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Reading Tolstoy in 2022 – Second Reading of Resurrection

October 4, 2022

Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana. The place was occupied and systematically destroyed by the Nazis during WW2 in a most obscene manner. It was rebuilt after the war. They too, like some today, were trying to “cancel Russian culture.” The earlier effort failed as will the present one. 

Stopping in Trinidad during a late winter snow storm

It was mid-March. Nancy and I were on our way home from visiting an old friend in northern Arizona, Marie Palowoda who has made a life for herself there that includes an occupation and a live-in boyfriend. Because of late winter storms we’d taken the round-about-route to get back to Denver, heading first to Albuquerque and taking I-25 north  from there home. But a winter storm along Raton Pass – celebrated in a Townes Van Zandt song – made us hole up in Albuquerque overnight. The next morning we started north, but stopped for a break in Trinidad, just north of the Colorado-New Mexico state line, a town with a rich history that includes the Sante Fe Trail and one of the epicenters of one of the  biggest labor struggles in American history – the Ludlow Massacre.

In a local “used everything” store on Trinidad’s main street I picked up two books – one was an anthology of Russian Literature, the other a paperback copy of Tolstoy’s ResurrectionThe Russian Special Military Operation in Eastern Ukraine – or the Russian invasion – take your pick -was already underway at the time and part of the hysterical response included purges of Russian language and literature courses from universities in Great Britain and similar ill conceived gestures elsewhere. Suddenly Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol and the like were on “no-read” list. As a personal gesture of protest, I bought the two volumes, which together as I recall cost $3. And, I started to read – or reread – Resurrection

Daniel Cetinich Finest Moment: Tunis, March, 1968

It was not the first time I’d read Tolstoy and Resurrection in particular. I’d read it forty years ago, a hardcover copy put out by then Progress Publishers, a Moscow based publishing house that published not just Russian but Soviet writers from everywhere in different languages, including Russian. Then about ten years ago I passed in on to a young woman – very bright, endearing one at that – who was going through a difficult time in her life. Wondered if it might be helpful.

I had been encouraged to read it by my late old friend from Peace Corps, Tunisia (66-68), Daniel Cetinich. Dan came from Oregon; his family had migrated there from Dubrovnik,

Summer – 1994, Rutland Vermont. Dan Cetinich and me

Croatia. Dan wrote a history of Croatians in the United States and if I am not mistaken also created a film about his family’s journey from Dubrovnik to Portland. A generally gentle and humble soul, erudite as few I have known are, his finest moment – in my opinion anyway – was his participation in a protest of against Hubert Humphrey in Tunis in early March, 1968. Humphrey, we later found out, had come to Tunisia (as well as touring Europe) to gauge the reaction of U.S. allies to Washington using nuclear bombs in Vietnam. Tunisian students demonstrated against Humphrey’s visit and the U.S. War in Vietnam in particular and our Peace Corps group actually organized a petition signed by several hundred of us in the country at that time speaking about how, we Peace Corps volunteers in Tunisia were trying to build bridges in North Africa while Washington was blowing them up in Vietnam. The opposition to Humphrey’s Tunis visit was so overpowering that he cut short his visit by several days and headed to the Tunis Airport to leave the country. And there, as Humphrey walked through the lobby with his security force was one Dan Cetinich who had gone there to send Humphrey on his way with cries of “You Are A War Criminal” “End the war in Vietnam” etc. Dan was immediately arrested by the Tunisian authorities and kept in jail for several days, mostly because he admitted that he had studied Russian Literature in college. He was released after the intervention of the then Peace Corps Director, one Fran Macy, whose wife Joanna Macy would become a kind of anti-nuclear buddhist personality of some repute sometime later – but that’s another story.

