120 Years Later, Tolstoy’s ‘Resurrection’ Still Spot-on About The Prison Industrial Complex

In Tsarist Russia, the Penal System for Peasants Described in Resurrection Was Deplorable — and Strikingly Similar to How We Still Treat People Today.

Cover of Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy
Cover of Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy

No Spoilers. I will give three excerpts from Resurrection which I think accurately describe the problems with the criminal justice system then and now.

Leo Tolstoy wrote the famous works “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace”. His last novel – Resurrection – was published in 1899 and tells the story of Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov. The wealthy Nekhlyudov is selected for jury duty and discovers that the defendant is Katerina Mikhaelovna Maslova, a woman whom he had relations with early in life. Maslova has become a prostitute and stands accused of murder. The jury agrees that she is innocent, but as a result of carelessness she is still convicted.

Nekhlyudov sets out to correct the mistake made by the justice system. He helps Maslova with legal assistance and follows her as she is transported to various prisons. Through this exercise, Nekhlyudov learns more about the prison industrial complex and the people that get caught by the wide net of criminal law.

Resurrection is certainly worth reading for the gripping story and excellent quality of writing. But in this article, I want to focus on the penal system that is described in the book. Throughout the novel, Nekhlyudov makes observations about the indifference of justices, lawyers, and prison guards; the perverted definition of criminal behavior; and the dreadful causes and effects of crimes and punishments. What shocked me while reading this book is that today’s criminal justice system is so similar. Today, crimes are defined too broadly, ordinary people cannot afford a lawyer, and torture by solitary confinement is prevalent.

The book does carry an opinion on the criminal justice system, rather than remaining neutral, which has been a reason for some to criticize the book. This critique calls to mind ‘balanced’ views on slavery or rape, which are also important aspects of the criminal justice system in the West today and in Tsarist Russia 120 years ago.

The first section I selected describes Nekhlyudov’s thoughts when a hapless boy is tried for a petty crime:

It’s quite obvious that this lad is no extraordinary villain, but just an ordinary person – anyone can see that – and that he became what he is simply because he found himself in circumstances which create such people. And so it seems obvious that if we don’t want lads like this we must try to wipe out the conditions that produce such unfortunate individuals.


But what do we do? […] We do not merely do nothing to get rid 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 we have transported him from Moscow to Irkutsk. […] And how much effort, what strenuous efforts, this pretence costs,’ Nekhlyudov went on thinking to himself as he looked round the huge court-room, seeing the portraits, the lamps, the arm-chairs, the uniforms, the thick walls, the windows, and remembering the great size of the building and the still more enormous size of the establishment, the whole army of officials, clerks, warders, messengers, not only here but throughout Russia, who received salaries for performing this farce that nobody needed.




Then, when [the boy being prosecuted] is ill and vitiated by unhealthy work, drink and debauchery, and knocking aimlessly about town in a bewildered stupor gets into some sort of shed and takes some old [things] which nobody needs – then we, all of us well-to-do, educated people in easy circumstances, instead of trying to get rid of the causes which had led the boy to his present condition, think to mend matters by punishing him!

– Chapter 34 of part 1

In this next section from part two of the book, Nekhlyudov is talking with Rogozhinsky, his brother-in-law, after his experience of serving on a jury and having learned the fate of different prisoners.

Nekhlyudov: ’What could a court of law have done?’
Rogozhinsky: ’It could have sentenced one of the two duellists to the mines like any ordinary murderer.”
Nekhlyudov’s hands went cold again, and he said excitedly: ‘And what would that have done?
R: ‘Justice would have been done.’
N: ’As if justice were the aim of courts of justice!’ cried Nekhlyudov.
R: ’What else?’
N: ’The maintenance of class interests. The courts, in my opinion, are only an instrument for upholding the existing order of things, in the interests of our class.’
R: ’Well, this really is a novel point of view,’ said Rogozhinsky, with a quiet smile. ‘A somewhat different purpose is generally ascribed to the courts.’
N: ’In theory, they have, but not in practice, as I have had occasion to discover. The only function of the courts is to preserve society as it is, and that is why they persecute and pass sentence on people who stand above the average and want to raise it – the so-called political offenders – and those who are below it, the so-called criminal types.’


[ … ]


N: ’I have seen the assistant prosecutor, in court, doing his utmost to convict an unfortunate boy [from the previous section] who could have inspired nothing but pity in any normal man. I heard how another prosecutor cross-examined a sectarian and managed to make the reading of the Gospel a criminal offence – in fact, the whole business of the courts consists exclusively of similar senseless and cruel achievements.

