|For Julian Assange.
Greetings from the desk of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.
When I was a young boy in Kolkata (India), a group of people from Progress Publishers (USSR) came to my school. They set up a table and laid out a variety of books for us to look at and – perhaps – buy. There were children’s books and the works of Karl Marx, as well as a range of novels by Russian authors, certainly, but also writers from Africa and the rest of Asia. For whatever reason, that day – in 1981 – I bought Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection (1899). Later, I would reflect on the fact that the Soviets would publish writers – such as Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev – who held a range of political opinions quite far from socialism. But at that time I dug into Tolstoy’s book, which I had bought for almost nothing.
A Russian aristocrat, Count Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov, has an affair with a maid, Katerina Mikhaelovna Maslova, in the home of his aunts. Nekhlyudov, who moves on with his life, is oblivious to Maslova’s fate. Ten years later, he is on a jury which has before it Maslova, now a sex worker who is charged with murder. Maslova poisoned a client who had beaten her. The Count wants to save her, begging her to marry him. She is not interested. ‘You had your pleasure from me in this world’, she says of his Christian charity, ‘and now you want to get your salvation through me in the world to come’.
Maslova is sent to Siberia. Nekhlyudov follows her. He hears about the terrors of the prison system. Tolstoy spares no detail. It is difficult reading. The prisons in the novel describe the prisons today. These are nasty places, which take away the humanity of people. Count Nekhlyudov opens a discussion with his brother-in-law, Rogozhinsky, about courts and prisons. Rogozhinsky says that the courts and the prisons are needed for justice. ‘As if justice were the aim of the law’, says the Count. ‘What then?,’ asks his brother-in-law. ‘The upholding of class interests! I think the law is only an instrument for upholding the existing order of things beneficial to our class’. His verdict is total. But what can he do? Nothing.
Nekhlyudov cannot save Maslova. Nor can he save the line of emaciated prisoners who march out of their frozen prisons and die on the streets. ‘Man owes no humanity to man’, said the Count. Tolstoy could only end the novel with the hope of a Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, with quotes from the Bibleswirling through the Count’s head.