Anyhow Dan – whom I miss as much as anyone I have known – died of colon cancer – some time ago. He was a true Renaissance man. It was Dan who insisted that I read Braudel – whose work was central to my academic “career” if it can be called that, – as well as Wallerstein, Tolstoy, histories of the Catholic-Protestant wars of the 16th and 17th century. We exchanged letters on all this and it all popped up with some regularity in my half century of college teaching. Indeed, if I think about it, my intellectual development – as much as it is, is a product of  Braudel, Wallerstein, Marx, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, right up there with them, is one Daniel Cetinich. A part of that heritage is, thanks to Dan, that I read Resurrection, which he nagged me to read until I finally gave in to his pressure … and then of course loved.

But what would it be like reading it once again? Had no idea. Have reread books I loved when younger and have been startled to find that now in later life I consider them something akin to drivel – Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel comes to mind. There have been others. Would Resurrection go the way of Look Homeward Angel

It didn’t, far from it. So … to Resurrection.

So to the book itself…

I found the theme riveting: a young nobleman, Nekhlyudov, is called to jury duty in a murder case, the defendant being a woman, Katerina Mikhaylovna Maslova (described in the book as Maslova or Katusha) he had seduced and made pregnant years prior on the estate of two of his aunts. Although the defendant is innocent she is found guilty and sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. Although she, Maslova, is the one on trial, the trial itself becomes an ethical and moral crisis for our nobleman, Nekhlyudov, whose life of decadence, debauchery and moral cowardice he cannot ignore. Remembering his childhood affection for Maslova and how he had violated that trust in what amounts to a rape,  the emptiness of Nekhlyudov’s life is thrust before him and it all triggers a profound personal crisis.

All along the 393 pages of this paperback edition the story is about more than the personal encounter, the cowardice of male youth although it is both, but it is more. It is a literal sociology of Russian society at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century in which Tolstoy takes the reader through the Russian judiciary, police, prison systems, the Russian Orthodox Church comparing and contrasting the lives of the well-to-do who he savagely and righteously cuts down to size repeatedly, contrasting the excesses of that world with that of the country’s poor, down and out.

Nobody does it better.

Tolstoy leaves no prisoners in these descriptions. Take the following example at the beginning of Book One, Chapter XL, in which he excoriates the practices of the Russian Orthodox Church. Here is describing how a priest in his rituals violates the teachings of Christ”

“And none of those present, from the inspect down to Maslova seemed conscious of the fact that this Jesus, whose name the priest repeated such a great number of times, who he praised with all these curious expressions, had forbidden the very things that were being done there (in prison): that he had not only prohibited this meaningless much-speaking and the blasphemous incantation over the bread and wine, but had also, in the clearest words, forbidden men to call other men their master or to pray in temples; had taught that every one should pray in solitude; had forbidden to erect temples, saying that he had come to destroy them and that one should worship, not in a temple, but in spirit and in truth; and above all, that no only had he forbidden to judge, to imprison, to torment, to execute men, as was done here, but had even prohibited any kind of violence, saying that he had come to give freedom to the captives.”

That is about as damning a statement of organized religion – and not just that of the Russian Orthodox Church – as appears anywhere in print, then or since and is perhaps one of the reasons that the Russian Orthodox Church has refused to beautify him, make him a saint within their realm.

A bit further on in the book (Book Two, Chapter LX) he describes a “Minister of State”, one Count Ivan Mikhaylich, as having “the absence of any general principles or rules of morality either personal or administrative, this making it possible for him either to agree or disagree with anybody according to what was wanted at the time.” Tolstoy goes on th explain that by acting in this manner, the good Count Mikhaylich’s “only endeavor was to sustain the appearance of good breeding, and not seem too plainly in consistent. Whether his actions were moral or not in themselves, and whether they would result in the highest welfare or the greatest evil for the whole of the Russian Empire, or even the entire world, was quite indifferent to him.”

How’s that for a description of the shallowness, the ethical hollowness of a bureaucrat – and not just the 19th century Russian variety of the gendre.

Tolstoy develops this theme of bureaucratic shallowness even more later on in the text as he describes the death of a young political prisoner on the way to Siberia who had been stricken down with heat exhaustion as the result of having been force-marched on an especially hot summer’s day.. (Book Two, Chapter XL), murdered by “the system”,  whose individual parts might appear “innocent” but in concert had both condemned the young man and killed him. This description is one of the finer passages in the whole book.

