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Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha > Resurrection of Tolstoy's Count Rostopchin

Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

Resurrection of Tolstoy's Count Rostopchin

8 November 2000

"...In the novel War and Peace, Vereshchagin met an untimely death in Moscow due to Rostopchin's machinations in the early 19th century. Tolstoy's story received a painful resurrection in Sri Lanka [Bindunuwewa-Bandarawela] on October 25, where 29 Tamil Vereshchagins were murdered. Incidentally, it is a coincidence that the title of Tolstoy's last major novel, Voskreseniye, written in 1899, is nothing but 'Resurrection'..."

Leo Tolstoy, born in 1828, breathed his last ninety years ago today (1910 Nov.7, Julian style; Nov.20 new style). His masterpiece War and Peace [Voyna I Mir,  written between 1863 and 1869] is acknowledged as one of the greatest novels in any language. Though he weaved the life of five Russian families during and after the Napoleonic War (1805-20) in this novel, Tolstoy's portrayal of some characters seems pertinent to Sri Lankan history of 1950s to 1990s, and even to the events as recent as October 2000.

One can even postulate that Tolstoy, with characteristic foresight, has lampooned the political leadership of the Bandaranaikes - husband Solomon, wife Sirimavo and daughter Chandrika. Just change the name Rostopchin to any of these three, and Tolstoy's words fit them well.

I prove below Tolstoy's description [in Rosemary Edmonds's translation of 1962-63] on Count Rostopchin, the Governor-General of Moscow. Please note that the three dots (wherever they appear) are as in the original text. Omissions, for want of space, are stated in parentheses.

The following excerpt is from Book Three; Part 3; section 24 of War and Peace.

" 'Who is to blame for this? Who has let things come to such a pass?' he ruminated. 'Not I, of course. I had everything in readiness. I had Moscow firmly in hand. And now see what a pretty plight they had led us to! Villains! Traitors!' he thought, not exactly identifying the villains and traitors but feeling it necessary to pour hatred on those, whoever they might be, who were to blame for the false and ludicrous position in which he found himself.

All that night Count Rostopchin issued orders, for which people were continually coming to him from all parts of Moscow. His intimates had never seen the count so gloomy and irritable.

'Your Excellency, there's a messenger from the Director of the Registrar's Department asking for instructions...From the Consistory, from the Senate, from the University, from the Foundling Hospital...The suffragan has sent to...so-and-so wants to know...What are your orders about the Fire Brigade? The governor of the prison asks...The superintendent of the lunatic asylum is here...' And so it went on all night long.

To all these inquiries the count's replies were short and severe, their drift being that instructions from him were not needed now, that somebody had spoilt all his careful preparations, and that that somebody would have to shoulder full responsibility for anything that might happen from now on.

'Oh, tell the idiot' he said in answer to the inquiry from the Registrar's Department, 'to stay and look after his archives. What is this nonsense about the Fire Brigade? Let 'em get on their horses and be off to Vladimir, and not leave them to the French'.

'Your Excellency, the superintendent of the lunatic asylum has come: what does your Excellency wish him to do?'

'Wish him to do? Leave, that's all' And turn the lunatics loose in the town. When we have madmen in command of our armies God evidently means these others to be at large too.'

When asked what was to be done about the convicts in the gaol the count shouted furiously at the governor: 'Do you expect me to provide you with a couple of battalions - which we have not got - for a convoy? Release 'em, and that settles it!'

'Your Excellency, some of them are political prisoners - Meshkov, Vereshchagin...'

'Vereshchagin! Hasn't he been hanged yet?' roared Rostopchin.

'Bring him to me!'

The following lengthy excerpt is from Book Three, Part 3; section 25.

"The chief of police, who had been stopped by the crowd, arrived to see him [Rostopchin] at the same time as an adjutant to say that the horses were ready. Both were pale, and the superintendent of police, after reporting the accomplishment of his mission, informed the count that a vast assembly had collected in the courtyard wanting to see him.

'But what is it they want?' he asked the superintendent of police.

'Your Excellency, they say they have rallied, in accordance with your orders, to go against the French, and they were shouting something about treachery. But it is a turbulent mob, your Excellency. I had much ado to get away. Your Excellency, if I may venture to suggest...'

'Have the goodness to retire! I know what to do without your assistance,' cried Rostopchin angrily. [omission]

As is often the case with hot-tempered people he was overcome with rage, but had still to find a scapegoat on which to vent it. 'There they are - the mob, the dregs of the populace', he said to himself in French as he gazed the crowd. 'The rabble they have stirred up by their folly! They want a victim', he thought as he watched the waving arm of the tall fellow in front. And this idea came into his head precisely because he, too, wanted a scapegoat, an object of his wrath.

'Is the carriage ready?' he asked again.

'Yes, your Excellency. What orders do you wish to give concerning Vereshchagin? He is waiting at the porch', said the adjutant.

'Ah!' exclaimed Rostopchin, as though struck by some sudden recollection. [omission]

'Where is he?' he demanded, and as he spoke he saw a young man with a long thin neck, and half of his head that had been shaven covered with short hair, appearing round the corner of the house between two dragoons. He was dressed in a threadbare blue cloth coat lined with fox fur, that had once been stylish, and filthy convict trousers of fustian, thrust into thin, dirty, down-at-hill boots. Heavy iron shackles dragged on his weak, thin legs, hampering his uncertain gait.

