I Cannot Be Silent


by Leo Tolstoy



“Seven death sentences: two in Petersburg, one in Moscow, two in Pénza, and two in Riga.  Four executions: two in Khersón, one in Vílna, one in Odessa.”

This is repeated daily in every newspaper and continued not for weeks, not for months, not for a year, but for years.  And this in Russia, that Russia where the people regard every criminal as a man to be pitied and where until quite recently capital punishment was not recognized by law!  I remember how proud I used to be of that when talking to Western Europeans.  But now for a second and even a third year we have executions, executions, executions, unceasingly!

I take up today’s paper.

Today, May 9th, the paper contains these few words: “Today in Khersón on the Strelbítsky Field, twenty peasants[1] were hung for an attack, made with intent to rob, on a landed proprietor’s estate in the Elisabetgrad district.”

Twelve of those by whose labor we live, the very men whom we have depraved and are still depraving by every means in our power – from the poison of vodka to the terrible falsehood of a creed we impose on them with all our might, but do not ourselves believe in – twelve of these men are strangled with cords by those whom they feed and clothe and house, and who have depraved and still continue to deprave them.  Twelve husbands, fathers, and sons from among those upon whose kindness, industry, and simplicity alone rests the whole of Russian life, are seized, imprisoned, and shackled.  Then their hands are tied behind their backs lest they should seize the ropes by which they are to be hung, and they are led to the gallows.  Several peasants similar to those about to be hung, but armed, dressed in clean soldiers’ uniforms with good boots on their feet and with guns in their hands, accompany the condemned men.  Beside them walks a long-haired man wearing a stole and vestments of gold or silver cloth, and bearing a cross.  The procession stops.  The man in command of the whole business says something and the secretary reads a paper.  When the paper has been read the long-haired man, addressing those whom other people are about to strangle with cords, says something about God and Christ.  Immediately after these words the hangmen (there are several, for one man could not manage so complicated a business) dissolve some soap, and, having soaped the loops in the cords so that they may tighten better, seize the shackled men, put shrouds on them, lead them to a scaffold, and place the well-soaped nooses round their necks.

And then, one after another, living men are pushed off the benches on which they were standing, the benches are pulled away, and by their own weight they suddenly tighten the nooses round their necks and are painfully strangled.  Men, alive a minute before, become corpses dangling from a rope, at first swinging slowly and then resting motionless.

All this is carefully arranged and planned by learned and enlightened people of the upper class.  They arrange to do these things secretly at daybreak so that no one shall see them done, and they arrange that the responsibility for these iniquities shall be so subdivided among those who commit them that each may think and say that it is not he who is responsible for them.  They arrange to seek out the most depraved and unfortunate of men, and, while obliging them to do this business, which they themselves planned and approved, they still keep up an appearance of abhorring those who do it.  They even plan such a subtle device as a military tribunal pronouncing the sentences, yet it is not military people but civilians who have to be present at the execution.  And the business is performed by unhappy, deluded, perverted, and despised men who have nothing to do but to soap the cords well so that they may grip the necks without fail, and who then get quite drunk on poison sold to them by these same enlightened upper-class people in order to quickly and fully forget their souls and their quality as men.  A doctor makes his round of the bodies, feels them, and reports to those in authority that the business has been done properly – all twelve are certainly dead.  And those in authority depart to their ordinary occupations with the consciousness of a necessary though painful task performed.  The bodies, now grown cold, are taken down and buried.

The thing is awful!

This is done not once, and not only to these twelve unhappy, misguided men from among the best class of the Russian people.  It is done unceasingly for years to hundreds and thousands of similar misguided men, misguided by the very people who do these terrible things to them.  And it is not this dreadful thing alone that is being done.  All sorts of other tortures and violence are being perpetrated in prisons, fortresses, and convict settlements with the same excuses and with the same cold-blooded cruelty.

