Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy

Chapter XXX.

The Astonishing Institution Called Criminal Law.

Maslova might be sent off with the first gang of prisoners, therefore Nekhludoff got ready for his departure. But there was so much to be done that he felt that he could not finish it, however much time he might have. It was quite different now from what it had been. Formerly he used to be obliged to look for an occupation, the interest of which always centred in one person, i.e., Dmitri Ivanovitch Nekhludoff, and yet, though every interest of his life was thus centred, all these occupations were very wearisome. Now all his occupations related to other people and not to Dmitri Ivanovitch, and they were all interesting and attractive, and there was no end to them. Nor was this all. Formerly Dmitri Ivanovitch Nekhludoff’s occupations always made him feel vexed and irritable; now they produced a joyful state of mind. The business at present occupying Nekhludoff could be divided under three headings. He himself, with his usual pedantry, divided it in that way, and accordingly kept the papers referring to it in three different portfolios. The first referred to Maslova, and was chiefly that of taking steps to get her petition to the Emperor attended to, and preparing for her probable journey to Siberia.

The second was about his estates. In Panovo he had given the land to the peasants on condition of their paying rent to be put to their own communal use. But he had to confirm this transaction by a legal deed, and to make his will, in accordance with it. In Kousminski the state of things was still as he had first arranged it, i.e., he was to receive the rent; but the terms had to be fixed, and also how much of the money he would use to live on, and how much he would leave for the peasants’ use. As he did not know what his journey to Siberia would cost him, he could not decide to lose this revenue altogether, though he reduced the income from it by half.

The third part of his business was to help the convicts, who applied more and more often to him. At first when he came in contact with the prisoners, and they appealed to him for help, he at once began interceding for them, hoping to lighten their fate, but he soon had so many applications that he felt the impossibility of attending to all of them, and that naturally led him to take up another piece of work, which at last roused his interest even more than the three first. This new part of his business was finding an answer to the following questions: What was this astonishing institution called criminal law, of which the results were that in the prison, with some of the inmates of which he had lately become acquainted, and in all those other places of confinement, from the Peter and Paul Fortress in Petersburg to the island of Sakhalin, hundreds and thousands of victims were pining? What did this strange criminal law exist for? How had it originated?

From his personal relations with the prisoners, from notes by some of those in confinement, and by questioning the advocate and the prison priest, Nekhludoff came to the conclusion that the convicts, the so-called criminals, could be divided into five classes. The first were quite innocent people, condemned by judicial blunder. Such were the Menshoffs, supposed to be incendiaries, Maslova, and others. There were not many of these; according to the priest’s words, only seven per cent., but their condition excited particular interest.

To the second class belong persons condemned for actions done under peculiar circumstances, i.e., in a fit of passion, jealousy, or drunkenness, circumstances under which those who judged them would surely have committed the same actions.

The third class consisted of people punished for having committed actions which, according to their understanding, were quite natural, and even good, but which those other people, the men who made the laws, considered to be crimes. Such were the persons who sold spirits without a license, smugglers, those who gathered grass and wood on large estates and in the forests belonging to the Crown; the thieving miners; and those unbelieving people who robbed churches.

To the fourth class belonged those who were imprisoned only because they stood morally higher than the average level of society. Such were the Sectarians, the Poles, the Circassians rebelling in order to regain their independence, the political prisoners, the Socialists, the strikers condemned for withstanding the authorities. There was, according to Nekhludoff’s observations, a very large percentage belonging to this class; among them some of the best of men.

The fifth class consisted of persons who had been far more sinned against by society than they had sinned against it. These were castaways, stupefied by continual oppression and temptation, such as the boy who had stolen the rugs, and hundreds of others whom Nekhludoff had seen in the prison and out of it. The conditions under which they lived seemed to lead on systematically to those actions which are termed crimes. A great many thieves and murderers with whom he had lately come in contact, according to Nekhludoff’s estimate, belonged to this class. To this class Nekhludoff also reckoned those depraved, demoralised creatures whom the new school of criminology classify as the criminal type, and the existence of which is considered to be the chief proof of the necessity of criminal law and punishment. This demoralised, depraved, abnormal type was, according to Nekhludoff, exactly the same as that against whom society had sinned, only here society had sinned not directly against them, but against their parents and forefathers.

Among this latter class Nekhludoff was specially struck by one Okhotin, an inveterate thief, the illegitimate son of a prostitute, brought up in a doss-house, who, up to the age of 30, had apparently never met with any one whose morality was above that of a policeman, and who had got into a band of thieves when quite young. He was gifted with an extraordinary sense of humour, by means of which he made himself very attractive. He asked Nekhludoff for protection, at the same time making fun of himself, the lawyers, the prison, and laws human and divine.

Another was the handsome Fedoroff, who, with a band of robbers, of whom he was the chief, had robbed and murdered an old man, an official. Fedoroff was a peasant, whose father had been unlawfully deprived of his house, and who, later on, when serving as a soldier, had suffered much because he had fallen in love with an officer’s mistress. He had a fascinating, passionate nature, that longed for enjoyment at any cost. He had never met anybody who restrained himself for any cause whatever, and had never heard a word about any aim in life other than enjoyment.

Nekhludoff distinctly saw that both these men were richly endowed by nature, but had been neglected and crippled like uncared-for plants.

He had also met a tramp and a woman who had repelled him by their dulness and seeming cruelty, but even in them he could find no trace of the criminal type written about by the Italian school, but only saw in them people who were repulsive to him personally, just in the same way as some he had met outside the prison, in swallow-tail coats wearing epaulettes, or bedecked with lace. And so the investigation of the reasons why all these very different persons were put in prison, while others just like them were going about free and even judging them, formed a fourth task for Nekhludoff.

He hoped to find an answer to this question in books, and bought all that referred to it. He got the works of Lombroso, Garofalo, Ferry, List, Maudsley, Tard, and read them carefully. But as he read he became more and more disappointed. It happened to him as it always happens to those who turn to science not in order to play a part in it, nor to write, nor to dispute, nor to teach, but simply for an answer to an every-day question of life. Science answered thousands of different very subtle and ingenious questions touching criminal law, but not the one he was trying to solve. He asked a very simple question: “Why, and with what right, do some people lock up, torment, exile, flog, and kill others, while they are themselves just like those whom they torment, flog, and kill?” And in answer he got deliberations as to whether human beings had free will or not. Whether signs of criminality could be detected by measuring the skulls or not. What part heredity played in crime. Whether immorality could be inherited. What madness is, what degeneration is, and what temperament is. How climate, food, ignorance, imitativeness, hypnotism, or passion act. What society is. What are its duties, etc., etc.

These disquisitions reminded him of the answer he once got from a little boy whom he met coming home from school. Nekhludoff asked him if he had learned his spelling.

“I have,” answered the boy.

“Well, then, tell me, how do you spell ‘leg’?”

“A dog’s leg, or what kind of leg?” the boy answered, with a sly look.

Answers in the form of new questions, like the boy’s, was all Nekhludoff got in reply to his one primary question. He found much that was clever, learned much that was interesting, but what he did not find was an answer to the principal question: By what right some people punish others?

Not only did he not find any answer, but all the arguments were brought forward in order to explain and vindicate punishment, the necessity of which was taken as an axiom.

Nekhludoff read much, but only in snatches, and putting down his failure to this superficial way of reading, hoped to find the answer later on. He would not allow himself to believe in the truth of the answer which began, more and more often, to present itself to him.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04