughter.
“Did you hurt yourself, Alyósha?” she asked.
“Hurt myself? It’s nothing.”
He tried to stand, but he couldn’t, and began to smile. They carried him into the yard-keeper’s lodge. The doctor’s assistant arrived. He examined him and asked where it hurt.
“It hurts all over,” he said. “But it’s nothing. The master will be angry. We have to let my father know.”
Alyósha lay there for two days and two nights, and on the third day they sent for the priest.
“Well, are you really going to die?” asked Ustínya.
“What of it?” said Alyósha, hastily as always. “Do you think we get to live forever? You have to die sometime. Thanks, Ustínya, for feeling sorry for me. See, it was better they didn’t let us get married, because nothing would’ve come of it. Now it’s all for the best.”
He prayed with the priest only with his hands and with his heart. And in his heart it seemed that just as it was good here if you obeyed and didn’t offend, it would also be good there.
He said little. He merely asked for something to drink, and felt a growing sense of wonder.
Suddenly, overcome with wonder, he stretched out
from the Russian by Michael R. Katz
This story will appear in Tolstoy's Short Fiction,
the Norton Critical Edition, translated and edited by Michael R.
Katz and published in fall 2008.