Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

"The Forged Coupon"

The Forged Coupon
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy
Kolotovka + Volga Region + other locations

PLOT SUMMARY: The Forged Coupon is about a boy forging a bond coupon to repay his friend and the chain of events that this sets off. The novella is split into two parts. The first part concerns the increasingly tragic wreckage of lives caused by the forged coupon. A boy and his friend commit the forgery after his father refuses to give him the extra three rubles necessary to pay back his friend for the movies. The forged coupon is broken into legitimate currency at a photography shop via the purchase of a cheap picture frame. The husband of the woman who sold the frame rebukes her for having been fooled, the initial instance of a theme of patriarchal abuse, and uses the coupon to buy firewood off a peasant. The peasant then goes to a tavern and is arrested when he attempts to use the coupon. The shopkeeper pays off his building’s porter, and the two of their testimonies lead to the dismissal of the peasant’s formal legal case against the shopkeeper. The ways that the characters go on to respond to this sequence of events spiral into a calamitous collection of stories that include impoverishment, incarceration, femicide, child murder, and murder in general.

     The second part of The Forged Coupon portrays a religious awakening that salvages the lives of many characters. The origin of the awakening is Marya Semyonova, a Christian widow who single-handedly takes care of her drunken father, sister, abusive brother-in-law, and nephew. Semyonova is an extraordinary caring character, and when a tailor spends a week working in her family’s home on her father’s jacket, he became inspired by her moral soundness and piety. The tailor later moved to a village and worked on a farm, where he in turn inspires another worker, Chuyev. Chuyev is imprisoned on flaky judicial grounds for inciting unrest due to his denunciation of the traditional Orthodox Church’s corruption and fake piety. In prison, Chuyev converts a couple inmates, one of whom, Stepan, had attempted suicide after being haunted by the despicable murders he committed in part one. Stepan then goes on to be lauded as a most incredible case of religious salvation, and he himself goes on to touch the lives of other characters from part one with his scripture-based religious beliefs. The novella ends with the son who forged the coupon, now a grown and financially successful though immoral man, renouncing his ways and repairing his relationship with his bitter father, completing the circle of Christianity’s social rectification.

ANALYSIS: It would be foolish to attribute the tragedies and violence of The Forged Coupon to one boy adding a one in front of a coupon for two rubles and twenty-five kopecks. Instead, the forged coupon serves to highlight the deeply powerful and bitter social divisions in Russia at the turn of the nineteenth century. Members of the peasant class, who are wrongfully accused and bear the brunt of the violence throughout the novella, see themselves as prisoners to the whims and cruelties of the ruling classes, while the ruling classes possess a deep mistrust of peasants and the working class. The novella also obliquely covers questions of race, with Cossacks and Poles occupying different stations in society, and more prominently questions of gender. One of the more saddening constants in The Forged Coupon is women suffering, be it impoverishment or murder, at the hands of men. Women in the stories possess far less agency than men and often are the victims of men’s conflicts. It is interesting to note that class and female agency are very much related. Stepan’s wife, when he is imprisoned, falls deeper into poverty as her house burns down and she is forced to beg on the street. She dies while he is in prison. Pyotr Kikolaich’s wife, however, is relieved when her oppressive husband is killed, as she has the financial security due to their wealth. The Forged Coupon is a dramatic exhibition of the social volatility in Russia drawn across the lines of class and gender.

     Part two is dedicated to the ultimate division highlighted in the novella, that is, the one between the pious and impious. Stepan, the greatest villain of part one, transforms into the greatest social healer. There is an explicit differentiation between the Orthodox Church and the type of Christianity that is moral and altruistic. The Orthodox Bishop Father Misaïl is portrayed as a fraud, as he admits to himself that he believes not in what he preaches. He ultimately is converted by a clergyman whose religious sermons critique the corrupt establishment as opposed to defend it as Father Misaïl had, and he retired from being an influential Bishop to a small monastery. The truly pious are not rewarded materially in the novella but rather often punished. The origin of the movement, Marya Semyonova, is violently murdered. Her immediate disciple, the tailor, is never given a name. A converted hangman, also unnamed, accepts lashes as the punishment for refusing to do his job. And the final scene, the culmination of religious social healing, in which a father and son’s relationship is repaired, is accompanied by an explicit abandonment of material gain, as the son chooses to live a simpler and more pious lifestyle. The religious teachings that the The Forged Coupon proposes, an ascetic brotherly love and omnipresent empathy, contradict the current structure of society—a claim that was central to Tolstoy during the last acts of his career and life. 


