‘But human beings cannot be treated without love, any more than bees can be handled without care.’ (p 402).

Tolstoy is my favourite writer ever since I read War and Peace when I was 16. It is a novel of great length and scope – I was 15 when I started reading it. There is just something about Tolstoy’s writing and that book especially, that no other author I have read matches for me.

Why is that? In all of Tolstoy’s writing, including his earlier works, there is a sincere sense of quest and unease. Think Levin from Anna Karenina and Pierre from War and Peace. Both of these characters were plugs for the author himself, trying the make sense of the hypocrisy of his social position. The problems that occupy these characters were specifically about faith and the Russian Orthodox Church, their social and economic privileges, distribution of wealth and land, treatment of serfs/peasants, the justice system, double standards of morality for different classes… The answers to these questions in Tolstoy’s earlier novels were pretty vague, often involving a rejection of the dissolute city life and a return to simpler family life in the country. Yet, there is a sense of incompleteness in these endings that plagued Tolstoy. Over time, his ideas became more and more radical, completely rejecting the status quo in matters of politics, religion and economy.

Tolstoy on 23 May 1908 at Yasnaya Polyana, Lithograph print by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky

Resurrection is a novel belonging to this later period of Tolstoy’s life. By that point, Tolstoy was living as an ascetic with his disciples, promoting pacificism, vegetarianism and abstinence. He was against the ownership of land by individuals and the institution of marriage. He completely cut ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, seeing its doctrine and practices as hypocrisy and superstition, aimed at justifying the current system of exploitation of ordinary people in favour of the elite. Instead of the church, Tolstoy returned to his reading of the Bible, championing the sayings of Jesus, ideals of forgiveness and universal love for all. Some called Tolstoy’s ideology ‘Christian anarchism’ and socialists drew inspiration from it. It is undeniable that he was thinking for himself to make up his mind about problems that pestered him his whole life, rather than accepting what anyone else had to say about them. 

A resurrection

‘Yes, the only place for an honest man in Russia at this time is prison.’ (p. 349).


What about Resurrection? The novel spells out this transition from a Russian aristocrat to an enlightened outcast, rejecting the law, religion, and class hierarchy of Russia at the turn of the century. The main character is Prince Nekhlyudov, an aristocrat who comes to regret his life choices when he encounters a woman from her past while on jury duty: ‘He knew beyond doubt that this was the girl he had once fell in love with, really fallen in love and seduced in a moment of mad passion and then abandoned, never to think of her again because the thought would have been too painful’ (p. 38). What he did completely derails Katyusha’s life, who gets pregnant and loses her job, never to find a way out for herself again. She gets caught up in a murder case even though she is innocent and finds herself before the court. 

The Prince once ‘had been an honest, unselfish youngster, ready to devote himself to any good cause’ (p. 55). So what happened to him that he abandoned his principles and started to live a life of debauchery? ‘The whole of this change had come about in him because he had stopped believing in himself and started believing in others.’ This is because ‘it was too difficult to live with a belief in oneself’ (p.55). So he takes up the ways of his fellow aristocrats, leaving his affairs to stewards and living a life of leisure, pursuing his good pleasure. 

‘Nekhlyudov like all people consisted of two people. One was spiritual, seeking benefit for himself only if it would be a benefit to others; the other animal, seeking benefit only for himself and for that benefit prepared to sacrifice a whole world of benefit for others’ (p. 61). When he meets Katyusha at the court, the spiritual self he had been suppressing is revealed and completely takes over: ‘All this time that self has been asleep, and I have had no one to talk to. It has been reawakened by an unusual event’ (p. 148).

Hulton Archive

The plot of the story is Nekhlyudov’s arc of redemption. He quickly makes up his mind about what to do with Katyusha and his property: he must follow her regardless of where she goes and marry her if she accepts as the ultimate ‘sacrifice’. He must rent all of his lands at a low price to the peasants and distribute the proceeds to the poorest and least able among them as social relief. He also tries to do all he can to help the other prisoners with their petitions. He corrects the flaws of his character, he becomes more and more virtuous and loving towards others. His resurrection takes place gradually as he abandons his ego. 

However, coming to terms with the ‘cruelty’, ‘absurdity’ and the ‘injustice’ of the world he lives in turns out to be a much greater task. The way ‘criminals’  are dealt with by society and the justice system becomes his greatest mental preoccupation, trying to make sense of how man can inflict such suffering on his fellow human beings. ‘Am I out of my mind because I see things other people don’t see or are they out of their minds, the ones doing what I am seeing?’ (p. 471).  He meets many convicts, exiles, revolutionaries, peasants, and officials each with stories that intensifies his questions. 

