Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"I Cannot Be Silent" By Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy plowing. Although he was raised a rich man, he did much to help alleviate poverty, illiteracy and - with his writings perhaps - the rich justified in growing richer (without pause) while the poor grew poorer? (both photos from Wikimedia)

Tolstoy by Repin

Due to a Tolstoy story coming up in a marvelously engaging writers' group from another fan, I found reference to this work of Tolstoy's mentioned in a short bio in "The Portable Tolstoy". I just found this excerpt form on the internet. Some of these classic writers never die! If Tolstoy was so able to choose and to foresee what would capture a future audience's attention - may he also be able to see what he has brought to so many of us years hence and how we are still passing his writings along...Perhaps this way his rough ending may be somewhat smoothed in his "celestial memories" if there is anything akin to that? :)



"I cannot be silent"
Published: Saturday, August 25, 2007,

Joseph G. Racioppi

Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer/philosopher, is famous primarily for the titanic novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina. What many people don't know is that Tolstoy spent the last thirty years of his life on religious and philosophical writings. He even corresponded with a young Mohandas Gandhi who may owe his idea of passive resistance to Tolstoy.

One of the best tracts I've read against the death penalty is Tolstoy's I cannot be silent (1908) In it, Tolstoy rails against government institutions and the church for their approval of capital punishment. Almost comically he describes an execution:

...Beside them walks a long-haired man, wearing a stole and vestments of gold or silver cloth and bearing a cross. The procession stops. The man in command of the whole business says something, the secretary reads a paper; and when the paper has been read the long-haired man, addressing those whom other people are about to strangle with cords, says something about God and Christ.

Immediately after these words the hangmen (there are several, for one man could not manage so complicated a business) dissolve some soap, and, having soaped the loops in the cords that they may tighten better, seize the shackled men, put shrouds on them, lead them to a scaffold, and place the well-soaped nooses around their necks.

And then, one after another, living men are pushed off the benches which are drawn from under their feet, and by their own weight suddenly tighten the nooses round their necks and are painfully strangled. Men, alive a minute before, become corpses dangling from a rope, at first swinging slowly and then resting motionless.

All this is carefully arranged and planned by learned and enlightened people of the upper class.

Tolstoy reminds the reader that government officials involved in this process - "from the lowest hangman to the highest official - all support religion and Christianity, which is altogether incompatible with the deed they commit."

All in favor of or against capital punishment should read this piece. I found it in The Portable Tolstoy, edited by John Bayley (1978). (P. 732)

Tolstoy was anti-war, anti-Church (he was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church), and anti-capital punishment. Or to put it more positively, he was pro-nonviolence.

Although his writings are at least a century old, they are absolutely relevant today. For further reading see: The Law of Love and the Law of Violence (1908), Confession (1879), and Resurrection (1899-1900).

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