Tolstoy’s Resurrection and Dostoevsky

Siberia, as a theme with both personal and literary significance, must have been very much in Tolstoy’s mind during the writing of Resurrection. At a personal level, he himself would have been aware, that as Russia’s foremost dissident, he ran the risk of some form of banishment.[1] His hero Nekhlyudov, taking up an idea of the American writer Thoreau, asserts that prison is the only place fitting for an honourable man in Russia (II, 29). The novel itself is a political bombshell with its attack on the very pillars of the state - the Church, the courts, the civil servants, those in authority, including a personal attack on the all-powerful Procurator of the Holy Synod, and an open reference to the political reaction introduced by the tsar Alexander III (I, 3) after the assassination of his father. Tolstoy knew that exile to the east was almost the set reaction to such dissidence by those in power. The Siberian exile of the so-called Decembrists after 1825[2] is in Nekhlyudov’s mind as he goes to see the important general in charge of prisons in St Petersburg (II, 19). The political prisoner Kryl’tsov, quoting Herzen, points to the impoverishment of Russian intellectual life brought about by their exile, and also by the exile of Herzen himself (III, 18)[3]. The 1860s saw the banishment to Siberia of another intellectual leader, N.G. Chernyshevsky, and however great Tolstoy’s own reputation and moral authority might be, he was not immune even from the punishment of Siberia.

But there is another aspect of Siberia which must also have been in Tolstoy’s mind as he wrote his novel – its strong literary associations. Nine years earlier Chekhov (a writer whom Tolstoy patronised) had made the hazardous journey across Siberia to conduct researches on the island of Sakhalin among the inmates of the penal colony there, and had described his outward journey in Out of Siberia (Iz Sibiri) (1890) and the product of his research in The Island of Sakhalin (Ostrov Sakhalin). Even the unlikely traveller Goncharov had been forced to return to European Russia from Japan by a gruelling trek across Siberia, which he described in the second part of The Frigate Pallas (Fregat Pallada).[4] The wives of the Decembrists had followed their husbands into Siberia, and impressed Dostoevsky with their care and solicitude, when he met them on his own way to Siberian servitude. Their example influenced his own later writing; in Crime and Punishment Sonya follows Raskolnikov into Siberia, and in The Brothers Karamazov it is a journey to accompany Dmitriy contemplated by Grushenka. Tolstoy adds a new twist of gender to the theme, when he has a male hero follow a heroine.

Above all it was the actual experience and writing of Tolstoy’s great literary rival Dostoevsky that appears to have had most influence.[5] Dostoevsky, for what seemed on the surface to be a minor act of political dissidence, had been arrested and condemned to penal servitude in the Siberian town of Omsk. These experiences were later given literary form in his Notes from the House of the Dead, a book which Tolstoy called ‘a wonderful thing’, and which he read for a third time before writing Resurrection.[6] In the novel his hero Nekhlyudov gives some (unspecified) work of Dostoevsky to Katyusha to read (I, 12). Like Katyusha herself the heroes of two of Dostoevsky’s novels, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Dmitriy in The Brothers Karamazov would be faced with the Siberian experience. Whether Dostoevsky’s writing on the subject consciously influenced certain aspects of Resurrection is not certain, but clearly there are parallels to be drawn.

In Notes from the House of the Dead Dostoevsky describes how a wounded steppe eagle was harboured by the convicts and then allowed to go free: ‘It was a strange thing. Everyone was somehow pleased, as though in part they themselves had received freedom’.[7] Tolstoy was impressed by the episode and in 1904 reprinted it in his Reading Circle (Krug chteniya) under the title ‘The Eagle’ (Orel) [8].

However, when Tolstoy uses a bird as a symbol of freedom, it is not the macho image of the eagle, but, appropriately (in the context) the feminine one of the dove. In the very first chapter the female prisoner Maslova is depicted as about to tread on a dove or pigeon (golub’): ‘The dove rose up, and with trembling wings, flew past the convict’s very ear, brushing her with the wind of its flight. The convict smiled and then sighed deeply, remembering her own situation.’ In this same opening chapter Tolstoy, as does Dostoevsky, stresses the spontaneity of the charity shown towards such convicts by the Russian common people: a peasant in from the country, crossing himself, gives the prisoner a kopeck.

A second section from Notes from the House of the Dead was also published in 1904 in Tolstoy’s Reading Circle under the title ‘Death in the Hospital’ (Smert’ v gospitale). It was reprinted from the opening of the second part of Dostoevsky’s work, which ends with the stark scene of the convict Mikhaylov lying dead in hospital and still in his chains.[9] In Part II, chapter 37 of Resurrection a convict also lies dead in chains. Nevertheless, Dostoevsky claims that in the prison hospitals there is a far more enlightened attitude towards the convicts: ‘It is well known to all convicts in the whole of Russia, that the people most compassionate towards them are the doctors’.[10] In Resurrection Nekhlyudov comes across such a person: ‘This doctor showed all kinds of indulgences to the convicts and was therefore constantly involved in unpleasant clashes with the prison authorities and even with the senior doctor’ (II, 13).

Like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy too points to the availability of alcohol in the prisons (I, 32),[11] and both authors mention the abuse of prisoners being able to exchange sentences through bullying or negotiating with one another. The fictional hero of Notes from the House of the Dead explains this in general terms:
To swap [smenit’sia] means to exchange names with somebody, and consequently also his fate. However weird this fact might seem, it is true, and in my time it still existed in full force among those under arrest who were being transported to Siberia. At first I could not at all believe it, although finally I did come to believe the evidence.[12]
Tolstoy gives his own concrete example:
The fact was that the convict Karmanov had put up a lad with a face like his, but sentenced to exile, to do a swap with him, so that the convict went into exile, and the lad, in his place, went to the penal colony (III, 10).
Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are concerned to divide the convicts into types. Typically, Dostoevsky goes no further than a dichotomy: ‘decisive people’ (reshitel’nye lyudi) as opposed to those ‘impoverished by nature’ (nishchie ot prirody). This is clearly a psychological division. Nekhlyudov, however, is unable to see ‘that criminal type about which the Italian School speaks, but only saw people antipathetic to himself personally, exactly the same as he saw at large in tail-coats, epaulettes, and lace (II, 30). His reading of the literature discourages him from ever hoping to find a psychological explanation for ‘criminal types’. Instead he divides the convicts into five categories, not based on psychology, but according to the nature of their crimes. The difference between the two writers is striking: Dostoevsky adopts a more intuitive psychological approach; Tolstoy seems more rational – he tests the authorities on the subject, then comes up with his own more sociologically based division, placing the convicts into neat pigeon holes. But there is something else: each author has his own polemical agenda in his presentation of the convicts.

More here.


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