The last thing that kept Nekhludoff in Petersburg was the case of the sectarians, whose petition he intended to get his former fellow-officer, Aide-de-camp Bogatyreff, to hand to the Tsar. He came to Bogatyreff in the morning, and found him about to go out, though still at breakfast. Bogatyreff was not tall, but firmly built and wonderfully strong (he could bend a horseshoe), a kind, honest, straight, and even liberal man. In spite of these qualities, he was intimate at Court, and very fond of the Tsar and his family, and by some strange method he managed, while living in that highest circle, to see nothing but the good in it and to take no part in the evil and corruption. He never condemned anybody nor any measure, and either kept silent or spoke in a bold, loud voice, almost shouting what he had to say, and often laughing in the same boisterous manner. And he did not do it for diplomatic reasons, but because such was his character.
“Ah, that’s right that you have come. Would you like some breakfast? Sit down, the beefsteaks are fine! I always begin with something substantial — begin and finish, too. Ha! ha! ha! Well, then, have a glass of wine,” he shouted, pointing to a decanter of claret. “I have been thinking of you. I will hand on the petition. I shall put it into his own hands. You may count on that, only it occurred to me that it would be best for you to call on Toporoff.”
Nekhludoff made a wry face at the mention of Toporoff.
“It all depends on him. He will be consulted, anyhow. And perhaps he may himself meet your wishes.”
“If you advise it I shall go.”
“That’s right. Well, and how does Petersburg agree with you?” shouted Bogatyreff. “Tell me. Eh?”
“I feel myself getting hypnotised,” replied Nekhludoff.
“Hypnotised!” Bogatyreff repeated, and burst out laughing. “You won’t have anything? Well, just as you please,” and he wiped his moustaches with his napkin. “Then you’ll go? Eh? If he does not do it, give the petition to me, and I shall hand it on to-morrow.” Shouting these words, he rose, crossed himself just as naturally as he had wiped his mouth, and began buckling on his sword.
“And now good-bye; I must go. We are both going out,” said Nekhludoff, and shaking Bogatyreff’s strong, broad hand, and with the sense of pleasure which the impression of something healthy and unconsciously fresh always gave him, Nekhludoff parted from Bogatyreff on the door-steps.
Though he expected no good result from his visit, still Nekhludoff, following Bogatyreff’s advice, went to see Toporoff, on whom the sectarians’ fate depended.
The position occupied by Toporoff, involving as it did an incongruity of purpose, could only be held by a dull man devoid of moral sensibility. Toporoff possessed both these negative qualities. The incongruity of the position he occupied was this. It was his duty to keep up and to defend, by external measures, not excluding violence, that Church which, by its own declaration, was established by God Himself and could not be shaken by the gates of hell nor by anything human. This divine and immutable God-established institution had to be sustained and defended by a human institution — the Holy Synod, managed by Toporoff and his officials. Toporoff did not see this contradiction, nor did he wish to see it, and he was therefore much concerned lest some Romish priest, some pastor, or some sectarian should destroy that Church which the gates of hell could not conquer.
Toporoff, like all those who are quite destitute of the fundamental religious feeling that recognises the equality and brotherhood of men, was fully convinced that the common people were creatures entirely different from himself, and that the people needed what he could very well do without, for at the bottom of his heart he believed in nothing, and found such a state very convenient and pleasant. Yet he feared lest the people might also come to such a state, and looked upon it as his sacred duty, as he called it, to save the people therefrom.
A certain cookery book declares that some crabs like to be boiled alive. In the same way he thought and spoke as if the people liked being kept in superstition; only he meant this in a literal sense, whereas the cookery book did not mean its words literally.
His feelings towards the religion he was keeping up were the same as those of the poultry-keeper towards the carrion he fed his fowls on. Carrion was very disgusting, but the fowls liked it; therefore it was right to feed the fowls on carrion. Of course all this worship of the images of the Iberian, Kasan and Smolensk Mothers of God was a gross superstition, but the people liked it and believed in it, and therefore the superstition must be kept up.
Thus thought Toporoff, not considering that the people only liked superstition because there always have been, and still are, men like himself who, being enlightened, instead of using their light to help others to struggle out of their dark ignorance, use it to plunge them still deeper into it.
When Nekhludoff entered the reception-room Toporoff was in his study talking with an abbess, a lively and aristocratic lady, who was spreading the Greek orthodox faith in Western Russia among the Uniates (who acknowledge the Pope of Rome), and who have the Greek religion enforced on them. An official who was in the reception-room inquired what Nekhludoff wanted, and when he heard that Nekhludoff meant to hand in a petition to the Emperor, he asked him if he would allow the petition to be read first. Nekhludoff gave it him, and the official took it into the study. The abbess, with her hood and flowing veil and her long train trailing behind, left the study and went out, her white hands (with their well-tended nails) holding a topaz rosary. Nekhludoff was not immediately asked to come in. Toporoff was reading the petition and shaking his head. He was unpleasantly surprised by the clear and emphatic wording of it.
