Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) at about age fifty experienced a moral conversion that caused him to become a socialist and a pacifist. He liberated the serfs that lived on his vast estate during the time this country was engaged in a civil war, one cause of which was slavery; and he contributed a large amount of money to help transfer twelve thousands Dukhobors, who were Christian socialists and pacifists, from Russia, which persecuted them, to Saskatchewan in Western Canada, which welcomed them. Tolstoy spent his life after his conversion living in a manner he believed to be a way Jesus would have approved.

In his book “Resurrection,” which is in a sense a biography of Tolstoy’s moral conversion, Prince Nekhlyudov, the protagonist is Tolstoy. In the story, Nekhlyudov, who has seduced a maiden and who feels that he is responsible for her becoming a prostitute and for being sentenced to hard labor in Siberia, follows a train transporting her   and hundreds of other prisoners 3000 miles to their prison destination. There are numerous stops along the way and Nekhlyudov has occasion to become acquainted with many prisoners from murderers and robbers to political militants. In the book the following paragraph appears near the end of the journey.

“From his personal relations with the prisoners, from his questions to the lawyer, the prison priest, the superintendent, and from the lists of those confined, Nekhlyudov came to the conclusion that the prisoners, the so-called criminals, could be divided into five categories.”

“The first of these consisted of entirely innocent people, victims of judicial error… .” Tolstoy would not be surprised to learn that his first category is still a category. It was reported not so long ago that a man who was convicted of robbery and rape and was imprisoned for 24 years was released upon being found innocent owing to a DNA mismatch. He was 47 years old and had spent 24 years of those 47 in prison for a crime his did not commit. The very thought of such a horrible injustice induces moral rage. There have been numerous incidences of convicted people being released in recent years after a DNA matching proved them innocent. And time after time many of them had spent 20 years or more incarcerated and a number of them had spent years on death row. For society to convict and put to death a person who is innocent wring tears from angels. God it is said sees the fall of every sparrow. But He apparently doesn’t see crying wrongs or intercede on the side of justice.

“The second category consisted of people who were condemned for crimes committed under exceptional circumstances, such as rage, jealousy, drunkenness and so on, that is, crimes which would be, no doubt, committed by those who judged and punished them if subjected to the same conditions. This category, according to Nekhlyudov’s observations, accounted for more than one-half of all the criminals.”

Tolstoy believed that circumstances and conditions produced more than one-half of all crimes. Andrei Sakharov, Nobel Peace Prize winner, said “I am convinced that society as a whole and each of its members individually, not just the person who comes before the courts, bears a responsibility for the occurrence of a crime.” Tolstoy was dead before Sakharov discerned what Tolstoy had discerned earlier with regard to criminality. That is, that society creates circumstances and conditions—an environmental matrix—in which criminality incubates. But society— which for the most part is blind to its blame in creation of, involvement in and profit from that matrix—righteously exculpates itself and blames and punishes the perpetrator as the sole cause of the crime.

“The third was composed of people who were punished for doing what, in their opinion, constituted very common and even good acts, which, in the opinion of strangers who had written the laws, were crimes. To this category belonged people who secretly trafficked in liquor, who smuggled, and who cut grass and picked up wood in the large proprietary and government forests. To this category also belonged the thieving mountaineers and the infidels who robbed churches.” Today, to this category belong Mexicans and other Central Americans who undercover unlawfully enter this country to find work to support their families.

“The fourth category was formed by people who were considered criminals only because they stood morally above the level of society.” Jesus of Nazareth and Socrates are the best examples of this category and also all those other moral leaders who suffered persecution and death for living and teaching a morality that was above that of the society in which they lived. Martin Luther King belongs in it.

The fifth category was people against whom society had sinned more than they had sinned against society, such as the corrupt, criminal, abnormal types “but toward whom society was not guilty directly, but against whose parents and ancestors society had sinned long ago.” Into this category today are the descendants of the slaves that were uprooted and transported against their will two thousand miles to work the land for their buyers and masters. The descendants of those slaves against whom society sinned grievously are today incarcerated by the thousands owing to the, adverse to them, circumstances and conditions created by those who profited from their enslavement and their denial to them of the opportunity to develop as free men and women.

Today’s criminal law system is certainly better than that of the Middle Ages but it is still barbaric. Society scorns nature and builds walls to exclude it and creates an environment that is conducive to its welfare but inimical to the welfare of many more than their numbers. Those below the makers and masters, those who are immersed in a matrix of poverty, immorality and despair, act accordingly and thus find themselves not in nature, not in a city but in a cell for years and for life. And the cause of such injustice is the inability of society to see its contributions to crime and their simplistic belief that one is free to do right or wrong, regardless of the life’s circumstances of the wrongdoer.

Havelock Ellis opined: “Every society has the criminals it deserves.”

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (, and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation ( I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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