'Ah!' said Rostopchin, hastily averting his eyes from the young man in the fur-lined coat and pointing to the bottom step of the porch. 'Stand him there!'

Rostopchin stood frowning and passing his hand over his face while he waited for the young man to get to the step.

'My friends!' he said, with a metallic ring in his voice, 'This man, Vereshchagin, is the scoundrel who has lost us Moscow.' [omission]

'Take the law into your own hands! I pass him over to you!'

The crowd made no answer and merely packed closer and closer. [omission]

'Slay him! Let the traitor perish and not bring shame on the name of Russia!' screamed Rostopchin. 'Cut him down! It is my command'.

Hearing not so much Rostopchin's actual words as their venomous tone, the mob groaned and heaved forward, but stopped again.

'Count!' the timid yet theatrical voice of Vereshchagin broke in upon the momentary lull that followed. 'Count! There is one God judges us.' He lifted his head and again the thick vein in his thin neck filled with blood and the colour rapidly came and went in his face. He did not finish what he was trying to say.

'Cut him down! It is my command!' shouted Rostopchin, suddenly growing as white as Vereshchagin.

'Draw sabres!' cried the officer to the dragoons, unsheathing his own sword.

'Cut at him!' the officer almost whispered to the dragoons, and one of the soldiers, his face suddenly convulsed with fury, struck Vereshchagin on the head with the flat of his sword.

Vereshchagin, uttering a sharp cry of surprise, looked round in alarm, as though not knowing why this was done to him. A like moan of surprise and horror ran through the crowd. [omission]

Only when the victim ceased to struggle and his shrieks had given way to a long-drawn, rhythmic death-rattle did the mob around the prostrate, bleeding corpse hurriedly begin to change places. Everyone came up, glanced at what had been done, and pushed back again, aghast, remorseful and astonished.

'O Lord, the people are like wild beasts! It's a wonder anyone was spared!' exclaimed some voice in the crowd. 'Quite a young fellow, too...must have been a merchant's son, to be sure the people...They do say he's not the right one...What d'you mean - the right one?...Merciful Lord! ...And there's another gut butchered too - they say he's nearly done for...Oh, what a people! There's no sin they're afraid of...' said the same mob now as they stared with rueful pity at the dead body with its long, thin neck half-severed and the livid face fouled with blood and lust.

A punctilious police official, considering the presence of corpse in his Excellency's courtyard unseemly, bade the dragoons drag it away into the street. Two dragoons took hold of the mangled legs and hauled the body along the ground. The dead, shaven head, gory and grimed, was trailed along, rolling from side to side on the long neck. The crowed shrank away from the corpse.

When Vereshchagin fell and the crowd burst forward with savage yells and heaved about him, Rostopchin suddenly turned pale and, instead of making for the back where his horses were waiting, strode rapidly along the passage leading to the rooms on the ground floor, looking down and not knowing where he was going or why. [omission]

'The hoi polloi is dreadful - hideous', he said himself in French. 'They are live wolves, only to be appeased with flesh'. 'Count, there is one God judges us!' - Vereshchagin's words suddenly recurred to him, and a disagreeable chill ran down his spine. 

But this was only a momentary feeling and Count Rostopchin smiled disdainfully at himself. 'I had other duties', thought he. 'The people had to be mollified. Many another victim has perished and is perishing for public good' - and he began reflecting on the social obligations he had towards his family and towards the city entrusted to his care, and on himself - not himself as Fiodr Vasilyevich Rostopchin, but himself as governor of Moscow, as the representative authority invested with full powers by the Tsar. 'Had I been simply Fiodr Vasilyevich my course of action would have been quite different; but it was my duty to safeguard my life and dignity as governor.' [omission]

Not only did he not reproach himself in his deliberations for what he had done but he even found grounds for self-complacency in having so successfully made use of a convenient opportunity at once to punish a criminal and satisfy the rabble.

'Vereshchagin had been tried and condemned to death', Rostopchin argued to himself (though the Senate had only sentenced Vereshchagin to hard labour). 'He was a traitor and a spy. I could not let him go unpunished, and thus I slew two birds with one stone: I appeased the mob by presenting them with a victim and I punished a miscreant'.

By the time he had reached his country house and begun to busy himself with private affairs the count had completely regained his composure."

In the novel War and Peace, Vereshchagin met an untimely death in Moscow due to Rostopchin's machinations in early 19th century. Tolstoy's story received a painful resurrection in Sri Lanka [Bindunuwewa-Bandarawela] on October 25, where 29 Tamil Vereshchagins were murdered. Incidentally, it is a coincidence that the title of Tolstoy's last major novel, Voskreseniye, written in 1899, is nothing but 'Resurrection'.

Iqbal Athas, in his introductory comments to last week's interview with current Sri Lankan Army Chief, Lt. General Balagalle [Sunday Times of Sri Lanka, Nov. 5] notes, 

"If and when military historians compile the country's official record, his [General Balagalle's] contributions will find a few significant chapters". 

...(But) what passes as 'military history' in Sri Lanka these days is nothing but publicity blurbs and mediocre polemics spawned in reams by self-anointed experts such as Susantha Goonetilleke, H.L.D.Mahindapala, Nalin de Silva, Dayan Jayatilleke and Rohan Gunaratne. My fervent wish is that I will live to see the day that among the Sinhalese literati there will rise a writer in the caliber of Tolstoy, who will present an equivalent portrayal of Rostopchins of current Sri Lanka and their toadies.


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