God Sees the Truth, But Waits

by Leo Tolstoy

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What does "God Sees the Truth, But Waits" reveal about unfair justice systems?

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"God Sees the Truth, But Waits" tells us about the fundamental imperfection of the justice system, by which the innocent are often found guilty. This is not a story about institutional corruption, of a Les Misérables type situation, where the legal system itself is thoroughly unreasonable, given that Aksionov is found guilty of murder. This makes Tolstoy's critique an all the more foundational one, relating to the fallibility of human justice itself.

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Tolstoy's "God Sees the Truth, But Waits" tells the story of a man who is framed for a crime and condemned for a murder he did not commit. This reflects one of the most significant imperfections of the judicial system: that the innocent can be wrongfully found guilty and convicted. Aksionov ends up spending twenty-six years in a Siberian prison camp before his innocence is discovered, by which point too much time has passed and he has nowhere to return to outside the prison.

What is particularly noteworthy about this situation was the lack of obvious corruption on the part of the judicial system itself. This was not a situation where the investigators were driven by malice: from their perspective, the evidence against Aksionov was conclusive, and they acted accordingly. Nor was this a Les Misérables type situation, where the punishment vastly outweighed the crime: Aksionov, in this case, was condemned for murder. Tolstoy's critique, thus, is one that looks all the more deeply into the fundamental nature of human justice itself: it will always be imperfect. No matter how enlightened our laws might become, or how strict we make our tests against human error and corruption, the innocent will always be sorted with the guilty.

At the same time, it is also noteworthy that the failure is not just an institutional one, but a personal one as well. It is not only the investigators that are convinced of Aksionov's guilt, but so too are his closest friends. People that have known him for all his life are swayed by the evidence against him. Even his own wife doubts his innocence. Again, these details reflect these deeper concerns with human error, and how injustice can stem from even among the well intentioned. Thus, Aksionov determines that he can only appeal to God, who alone would know the truth of his innocence (an idea reflected in the story's title).

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What does "God Sees the Truth, But Waits" tell us about the existence of an unfair system of justice?

The unfair system of justice presented to us by Tolstoy in “God Sees the Truth, But Waits” is an entirely human creation. As humans are inherently imperfect, it stands to reason that anything they create, including systems of justice, will also be imperfect.

And that's certainly the case with the Russian criminal justice system as presented to us by Tolstoy. It has sentenced an innocent man, Aksionov, to a lengthy period of imprisonment in a harsh, remote penal colony. If this isn't a prime example of unfairness, then nothing is.

Under the circumstances, it's nothing short of miraculous that, instead of becoming bitter at his unjust treatment, Aksionov has instead developed a humble holiness that earns him the respect of prison guards and other inmates.

In effect, one could say that Aksionov has come to understand, during his long period of imprisonment, that human justice is ultimately of no consequence. The only kind of justice that matters is divine justice, cosmic justice, justice provided by God. As God, unlike his creatures, is perfect and so cannot err in his judgments, which are always wise and merciful.

Aksionov, then, is surely right in telling Makar, the man who committed the crime for which he, Aksionov, was wrongly convicted, that God will forgive him for what he's done.

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