In the final scene of the novel, he grabs the New Testament: ‘And something happened to Nekhlyudov, the kind of thing that often occurs with people living a spiritual life. What happened was that an idea that had seemed weird, paradoxical, maybe even ridiculous, after being confirmed time after time by the process of living, suddenly presented itself as a simple, incontrovertible truth.’ (p. 507).

He finds the answer he was looking for and knew all along:  one must forgive: ‘Forgive everyone an infinite number of times because there are no guiltless people who might be qualified to punish or correct’ (p.507). Never judge, never punish but always love and forgive unconditionally. The simplicity of this answer amazes him, but in the end, it is all too clear. This is the answer to the law courts, prisons, and labour camps. If we could all but forgive none of this would have to exist. 

The story of Katyusha and the exploitation of women


Representation of women in Tolstoy’s works is often a point of contention. They are the cause of men’s sexual guilt, led by emotion, short of rationality and resoluteness. Of course, this is an oversimplification and there are many complex female characters in Tolstoy’s earlier work as well. Yet, I think Tolstoy’s ideas about women mature quite significantly over time (some readers of Kreutzer Sonata might disagree). In this novel, Tolstoy is very honest about the exploitation of women, how some men see women as ‘the finest instruments for the provision of enjoyment’ (p. 55). And there are many interesting female characters, like the devoted female revolutionaries Katyusha is exiled with who are represented as capable of moral and political determination, fierce independence and individuality.

Beauty: a curse or a blessing?

Pretty privilege is real – beautiful women often get away with lighter sentences at court because juries psychologically can’t distinguish their ideas of innocence from beauty. It is unconscious, we are all guilty of it. But there is a flip side to this – women who stand out for their attractiveness are more easily objectified and more vulnerable to unwelcome attention. In Turkey, people often say ‘may God give her the fate of the ugly’ when they see a very pretty young girl, meaning beautiful women suffer from ‘bad luck’ (i.e. the menace of men) and ‘ugly’ girls often turn out happier in the end. 

The situation isn’t the same for all women: class is crucial, as Katyusha’s story shows us so well. She has been sexually exploited her whole life to the point that she thinks she ‘had two choices: either the humiliating business of being in service, with all the unwanted attentions of men and some casual sex on the quiet or a form of sex of that was secure, sanctioned, open, legalised and well paid. She chose the latter.’ (p.13).

It is after six years of living like this in a brothel that her path and Nekhlyudov’s cross again. It is not just him who is resurrected: she also regains her dignity and self-worth through him. Her love for Nekhlyudov (even though she doesn’t accept this and doesn’t say she forgives him for a long time) revives the better part of herself, makes her strive to lead a moral life. ‘She loved him so much that she couldn’t help trying to fulfil his every wish and expectation: she had given up drinking and smoking, she flirted with nobody and she had gone to work in the [prison] hospital.’ She makes the ultimate sacrifice for him, knowing well that ‘marrying her would be a disaster for him’ (p. 354), however helpful it may be to her situation. 


While I was reading the novel, I kept asking myself how Tolstoy would tell this story if he was writing it today. The ‘injustice’, ‘cruelty’ and ‘absurdity’ that raked the Russian system a century ago is still intact at large. Tolstoy uncannily anticipates this: ‘The argument advanced by the officials [about inadequacies of prisons and camps] that all could be put right by building a new kind of prison, failed to satisfy Nekhlyudov because he felt that what he was world up about did not arise from greater or lesser efficiency of in running the detention system. He had read about the new, ‘model’ prisons with electric bells and executions by electricity and he found himself even more worked up by the idea of perfecting violence.’ (p 474). The way criminals are dealt with is not significantly different; they lose their rights and are locked away. Capital punishment is legal in many countries around the world. Prisoners do not have the vote in the UK. I guess the questions we have to ask are ‘Why are we doing this?’ and ‘Does it actually work?’.

And the justice system is just one aspect of it. I’ll leave it to you to figure out the rest.

Nathaniel Woods was executed on 5 March 2020 in Alabama for the murder of three policemen. He hadn’t even touched the murder weapon. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/05/us/nathaniel-woods-alabama-sentenced.html

I guess there is some solace in the end. Nothing outwardly changes for Nekhlyudov but he has an epiphany that shifts the tectonic plates in him. He is not the same person anymore.

A lot of people are put off by the religiosity and politics of Tolstoy’s later work but I think Resurrection is a must-read for anyone who struggles for being different and standing out from society. It can be pretty lonely and Tolstoy is a good friend.

 ‘[We are] living in the absurd conviction that we are the masters of our own lives and that life is given to us for our own enjoyment Yet, this is patently absurd. Surely, if we have been sent here it must be at someone’s behest and for a purpose. But we have decided that we only for our own gratification, and naturally life turns sour on us, as it turns sour on a worker who fails to follow his master’s will’ (p. 510).

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