“If it gets into the hands of the Emperor it may cause misunderstandings, and unpleasant questions may be asked,” he thought as he read. Then he put the petition on the table, rang, and ordered Nekhludoff to be asked in.
He remembered the case of the sectarians; he had had a petition from them before. The case was this: These Christians, fallen away from the Greek Orthodox Church, were first exhorted and then tried by law, but were acquitted. Then the Archdeacon and the Governor arranged, on the plea that their marriages were illegal, to exile these sectarians, separating the husbands, wives, and children. These fathers and wives were now petitioning that they should not he parted. Toporoff recollected the first time the case came to his notice: he had at that time hesitated whether he had not better put a stop to it. But then he thought no harm could result from his confirming the decision to separate and exile the different members of the sectarian families, whereas allowing the peasant sect to remain where it was might have a bad effect on the rest of the inhabitants of the place and cause them to fall away from Orthodoxy. And then the affair also proved the zeal of the Archdeacon, and so he let the case proceed along the lines it had taken. But now that they had a defender such as Nekhludoff, who had some influence in Petersburg, the case might be specially pointed out to the Emperor as something cruel, or it might get into the foreign papers. Therefore he at once took an unexpected decision.
“How do you do?” he said, with the air of a very busy man, receiving Nekhludoff standing, and at once starting on the business. “I know this case. As soon as I saw the names I recollected this unfortunate business,” he said, taking up the petition and showing it to Nekhludoff. “And I am much indebted to you for reminding me of it. It is the over-zealousness of the provincial authorities.”
Nekhludoff stood silent, looking with no kindly feelings at the immovable, pale mask of a face before him.
“And I shall give orders that these measures should he revoked and the people reinstated in their homes.”
“So that I need not make use of this petition?”
“I promise you most assuredly,” answered Toporoff, laying a stress on the word I, as if quite convinced that his honesty, his word was the best guarantee. “It will be best if I write at once. Take a seat, please.”
He went up to the table and began to write. As Nekhludoff sat down he looked at the narrow, bald skull, at the fat, blue-veined hand that was swiftly guiding the pen, and wondered why this evidently indifferent man was doing what he did and why he was doing it with such care.
“Well, here you are,” said Toporoff, sealing the envelope; “you may let your clients know,” and he stretched his lips to imitate a smile.
“Then what did these people suffer for?” Nekhludoff asked, as he took the envelope.
Toporoff raised his head and smiled, as if Nekhludoff’s question gave him pleasure. “That I cannot tell. All I can say is that the interests of the people guarded by us are so important that too great a zeal in matters of religion is not so dangerous or so harmful as the indifference which is now spreading —”
“But how is it that in the name of religion the very first demands of righteousness are violated — families are separated?”
Toporoff continued to smile patronisingly, evidently thinking what Nekhludoff said very pretty. Anything that Nekhludoff could say he would have considered very pretty and very one-sided, from the height of what he considered his far-reaching office in the State.
“It may seem so from the point of view of a private individual,” he said, “but from an administrative point of view it appears in a rather different light. However, I must bid you good-bye, now,” said Toporoff, bowing his head and holding out his hand, which Nekhludoff pressed.
“The interests of the people! Your interests is what you mean!” thought Nekhludoff as he went out. And he ran over in his mind the people in whom is manifested the activity of the institutions that uphold religion and educate the people. He began with the woman punished for the illicit sale of spirits, the boy for theft, the tramp for tramping, the incendiary for setting a house on fire, the banker for fraud, and that unfortunate Lydia Shoustova imprisoned only because they hoped to get such information as they required from her. Then he thought of the sectarians punished for violating Orthodoxy, and Gourkevitch for wanting constitutional government, and Nekhludoff clearly saw that all these people were arrested, locked up, exiled, not really because they transgressed against justice or behaved unlawfully, but only because they were an obstacle hindering the officials and the rich from enjoying the property they had taken away from the people. And the woman who sold wine without having a license, and the thief knocking about the town, and Lydia Shoustova hiding proclamations, and the sectarians upsetting superstitions, and Gourkevitch desiring a constitution, were a real hindrance. It seemed perfectly clear to Nekhludoff that all these officials, beginning with his aunt’s husband, the Senators, and Toporoff, down to those clean and correct gentlemen who sat at the tables in the Ministry Office, were not at all troubled by the fact that that in such a state of things the innocent had to suffer, but were only concerned how to get rid of the really dangerous, so that the rule that ten guilty should escape rather than that one innocent should be condemned was not observed, but, on the contrary, for the sake of getting rid of one really dangerous person, ten who seemed dangerous were punished, as, when cutting a rotten piece out of anything, one has to cut away some that is good.
This explanation seemed very simple and clear to Nekhludoff; but its very simplicity and clearness made him hesitate to accept it. Was it possible that so complicated a phenomenon could have so simple and terrible an explanation? Was it possible that all these words about justice, law, religion, and God, and so on, were mere words, hiding the coarsest cupidity and cruelty?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00