This is dreadful, but most dreadful of all is the fact that it is not done impulsively under the influence of passions that silence reason, as occur in fights, war, or even burglary.  On the contrary, it is done at the demand of reason and calculation that silence such passions.  That is what makes these deeds so particularly dreadful.  Dreadful because these acts – committed by men who, from the judge to the hangman, do not wish to do them – prove more vividly than anything else how pernicious despotism, the power of man over man, is to human souls.

It is revolting that one man can take from another his labor, his money, his cow, his horse, or even his son or daughter, but how much more revolting it is that one man can take another’s soul by forcing him to do what destroys his spiritual self and deprives him of spiritual welfare.  And that is just what is done by these men who arrange executions, who use bribes, threats, and deceptions to calmly force men, from the judge to the hangman, to commit deeds that certainly deprive them of their true welfare, though they are committed in the name of the welfare of mankind.

And while this goes on for years all over Russia, the chief culprits – those who order these things to be done, those who could put a stop to them, those who are fully convinced that such deeds are useful and even absolutely necessary – either compose speeches and devise methods to prevent the Finns from living as they want to live, and to compel them to live as certain Russians wish them to live, or else publish orders to that effect.  “In Hussar regiments the cuffs and collars of the men’s jackets are to be of the same color, while those entitled to wear pelisses are not to have braid around the cuffs over the fur.”

What is most dreadful in the whole matter is that all this inhuman violence and killing, besides the direct evil done to the victims and their families, brings a yet more enormous evil on the whole people by spreading depravity among every class of Russians, in the same way that fire spreads amid dry straw.  This depravity grows with special rapidity among the simple working folk because all these iniquities – exceeding by a hundredfold all that is or has been done by thieves, robbers, and all the revolutionaries put together – are done as though they were something necessary, good, and unavoidable.  These deeds are not merely excused but supported by different institutions inseparably connected in the people’s minds with justice, and even with sanctity: the Senate, the Synod, the Duma, the Church, and the Czar.

And this depravity spreads with remarkable rapidity.  A short time ago there were not two executioners to be found in all Russia.  In the eighties there was only one.  I remember how joyfully Vladimir Solovëv told me then that no second executioner could be found in all Russia and so the one was taken from place to place.  Not so now.

A small shopkeeper in Moscow whose affairs were in a bad way offered his services to perform the murders arranged by the government, and, receiving a hundred rubles for each person hung.  He soon mended his affairs so well that he no longer required this additional business and has now reverted to his former trade.

In Orël last month, as elsewhere, an executioner was wanted and a man was immediately found who agreed with the organizers of governmental murders to do the business for fifty rubles per head.  But this volunteer hangman, after making the agreement, heard that more was paid in other towns.  At the time of the execution, having put the shroud sack on the victim, instead of leading him to the scaffold, he stopped, approached the superintendent, and said, “You must add another twenty-five rubles, your Excellency, or I won’t do it!”  He got the increase and did the job.

A little later five people were to be hanged, and the day before the execution a stranger came to see the organizer of governmental murders on a private matter.  The organizer went out to him, and the stranger said, “The other day so-and-so charged you seventy-five rubles a man.  I hear five are to be done tomorrow.  Let me have the whole job and I’ll do it at fifteen rubles a head, and you can rely on its being done properly!”  I do not know whether the offer was accepted or not, but I know it was made.

That is how the crimes committed by the government act on the worst and the least moral of the people, and these terrible deeds must also have an influence on the majority of men of average morality.  Continually hearing and reading about the most terrible inhuman brutality committed by the authorities (by persons whom the people are accustomed to honor as the best of men), the majority of average people, especially the young, preoccupied with their own affairs, instead of realizing that those who do such horrible deeds are unworthy of honor, involuntarily come to the opposite conclusion and argue that if men generally honored do things that seem to us horrible, these things cannot be as horrible as we suppose.

People now write and speak of executions, hangings, murders, and bombs as they used to speak about the weather.  Children play at hangings.  Lads from the high schools who are almost children go out on expropriating expeditions, ready to kill, just as they used to go out hunting.  To kill off the large landed proprietors in order to seize their estates appears now to many people to be the very best solution of the land question.

