THE SHABUNIN AFFAIR: An Episode in the Life of Leo Tolstoy by Walter Kerr

THE SHABUNIN AFFAIR: An Episode in the Life of Leo Tolstoy

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Tolstoy was 37 when, in 1866, he was approached by two military acquaintances and asked to serve as defense counsel for an Army private, Shabunin, facing the death sentence for drunkenly striking an officer. Tolstoy took on the task, provided a sloppy and excessively legalistic plea, and lost the case--which, in any case, was rigged from up high in the beginning: Shabunin was finally executed by firing squad before Tolstoy's eyes. In Kerr's opinion, then, this incident--and Tolstoy's personal failure--is what later precipitated Tolstoy's spiritual crisis, the one which led him to refusal of society and law and established religion, turning him from artist to would-be saint. And Kerr (The Russian Army, The Secret of Stalingrad) supports the contention with: a 1908 letter by Tolstoy detailing his shame at botching the Shabunin defense; and the passionate defense provided for Katusha by Nekhludov in Resurrection. (Tolstoy, Kerr argues, is here re-doing real-life errors over in fiction.) Other Tolstoyans, however, such as biographer Troyat and critic Eikhenbaum, seem much less impressed with the importance of the Shabunin affair. Moreover, Kerr's attempts to inflate the incident into a crucial enormity has its problems, chiefly the dependence on creaky narrative hypotheses: ""What an extraordinary sight! Yunosha, Kolokiltsov, and Stasyulevich [judges in the Shabunin tribunal] riding on ahead, the band following on foot, and Leo Tolstoy, with what thoughts one can only imagine, standing in the garden watching them disappear in the moonlight."" Intriguing but hardly overwhelmingly convincing, then: a puzzle-piece that smacks a bit of fiat-world theory.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1982
Publisher: Cornell Univ. Press