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Tolstoy's Resurrection

“That night marked the beginning of a totally new life for Nekhlyudov, not so much because he had embarked on new personal circumstances, but because everything that happened to him subsequently came with an entirely new and different meaning. How this new period of his life will end only the future will show.” Last Paragraph of Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy

Resurrection (1899) is the last of Leo Tolstoy’s novels. Its publication caused the Russian Orthodox Church to excommunicate him in 1901, and I think that’s because the satire bites a little too hard. I’m not a Russian historian, so some of the caricatures went over my head. 

Nevertheless, this is a worthwhile read. The plot is enthralling, and the philosophy is worth debating. The book is split into 3 parts. Part I is mostly plot and is can’t-put-it-down captivating. A Russian prince named Dmitri Nekhlyudov seduces a servant girl, Katyusha, and everything goes downhill for the girl from that moment. Fast forward 10 years, and Nekhlyudov is called for jury duty. Who’s case is he deciding? Katyusha’s! (and behold, it was Leah!) The former servant girl is now a prostitute, and gets (falsely) accused of poisoning a client. The whole court scene is obviously poking fun at how unjust the justice scene is - Katyusha gets sentenced (at the ignorance and error of the jury’s verdict) to hard labor in Siberia. The rest of the book is centered on Nekhlyudov trying to redeem himself; he offers to marry the woman he wronged a decade ago and to go to the ends of the earth for her (Siberia). 

Part II is mostly philosophical debate. Tolstoy had adopted the view of Georgism; Nekhlyudov decides to give away all his property. Property rights are worth another blog post. The main driving point of the book, though, is the debate over the justice system. Here’s the main question posed by Tolstoy - “Why, by what right, does one lot of people lock up, torture, exile, flog, and put to death other people, when they are no different from the ones they torture, flog, and put to death?” Or to put it simply - “What right do some people have to punish others?”

If you don’t have God, there’s no good answer to this question. Let’s cite Romans 13 positively - For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:1). Nekhlyudov’s (and it’s Tolstoy’s problem as well since his protagonist is his mouthpiece) problem is that he’s trying to take parts of Christianity (excerpts from the Sermon on the Mount and turning it into pacifism and anarchy) to the detriment of other parts. More on that in a second. 

Part III combines the plot and the philosophical debate in a conclusion that’ll upset those looking for a nicely wrapped ending with a pink bow. (They don’t get married. The Bible is better because it ends (and begins) with a wedding.) Part III is where the Bible gets quoted the most extensively, and this is where it pays to know the Scriptures. Nekhlyudov’s revelatory moment comes from reading the Bible (which is what makes the ending paragraph quoted at the top so beautiful), but it’s an incomplete reading of the Bible. Nekhlyudov reads Matthew 18, and conveniently, most of the chapter is quoted in the novel. (I was blown away when I read Crime and Punishment and most of John 11 was included in the text by Dostoevsky.) 

Matthew 18 is about forgiveness - Lutherans really should love this novel because Nekhlyudov is looking for justification. After reading Matthew 18, he comes to this conclusion - “The only sure way of salvation from the terrible evil whereby so many were made to suffer was for people to acknowledge that they are guilty before God and therefore disqualified from punishing or correcting other people.” 

Here’s what makes the whole thing terribly ironic - Tolstoy, to prove the injustice of prison, stops quoting Matthew 18 at verse 33. The very next verse says “And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers until he should pay all his debt” (Matt 18:34). 

The justice system exists because God is just. Tolstoy does have a point - our justice systems are often terribly unjust. But that’s only because we’ve got away from defining justice biblically. If Tolstoy subscribed to the whole Bible, he would’ve had a robust sense of justice. Instead, he only knows how to define injustice. 

“We must have

the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless

furnace of this world. To make injustice the only 

measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”

Jack Gilbert, “A Brief for the Defense”


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