I am running out of time to read the books on my Russian TBR shelf before we set off on our trip, and I really do want to read some of the contemporary Russian novels suggested by Stu at Winston’s Dad – but I couldn’t resist this one when the ‘Discovering Russian Literature’ group at GoodReads chose it this month. Resurrection (1899) is one of Tolstoy’s last novels and I wanted to see how his politics and philosophy influenced his later writing. I wasn’t disappointed.
There were intimations of Tolstoy’s radical politics in the characterisation of Pierre in War and Peace and of Levin in Anna Karenina but in Resurrection, Tolstoy’s ideas about private ownership of land have hardened. His errant character Nekhludoff is a dilettante whose awakening to injustice and inequity forms the basis of the novel. The plot gives Tolstoy the opportunity to have little rants about the unfairness of the justice system; the cruelty and stupidity of judicial punishment; the idleness and corruption of the military, the baseness of gender relations in Russian society, and the way religion has corrupted the simple philosophy of Jesus. Have I forgotten anything?
The plot is triggered by the role of the male dilettante in the fall of woman. The story begins with the farcical trial of a prostitute called Katusha Maslova: she’s convicted of poisoning a client and sentenced to four years in Siberia. Prince Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhludoff, the dilettante who seduced Katusha Maslova in the first place and caused her downfall, is on the jury. This ‘reunion’ is the catalyst for him to take stock of his life and embark on a spiritual journey.
However, in flashbacks we learn that even before he has to confront the consequences of his behaviour towards Katusha, Nekhludoff’s love of ease was in conflict with his own political beliefs. He was already intermittently uneasy about his lifestyle because as a young man at university he had admired the philosophy of Henry George and Herbert Spencer i.e. that it was immoral to own private property. At that time he had given away his inheritance from his father’s estate to peasants, but by the time his mother died and left him her estates he was dependant on the income from them to maintain his luxurious lifestyle. So no, he didn’t repeat the grandiose gesture…
Instead he’s been living an idle, unsettled life. He gave up the military to be an artist – but doesn’t have any talent so plans to go to Rome have never reached fruition. He is expected to marry a princess, the daughter of the wealthy Korchagins – but he can’t, because he’s nervous about women, because he’s not keen to give up his freedom and because he’s having trouble disentangling himself from an affair with a married woman (Mary Vasilevna).
Nekhludoff’s ideas about equality are shown again to be conflicted when he arrives at the jury room, where he is a bit peeved to find that he’s not treated with the respect he thinks he’s entitled to because of his rank. But he gets over that very quickly when he sees who the accused is. It’s Katusha, in company with a sleazy old man called Simeon Kertinkin, and a bold woman by name of Botchkova. The trio are accused of poisoning a man called Smelkoff, stealing his money and a ring.
The jury room is as I myself have experienced it: a muddle of conflicting impressions, prejudice and misunderstandings, and the verdict is the right one for the wrong reasons. The trouble is, Nekhludoff is so shocked, he fails to pay due attention to the final form of words of that verdict, and his negligence and their stupidity sees Katusha convicted of the murder instead. When she is sentenced to four years in Siberia he suddenly realises his culpability, and explains to the President who confirms that had the correct words been used Katusha would have been acquitted. After some soul-searching, Nekhludoff then sets off on a quest to get justice for Katusha, and to ameliorate her condition in the interim. From this point on Tolstoy uses his novel to expose the unfairness of the justice system because – even though the evidence is clear that the other two were responsible and that Maslova had been tricked into giving Smelkoff arsenic – the expensive, labyrinthine and corrupt processes of appeal make justice impossible for people of her class.
Nekhludoff’s motives stem from a muddle of guilt, honour and ambition to lead a more purposeful life. He did, once, really love Katusha Maslova. She was the sixth and only surviving child of a dairymaid who worked on the estate of Nekhludoff’s unmarried aunts, and she owes her survival to their charity. Her position is anomalous, however, because while Maria Ivanovna, the harsher of the two, thought she should be brought up to be a servant, Sophia Ivanovna taught her to read and write and gave her nice clothes. So Katusha grew up half servant, half young lady, and she rejected the working men who courted her because she was used to a life of ease.
Fatefully, Nekhludoff fell in love with her, but although this started out as an innocent attraction between two young people, the time he spent in the military coarsened him. The pernicious social life of a soldier of his class – gambling, whoring, boozing and squandering money – transformed his noble character so that ‘the animal man ruled supreme and completely crushed the spiritual man in him’. He became materialistic, opportunist and depraved, and ‘all this terrible change had come about because he had ceased to believe in himself and had taken to believing others’.
