The State Memorial and Natural Preserve "Museum-estate of Leo Tolstoy "Yasnaya Polyana"
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“I Cannot Be Silent“


The date of October 10 is known as the World Day Against the Death Penalty. It was established in 2003 on the initiative of the World Coalition against the Death Penalty, whose goal is the abolition of executions and death sentences in all the countries where it remains legal.

The death penalty has been a subject of heated discussions for a long time. In the early 20th century, after the first Russian revolution, this penalty was a very widely applied in the Russian Empire.  In reaction to the carrying out of the sentences, in 1908 Leo Tolstoy wrote his article I Cannot Be Silent, which became a manifesto against the death penalty.

The writer was especially struck by the news about the hanging of twenty peasants that he read on May 10, 1908 in the Russkiye Vedomosti, and then on May 11 in Rus. Those newspapers said: “Kherson, May 8. Today twenty peasants, sentenced by the district court martial for the assault on the landowner Lubenko’s estate in the Elisavetgrad district, were hanged on the shooting-ground.”  Struck by this news, Tolstoy recorded into the phonograph: “No, it’s impossible! We cannot live like that!.. We cannot live like that!.. Just cannot. Every day, there are so many death sentences, so many executions. Five today, seven tomorrow, twenty men were hanged today, twenty deaths… And in the Duma, they are still talking about Finland, about visits by kings, and everybody believes that’s how it should be…”

Tolstoy was so agitated that he could not go on and stopped; we know that from the memoirs of his secretary, Nikolai Gusev. The next day, Tolstoy wrote a draft of the sharply polemical article that was later called I Cannot Be Silent.

On May 14, he wrote in his diary: “Yesterday, on the 13th, I wrote an appeal, a condemnation – I don't know what – about death penalties… It seems to be what was needed.” Many public figures of that time were mentioned in that first draft: “Mr. Stolypin makes inhuman, stupid, not to say disgusting, calm speeches, thoroughly prepared nonsense about Finland, and in the Duma, Messrs. Guchkovs and Miliukovs challenge one another to duels, and the most foolish and inhuman of all Mr. Romanov, called Nicholas II, reviews a Cossack “hundred” and is thankful for something.”

The first draft, not yet titled, was just the beginning of the work. As a result of protracted revision, Tolstoy considerably broadened the contents of the first draft of the article and changed its composition. The names of political figures mentioned in the draft were omitted and all sharp remarks about them were either removed or noticeably softened.

The work on the article went on from May 13 to June 15, 1908. On June 1, the author sent one of its versions to his friend and publisher, Vladimir Chertkov. On June 9, the latter sent Tolstoy a reply, in which he suggested a number of changes. Tolstoy replied the same day in a telegram: “I fully approve of the changes, publish it as soon as possible.”

The article I Cannot Be Silent was first published abroad on July 2, 1908. Two days later, extracts from it appeared in a number of Russian publications, such as the newspapers Russkiye Vedomosti, Slovo, Rech, and Sovremennoye Slovo. Later they all were fined. Between July 10 and 17, 1908 the Latvian translation of the article was published as a separate brochure in St. Petersburg in Latvian. In August of 1908 the full text of the article was published by an underground printing press in Tula; in the same year it was published in Berlin by I.P. Ladyzhnikov with the following preface: “Leo Tolstoy‘s new work that we are publishing appeared simultaneously in newspapers of almost all civilized countries on July 15, 1908 and made a profound impression in spite of the author‘s negative attitude to the Russian revolutionary movement. We present this work to the Russian reader as an interesting historic document characteristic of the great writer.“

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