Thoreau’s Influence on Tolstoy’s Thought

I’ve been enjoying Tolstoy’s last novel, Resurrection. It’s an interesting story — part “perils of Pauline”-style potboiler, part redemption narrative, part an attempt by Tolstoy to imagine his ideals into the world in an attractive and realistic way. It’s much shorter than his more well-known novels, and focuses on a single main character (Nekhludoff).

I bring it up today because he includes a shout-out to Thoreau at the beginning of Book Ⅱ, Chapter 29:

He remembered the thought of the American writer, Thoreau, who at the time when slavery existed in America said that “under a government that imprisons any unjustly the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Nekhludoff, especially after his visit to Petersburg and all he discovered there, thought in the same way.

“Yes, the only place befitting an honest man in Russia at the present time is a prison,” he thought, and even felt that this applied to him personally, when he drove up to the prison and entered its walls.

This is not the first time Tolstoy mentioned Thoreau. In an letter to conscientious objector Eugen Heinrich Schmitt, he wrote:

As far back as fifty years ago a little-known, but very remarkable American author, Thoreau, not only clearly enunciated this incompatibility [between service to the state and Christianity] in his beautiful article on the duty of a man not to obey the government, but also in practice showed an example of this disobedience. He refused to pay the taxes demanded of him, as he did not wish to be an abettor and accomplice of a state that legalized slavery, and was put in prison for it.

Thoreau refused to pay the taxes to the state. Naturally a man may on the same ground refuse to serve the state, as you beautifully expressed it in your letter to the minister, when you said that you did not consider it compatible with moral dignity to give your labour to an institution which serves as the representative of legalized murder and rapine.

Thoreau, I think, was the first to say so fifty years ago. At that time no one paid any attention to this his refusal and article, — they seemed so strange. The refusal was explained on the ground of eccentricity. Your refusal already provokes discussion and, as always at the enunciation of new truths, double amazement, — wonderment at hearing a man say such strange things, and, after that, wonderment at this: “Why did not I come to think of what this man speaks, — it is so plain and unquestionable?”