After three years of living the high life in the military, the inevitable happened when he visited his aunts en route to his regiment. He promptly seduced Katusha, leaving her with a baby on the way and an insulting 100 roubles. From there it was all downhill: she was thrown out by the old ladies, the baby died, she used up all her money and everywhere she went to work she was pestered by lascivious men. Eventually she sank into prostitution and, aged only 26, her tragedy now culminates in her arrest for murder.
For Nekhludoff, Katusha’s fall is an awakening. (Some translations give this book the alternative title The Awakening).
For all the while, in the depths of his soul, he felt the cruelty, cowardice and baseness, not only of this particular action of his but of his whole self-willed, depraved, cruel, idle life; and that dreadful veil which had in some unaccountable manner hidden from him this sin of his and the whole of his subsequent life was beginning to shake, and he caught glimpses of what was covered by that veil.
When you know that at this time of his life Tolstoy was in conflict with his wife because he wanted to donate his wealth to his political causes and she wanted it for her children, (see Judith Armstrong’s fictionalization of the Tolstoy marriage in War and Peace and Sonya), the plot from here on takes on an interesting resonance. Nekhludoff has to disentangle himself from relationships that interfere with his new sense of duty and justice. He finds himself despising the easy self-satisfied luxury and cynicism of everyone he knows, and they are mystified by his behaviour. He sees himself corrupted and trapped by the choices he had made in life just as Katusha had been: He had sunk in the mire, got used to it, indulged himself in it.
How was he to break off his relations with Mary Vasilievna [his mistress] and her husband in such a way as to be able to look him and his children in the eyes? How disentangle himself from Missy? [The Princess, his would-be intended] How choose between the two opposites–the recognition that holding land was unjust and the heritage from his mother? How atone for his sin against Katusha? This last, at any rate, could not be left as it was. He could not abandon a woman he had loved, and satisfy himself by paying money to an advocate to save her from hard labour in Siberia. She had not even deserved hard labour. Atone for a fault by paying money? Had he not then, when he gave her the money, thought he was atoning for his fault?
The aversion he feels for everything and everyone, he realises, is aversion for himself. He decides to break with Missy and his mistress. He resolves to give away the burdensome estates which conflict with his philosophy of equity and also fund his profligate lifestyle, and he decides to absolve himself of his guilt about Katusha by helping all he can, even to marry her. His efforts to reduce his lavish lifestyle by shutting up his house are stymied by his housekeeper, who Nekhludoff realises, has a vested interest in maintaining it. (I wonder how many of Tolstoy’s readers felt alienated at this point, when Tolstoy was describing their lifestyle in such judgemental terms?)
His quest to redeem himself with Katusha leads him into a journey of discovery. He meets criminals (many of whom turn out to be victims of a miscarriage of justice), political prisoners (ditto), and officials both well-intentioned and corrupt. All those he meets are victims of a justice system which is inherently immoral and a prison system which perpetuates squalor and vice and serves no useful purpose. The system brutalises everyone. Nekhludoff’s quest widens as he tries to intervene on behalf of an assortment of worthy causes.
Katusha herself is a bit of an enigma. She is on a spiritual journey too, but Tolstoy doesn’t grant her redemption in the same way. Because of her past it’s quite clear from the outset that Tolstoy isn’t going to marry her off to Nekhludoff, not even in a marriage of convenience. In prison she has lapses of irrational bad-temper, she hits the booze, and her offhand attitude shows a marked lack of gratitude towards Nekhludoff (who by now is making quite heroic efforts to help her). It is never really clear why she doesn’t adopt a pragmatic attitude and accept his offer of marriage. She seems to vacillate between rage over his past treatment of her and a stolid acceptance that he’s just like most men, and that’s just the way they are. While she has a nostalgic view of the love they once had, and seems to have some residual affection for Nekhludoff, she has come down to earth from her ambitions to be a young lady. She has developed a protective shell of cynicism and doesn’t seem able to love anyone.
Nekhludoff finds himself in one quandary after another. He doesn’t love Katusha (indeed, unsurprisingly, he sometimes finds her behaviour repellent) but he feels guilty and wants to redeem himself. To do so he needs self-sacrifice but his noble ideas are frustrated. She won’t have him. (And if even she won’t have him, who will? His adventures with Russia’s underclass have made him a mockery in society; he’s not going to fit in anywhere. Perhaps had there been a sequel Mary Pavlovna might have been his soul mate? Tolstoy puts this woman up a pedestal: rich and beautiful, she gave it all up for her political beliefs about equity and justice. She became a revolutionary and ended up a political prisoner who takes Katusha under her wing, and offers to marry a dying consumptive so she can care for him. A suitably noble mate?)
