Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

"After the Ball"

"After the Ball"
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy
1903 (completed) / 1911 (first published)

PLOT SUMMARY: Ivan Vasilyevich begins telling a story from his youth. Years ago, he falls in love with a young woman with the last name Varenka. She is described as enchanting, graceful, and tall. Her father, the provincial marshal, is holding a ball during Butter Week which Ivan attends. Despite the overall magnificence of the ball setting, Ivan regrets not having the first dance, the mazurka, with Varenka; he is late while attempting to improve his apparel. However, he and Varenka end up dancing together most of the night to the waltz and other music. They flirt happily. Later in the night, Varenka’s father and Varenka share a dance. Throughout, Ivan can’t help but admire the general’s stately appearance, humbleness, and military manners.

     After the ball, upon his arrival at home, Ivan is restless and can’t stop thinking about Varenka. He leaves the house and walks to Varenka’s house. At the field, he observes a large, dark mass and drum beating. A blacksmith next to Ivan informs him that they are beating a Tartar for deserting the army. As Ivan looks closer, he sees Varenka’s father urging the soldiers to beat the Tartar even harder despite the Tartar’s pleas to have mercy. The Tartar is beaten to the point of looking only like a bloody mass. When the general sees Ivan from afar, he ignores him and Ivan looks away in shame. From that night onwards, Ivan’s love for Varenka begins to fade.

ANALYSIS: Captivity and punishment are deeper themes hidden beneath this story of young love. Ivan is first portrayed in a nontraditional form of captivity. During the ball, he falls captive to the alluring physical appearance of both Varenka and her glamorous ball outfit. And he is not the only one; Ivan recounts the numerous ball attendees who also admire Varenka “[outshining] them all” (273). Because the attraction is so physical, Ivan’s admiration for Varenka is thus extended to her father as well, as he idealizes the colonel as the perfect husband, father, and man. The emphasis placed on Varenka’s temporary beauty represents the ease at which humans can become fixated on outward appearance and wealth. Similarly, the attention and praise given by Ivan to Varenka’s father for his status as a colonel indicates the power and trust that is sometimes involuntarily and unconsciously given to the military, guards, or the government. This is almost foreshadowing of the blind faith some Russian citizens had in their government throughout the Great Purge.

     However, once the spell of the ball is broken, Ivan is able to see the cruelty performed on a non-member of the wealthy class. The soldiers surrounding the Tartar are described as a black mass. In addition, the beaten Tartar’s back is unrecognizable as a “motley, wet, red, and unnatural” (278) thing. Not only are the people carrying out the punishment defamiliarized to Ivan and the reader, but the victim is also obscured from the common eye. They have simply become foreign objects to humankind. This suggests that although punishments in Russia such as these may have been carried out in public, many turned a blind eye or believed it to be for the best. In addition, the colonel’s refusal to acknowledge Ivan or the cruelty symbolizes the strength and influence of the corrupt justice system present in Russia. In the end, Ivan’s fading affections prove that feelings of love can’t overpower feelings of disgust and shame.


“He was beautifully built, with strong shoulders, and long shapely legs, and a broad chest adorned with just a few medals and thrust forward in military fashion.” (274)

“I was so ashamed that without knowing where to look, as if I had been caught in a most shameful act, I lowered my eyes and hurried away home.” (278)

“But no matter how hard I tried … I couldn't enter military service, as I had formerly wanted to, and so I didn't serve in the military nor in the civil service… ” (279)

BIOGRAPHY: Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, referred to in English as Leo Tolstoy, came from a well-known Russian household in 1828. Tolstoy was born on the large family estate in Yasnaya Polyana, and was the fourth among five siblings. He experienced a lot of loss throughout his childhood; both his parents passed away before he was ten, and he and his siblings moved from their home to Kazan when their legal guardian also died. Before the age of 18, Tolstoy was homeschooled by French and German tutors. When he finally entered the University of Kazan in 1844, he left in 1847 without a degree due to his poor grades and excessive partying habits. Following this, Tolstoy led a relaxing lifestyle in Moscow, Tula, and St. Petersburg. He also began writing at this time, while racking up debt from gambling on the side.

     Tolstoy’s shift from an affluent author to a peaceful radical was marked by his time in the army (1851-1856) and trips around Europe (1857, 1860-61). He witnessed many horrors including deaths in war and public executions, that shaped his political and literary views and direction. After the trips in 1862, Tolstoy married Sophia Andreevna Behrs, daughter of a court physician; their marriage was initially happy, and Sophia acted as his editor and manager. Tolstoy’s most famous works were written in this latter half of his life. He attempted to portray Russian society and combat as realistically as possible, but he wasn’t afraid to criticize them. In addition, he drew inspiration from his own life experiences and those around him. Two of his greatest novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, were published in 1869 and 1878 respectively. Tolstoy’s writing style earned him the praise of authors such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anton Chekhov. In addition to his writing, Tolstoy had gained a following for his religious beliefs, ideals of love and nonviolence, and renouncing the aristocratic ways. His final hours were spent at the Astapovo train station, where he died of pneumonia at the age of 82 in 1910.


“Leo Tolstoy.”, A&E Networks Television, 16 Jan. 2019,

“Leo Tolstoy.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Mar. 2019,


Wirtschafter, Elise Kimerling. “Justice with Order: Autocratic Values and Military Discipline.” From Serf to Russian Soldier, Princeton University Press, 1990, pp. 96–119.
This is an excerpt of a book by Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter on the power dynamic and system within the Russian military. It questions and analyzes the extent to which soldiers had to obey their superiors, and the consequences of criminal soldier actions such as desertion or questioning authority.

Frierson, Cathy. “Crime and Punishment in the Russian Village: Rural Concepts of Criminality at the End of the Nineteenth Century.” Slavic Review, vol. 46, no. 1, 1987, pp. 55–69.
In this article by Frieson, she covers the cruel punishments inflicted on criminals in the 19th century. She also explains these in the context of crime and how both criminality and law were perceived by the poor working class societies of Russia.

Crawford, Lawrence. “Viktor Shklovskij: Différance in Defamiliarization.” Comparative Literature, vol. 36, no. 3, 1984, pp. 209–219.
This paper about Shklovskij discusses the reasons for utilizing defamiliarization as a literary tool to make objects look different. Crawford explains how defamiliarization works to change the readers’ perceptions of the text’s topic, and how it forces readers to become more aware of the language presented by the author.

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