The mere mention of a Russian novel immediately conjures up images of doom and gloom, serfdom, countless unpronounceable aristocratic names and titles, and copious amounts of suffering and tragedy. The simple fact is that’s probably a good description; throw in the bitter harsh winters, doomed lovers, a few affairs, ardent revolutionaries, and a duel here and there, and it paints an accurate portrait of Russian life before serfdom was abolished in 1861. Even after that though, resentments and the gaps between the social stratospheres continued well into the next century. The classic novels of the era vividly record the discontent and the struggles the peasants encountered in order to make a better life for themselves, and one that still exists today.
For my sins, I read Russian Literature at university by default, as my other English lecturer made advances towards me (that I rejected) and tried to get me expelled in an act of revenge. My old friend Tim Jordan fortunately let me join his class to escape their clutches, and thus I found myself embarking on a crash course of delving into the minds of several famed Russian authors.
Count Lev (Leo) Nikolayevich Tolstoy
Count Lev (Leo) Nikolayevich Tolstoy (Лев Николаевич Толстой) was born 9 September 1828 in Yasnaya, Russia, and he’s a complex character. You need to know a little about him to fully understand the messages in his books, and the background of whom inspired his characters. I have to admit Tolstoy uses far too many characters in his novels for my liking, and Resurrection even though it’s shorter than War and Peace and Anna Karenina, it has an extensive list of characters, many of whom aren’t necessary in my humble opinion! As you read the book, you have to in the back of your mind remember who is who, and where they are from, so it’s not an easy relaxing read but one that is thought provoking.
Like his main protagonist Nekhlyudov, in Resurrection, Tolstoy wished to help the peasants who suffered, and he established 13 schools in his hometown of Yasnaya. Nekhlyudov, attempted to give the peasants his land once his path to redemption began, and struggled to understand why none were enthused by his offer. Later in the novel he begins to understand humanity from a different perspective, and that how we assume others will react doesn’t always happen. You cannot buy trust or forgiveness, and that is a life lesson applicable to this day.
Resurrection was his last novel, which was published in 1899 and is considered a philosophical novel. By this stage of his life Tolstoy had become disillusioned with religion, having rejected the Russian Orthodox Church, but in his final novel, the impassioned theme of religion indicates that he had come to his own conclusions as to the meaning and purpose of religion. Some say it was to highlight the hypocrisy of the church, but he also criticized the system of governance, and the morality of mankind.
The proceeds of the novel were intended to assist the resettlement of the Dukhobors, a Spiritual Christian group who moved to Canada around 1900. Many had been peasants and had sought a life free of materialism, which is a theme that Tolstoy portrays through the political prisoners in Resurrection. Whether he intended to write the novel for this reason, or as a outlet to express the culmination of all this experiences and conclusions in life we can never be sure. However, I like to think the latter because Resurrection is a reflection of living in society with its injustices and imperfections, while questioning and analyzing why we choose to behave as we do. In many ways to me, it’s an epiphany realizing what’s important and what’s irrelvant, and that one can redeem oneself because it’s never too late.
Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov, is a Prince with a sister, a widowed mother, and two spinster aunts who adore him, and is the main protagonist. Katyusha Maslova is the beautiful, and yet doomed illegitimate servant girl with whom Dmitri falls in love with, but knows their union would never be approved of. It is a tale of doomed love we follow, and how life and opportunities differ depending on your parentage.
We follow through the eyes of Dmitri who eventually gives in to his lust and forces himself on Katyusha leaving her pregnant. Her employers (his aunts) turn her out in disgrace, disappointed as they had treated her well, and had taught her how to read and write. However, even if Katyusha had named the father, they probably wouldn’t have believed their beloved nephew capable of such a thing.
Meanwhile, Dmitri avoids visiting his aunts saying he is too busy with his army work, and it is not until after their death a decade later (and he inherits the estate) that he ends up serving on a jury, only to find Katyusha the defendant. She is now a prostitute in a brothel accused of poisoning a client to steal his money. He battles with his conscience and knows he must do the right thing, and that is to save her at all costs because she would not have been thrown out and ended up in a brothel if it hadn’t been for him.
Tolstoy takes pains to point out the absurdities of the penal system and the unnecessary bureaucracy that Dmitri encounters to free Katyusha. If it hadn’t been for his title he realizes that many doors would have remained closed. Through an error in using the correct legal terminology, due to the judgment being made in haste, Katyusha is sentenced to hard labor. Without hesitation, Dmitiri pledges to follow her and to support her and marry her once the sentence is over unless he can get the sentence overturned.
One must applaud his tenacity in using his connections through gritted teeth, and his decision to sell his land to the peasants so they can make a living for themselves. Through this he encounters people from all walks of life, from widows, political prisoners, murderers, and beggars. He feels guilty but is relieved when he is able to have visit governors and have a fine meal opposed to lodging at boarding houses with bed bugs and fleas as he follows Katyusha to Siberia. In between he visits Katyusha and asks her to marry him, yet she refuses. Instead, she asks him to help her fellow prisoners to get their cases heard and he obliges as whatever she wishes he will do.
Through Dmitri we can see how disillusioned Tolstoy is with the governance of the land, and how different sectors of society are treated. In prison, people are arrested and held for no crime except for having no papers, and those with children have to bring them in with them. Tolstoys paints morbid and grim scenes at the prison full of death and despair. It is here that Dmitri takes another look at the meaning of religion and wonders why these poor creatures have been subjected to inhumane conditions. In some ways he finds his calling as he tries to assist all that he can, and remains true to his word to Katyushka. Even though it’s apparent other prisoners use Katyusha to get Dmitri to help them, she doesn’t mind because while she was angry with him, she realizes it cannot change her life and what has transpired.
The ending was disappointing but not wholly unexpected. There was closure of some kind, but redemption doesn’t wipe away the harm caused even if there is forgiveness. What would have Katyusha’s life been like if Nekhlyudov had not given into temptation? What if he had stopped to see his aunts and taken responsibility? In life we all have choices and must accept the consequences of the actions we choose, and take responsibility should the actions harm others. That is the moral behind Resurrection, and that forgiveness cannot be bought, and we do know what is right and wrong morally even if the law doesn’t enforce those actions. We can always make amends, but we cannot change what has happened, and we must accept the consequences of those actions and any harm caused. In this life and beyond.