Even though I feel quite sure that there are self-serving autobiographical tones to this story, I felt a bit sorry for Nekhludoff in the end: yes, he’s a rascal, and the extent to which he forced himself on Katusha is not made clear, but he tries so hard to intervene for so many lost causes. The whole system is up against him. Though he despises himself for it, he has to use his position and socialise with people he longer has any respect for in order to try and get help for the prisoners he believes are innocent – but by and large he is ineffectual. He’s estranged from his sister because she doesn’t understand his wish to offload his property (and her children won’t inherit it); he quarrels with his smug brother-in-law because Rogozhinsy’s so convinced that the justice system never makes a mistake; he can’t enjoy a flirtation with the lovely Mariette because he now likens all unabashed attraction as depraved lust; the peasants are ungrateful and suspicious when he gives them his estate; and his desire for penance with Katusha is frustrated at every turn …
Off he goes to Siberia so that he can be near Katusha, and he witnesses further evil when some of the convicts die en route due to the inhumane oppressive conditions in the convoy. His feelings for her have undergone a complete transformation, from poetic love to sensual love, then to self-satisfaction that he has fulfilled his duty, and finally to pity and tenderness. (But no, she still won’t have him).
Thanks to Nekhludoff’s intervention, Katusha has been placed with the political prisoners and so in Book 3 when Nekhludoff finally gets access to her at a halting station, Tolstoy has numerous opportunities for his characters to explain his political philosophy. I came across a passage worth quoting in full, because it offers food for thought in contemporary times:
Terrible and endless as were the torments which were inflicted on the criminals, there was at least some semblance of justice shown them before and after they were sentenced, but in the case of the political prisoners there was not even that semblance, as Nekhludoff saw in the case of Sholostova and that of many and many of his new acquaintances. These people were dealt with like fish caught with a net; everything that gets into the nets is pulled ashore, and then the big fish which are required are sorted out and the little ones are left to perish unheeded on the shore. Having captured hundreds that were evidently guiltless, and that could not be dangerous to the government, they left them imprisoned for years, where they became consumptive, went out of their minds or committed suicide, and kept them only because they had no inducement to set them free, while they might be of use to elucidate some question at a judicial inquiry, safe in prison. The fate of these persons, often innocent even from the government point of view, depended on the whim, the humour of, or the amount of leisure at the disposal of some police officer or spy, or public prosecutor, or magistrate, or governor, or minister. Some one of these officials feels dull, or inclined to distinguish himself, and makes a number of arrests, and imprisons or sets free, according to his own fancy or that of the higher authorities. And the higher official, actuated by like motives, according to whether he is inclined to distinguish himself, or to what his relations to the minister are, exiles men to the other side of the world or keeps them in solitary confinement, condemns them to Siberia, to hard labour, to death, or sets them free at the request of some lady.
They were dealt with as in war, and they naturally employed the means that were used against them. And as the military men live in an atmosphere of public opinion that not only conceals from them the guilt of their actions, but sets these actions up as feats of heroism, so these political offenders were also constantly surrounded by an atmosphere of public opinion which made the cruel actions they committed, in the face of danger and at the risk of liberty and life, and all that is dear to men, seem not wicked but glorious actions. Nekhludoff found in this the explanation of the surprising phenomenon that men, with the mildest characters, who seemed incapable of witnessing the sufferings of any living creature, much less of inflicting pain, quietly prepared to murder men, nearly all of them considering murder lawful and just on certain occasions as a means for self-defence, for the attainment of higher aims or for the general welfare.
The importance they attribute to their cause, and consequently to themselves, flowed naturally from the importance the government attached to their actions, and the cruelty of the punishments it inflicted on them. When Nekhludoff came to know them better he became convinced that they were not the right-down villains that some imagined them to be, nor the complete heroes that others thought them, but ordinary people, just the same as others, among whom there were some good and some bad, and some mediocre, as there are everywhere.
There were some among them who had turned revolutionists because they honestly considered it their duty to fight the existing evils, but there were also those who chose this work for selfish, ambitious motives; the majority, however, was attracted to the revolutionary idea by the desire for danger, for risks, the enjoyment of playing with one’s life, which, as Nekhludoff knew from his military experiences, is quite common to the most ordinary people while they are young and full of energy. But wherein they differed from ordinary people was that their moral standard was a higher one than that of ordinary men. They considered not only self-control, hard living, truthfulness, but also the readiness to sacrifice everything, even life, for the common welfare as their duty. Therefore the best among them stood on a moral level that is not often reached, while the worst were far below the ordinary level, many of them being untruthful, hypocritical and at the same time self-satisfied and proud. So that Nekhludoff learned not only to respect but to love some of his new acquaintances, while he remained more than indifferent to others. _
Such an interesting book!
The translation I read was by Louise Maude (1855–1939). She and her husband Aylmer lived in Russia for many years where they were friends and promoters of Tolstoy. Together they translated his works into English, and Aylmer Maude also wrote Tolstoy’s biography.
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Louise Maude
Publisher: Many Books, (free Kindle download) first published 1899