In general, the government has allowed killing as a means of obtaining its ends.  As a result, miserable people who have been perverted by that example now consider all crimes, robbery, theft, lies, tortures, and murders to be quite natural deeds, proper to a man.

Yes!  Terrible as the deeds are themselves, the moral, spiritual, unseen evil they produce is incomparably more terrible.

You say you commit all these horrors to restore peace and order.

You restore peace and order!

By what means do you restore them?  By destroying the last vestige of faith and morality in men – you, representatives of a Christian authority, leaders and teachers approved and encouraged by the servants of the Church!  By committing the greatest crimes: lies, perfidy, torture of all sorts, and this last and most terrible of crimes, the one most abhorrent to every human heart that is not utterly depraved – not just a single murder but innumerable murders, which you think to justify by stupid references to such and such statutes written by yourselves in those stupid and lying books of yours which you blasphemously call “the laws.”

You say that this is the only means of pacifying the people and quelling the revolution, but that is evidently false!  It is plain that you cannot pacify the people unless you satisfy the demand of elementary justice advanced by Russia’s whole agricultural population: the demand for the abolition of private property in land.  Nor can you pacify the nation by irritating the peasants and those unbalanced and envenomed people who have begun a violent struggle with you.  You cannot pacify people by tormenting them and by worrying, exiling, imprisoning, and hanging women and children!  However hard you may try to stifle in yourselves the reason and love natural to human beings, you still have them within you.  You need only come to your senses and to think, in order to see that by acting as you do – taking part in such terrible crimes – you not only fail to cure the disease, but make it worse by driving it inwards.

That is only too evident.

The cause of what is happening does not lie in physical events.  It depends entirely on the spiritual mood of the people, which has changed and which no efforts can bring back to its former condition, just as no efforts can turn a grown-up man into a child again.  Social irritation or tranquility cannot depend on whether Peter is hanged or allowed to live, or on whether John lives in Tambóv or in penal servitude at Nerchínsk.  Social irritation or tranquility must depend not on Peter or John alone but on how the great majority of the people regard their position, and on the attitude of this majority to the government, to landed property, to the religion taught to them, and on what this majority consider to be good or bad.  The power of events does not lie in the material conditions of life at all, but in the spiritual condition of the people.  Even if you were to kill and torture a tenth of the Russian nation, the spiritual condition of the rest would not become what you desire.

All you are now doing with all your searching, spying, exiling, prisons, penal settlements, and gallows does not bring the people to the state you desire, but on the contrary increases the irritation and destroys all possibility of peace and order.  “But what is to be done?” you say.  “What is to be done?  How are the iniquities that are now perpetrated to be stopped?”

The answer is very simple: “Cease to do what you are doing.”

 Many people know very well that what is most wanted to pacify the Russian people is the freeing of the land from private ownership, just as fifty years ago what was wanted was to free the peasants from serfdom.  But even if no one knew this, it would still be evident that to pacify the people one ought not to do what only increases their irritation.  Yet that is just what you are doing!

What you are doing, you do not for the people but for yourselves in order to retain the position you occupy, a position you consider advantageous but which is really a most pitiful and abominable one.  So do not say that you do it for the people, for that is not true!  All the abominations you do are done for yourselves, for your own covetous, ambitious, vain, vindictive, personal ends, in order to continue for a little longer in the depravity in which you live and which seems desirable to you.

However much you may declare that all you do is done for the good of the people, men are beginning to understand you and despise you more and more, and to regard your measures of restraint and suppression not as you wish them to be regarded – as the action of some kind of higher collective Being, the government – but as the personal evil deeds of individual and evil self-seekers.

Then again you say, “We did not begin all this.  The revolutionaries began it, and their terrible crimes can only be suppressed by firm measures” (so you call your crimes) “on the part of the government.”

