Divine and Human by Leo Tolstoy

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Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Leo Tolstoy wrote “Divine and Human” as a chapter in the novel Voskreseniye (1899; Resurrection, 1899), but it was omitted when the novel was published, then rewritten and expanded. It is one of many pieces of shorter fiction Tolstoy wrote in the last decade or so of his life, with pronounced religious and Christian content, intended as educational incentives.

The three revolutionaries presented here differ in their approach to their zeal. The youngest of them, Anatoly Svetlogub, is of a rich family and is very intelligent and ambitious. He tries to help the disadvantaged as much as he can, but his heart is not fully in it; strangely, he even feels some shame while helping. His mother had high hopes that he would eventually attain a reasonably good position in society. Instead, as a young man he manages to get involved in the struggle for justice and reforms that marks the second half of the nineteenth century. He wants to help the poor and disadvantaged, but he is also attracted to the dangers involved in his revolutionary engagement. When explosives left in Svetlogub’s house by the leader of his revolutionary circle are discovered, the young man is imprisoned, convicted without definitive proof of a direct criminal act on his part, and hanged in the public square. As he presses the New Testament to his heart, he dies in peace and in the belief that all men are good and that all is well with the world. However, his mother, whose hopes that he would be set free are dashed, voices her disbelief in the kind of God that would allow such injustice to happen.

The irony of this injustice is that during the long incarceration, after Svetlogub had a chance to read the New Testament, he underwent a genuine conversion to Christianity and was ready to start a new life free of rebellion and terrorism. Another prisoner, who belonged to the Old Believer sect of the Russian Orthodox Church, made friends with Svetlogub and influenced him to the point of conversion. Svetlogub embraced the basic tenets of Christianity, even the hardest one to accept, “love thy enemy.” He not only admitted to his wrongdoings but also learned to love the authorities in their zeal to persecute and eventually kill him.

That is not the case with the second revolutionary, the leader of Svetlogub’s revolutionary circle, Ignaty Mezhenetsky. He has no qualms about the cruelty of his activity, believing firmly, like Svetlogub, in the justice of the revolutionaries’ desire to lift their poor brethren from the pits of poverty, overthrow the despotic government, and establish a free, elected government. However, because his fanaticism lacks any spiritual fervor, Mezhenetsky’s beliefs are purely rational. He is spared capital punishment and sent to a labor camp in Siberia. There, he meets another revolutionary leader, Roman, who is even more “rational” than he.

Roman and his group belittle Mezhenetsky’s revolutionary tactics as inadequate and ineffective. They advocate instead an almost “scientific” approach to the revolution. They believe that the peasants of Russia are stupid and will never understand the struggle for their own betterment until they all become proletarians. The peasants’ attachment to the land they have just received from the government after liberation from serfdom makes them conservative and unwilling to change. Therefore the land must be collectivized. In this belief, Roman’s revolutionaries resemble the Bolsheviks, who would soon take over the revolutionary movement and eventually succeed in their efforts only eight years after Tolstoy’s death. Tolstoy, like Fyodor Dostoevski, prophesied that the...

(The entire section is 887 words.)