Towards the end of his life, and after more than 25 years of silence, Leo Tolstoy returned. He had something, one last thing perhaps to say. “Resurrection” was Tolstoy’s reflections upon a long life in Tsarist Russia. The book is revolutionary – so much so that the Tsarist censors cut more than 2/3 of it when he first tried to print it in Russia (as in a lot of literature in Russia, both during the Tsar and then during the communists, it has to be printed elsewhere – Paris or New York or Berlin – only to make its way back to Moscow when the author is dead and the dust has settled). “Resurrection” is, however, not revolutionary the way that the Bolsheviks wanted us to believe (or that the Tsar feared). It is non-political, in the same way that Jesus was non-political (despite the now-Pope’s desire to make him a mean politician).
“Resurrection” should probably have been titled Redemption. Because that is what the novel is about. It’s the story of Prince Dmitri Nekhlyudov who in his youth gets a young peasant woman – Katyusha – in trouble, pushing her down a path of perdition. He goes along his merry way, rediscovering her a decade later when he is called to sit upon a jury for a woman of the night who has been (falsely) accused of poisoning a customer in a house of ill repute. And his attempts to save her. Katyusha represents for Nekhlyudov – for Tolstoy – the entirety of Russian peasantry and Nekhlyudov the archetypal noble.
The thing that struck me about this book is how bone-weary Tolstoy came across. A man of tremendous talent and extraordinary character, the novel Resurrection is his final lasting indictment of Russia’s political system. It is full, pages and pages and pages full of the digressions into the stories of this or that prisoner, this or that peasant, this or that broken commercent unable to provide for his family. It is a tour of all the social ills of a Russia that refused to change; and the system (feudalism) which kept it so. It is full of disgust; maybe even cynicism but one that still has pity.
It’s no wonder at all the Tsar hated it.
However it is not a call to revolution. It does not end with the murder of the Tsar and the call to violence. In fact the end surprised me quite a bit, for it ends with Nekhlyudov in his small hotel room reading from Matthew: “Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all else will be added to you” as the single solitary recipe for “social justice” in a broken world.