You say the atrocities committed by the revolutionaries are terrible.  I do not dispute it.  I will add that besides being terrible they are stupid and that, like your own actions, they fall short of their target.  Yet however terrible and stupid their actions may be – all those bombs and violence, those revolting murders and thefts of money – still all these deeds do not come anywhere near the criminality and stupidity of the deeds you commit.

They are doing just the same as you and for the same motives.  They are in the same (I would say “comic” were its consequences not so terrible) delusion that men, having formed for themselves a plan of what in their opinion is the desirable and proper arrangement of society, have the right and possibility of arranging other people’s lives according to that plan.  The delusion is the same.  The method of implementing that delusion is violence of all kinds, including taking life.  And the excuse is that an evil deed committed for the benefit of many ceases to be immoral.  Therefore, without offending against the moral law, one may lie, rob, and kill whenever this leads toward the realization of that supposed good condition for the many, which we imagine that we know and can foresee, and which we wish to establish.

You government people call the acts of the revolutionaries “atrocities” and “great crimes,” but the revolutionaries have done and are doing nothing that you have not done, and done to an incomparably greater extent.  They only do what you do.  You keep spies, practice deception, and spread printed lies, and so do they.  You take people’s property by all sorts of violent means and use it as you consider best, and they do the same.  You execute those whom you think dangerous, and so do they.

You certainly cannot legitimately blame the revolutionaries while you employ the same immoral means as they do for the attainment of your aim.  All that you can adduce for your own justification, they can equally adduce for theirs; not to mention that you do much evil that they do not commit, such as squandering the wealth of the nation, preparing for war, making war, subduing and oppressing foreign nationalities, and much else.

You say you have the traditions of the past to guard and the actions of the great men of the past as examples.  The revolutionaries, too, have their traditions, also arising from the past – from even before the French Revolution.  And as to great men, they have models to copy and martyrs who perished for truth and freedom.  They have no fewer of these than you.

If there is any difference between you, it is only that you wish everything to remain as it has been, while they wish for a change.  And they would be more right than you in thinking that everything cannot always remain as it has been, had they not adopted from you that curious, destructive delusion that one set of men can know the form of life suitable for all men in the future, and that this form can be established by force.  They only do what you do, using the same means; they are altogether your disciples.  They have, as the saying goes, picked up all your little dodges.  They are not only your disciples; they are your products, your children.  If you did not exist, neither would they.  When you try to suppress them by force, you behave like a man who presses with his whole weight against a door that opens towards him.

If there is any difference between you and them it is certainly not in your favor but in theirs.  The mitigating circumstances on their side are, firstly, that their crimes are committed under conditions of greater personal danger than you are exposed to, and risks and danger excuse much in the eyes of impressionable youth.  Secondly, the immense majority of them are quite young people to whom it is natural to go astray, while you for the most part are men of mature age, old men to whom reasoned calm and leniency towards the deluded should be natural.  A third mitigating circumstance in their favor is that however odious their murders may be, they are still not so coldly and systematically cruel as are your Schlusselburgs,[2] transportations, gallows, and shootings.  And a fourth mitigating circumstance for the revolutionaries is that they all quite categorically repudiate all religious teaching and consider that the end justifies the means.  Therefore, when they kill one or more men for the sake of the imaginary welfare of the majority, they act quite consistently, whereas you government men – from the lowest hangman to the highest official – all support religion and Christianity, which is altogether incompatible with the deeds you commit.

It is you elderly men, leaders of other men, professing Christianity – it is you who say, like children who have been fighting, “We didn’t begin it; they did!”  That is the best you can say, you who have taken on yourselves the role of rulers of the people.  And what sort of men are you?  Men who acknowledge as God one who most definitely forbade not only judgment and punishment, but even condemnation of others; one who in clearest terms repudiated all punishment and affirmed the necessity of continual forgiveness, however often a crime may be repeated; one who commanded us to turn the other cheek to the one who strikes us, and not to return evil for evil; one who in the case of the woman sentenced to be stoned, showed so simply and clearly the impossibility of judgment and punishment between man and man.  And you, acknowledging that teacher to be God, can find nothing better to say in your defense than, “They started it!  They kill people, so let us kill them!”