And what seems terrible,” he (Nekhlyudov) thought, “is that while he has been murdered, no one knows who murdered him. Yet he has been murdered. He was led out by Maslennikov’s orders like all the rest of the prisoners. Maslennikov probably gave the usual order, signing with his stupid flourish a paper with a printed heading, and most certainly did not consider himself guilty. Still less will the doctor who examined the convicts. He performed his duty accurately, and separated the weak. How could he foresee this terrible heat, or the fact that they would start so late in the day and in such crowds? The prison inspector? But the inspector has only carried into execution the order that on a given day a certain number of exiles  and convicts – men and women – were to be sent off. The convoy officer cannot be guilty either, for his business was to receive a certain number of persons at a certain place and to deliver up the same number. He conducted them in the usual manner, and could not foresee that two such strong men as those I saw would be unable to stand it, and would die. No one is guilty, and yet the men have been murdered by these people who are not guilty of their death.”

For any young man – as it seems to me there are more than a few – who has “loved them and left them,” gotten a young girl pregnant and then blithely walked away, abandoning her to abortion or giving up the child for adoption out of cowardice to face up to “the event”, this book is a well aimed and deserved kick in the shins … or a little bit higher. But it is much more than that; it is also a tale of redemption,  a deeply spiritual (a world I don’t often use) journey in a world where, according to Tolstoy much of the world has lost its way. What is our responsibility to other humans, to all things be they living or inanimate?  As one reviewer of Resurrection noted, to a certain degree the plot is based upon Tolstoy’s own debauched youth. As he neared the end of his life he admitted to a biographer that, like Nekhlyudov, he had had many affairs and that “in particular he had seduced a “chambermaid in his family’s service, Agatha Mikhailovna Trubetskaya, who was subsequently dismissed.  “I seduced her, she was sent away, and she perished”. Perhaps Resurrection was his own work of repentance, regardless, he was well aware that he had caused the young woman’s demise and death.

For any young man – as it seems to me there are more than a few – who has “loved them and left them,” gotten a young girl pregnant and then blithely walked away, abandoning her to abortion or giving up the child for adoption out of cowardice to face up to “the event”, this book is a well aimed and deserved kick in the shins … or a little bit higher. But it is much more than that; it is also a tale of redemption,  a deeply spiritual (a world I don’t often use) journey in a world where, according to Tolstoy much of the world has lost its way. As one reviewer of Resurrection noted, to a certain degree the plot is based upon Tolstoy’s own debauched youth. As he neared the end of his life he admitted to a biographer that, like Nekhlyudov, he had had many affairs and that “in particular he had seduced a “chambermaid in his family’s service, Agatha Mikhailovna Trubetskaya, who was subsequently dismissed.  “I seduced her, she was sent away, and she perished”. Perhaps Resurrection was his own work of repentance, regardless, he was well aware that he had caused the young woman’s demise and death.

While not dwelling on it too much, here and there the book seems to falter. Tolstoy seems to take aim not just at the Russian government of his day but all governments, all bureaucrats, all religious institutions. Social reform might be needed but a deep sense of cynicism about social change – and those who are engaged in it – is woven throughout the book and elaborated upon towards the end. The iron power of the state in its hold over humanity appears as unbreakable as it is unethical, immoral. The best one can do is to make the best of this bad situation by trying to lead an ethical, moral life filled with kindness and forgiveness to all because – and this is the heart of the matter – as far as Tolstoy is concerned, we, humanity, are all sinners. He sees the radicals of his day – referred to in Russian as the Narodniks – as factional, emotionally shallow dogmatists that he seems to despise. In fact his taste for political radicals borders on contempt. While he doesn’t spend a great deal of time developing this theme, it is unambiguously there towards the book’s end.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. margy stewart permalink
    October 5, 2022 1:02 am

    I love this review. Beautiful writing about a beautiful writer with lots of resonance for our time or any time when the targeted and the privileged are part of the whole and are striving for fulfilling lives.

