I will tell the entire plot. If you want to read it unspoiled, stop reading NOW.
You've been warned.
Ivan Dmitrich Aksyonov decides to travel to Nizhny Fair. His wife begs him not to go because she had a bad dream about this trip. He laughs her off and leaves anyway. Halfway to the Fair he stops overnight at an inn. He is awakened the next morning by the police because there has been a murder at the inn that night and he is a prime suspect. He is not worried as they search his things because he knows he did not not commit the murder. The police find a bloody knife in his bag.
Aksyonov protests that he is innocent, but no one believes him, not even his wife. Aksyonov is condemned to flogging with a knout and life imprisonment in the mines in Siberia.
After 26 years in Siberia Aksyonov's hair is white and his happy spirit is broken. He prays to God a lot and the other prisoners respect him.
A new prisoner, Makar Semyonovich, who comes from Aksyonov's hometown, arrives. After some discussion, Aksyonov suspects that Semyonovich is the real murderer. He finds Semyonovich digging a hole to escape in the night. The next day the authorities ask Akyonov who dug the hole. Aksyonov says he does not know.
That night Semyonovich falls to his knees before Aksyonov and confesses that he committed the murder 26 years ago and hid the knife in Aksyonov's bag. He begs for forgiveness and weeps as only guilty Russians can.
The last three paragraphs I must transcribe completely for them to be believed:
When Aksyonov heard him sobbing he too began to weep.Now, that's a Christian short story -- real, medieval Augustinian Christianity, not the watered down American stuff. Justice on earth is meaningless because God knows who is guilty and innocent. We humans should turn the other cheek and leave justice to God in the afterlife.
"God will forgive you!" he said. "Maybe I am a hundred times worse than you." And at these words his heart suddenly 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.
In spite of what Aksyonov had said, Makar Semyonovich confessed his guilt. But when the order for his release came, Aksyonov was already dead.
Tolstoy dramatizes his theme perfectly. It is a powerful story. But what a theme! Tolstoy's is not a philosophy for living on earth, but a philosophy of self-abnegation and renunciation of values and happiness. In every fundamental respect Leo Tolstoy and Ayn Rand are opposites, despite their both being brilliant writers of long novels who were born in Russia.