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Thursday, June 9, 2016

What I’m Reading: Resurrection

What follows is not a proper review of Count Leo Tolstoy’s final novel Resurrection; it is instead a few of my thoughts about and responses to the book. It’s been a few years since I read Anna Karenina, and ages and ages since I read War and Peace. I feel like I should revisit those now (but there’s so much still left in my to-be-read pile…)

The story feels somewhat autobiographical – if not in details, in its theme. The journey of Prince Dmitri Ivanovitch Neklúdof from noble born, silver-spoon, aristocratic, playboy to a fervent idealistic religious revolutionist who dreams of changing the world is Tolstoy’s story.

Neklúdof wants to atone for his frivolous life, to correct the mistakes he’s made, to heal the wounds he’s caused. And this, not for himself, but because it is the right thing to do. But there is no such thing as a selfless good deed and his attempts to do right are viewed with suspicion and outright rejected. When he tries to give his land estates to the peasants who live upon them, they believe that it’s just another trick from a member of the wealthy elite to squeeze another ruble from the poor. His sincere offer to marry the woman he left destitute is refused; she can’t believe him.

Resurrection is a literary attempt to find a way to put into practice the radical claims of the gospel.

“I don’t know whether they deserve it or not, but I do know how they suffer,” said Neklúdof. “You are a Christian and believe in the Gospel, and yet you have no mercy.”
“That has nothing to do with the case. The Gospel is one thing and what we despise is another. It would be worse if I pretended to love Nihilists, especially short-haired one, when to tell the truth I really hate them” (Tolstoï Resurrection Vol. 2, 40).

Much of the novel is a defense of Georgist ideas – a subset of socialist thought, an economic theory that says that the economic value of the land should be owned and shared by the community that lives on the land. Again, this is part of Tolstoy’s literary attempt to put into practice the radical claims of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But radical is not easy. And Tolstoy knew this. He was not a wild-eyed unrealistic idealist. Resurrection is filled with the details of observed real life. In fact these detailed stories begin to pile up towards the end of the novel that it begins to feel like a fevered dream. Reality is incredibly unreal. How can this be real? But it is. And Neklúdof (the novel’s stand in for Tolstoy himself) is shocked to realize his place in it.

There are few easy answers. Many of the questions Tolstoy raised about the criminal justice system and the state of prisons in Czarist Russia at the end of the 19th century remain unanswered – and could be asked with tragically continued relevance about the criminal justice system and state of prisons in America in the 21st century.

The version of Resurrection that I’ve read was published in 1911, translated by Aline P. Delano. This may not be a complete version of Tolstoy’s work. The full novel was heavily censored by Russian authorities, and an unexpurgated text wasn’t published until 1936.

Tolstoï, Lyof N. Resurrection Trans. Aline P. Delano. New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company. 1911. Print.

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