“Things happened that no one saw but which were more important than all that people did see.” (318)

“He had gone through the entire course of divinity school and therefore had long ceased to believe in what he confessed and professed, but believes only that people should force themselves to believe what he forced himself to believe.” (326) 

“The news that the hangman had refused and was prepared to suffer rather than kill had suddenly overturned Natalya Ivanovna’s soul, and that feeling of compassion and horror, which had asked several times to be let out, broke through and took possession of her.” (358)

BIOGRAPHY: Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born into an aristocratic family on September 9, 1828, at Yasnaya Polyana, a family estate in the Tula province of the Russian empire. Tolstoy’s mother passed away before he was two, and his father several years later in 1937. His aunt passed eleven month after that, and he and his four siblings went to live in Kazan with another aunt. Despite the many tragedies, Tolstoy’s first published work was a short story called Childhood that looks back nostalgically on his upbringing. Tolstoy received education at home from tutors and in 1844 enrolled in the University of Kazan. He spent the following years largely gambling and drinking and left in 1847 without a degree. During his time at university, however, he became fascinated with ethics and literature, especially with the works of Charles Dickens and Jean Jacques Rousseau. Tolstoy enlisted in the army in 1851, where he joined his older brother in the Caucuses and later fought in the Crimean War from 1853-1856. It was during this time that Tolstoy, who had kept a diary since 1847, started to write and publish his first works, including Childhood and stories from his military service.

     Tolstoy resigned from the army after the Crimean War and returned to Russia, where the intellectual literary community awaited his return. Tolstoy, unwilling to align himself with a specific camp of intellectual thought, insisted on maintaining independence and rejected the intelligentsia. After a trip to Paris in 1857 in which he gambled much of his money away, he returned to Yasnaya Polyana to start his own school for his estate’s peasant children. In the following years, he published a journal and various short stories, including Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse, a story narrated by a horse and a prime example of ‘ostranenie’ or defamiliarization, in which one examines a common aspect of life through the lens of someone for whom that aspect is foreign, a literary device for which he is renowned. In 1862, Tolstoy married Sofya Andreyevna Bers, and the two had thirteen children, with ten surviving infancy. It was then that he started working on War and Peace, a classic consisting of various materials relating to the Napoleonic Wars and the philosophy of history. In the 1870s, Tolstoy turned to ideas of family in his work. This took the form of Anna Karenina, which, along with War and Peace, was his most famous work and told the intertwining story of three different families. Upon the completion of Anna Karenina in 1877, Tolstoy became disillusioned with the world around him and turned to a radical reading of Christianity to find meaning in life. Tolstoy’s religious views were based on the Sermon of the Mount and were severe in their interpretations of scripture. He rejected the Holy Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, and the Immaculate Conception. He became a profound critic of not only the Orthodox Church, but of modern society in general, advocating for passive resistance to things such as draft boards and tax collectors. Perhaps the most prominent feature of his newfound religious beliefs was nonresistance to evil, a pacifist philosophy that inspired the likes of Ghandi. His literature during this time became increasingly critical and heavy-handed in its moralizing. It did, however, largely maintain its literary merit, and the short stories he published during this period in his life include the acclaimed The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Forged Coupon. Life became increasingly difficult for Tolstoy, as he was excommunicated from the Church in 1901, his works censored, and his relationship with his wife strained. In 1910, Tolstoy sought to escape the spotlight with his daughter Aleksandra by leaving Yasnaya Polyana, but his whereabouts were soon discovered and he died of a heart attack in a railroad station at Astopovo. 


Morson, Gary Paul. "Leo Tolstoy." Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed 14 May 2019.  

Terras, Victor. A History of Russian Literature. 1991. 

Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Vintage Classics, 2009. 


Kilger, Ilya, and Nasser Zakariya. "Poetics of Brotherhood: Organic and Mechanistic Narrative in Late Tolstoi." Slavic Review, vol. 70, no. 4.
This article talks about Tolstoy’s famous politics of non-resistance. It elaborates on the political and spiritual dimensions of the self outside of specific events and the structure of society.

Paperni, Vladimir M. "The Transformation of the Mystical Tradition in Tolstoy's Art and Religious Thought." Tolstoy and His Problems: Views from the Twenty-First Century, Northwestern University Press, 2018, pp. 59-88.
The chapter discusses Tolstoy’s relationship to Russian mysticism and particularly about the denunciation of the material world. The chapter provides context for the critiques of the Russian Orthodox Church in The Forged Coupon.

Paperno, Irina. "Tolstoy's Confession: What Am I?" "Who, What Am I?": Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self, Cornell University Press, 2014, pp. 60-81.
This chapter from Paperno’s biography of Tolstoy discusses Tolstoy’s semi-autobiographical short story A Confession about the arrival at his religious beliefs. It is helpful in understanding the dramatic religious amelioration in the second part to The Forged Coupon.                

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