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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806

In Russia during the nineteenth century, a young, attractive businessman named Ivan Dmitrich Aksionov lived with his wife and children. Although he had been a bit wild in his youth, he had now settled down and lived a responsible, productive life. One day he decided to make a trip to...

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In Russia during the nineteenth century, a young, attractive businessman named Ivan Dmitrich Aksionov lived with his wife and children. Although he had been a bit wild in his youth, he had now settled down and lived a responsible, productive life. One day he decided to make a trip to a fair where he could sell some of his merchandise. Although his wife had had a bad dream about this trip, Aksionov decided to proceed. On the way, he stopped at an inn, where he met another merchant, a person he knew. They decided to stay at the inn in rooms next to one another. The next morning, he proceeded on his way. After traveling twenty-five miles, however, he was stopped by a local police officer, who questioned him closely about the time he had spent at the inn. It turned out that the other merchant had been found with his throat slit open, and Aksionov seemed a likely suspect since he knew the man and since their rooms had been adjacent. Aksionov vehemently denied any involvement in the murder. However, when his bags were checked, a bloody knife was found.

Although Aksionov protested his innocence, he was arrested and charged with the murder. Even his wife wondered if he might have been involved, since the circumstantial evidence was so striking. A petition to the Czar for mercy was turned down. Aksionov bade his wife and young children farewell, reflecting that only God can know the truth, and that only God can provide true clemency. Aksionov continued to petition the Czar, but eventually he despaired of any earthly mercy, focusing his thoughts instead on God. After being severely flogged, he was sent to work in the mines in Siberia. During his twenty-six years of imprisonment there, his hair turned white, his happy-go-lucky personality disappeared, and his body began to weaken; he never showed any signs of happiness and he frequently prayed to God.

While imprisoned, he became a boot-maker, thus earning enough money to buy a book called The Lives of the Saints. He read this book whenever possible. On Sundays he took a prominent role in the religious services, and he sang in the choir of the prison church. The wardens and guards appreciated his humility, and the other prisoners regarded him with respect, calling him “Grandfather” and “The Saint.” He became their representative when they needed to deal with the authorities, and they trusted him so much that they treated him as a kind of judge, who could settle disputes and disagreements amongst them. Meanwhile, he had no information about his family nor any contact with them. They might all be dead, for all he knew.

When a new shipment of prisoners arrived one day, Aksionov eventually realized that one of the men, Makar, was from his own home town. In response to Aksionov’s questions, Makar informed the old man that Aksionov’s family was prosperous. Makar seemed to know Aksionov somehow, leading the latter to wonder if Makar knew anything about the murder of the merchant. Makar’s reply led Aksionov to begin to suspect that it was Makar who had in fact committed the crime. Tormented by painful memories and by a sense of all the years he had lost, he eventually accused Makar, privately, of having murdered the merchant. Makar ignored the accusation even though Aksionov had caught Makar trying to dig a tunnel to escape the prison. Aksionov could easily have reported this deed to the authorities, but he chose to keep quiet, even after Makar threatened him. When the tunnel was eventually discovered, no one would identify Makar as the culprit who had been doing the digging. Even Aksionov, who was closely questioned by the Governor of the prison because the Governor knew that his testimony would be honest, denied knowing who had been digging. He did not want to see Makar harshly punished and even began to wonder if he had wrongly suspected Makar of murdering the merchant.

Later that night, Makar came to Aksionov’s bed and begged the old man for forgiveness. He confessed that he had indeed killed the merchant and had hidden the bloody knife in Aksionov’s belongings. He offered to confess to this crime so that Aksionov could be released from prison and go back to his home and family. Makar continued to beg Aksionov for forgiveness, especially since Aksionov had not revealed what he knew about Makar and the tunnel. Both men were soon weeping, and Aksionov said “God will forgive you! . . . Maybe I am a hundred times worse than you.” Having said this, he suddenly felt unburdened and no longer cared about leaving prison. He only desired death. Makar did eventually confess to having killed the merchant, but by the time Aksionov’s pardon arrived, he was already deceased.

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