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The Reluctant, Sinning Savior

November 27, 2009


By Leo Tolstoy

This is not so much a novel as it is a treatise of Tolstoy’s imagination for reform of Russia’s criminal justice system. Tolstoy chooses a reluctant, sinning savior to illuminate what he perceives as the mockery of justice that we call criminal law. We track the spiritual journey of the nobleman Nekhlyudov, who is called to serve on the jury for the trial of a prostitute accused of theft and murder. As he looks at the accused, he is startled to realize that she is Katusha, the poor girl who was once his childhood sweetheart, whom he raped, impregnated and abandoned 15 years ago. Nekhlyudov comes to terms with his guilt and, in the process, becomes an unwilling social justice reformer.

It’s not the story you want it to be. Despite his attempts to rectify his unspeakable crimes against Katusha, she doesn’t want to marry him; she wants nothing to do with him. Nekhlyudov follows her to her imprisonment in Siberia after she is wrongfully convicted, but she still rebuffs all of his requests of forgiveness. When he first comes to her in jail and reveals his identity, she sees directly through his pose of penitence, and cries out:

“Go away from me! I am a convict and you are a prince, and you’ve no business here,” she cried, her whole face distorted with anger, snatching her hand from him. “You want to save yourself through me,” she continued, hurrying to pour out every feeling in her heart. “You had your pleasure from me in this world, and now you want to get your salvation through me in the world to come!”

Nekhlyudov, however, is persistent and remains devoted to Katusha and to the task of improving her lot. The more time he spends with Katusha and her lot, the more he realizes the universal injustice that is perpetrated against her class. He is appalled by what he recognizes; it is as if he was learning to see again. The great moment of illumination for Nekhlyudov comes when he realizes his own culpability:

“We do not merely do nothing to get of the conditions in which such people are born—we actually encourage the institutions which produce them. We all know what these institutions are: the mills, the factories, the workshops, the inns, the pot-houses, the brothels. And far from wiping out establishments of this sort—considering them necessary, we encourage and regulate them. We rear not one but millions of such people, and then arrest one and imagine that we have done something, protected ourselves, and that nothing more can be required of us, now that we have transported him from Moscow to Irkutsk,” reflected Nekhlyudov with unusual verve and clarity…

This fresh understanding ushers in a spiritual revolution in Nekhlyudov’s life. The problems of humanity are not distant and unsolvable to him anymore; they are issues that he is both responsible for and capable of transforming. It only takes one person to change the trajectory of a life.

 “It only needed one person,” though Nekhlyudov, looking at the sickly scared face of the lad, “to take pity on him when poverty made his father send him from the village to the town, and lend a helping hand; or later, after he had come to town—if there had been someone to say, ‘I wouldn’t do that, Vanya, it isn’t right,’ when at the end of twelve hours’ work in the factory the older men were tempting him to go to the pot-house—the boy wouldn’t have gone, or got into bad ways, and would not have done anything wrong.”

We follow Nekhlyudov through 560 pages of this personal revolution and patiently wait for him to change the laws, to petition the corrupt government to overthrow its criminal justice system. But these macro-level changes never come. The only macro-level change we witness is within Nekhlyudov himself. But, Tolstoy whispers, that is enough, isn’t it? The last lines of the novel read with power and conviction:

That night an entirely new life began for Nekhlyudov, not so much because he had entered into new conditions of life but because everything that happened to him from that time on was endowed with an entirely different meaning for him. How this new chapter of his life will end, the future will show.

Tolstoy’s answer of how to initiate change is to begin within; seek first spiritual rightness, achieve resurrection, and effect that resurrection in others. It’s the story of the gospel in Tolstoy’s imagination.

READ IF: You want to know the prerequisites for changing the world.



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