Commentary by Karen Bernardo
The protagonist of Leo Tolstoy’s short story “God Sees The Truth, But Waits” is a carefree young man named Ivan Dmitrich Aksionov. The fact that he is, at the beginning of the story, so carefree should serve as fair warning that he will not be this way long. We are further warned of storm clouds on the horizon of Aksionov’s life when his wife—also young, also beautiful, but more aware of life’s uncertainties—tells him she has had a bad dream about him, and asks him not to go to the Nizhny Fair, where he plans to sell his wares. He laughs at her and goes anyway. But we know, from these first seven paragraphs of Tolstoy’s little tale, that things will not go well with Aksionov from that moment on.
Disaster doesn’t surface immediately. Halfway to the fair, Aksionov stops at an inn for the night and winds up sharing a cup of tea with another merchant whom he knows slightly. The two merchants go to bed in adjoining rooms. In the morning Aksionov gets up, pays his bill, and gets back on the road. But twenty-five miles later he is overtaken by soldiers, who question him about his activities the previous night.
Aksionov finally asks him why they are treating him as if he’s committed a crime, and he is informed that the merchant with whom he spent the previous evening has been found murdered and his goods plundered. When the soldiers search Aksionov’s bags, they find a bloody knife.
Predictably, Aksionov is arrested, tried, and convicted of murder. His wife is able to see him one time before he is exiled to Siberia; after rousing herself from a dead faint at the sight of him in shackles and chains, she asks him whatever possessed him to murder the stranger on the way to the fair. His own wife doesn’t believe he is innocent.
In Siberia, Aksionov is such a model prisoner that the other convicts call him “The Saint,” and come to him with their problems and disputes. His life is hard but bearable until a new prisoner, Makar Semyonich, comes into the camp twenty-six years later. Aksionov learns that the new man comes from the same home town as Aksionov himself. Makar Semyonich knows Aksionov’s sons well; they are rich and successful merchants, even though it is said their father is a convict in Siberia. That is the good news. The bad news is that Makar Semyonich reveals himself to be none other than the true perpetrator of the crime for which Aksionov is now serving a life sentence.
Aksionov is now torn by conflict. Here is the man responsible for Aksionov’s twenty-six years of misery! Yet what good would come from revealing him to be the murderer now? The conflict is made even more acute when Makar Semyonich attempts to tunnel out of prison and his tunnel is discovered. The prisoners are assembled and asked to reveal who had dug the hole. This is the perfect opportunity for Aksionov to have his revenge on Makar Semyonich—but he cannot do it. Again, what would be gained? The damage to Aksionov’s life has already been done, and no good can come of making someone else’s life worse.
In private that evening, Makar Semyonich comes to Aksionov and begs his forgiveness. “When they flogged me with the knout it was not so hard to bear as it is to see you now...yet you had pity on me, and did not tell. For Christ’s sake forgive me, wretch that I am!” But Aksionov says that forgiveness is not his to give, but God’s, and “God will forgive you....Maybe I am a hundred times worse than you.”
Here is an odd remark. Throughout this story, Aksionov has never been depicted as anything but pure of heart. At the beginning of the story, he was carefree and naive; at the end, he is anything but naive, but he has risen above the pettiness of human concerns to true charity. How could he be “worse” than this murderer? But as Aksionov tells Makar Semyonich that God will forgive him, “his heart grew light, and his longing for home left him.” Tolstoy seems to be saying that what makes us sinners is our attachments to material things, including our homes, businesses, and families. Even if these things do not actually cause us to sin, the attachment itself makes the risk of sin immanent, and ties us to earth. Only when we give up those things can we truly become free. In the very next sentence Aksionov dies, reunited with his God for whom no material ties are real.
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