An artist of my acquaintance thought of painting a picture of an execution, and he wanted a model for the executioner.  He heard that the duty of executioner in Moscow was at that time performed by a watchman, so he went to the watchman’s house.  It was Easter-time.  The family members were sitting in their best clothes at the tea-table, but the master of the house was not there.  It turned out afterwards that he had hidden himself on catching sight of a stranger.  His wife also seemed abashed and said that her husband was not at home, but his little girl betrayed him by saying, “Daddy’s in the garret.”  She did not know that her father was aware that what he did was evil and therefore could not help being afraid of everybody.  The artist explained to the wife that he wanted her husband as a model because his face suited the picture he had planned.  (Of course, he did not say what the picture was.)  Having got into conversation with the wife, the artist, in order to conciliate her, offered to take her little son as a pupil, an offer which evidently tempted her.  She went out and after a time the husband entered, morose, restless, frightened, and looking askance.  For a long time he tried to get the artist to say why he required just him.  When the artist told him he had met him in the street and his face seemed suitable for the planned picture, the watchman asked where had he met him.  At what time?  In what clothes?  And he would not come to terms, evidently fearing and suspecting something bad.

Yes, this executioner knows first and foremost that he is an executioner.  He knows that he does wrong and is therefore hated, and he is afraid of men.  I think that this consciousness and this fear before men atone for at least a part of his guilt.  But none of you, from the Secretary of the Court to the Premier and the Czar, who are indirect participants in the iniquities perpetrated every day, seem to feel the guilt or the shame that your participation in these horrors ought to evoke.  It is true that, like the executioner, you fear men, and the greater your responsibility for the crimes the more your fear.  The Public Prosecutor feels more fear than the Secretary, the President of the Court more than the Public Prosecutor, the General Governor more than the President, the President of the Council of Ministers more still, and the Czar most of all.  You are all afraid, but unlike the executioner, you are afraid not because you know you are doing evil, but because you think other people do evil.

Therefore I think that, as low as that unfortunate watchman has fallen, he is immeasurably higher morally than you authors and indirect participants of these awful crimes – you who condemn others instead of yourselves and carry your heads so high.

I know that men are but human, that we are all weak, that we all err, and that one cannot judge another.  I have long struggled against the feeling that was and is aroused in me by those responsible for these awful crimes, and aroused the more the higher they stand on the social ladder.  But I cannot and will not struggle against that feeling any longer.

I cannot and will not.  First, because an exposure of these people who do not see the full criminality of their actions is necessary for them as well as for the multitude, which, influenced by the external honor and praise accorded to these people, approves their terrible deeds and even tries to imitate them.  And secondly because (I frankly confess it) I hope my exposure of those men will in one way or other evoke the expulsion I desire from the set in which I am now living, and in which I cannot but feel myself a participant in the crimes committed around me.

Everything now being done in Russia is done in the name of the general welfare, in the name of the protection and tranquility of the people of Russia.  And if this is so, then it is also done for me, since I live in Russia.  For me, therefore, the people are made destitute and deprived of the first and most natural right of man: the right to use the land on which they are born.  For me those half-million men are torn away from wholesome peasant life, dressed in uniforms, and taught to kill.  For me that false so-called priesthood perverts and conceals true Christianity.  For me all these men are transported of from place to place.  For me these hundreds of thousands of migratory workmen go hungry.  For me these hundreds of thousands of unfortunates die of typhus and scurvy in the fortresses and prisons, which are insufficient for such a multitude.  For me the mothers, wives, and fathers of the exiles, the prisoners, and those who are hanged are suffering.  For me are these spies are sent and these bribes are paid.  For me these dozens and hundreds of men have been interned and shot.  For me the horrible work goes on for these hangmen, who were at first enlisted with difficulty but now no longer so loathe their work.  For me these gallows exist, with their well-soaped cords from which hang women, children, and peasants.  And for me this terrible embitterment of man against his fellow man is carried out.

