The Big Read Behind Bars: Just another Group of Readers Debating Tolstoy

Written by Sara Baron, Dean of the University Library

Stephen Christianson, Senior Chaplain at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center Big Read Coordinator Harold Henkel, Chaplain Stephen Christianson, and Dr. Andrew Kaufman after the workshopwas not sure members of his Life Empowerment Class would want to read a book by a 19th century Russian aristocrat, so he asked them. Was anyone interested in reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich? One member of the group spoke up, saying he had read the book before and got a lot out of it. He recommended they read the book together and discuss Tolstoy’s message for one of their weekly classes. When Regent’s visiting scholar for the Big Read, Dr. Andrew Kaufman, expressed interest in conducting his Tolstoy workshop at the jail, the stage was set for one of the most rewarding events of our Big Read festival. On February 10, I attended the inmates’ class with Dr. Kaufman and saw how great writers like Tolstoy impel readers to examine their lives, ask questions, and come to know themselves better. 

Stephen Christiansen graduated from Regent University Law School in 1998. After several years as a practicing attorney, he was called to jail chaplaincy. As a partner in the University Library’s Big Read program, Christensen agreed to discuss Tolstoy as part of his Life Empowerment Class, a voluntary program for inmates striving to better themselves during incarceration. As Dr. Kaufman, Big Read Coordinator Harold Henkel, and I entered the correctional center, we were given large orange visitor badges, taken through a metal detector and half-a-dozen locked, barred gates. Sheriff’s deputies passed by with inmates. We walked past cells with bunk beds and inmates in orange jumpsuits. We waited for doors to be unlocked, gates opened, supervisors’ approvals, and security clearances before entering a small classroom where our class awaited us. 

I was surprised at their expectant faces and the dog-eared copies of The Death of Ivan Ilyich. According to Chaplain Christianson, most of the inmates had read the entire book, and one group member who is illiterate had had the book read to him. Dr. Kaufman engaged them immediately, asking why the story is so powerful. Hands were raised and responses given: “Because it speaks to me.” “Because we are all going to die.” “Because we all have the kinds of questions Ivan had.” Everyone agreed that Tolstoy’s work speaks to human beings about real issues that confront everyone, regardless of their station in life.

Before launching into the main part of his workshop, however, Dr. Kaufman informed the class that to discuss Tolstoy properly, they would first need to learn some Russian. Handouts offered class members a pronunciation guide and translations of names in the book as well as common Russian sayings. An impromptu Russian lesson ensued as the inmates learned to pronounce names like “Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy (lyeff nee-kuh-LIE-uh-veech tahl-STOY)” and “Praskovya Fedorovna (prah-SKOHV-yuh FYOH-duh-ruhv-nuh).” We also practiced Russian sayings: You don’t say! Oh dear! Gospodi! (GOH-spuh-dee); Good! Khorosho! (khuh-ruh-SHOH); Bad! Plokho! (PLOH-khuh); Too bad! Zhal’! (zhahl’). After going through these and several other sayings, Dr. Kaufman asked the class to answer in Russian some questions from everyday life. With good humor, the participants responded with their newly-acquired Russian vocabulary: “Spacibo!” (thank you) “Pozhalujsta!” (your welcome) “Menya zovut…” (my name is…).

We next discussed what was important to Ivan before his illness. Again, the class drove the discussion, stating Ivan cared about success, things, his proper life, and playing cards. He cared more about himself and other’s perceptions of him than anything else. After reading several key passages from the text, Ivan’s concerns following his illness were discussed. One member noted the irony of Ivan being treated by medical doctors in the same aloof and uncaring manner that he had treated defendants and lawyers alike in his profession as a judge. Ivan’s selfishness towards others was returned to him by friends and family alike during his illness as he received little compassion and comfort from those around him. Another person commented that Ivan’s emptiness at not having a relationship with God lead to the tragedy and despair of his last few weeks and months. And like other readers who debate Tolstoy’s intentions at the end of the book, we too had disagreement about the sincerity and meaning of Ivan’s last hours when he finally acts selflessly to protect his son (or was he protecting himself?) and sees God’s light and love before dying (or was it just an oncoming train?).

Perhaps the most poignant moment during the discussion came when Dr. Kaufman posed a question that had been asked of him by a local reporter: “Why would inmates want to read The Death of Ivan Ilyich? What can they get out of Tolstoy?” He asked them how they would have responded. Answers included: “I learned something from this book; something I can use when I get out.” “It helped me recognize my faults and selfishness and the results.” “How I treat people and my actions really do impact others.” “We need to not take this time for granted by not growing our relationship with God. It’s too late for Ivan, but not us.”
One member of the group, with a red face and a quiet, controlled voice said, “People on the outside think we can’t learn from books like this, or understand them, but we can learn from Tolstoy and many others.” I sensed the reporter’s question offended him. Literature like The Death of Ivan Ilyich has the power to penetrate through the externalities of life, educational level, social standing, and force readers to wrestle with universal questions.


After a rewarding hour, I realized that this group of 13 inmates, two jail chaplains, two librarians, and one Russian professor, were actually just a normal book club, learning together, sharing opinions, discussing important issues, experiencing literature, laughing together, and enjoying each other’s company. It was, fundamentally, what the Big Read is all about- bringing great literature to people who would not ordinarily experience it. It was also what Regent University is all about – Christian leadership to change the world. I believe that this experience changed a little part of our world right here in Virginia Beach.