16 June 2020

Resurrection: prison and land reform

ResurrectionResurrection by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A rather didactic and moralistic novel about fin de siècle prison conditions in imperial Russia. In many places it reads like a documentary. Tolstoy appears to be trying to do what Dickens did in a lot of his novels -- expose social evils -- but he has a heavier touch, and lacks Dickens's sense of humour.

Tolstoy's Resurrection has been sitting on our bookshelves for many years, along with a couple of other books of his, bought by my mother. I don't know if she read them, but I did not. The Covid-19 lockdown, however, with libraries and bookshops closed, drove me to look at the unread books on our shelves. I did try, once, about 30 years ago, to read War and Peace, but found it boring, as it opened with a conversation with a Freemason, and was all about the aristocracy. So much of what I knew of Tolstoy was other people's opinions. I had heard that he was a pacifist, which I liked, but other things that I had heard I liked less. So I began reading Resurrection without much hope that I would like it.

To begin with, I was pleasantly surprised. It seemed a much more interesting book than War and Peace. It includes the aristocracy, but the protagonist is an aristocrat with a social conscience, who takes an interest in the welfare of the peasants, and sees that many of their problems are caused by the lack of land. The land question is big in South Africa, and the way Tolstoy handles it I think makes it worth reading for South Africans, whatever one's view of land. Tolstoy's views were influenced by Henry George, an American who proposed a system of land reform not unlike advocated by the EFF in South Africa today, and in his novel Tolstoy looks at some of the pros and cons of that.

In this Tolstoy resembles Dickens, using his fiction to make his readers aware of social problems, but he lacks the humour of Dickens, and his light touch. At some points he goes in for rather heavy-handed moralising, analysing the spiritual failings of his characters at length rather than letting the reader see them through the story.

At some points Tolstoy could be commenting on current events. Last month the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, USA sparked off worldwide protests against police brutality. There was talking of "defunding the police" and the Minneapolis city council was thinking of abpolishing its police force. Tolstoy would have applauded.

At one point in the story the protagonist, Nekhlyudov, witnesses prisoners marching to the station in summer heat to board the train for Siberia to serve out their sentences there. Several collapse because of heat exhaustion, and some die. Nekhlyudov, thinking about this, attributes it to the official mentality of the police:

"All this comes," thought Nekhlyudov, "from the fact that all these people -- governors, inspectors, police officers, and policemen -- consider that there are circumstances when human relations are not necessary between human beings. All these men, Maslennikov, and the inspector, and the convoy officer, if they were not governor, inspector, officer, would have considered twenty times before sending such a mass of people out in such heat -- would have stopped twenty times on the way and seeing a man growing weak, gasping for breath, would have led him into the shade, would have given him water and let him rest, and if an accident had still occurred, they would have expressed pity. But not only did they not do this, but they hindered others from doing it, because they thought not of men and their duty towards them but only of the office they themselves filled, and considered the obligations of that office above human relations. That is the whole matter," Nekhlyudov continued. "If once we admit -- be it only for an hour or in some exceptional case -- that anything can be more important than a feeling of love for our fellows, then there is no crime which we may not commit with easy minds, free from feelings of guilt."

Tolstoy is sometimes described as a Christian pacifist and anarchist, the inspiration for Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I am inclined to be a Christian anarchist and pacifist, but I don't feel much inspired by Tolstoy. His factual information is interesting, his moralistic rants less so. Among Rusan novelists, I prefer Dostoevsky, who raises some of the same issues, but not in quite such a didactic and preachy way.

Shortly after the publication of Resurrection Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, and after reading the book I am not surprised. Two chapters are devoted to a hostile parody of Orthodox worship, which Tolstoy says is "All lies",

Tolstoy says, not without justification, that what the prison system achieves is that
Ordinary simple men holding the social and Christian morality of the ordinary Russian peasant, lost this conception, and formed a new prison-bred one, founded chiefly on the idea that any outrage to or violation of human beings is justifiable if it seems profitable.
Yet the "social and Christian morality of the ordinary Russian peasant" came from the very worship that Tolstoy denounces and mocks in terms that nowadays would be called "hate speech".

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Jim and Nancy Forest said...

What does Tolstoy have to say about the Russian Orthodox Church in this novel?

Steve Hayes said...

Tolstoy says that the worship of the Orthodox Church goes against everything that Jesus taught and did, and that it was explicitly forbidden in the gospels.


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