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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Resurrection

I have just finished reading Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy. The story follows Prince Nekhlyudov, a Russian nobleman who when serving on a jury recognises the woman he seduced and abandoned as a younger man. She is now a prostitute on trial for murder and he realises that it was his actions that led to her downfall. He resolves to save her and his own soul by proposing marriage and following her into exile in Siberia. During the course of his attempts to make life easier for her he becomes repulsed by Russia's upper classes and sympathetic towards the plight of the peasants and convicts.

Tolstoy's novel provides a panoramic view of Russian life in the nineteenth century. It reflects the author's own views on the inequality of society and the necessity for change. The profits from the publication went to support the Doukhobors, a Christian fundamentalist peasant sect who taught chastity, teetotalism, vegetarianism, the sharing of goods and property and non-resistance to evil by force.

When Tolstoy wrote this story in 1899 he couldn't have known that in 1917 there would be a revolution in Russia. The Tsar (the Emperor) and his family were shot and after a few years of conflict Russia became a Communist state known in English as the Soviet Union. Communism aimed to abolish the ownership of property. When Resurrection was written a small proportion of Russians were very rich and the majority lived in abject poverty. Communist thinkers like Karl Marx and Lenin wanted everybody to have the same standard of living. Tolstoy's novel is particularly interesting for anyone who wants to know more about the revolution because several of the minor characters are revolutionaries. Resurrection shows that people were already trying to change Russian society two decades earlier and it helps us to understand the terrible living conditions that motivated them.

Anybody interested in social or environmental reform in our own time may find parallels between Nekhlyudov's awakening and their own.

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