Published in 1900, Resurrection is Tolstoy’s final large-scale novel. It’s a morally-driven tale of personal redemption, featuring fewer characters than either War and Peace or Anna Karenina. Here we focus on one man and a single story line that spirals around a long-forgotten incident in his youth, which turns out to have had tragic consequences for another.
The hero is the young St Petersburg aristocrat, Prince Dmitri. Having seduced a woman – Katyusha - and made her pregnant, he’d left her on her on her own and had thought no more about her until ten years later, he finds himself on a jury trying her for murder. It becomes apparent that her life fell apart after their brief liaison; the baby died, and she drifted into alcoholism and prostitution. As he hears the story, Dmitri feels personally responsible for all that has happened, and after Katyusha is unjustly sent to Siberia, he begins a spiritual journey to save both her and himself. Can he ever make up for what he did to her all those years ago?
It’s a quest which takes him to the highest offices in the land and to the bleakest prisons, as the absurdities and inequalities of pre-revolution Russia are savagely exposed. Dmitri uncovers a moral wasteland of vested interest and uncaring attitudes, with Tolstoy particularly hostile towards the Orthodox Church, which excommunicated him a year later, and the Russian penal system. Just as Dickens did in England, Tolstoy exposes the misery of the Russian under-class, but he’s less sentimental than Dickens and angrier. And there are echoes here of another voice as well. As Boyd Tonkin said, ‘Nowhere does Tolstoy sound closer in spirit to his old foe, Dostoyevsky.’
There is an interesting back-story to the book itself. Though finished in 1899 and published in 1900, it was started ten years previously in 1889, and might never have been completed but for Tolstoy’s desire to help raise funds for the persecuted Doukhobor sect. The royalties from the book were given to the Doukhabors to fund their emigration to Canada.
In the Doukhabors, (which literally means, ‘spiritual wrestlers’) Tolstoy found an antidote to the religion and society he denounces in Resurrection; and a living embodiment of his own religious and social ideas. Here were a people committed to honest toil, living off the land, communal sharing, pacifist principles and the teachings of Christ in deed. As Tolstoy wrote in one of his many letters to them, ‘You are taking the lead and many are grateful to you for that. There is so much I’d like to tell you, and so much to learn from you.’
The book continues to divide literary opinion. As a conduit for both beautiful writing and naked sermonising, Resurrection is not a novel that invites the reader to make up their own mind. Instead, here is the raw energy of rage which finally erupted in the volcano that was the Russian Revolution of 1917.
About the author
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, better known as Leo Tolstoy, is rightly regarded as one of the greatest writers in the history of literature and his masterpieces, War And Peace and Anna Karenina, are considered by many to be two of the most important novels ever written.
He was born in 1828 in Yasnaya, Polyana, in what was then the Russian Empire, into a noble family with old and established links to the highest echelons of the Russian aristocracy. His parents died while he was young leaving relatives to raise him and after a brief and disappointing time at University, where enrolled in 1844, he spent time gambling and losing in St. Petersburg and Moscow, before joining the army in 1851.
He began writing whilst in the army and upon leaving took it up as his occupation with his first books detailing his life story as well as another, Sevastopol Sketches, discussing his experiences in the Crimean War. By the time he had completed Sevastopol Sketches he had returned from the first of two trips abroad which would change his outlook on life and consequentially his writing approach and the content of his work.
A trip to Europe in 1861 and a meeting with Victor Hugo, who had just completed Les Miserables, which had a marked influence on War And Peace, would further push Tolstoy towards the mindset that would lead him to write his most famous works. On the same trip he also met Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French anarchist, with whom he discussed the importance of the need for education for all rungs of society. This revelation lead Tolstoy to open up 13 schools in Russia for the children of the working class, further highlighting his continuing separation from his noble roots.
War And Peace, published in 1869, and Anna Karenina, published in 1878, were universally recognised as great works, but not long after the publication of the latter Tolstoy began to slip into an existentialist crisis. Although not suicidal in the literal sense of the term he did, however, decide that if he could find no reason or purpose for his existence he would rather die and so went about searching for a reason to live. He consulted his many friends in high places who espoused various intellectual theories but none of these sat well with him. Just as he was beginning to give up he had a dream that proved to be a moment of clarity and decided that God in a spiritual sense was the reason to keep on, though he was wary of the church and those that abused religion as a tool of oppression.
He published A Confession in 1882 which explained his crisis and his resolution and how it came about. Two subsequent books, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and What Then Must We Do?, further re-enforced his views in which he criticised the Russian Orthodox Church.
The culmination of his 30 years of religious and philosophical thinking was The Kingdom Of God Is Within you which was published in 1894. In the book he outlined the abuses of those in power in both the church and the government and this would eventually lead to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. Tolstoy’s main point derived from Jesus’ teachings to ‘turn the other cheek’ and Tolstoy believed that this was the key to Christ’s message which can be found in the Gospels and the ‘Sermon On The Mount’ in particular. This theory of ‘non-violence’ that dominated the book would make a profound impact on Mahatma Gandhi who read it as a young man whilst living in South Africa.
In 1908 Tolstoy wrote ‘A Letter To A Hindu’ in which he told the Indian people that only through non-violent reaction and love could they overcome their British colonial masters. The letter was published in an Indian paper and Gandhi not only read it but also wrote to Tolstoy to ask permission to translate it into his own native Gujarati. The Kingdom Of God Is Within You and ‘A Letter To A Hindu’ solidified Gandhi’s non-violent idea of rebellion which he implemented and which came to fruition in 1947 when British rule came to an end and India became independent. Gandhi and Tolstoy would continue their correspondence up until Tolstoy’s death in 1910.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published February 2011