– Chapter 33 of part 2

Finally, from the third and last part of the book, the section where Nekhlyudov reflects on what he has seen in the three months that he has spent trying to free Maslova.

To know that somewhere, far away, one set of people are torturing another set by subjecting them to every kind of humiliation, inhuman degradation and suffering; and for three months to have been a constant eye-witness of that defilement and agony inflicted on one set of people by another – are two very different things. And Nekhlyudov was experiencing this. More than once during the last three months he had asked himself: Am I mad, that I see what others do not see, or are they mad who are responsible for all that I see? Yet the people (and there were so many of them) who did the things that so bewildered and horrified him behaved with such calm assurance – not only that what they were doing was necessary but that it was highly important and valuable work – that it was difficult to believe them all to be mad. Nor could he admit that he was mad himself, for he was conscious of the clearness of his thoughts. Consequently, he found himself in a continual state of perplexity.


What he had seen during the past three months had left him with the impression that from the whole population living in freedom the government in conjunction with the courts picked out the most highly strung, mettlesome and excitable individuals, the most gifted and the strongest – but less crafty and cautious than other people – and these, who were not one whit more guilty or more dangerous to society than those who were left at liberty, were locked up in gaols, halting-stations, hard-labour camps, where they were confined for months and years in utter idleness, material security, and exile from nature, from their families and from useful work. In other words, they were forced outside all the conditions required for a normal and moral human existence. This was the first conclusion that Nekhlyudov drew from his observations.


Secondly, these people were subjected to all sorts of unnecessary degradation in these establishments – chains, shaven heads and infamous prison clothing; that is, they were deprived of the main inducements which encourage weak people to lead good lives: regard for public opinion, a sense of shame and a consciousness of human dignity.


Thirdly, with their lives in continual danger from the infectious diseases common in places of confinement, from physical exhaustion and from beatings (to say nothing of exceptional occurrences such as sunstroke, drowning and fire), these people lived continually in circumstances in which the best and most moral of men are led by the instinct of self-preservation to commit (and to condone in others) the most terribly cruel actions.


Fourthly, these people were forced to associate with men singularly corrupted by life (and by these very institutions, especially) – with murderers and wrong-doers who acted like leaven in dough on those not yet corrupted by the means employed.


And fifthly and finally, all the people subject to these influences were instilled in the most effective manner possible – namely, by every imaginable form of inhuman treatment practised upon themselves, by means of the suffering inflicted on children, women and old men, by beatings and floggings with rods and whips, by the offering of rewards for bringing a fugitive back, dead or alive, by the separation of husbands from wives and putting them to cohabit with other partners, by shootings and hangings – it was instilled into them in the most effective manner possible that all sorts of violence, cruelty and inhumanity were not only tolerated but even sanctioned by the government when it suited its purpose, and were therefore all the more permissible to those who found themselves under duress, in misery and want.


All these institutions seemed to have been devised for the express purpose of producing a concretion of depravity and vice, such as could not be achieved in any other conditions, with the ultimate idea of disseminating this concretion of depravity and vice among the whole population. ‘It is just as if the problem had been set: to find the best and surest means of corrupting the greatest number of people,’ thought Nekhlyudov, as he tried to penetrate to the heart of what happened in gaols and halting-stations. Every year hundreds and thousands of people were brought to the utmost pitch of depravity and, when completely corrupted, they were set free to spread up and down the country the corruption they had learned in prison.


[ … ]


And what surprised him most was that none of all this had happened accidentally, by mistake, once only, but that it had been going on for centuries, with the single difference that in the old days men had had their nostrils slit and their ears cut off; then a time came when they were branded and fastened to iron rods; and now they were manacled, and transported by steam instead of in carts.


What revolted Nekhlyudov most of all was that there were men in the law-courts and in the ministries who received large salaries taken from the people for referring to books written by other officials like themselves, actuated by like motives, fitting to this or that statute actions that infringed the laws which they themselves had framed, and in accordance with these statutes of theirs went on sending people to places where they would never see them again and where those people were completely at the mercy of cruel, hardened inspectors, gaolers and convoy soldiers, and where they perished, body and soul, by the million.

– Chapter 19 of part 3

Not all of Resurrection is focused so strongly on the penal system. As mentioned before, the book tells an engrossing story of the relationship between Nekhlyudov and Maslova, the plot of land with the village where they both grew up, and the people they meet in prison.

Resurrection is in the public domain and you can read it for free on project gutenberg. I liked the Penguin Classics translation of the book, which you can get here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *