Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

"God Sees the Truth, But Waits"

"God Sees the Truth, But Waits"
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy
Vladimir + an unspecified Siberian prison camp

PLOT SUMMARY: The merchant Ivan Dmitrich Aksionov sets out from Vladimir on his way to a fair in Nizhny Novgorod in spite of his wife’s foreboding dream. Along the way he meets a fellow merchant, and the two decide to travel together. That night they stop at an inn, drink tea together, and retire separately. Aksionov awakes early and leaves on his own, but he is approached by some policemen shortly thereafter. They inform Aksionov that his erstwhile companion has been murdered, and to Aksionov’s bewilderment they find a bloody knife in his bag. Despite his pleas of innocence, Aksionov is arrested, flogged, and sent to the mines.

     Twenty-six years into his time in Siberia, a new group of convicts arrives to the prison, and Aksionov becomes convinced that one of the men in this group, Makar Semyonich, is the murderer who framed him. Some time later Aksionov discovers Semyonich digging a tunnel under the prison wall, and shortly after that the prison authorities discover the tunnel as well. When asked, however, Aksionov refuses to expose Semyonich as the culprit, saying that “it is not God’s will” that he tell. Semyonich is grateful and awed for Aksionov’s forgiveness, and he confesses to having framed him twenty-six years ago. They weep together, and Semyonich soon confesses to the authorities that he committed the crime for which Aksionov was arrested, but Aksionov dies before he can be released.

ANALYSIS: In “God Sees the Truth, But Waits,” Tolstoy demonstrates his belief that even a life devastated by a wrongful arrest and twenty-six years of unjust incarceration can be meaningful, particularly in the eyes of God. Throughout his life and especially his quarter-century-long imprisonment, Aksionov becomes more and more trusting in the ultimate justness of God, even as the unjustness of man’s penal system becomes increasingly more clear and destructive to him.

     Like much of the prison literature of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, “God Sees the Truth, But Waits” depicts the arbitrarity of punishment. Aksionov, an innocent and well respected man, is confined in a prison camp for twenty-six years despite the fact that he exercises exemplary behavior and becomes known for his honesty and righteousness, characteristics that he develops as he begins praying regularly to God. Aksionov completes his spiritual journey with his eventual “martyrdom,” whereby he forgives Semyonich, the man who framed him so long ago, weeping with him and bemoaning the fact that he may be a hundred times worse than Semyonich. Tolstoy hopes to demonstrate that even those who have not offended society are sinful in the eyes of God, who is ultimately the only arbiter of truth.


“‘It seems that only God can know the truth; it is to Him alone we must appeal, and from Him alone expect mercy.’”

“Aksionov glanced at Makar Semyonich, and said, ‘I cannot say, your honour. It is not God’s will that I should tell! Do what you like with me; I am your hands.’”

“‘Maybe I am a hundred times worse than you.’ And at these words his heart grew light, and the longing for home left him. He no longer had any desire to leave the prison, but only hoped for his last hour to come.”

BIOGRAPHY: Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828–1910) was probably the most significant Russian writer of realist literature, and indeed one of the greatest authors of all time. Born into a noble family in a time of political repression, Tolstoy along with his contemporaries “turned to literature as the only outlet for [his] aspirations, hopes, doubts, resentment, and anger” (Terras 170). After his parents’ early death, Tolstoy attended but did not graduate university and became a “superfluous man” for several years before enlisting in the army. His experiences in the Crimean war shaped much of his later outlook.

     Interested primarily in “the dialectics of the soul” (299), Tolstoy liked to employ in his works a “juxtaposition of ‘natural,’ therefore ‘good,’ and ‘unnatural,’ therefore ‘bad,’ individuals and actions” (355). Another technique propagated by Tolstoy was ostranenie: “taking a view of objects and events that strips them of all conventional trimmings”: that is, “seeing things through the eyes of a child” (354). In 1877 Tolstoy “embraced religion” (450)—especially the Sermon on the Mount—and became even more pessimistic and nihilistic, coming to consider human life as “meaningless suffering followed by the nothingness of death” (451). This development also led to his pacifism and inspiration of such figures as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

     Although he is known today especially for his masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy also composed a couple controversial yet ultimately widely accepted pedagogical works, as well as (later in his career) a great deal of nonfiction with the intent of “propagating his religious views and their social, political, and practical corollaries” (451). In the end Tolstoy had become one of the greatest and most influential writers in Russian and world history.


Terras, Victor. A History of Russian Literature. Diane Pub Co, 2003.


Archer, Dermot J. “Tolstoy's ‘God Sees the Truth, but Waits’: A Reflection.” Religious Studies, vol. 21, no. 1, 1985, pp. 75–89.
Archer considers “God Sees the Truth, But Waits” to be a representation of Tolstoy’s developing belief that life is not, in fact, meaningless. He explains why the story is very personally important to Tolstoy, as well as a useful and adequate answer for the reader to the question of life’s meaning, to be considered alongside other possibilities.

Jahn, Gary R. “Was the Master Well Served?: Further Comment on ‘God Sees the Truth but Waits.’” In Quest of Tolstoy, edited by Hugh McLean, Academic Studies Press, Brighton, MA, 2008, pp. 95–102.
Jahn responds to McLean’s discussion of Tolstoy’s alleged mistakes, providing opposing viewpoints vis-à-vis the stylistic and thematic content of the story to support his counterarguments.

McLean, Hugh. “Could the Master Err?: A Note on ‘God Sees the Truth but Waits.’” In Quest of Tolstoy, Academic Studies Press, Brighton, MA, 2008, pp. 87–95.
In this essay, McLean goes through Tolstoy’s short story in an attempt to point out areas where Tolstoy erred. He notices and describes two or three errors made by Tolstoy in the story and discusses some of their causes and later attempts to correct them by Tolstoy and others.    

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