Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Russianness

I’m re-reading Feodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  I’ve read them before, but somehow they seem as fresh and new as if I was reading them the first time.

My reason for re-reading them is partly to get some idea of what’s Russian about Russia.

No question, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are distinctively Russian.  They are polar opposites in many ways, but opposite sides of the same coin.

Dostoyevsky was a troubled soul who suffered prison, exile, poverty, the loss of children and gambling addiction.  Tolstoy was a wealthy aristocrat who went from success to success, yet in the end found his successes spiritually empty.

Dostoyevsky plumbed the depths of human evil.  Tolstoy explored the possibility of human enlightenment.

Both found modern European civilization spiritually shallow.  Both rejected secular humanism, utilitarianism, materialism, progressive reform and revolutionary socialism.  Dostoyevsky saw these ideas as evil; Tolstoy, as foolish.

Both were Christian believers.  Dostoyevsky was a champion of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and an opponent of Catholicism.  One of his heroes, Aloysha Karamazov, was a Russian monk.

Tolstoy preached a more universalist version of Christianity, which caused him to be expelled from the Russian Orthodox Church.  His ideas  influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King. 

Dostoyevsky was one of the few writers of his era to make poor people in cities his viewpoint characters.  He neither idealized or ridiculed them, because he shared their experiences.  In his novels, they could mess up their lives just like anybody else.

Tolstoy idealized workmen and peasants.   But in his novels, they were what’s called non-player characters.  He didn’t try to enter into their minds. His characters were all members of the upper crust—landowners, judges, army officers, educated intellectuals.  His ideal was the land-owning aristocrat who took responsibility for the people who depend on him.

Even so, he had such a wide-ranging knowledge of society and human character that his greatest novel, War and Peace, gave me an impression of a summing up all of human life.  

Also, unlike Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy was able to enter into the minds of his women characters.  Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov is one of the most fascinating characters in literature, but we see her only from the outside.  The inner workings of her mind remain a mystery.  

Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are both known for their writings about the quest for spiritual and philosophical truth.  The debates among the characters are like Plato’s Socratic dialogues.  But their novels can also be read as social commentary and even comedies of manners. 

What’s Russian about them is rejection of modern Western ideals of freedom, reason and tolerance as supreme values.  Both believed it takes something deeper to make a civilization.

∞∞∞

Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were contemporaries, and read each others’ books.  Dostoyevsky reviewed War and PeaceTolstoy reviewed  Crime and Punishment.  Each thought the other was okay, but not great.  They never met face to face.

One difference between the two was their handling of the Napoleon legend.  In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov was fascinated by the idea of Napoleon as a man of destiny, whose greatness was manifested in his willingness to commit crimes to accomplish great deeds.

Napoleon is a character in War and Peace, which came out about the same time.  Tolstoy depicts him as shallow and empty,  unworthy of his reputation.

Pierre Bezukhov, in the opening chapters, defends Napoleon’s crimes to shocked aristocratic party-goers.  Later he tries to be a man of destiny himself, by remaining in Moscow during the French invasion in order to assassinate Napoleon.  But the kind-hearted, indecisive Pierre can’t bring himself to pull the trigger.  Raskolnikov would have thought him a weakling.

Tolstoy thought most peoples’ stated philosophies had little or nothing to do with their actual conduct—which, considering what some people believed, was a good thing.   Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, believed ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have disastrous consequences.

Although Tolstoy had a point, the history of the 20th century, especially 20th century Russia, supports Dostoyevsky.  Ideas that, in Dostoyevsky’s time, were being kicked around in small, isolated discussion groups, were to become official doctrines imposed at gunpoint.

∞∞∞

All four of these novels are great, and worth reading for their own sake.  If there is anything greater in the Western literary canon, I haven’t read it.  I didn’t find anything in these four novels, or my (admittedly incomplete) reading of the writers’ other works, to indicate what they would have thought about the current Ukraine war.  But others have.

LINKS

How should Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy be read during Russia’s war against Ukraine? by Ani Kokobobo for The Conversation.

Can Russian literature make sense of Russia’s war on Ukraine? by Tim Brinkhof for Big Think.  

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Eight Experts on Who’s Greater by Kevin Hartnett for The Millions.  [Added 06/25/2022}

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4 Responses to “Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Russianness”

  1. silverapplequeen Says:

    I love these novels. I also love Pasternak. I love Russian poetry as well. There’s something about Russian literature, I don’t know what it is.

    Like

  2. Connor McDowell Says:

    great post.
    I just finished Anna Karenina on my first read-through. That book was amazing. I would disagree about Dostoevsky not entering the minds of woman characters. From what I remember, the Grushenka character was well done, and well understood from the reader’s perspective.
    As I read on WordPress today, and somewhat agreed with, it seems to me now that Tolstoy is the author who gives his women character less depth.
    Anna Karenina was merely a sociopath in my opinion, and we never see beneath her desire to manipulate and have an effect on other people. Varenka was shown to be great, but Tolstoy didn’t give us much of her psychology. Kitty, too, seemed one-dimensional.
    I don’t disagree with the author’s portrayals of their female characters at all, but I think in the question of who gives more depth to their female characters, I’d have to say Dostoevsky. Sonya in Crime and Punishment was quite steadfast in her faith through suffering, showing strength.

    Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      Grushenka is an unforgettable character, but we the readers don’t experience what it is like to be Grushenka in the same way that we experience what it is like to be, say, Dmitri Karamazov, or to be Anna Karenina.

      So there is a mystery about Grushenka that does not exist for some of the other characters. That is an observation, not a criticism.

      Like

  3. Connor McDowell Says:

    True. I loved the way Tolstoy took us into Anna’s mental downspiral. Just how rapid everything was, how her moods swung.

    Like

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