As strange as it seems to say that all this is done for me, and that I am a participant in these terrible deeds, I cannot but feel that there is an indubitable interdependence between my spacious room, my dinner, my clothing, my leisure, and the terrible crimes committed to get rid of those who would like to take what I have from me.  And though I know that these homeless, embittered, depraved people – who but for the government’s threats would deprive me of all I am using – are products of that same government’s actions, still I cannot help feeling that at present my peace really is dependent on all the horrors that are now being perpetrated by the government.

And being conscious of this, I can no longer endure it, but must free myself from this intolerable position!  It is impossible to live so!  I, at any rate, cannot and will not live so.

That is why I write this and will circulate it by all means in my power, both in Russia and abroad.  I hope that one of two things may happen: either that these inhuman deeds may be stopped, or that my connection with them may be terminated by my imprisonment, whereby I may be clearly conscious that these horrors are not committed on my behalf.  Or still better (so good that I dare not even dream of such happiness), I hope that they may put on me, as on those twelve or twenty peasants, a shroud and a cap and may push me also off a bench, so that by my own weight I may tighten the well-soaped noose round my old throat.

To attain one of these two aims, I address myself to all participants in these terrible deeds, beginning with those who put those caps and nooses on their brother men and women and children – from the prison warders up to the chief organizers and authorizers of these terrible crimes.  Brother men!  Come to your senses!  Stop and think!  Consider what you are doing!  Remember who you are!

Before being hangmen, generals, public prosecutors, judges, the premier, or the Czar, are you not men, today allowed a peep into God’s world, and tomorrow ceasing to be?  (You hangmen of all grades in particular, who are evoking special hatred, should remember this.)  Is it possible, you who have had this brief glimpse of God’s world (for even if you are not murdered, death is always close behind us all), that in your lucid moments you do not see that your vocation in life cannot be to torment and kill men?  You yourselves tremble with fear of being killed, lying to yourselves, to others, and to God, assuring yourselves and others that by participating in these things you are doing an important and grand work for the welfare of millions.  Is it possible that, when not intoxicated by your surroundings, by flattery, and by the customary sophistries, you do not each one of you know that this is all mere talk, only invented so that, while doing the most evil deeds, you may still consider yourself as good men?  You cannot but know that you, like each of us, have but one real duty which includes all others: the duty of living the short space granted us in accord with the Will that sent you into this world, and of leaving it in accord with that Will.  And that Will desires only one thing: love from man to man.

But what are you doing?  To what are you devoting your spiritual strength?  Whom do you love?  Who loves you?  Your wife?  Your child?  But that is not love.  The love of wife and children is not human love.[3]  Animals love in that way even more strongly.  Human love is the love of man for man – for every man as a son of God, and therefore a brother.  Whom do you love in that way?  No one.  Who loves you in that way?  No one.

You are feared as a hangman or a wild animal is feared.  People flatter you because at heart they despise and hate you, and how they hate you!  You know it and are afraid of them.

Yes, consider it, all you accomplices in murder from the highest to the lowest, consider who you are and cease to do what you are doing.  Cease, not for your own sakes, not for the sake of your own personalities, not for the sake of men, not that you may cease to be blamed, but for the sake of your souls and for the God who lives within you!


May 9th, 1908




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[1] The papers have since contradicted the statement that twenty peasants were hung.  I can only be glad of the mistake, glad not only that eight less have been strangled than was stated at first, but glad also that the awful figure moved me to express in these pages a feeling that has long tormented me.  I leave the rest unchanged, therefore, merely substituting the word twelve for the word twenty, since what I said refers not only to the twelve who were hung but to all the thousands who have lately been crushed and killed.

[2] Transcriber’s note – The site of a notorious prison, which was destroyed in the Revolution.

[3] Transcriber’s note – More appropriately, it is not the love required by the Will that sent us into this world.