Christian Martyrdom in Russia/Appendix II

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Letter from Leo Tolstoy to the Commander of the Ekaterinograd Penal Battalion


Sir,—Pardon me, please, for addressing you without using your Christian and parental names. I have not been able to ascertain them; but the matter of enormous importance, as well for me as for you, concerning which I have to write to you, does not bear delay.

This matter concerns the confinement in your battalion of the Caucasian Spirit-Wrestlers who have refused military service.

The military authorities, who have condemned them, and you, who are executing on them the sentence of the Court, evidently regard the conduct of these men as harmful, and believe in the efficacy of those severe measures which are directed against them. But there are people, and many (to whose number I also belong), who regard the conduct of the Spirit-Wrestlers as great heroism, most useful for humanity. In this light, such conduct was regarded by the ancient Christians, and similarly it is, and will be regarded by true Christians of the new time.

Thus the views concerning the conduct of the Spirit-Wrestlers may be entirely opposite. In one point only all are agreed, both those who regard this conduct as good and useful, and those who believe it to be harmful:—on this point, namely, that men who refuse the military sevice from religious conviction, and are ready to endure for this every kind of suffering and even death, are not vicious, but highly moral men, who, owing merely to a misunderstanding of the authorities (a misunderstanding which will probably soon be corrected), are placed in the same position as tho most criminal soldiers.

I understand that you cannot take upon yourself to correct the mistake or misunderstanding of the higher authorities, but that while on service you have to fulfil the duties involved. This is certainly so; but beside the duties of a service which you have voluntarily taken upon yourself, duties obligatory for you only during the small period of your life,—you have, like every man, duties not temporary but eternal, which have been laid upon you independently of your own will, and from which you cannot liberate yourself.

You know who these men are and wherefore they are suffering; and knowing this, you may, without overstepping the limits of your rights and duties, refrain from leading them into fresh disobedience, and from subjecting them therefore to punishments; you are in general able to have compassion for them, and as far as possible to alleviate their lot; as you are also able voluntarily to shut your eyes to the distinction between these men and the other prisoners, and to torture them to death, as has been the case in the Voronege penal battalion with an ex-schoolmaster, Drojin, whose case is now generally well known, he dying a martyr to his Christian convictions.

In the first case, you would receive the gratitude and blessings of the sufferers themselves, of their mothers, fathers, brothers and friends, and above all, you would find in your conscience the incomparable joy of a good deed. In the second case (I do not speak of the prisoners themselves, because I know that they will find consolation in the consciousness that by their death they are confirming their faith), what dreadful accusations against yourself you will arouse by your cruelty, from the parents, relatives and friends of those who may perish under your command; and above all, you would yourself incur such rebukes of conscience as would not leave you the possibility either of joy or peace.

You could indeed say: "I do not know, and do not wish to know wherefore these men are sent to me, but since they are sent, they must fulfil the lawful demands etc.," if you really did not know this. But you do know—if it were only through this my letter—that these men are sent to you because they wish to fulfil the law of God, which is equally binding upon you as upon them,—the law of God, which not only forbids us to kill or torture each other, but enjoins us to help and love each other.

And therefore, if you will not do all that is in your power to alleviate the lot of these men, you will bring upon yourself an invisible but most heavy calamity in the consciousness of the evident transgression of the will of God, as known to you; the consciousness of an irreparable, cruel, evil deed.

This is why the case I am writing to you about is of the highest importance and urgency. As for me, the matter is of great importance, because if I did not say all this, I should feel myself in fault before you, before myself and before God.

Everything on earth can be corrected except an ungodly and inhuman action, especially when one knows that it is ungodly and inhuman, and nevertheless commits it.

Pardon me, please, if I have said anything objectionable. Truly, before God, can I say that that which I have written, I have written only because I regarded it as my duty to you to do so.

I should be very grateful to you if you were to answer me.—With respect, I remain, yours sincerely,

Leo Tolstoy.

November 1st, 1896.