  2. wildflowerfarmer permalink
    October 5, 2022 8:34 am

    Rob,  I loved this post. I’m headed out to purchase the book today. 

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    Janet PalmtagJ.J. Palmtag, Inc. 1010 Central AvenueNebraska City NE 68410Www.Palmtag.com

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    • October 5, 2022 8:45 am

      Wow – that makes me so happy. If you like Janet, when you finish it and if you would like to discuss it, I’d be willing … and it would be FUN!!!

  3. October 5, 2022 9:59 am

    Thanks for the essay. I’m struck by the similarities between Tolstoy and Dostoievski. D’s Demons and your description of T’s attitude toward radicals. You may be somewhat correct in your earlier description of T as more concerned with social change than D. Yet your review here seems to lessen that difference. I’ve always thought that D does a much better job at exposing the psychological/social rot which prevents social change. Or, that his continual exposure of that rot opens the way to possible change in ways that T’s dreamy utopianism fails to. Now they seem closer.

    • October 5, 2022 10:11 am

      First, thanks so much for even reading, commenting on this. Much appreciated. That said, I read Dostoevsky at the age of 12, so it’s been a while. The book that made the biggest impression on me was The Idiot – the man who tries to lead an ethical life and who “society” considers “an idiot”. I remember even at that age wondering if I was an idiot too? Why would such a kind soul be considered “an idiot”? It is not that Dostoevsky doesn’t take societal impacts into consideration – of course he does – but his is a much more personal, psychological kind of reflection.

  4. Eileen Davis permalink
    October 5, 2022 12:55 pm

    Wonderful review! Especially good on the mystery of his cynicism, lack of trust even toward those with whom you’d think he would empathize, agree and support. But remember this is his last novel, written in old age while tormented with depression, paranoia, ill health. In these last ten years he turned against his wife, blamed her, blamed marriage, for his failure to gain great artistic success (in his opinion), decided to become a monk, left her and died of pneumonia in an old train station.

  5. Phil Jones permalink
    October 5, 2022 4:13 pm

    Over the years, you have constantly overused the adjective “hysterical” for any reaction from the US that didn’t praise Russia . However, in this case it sounds about right.
    It was a pleasant surprise to read about Dan C. I remember that demonstration against Humphrey. I think I was the one who proposed it. i remember you had a sign concealed under yr jacket and flashed Hubert.
    In the mid 1960s, there was a hippie community in Trinidad who lived in a half-dozen geodesic domes on the edge of town. Yours truly was bumming around the country in 1967, met some of those hippies and stayed in one of their domes several nights. I later heard that someone was murdered in that dome, which I found hard to believe.
    You say “the real kicker” is that T thought “we are all sinners.” Why is that a kicker? It’s a central tenet in Christianity. T was just being a good Christian.
    Overall a good article. Keep up the good work…………….P

  6. doug permalink
    October 5, 2022 8:29 pm

    Apropos of the resurrected theme, you might note that, while Tolstoy did not live to see it, among the first acts of the October Revolution was to formally equalize women before the law, including legalization of abortion over objections of the church. La luta continua.

  7. Mike Wilzoch permalink
    October 6, 2022 4:07 pm

    I am always heartened to hear or read about honorable friends and/or characters we’ve encountered in our travels, who live again through our shared memories. There is a certain ring of comforting symmetry to know that people of consequence, and their acts that distinguish them, don’t disappear with their passing. Nothing need be lost if we can write or tell the story of what they meant to us, and why. Your friend Daniel was yet another mensch you’ve encountered along the road, and became the hub of your wheel from Trinidad to Tunisia to Russia–a story well told. I must confess I knew next to nothing about Tolstoy, but find the passages you cite, and the attendant analysis, whets my appetite to shoehorn Resurrection toward the top of the stack of books I will be reading. Gracias comrade.

    • October 6, 2022 7:52 pm

      pretty cool book; has been trashed as being “too Ideological” which seemed to me a bit of a stretch… anyhow I loved it.

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