Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky   25 comments

Leo Tolstoy, 1828-1910

Dreams from the LORD 2007-2010
16 August 2010

An excerpt from The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey:

Pages 140-142: “A.N. Wilson, a biographer of Tolstoy, remarks that Tolstoy suffered from a ‘fundamental theological inability to understand the Incarnation. His religion was ultimately a thing of Law rather than of Grace, a scheme for human betterment rather than a vision of God penetrating a fallen world.’ With crystalline clarity Tolstoy could see his own inadequacy in the light of God’s Ideal. But he could not take the further step of trusting God’s grace to overcome that inadequacy.

“Shortly after reading Tolstoy I discovered his countryman Fyodor Dostoyevsky. These two, the most famous and accomplished of all Russian writers, lived and worked during the same period of history. Oddly, they never met, and perhaps it was just as well—they were opposites in every way. Where Tolstoy wrote bright, sunny novels, Dostoyevsky wrote dark and brooding ones. Where Tolstoy worked out ascetic schemes for self-improvement, Dostoyevsky periodically squandered his health and fortune on alcohol and gambling. Dostoyevsky got many things wrong, but he got one thing right: His novels communicate grace and forgiveness with a Tolstoyan force.

“Early in his life, Dostoyevsky underwent a virtual resurrection. He had been arrested for belonging to a group judged treasonous by Tsar Nicholas I, who, to impress upon the young parlor radicals the gravity of their errors, sentenced them to death and staged a mock execution. The conspirators were dressed in white death gowns and led to a public square where a firing squad awaited them. Blindfolded, robed in white burial shrouds, hands bound tightly behind them, they were paraded before a gawking crowd and then tied to posts. At the very last instant, as the order, ‘Ready, aim!’ was heard and rifles were cocked and lifted upward, a horseman galloped up with a pre-arranged message from the tsar: he would mercifully commute their sentence to hard labor.

“Dostoyevsky never recovered from this experience. He had peered into the jaws of death, and from that moment life became for him precious beyond all calculation. ‘Now my life will change,’ he said; ‘I shall be born again in a new form.’ As he boarded the convict train toward Siberia, a devout woman handed him a New Testament, the only book allowed in prison. Believing that God had given him a second chance to fulfill his calling, Dostoyevsky pored over that New Testament during his confinement. After ten years he emerged from exile with unshakeable Christian convictions, as expressed in one famous passage, ‘If anyone proved to me that Christ was outside the truth . . . then I would prefer to remain with Christ than with the truth.’

“Prison offered Dostoyevsky another opportunity as well. It forced him to live at close quarters with thieves, murderers, and drunken peasants. His shared life with these people later led to unmatched characterizations in his novels, such as that of the murderer Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky’s liberal view of the inherent goodness in humanity shattered in collision with the granitic evil he found in his cellmates. Yet over time he also glimpsed the image of God in even the lowest of prisoners. He came to believe that only through being loved is a human being capable of love; ‘We love because he [God] first loved us,’ as the apostle John says.

“I encountered grace in the novels of Dostoyevsky. Crime and Punishment portrays a despicable human being who commits a despicable crime. Yet grace enters Raskolnikov’s life as well, through the person of the converted prostitute Sonia, who follows him all the way to Siberia and leads him to redemption. The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps the greatest novel ever written, draws a contrast between Ivan the brilliant agnostic and his devout brother Alyosha. Ivan can critique the failures of humankind and every political system devised to deal with those failures, but he can offer no solutions. Alyosha has no solutions for the intellectual problems Ivan raises, but he has a solution for humanity: love. ‘I do not know the answer to the problem of evil,’ said Alyosha, ‘but I do know love.’ Finally, in the magical novel The Idiot, Dostoyevsky presents a Christ figure in the form of an epileptic prince. Quietly, mysteriously, Prince Myshkin moves among the circles of Russia’s upper class, exposing their hypocrisy while also illuminating their lives with goodness and truth.

“Taken together, these two Russians became for me, at a crucial time in my Christian pilgrimage, spiritual directors. They helped me come to terms with a central paradox of the Christian life. From Tolstoy I learned the need to look inside, to the kingdom of God that is within me. I saw how miserably I had failed the high ideals of the gospel. But from Dostoyevsky I learned the full extent of grace. Not only the kingdom of God is within me; Christ himself dwells there. ‘Where sin increased, grace increased all the more,’ is how Paul expressed it in Romans.

“There is only one way for any of us to resolve the tension between the high ideals of the gospel and the grim reality of ourselves: to accept that we will never measure up, but that we do not have to. We are judged by the righteousness of the Christ who lives within, not our own. Tolstoy got it halfway right: anything that makes me feel comfort with God’s moral standard, anything that makes me feel, ‘At last I have arrived,’ is a cruel deception. But Dostoyevsky got the other half right: anything that makes me feel discomfort with God’s forgiving love is also a cruel deception. ‘There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’: that message, Leo Tolstoy never fully grasped.”


Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1821-1881

Fyodor Dostoyevsky—The Mantle of the Prophet
The Prophet by A.S. Pushkin
A Single Story of Soviet Russia
The Three Hermits
The Brothers Karamazov
Anna and Raskolnikov
Crime and Punishment: A Film by Piotr Dumala
Vintage Footage of Leo Tolstoy
The Daily Blini—Exploring Russian Culture
A Prophet’s Eyes
Russian Universe
Yasnaya Polyana // Ясная поляна
The rebirth of Christianity in post-Soviet Russia
You Should Read Some Dostoyevsky . . .Here Are Some Tips!
Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov Strikingly Illustrated by Expressionist Painter Alice Neel (1938)
The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (animated film)
The Idiot by Dostoyevsky
The Importance of the Prophetic
A Dark Road and a Bright Light
A Gift from Russia
Soviet Censorship of Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Mark Taylor’s Prophetic Word:  Russia and the United States
Dostoyevsky in Europe
How Solzhenitsyn defeated the USSR
Slavophiles vs. Westernizers and Conservatives vs. Liberals
Putin embarrasses Megyn Kelly

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky – A good summary of his life


“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.”
–Leo Tolstoy

“Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

–Fyodor Dostoyevsky


The New Testament that Dostoyevsky took with him to prison in Siberia


“Dostoevsky gives me more than any scientist, more than Gauss.”
–Albert Einstein

“The real 19th century prophet was Dostoevsky, not Karl Marx.”
–Albert Camus

“The Darker the night, the brighter the stars, the deeper the grief, the closer is God.”
–Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

25 responses to “Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky

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  1. Pingback: Автостоп. Москва – Сахалин. Часть 1. « The Road

  2. Pingback: Beware of Theological Aesthetes | The Road

  3. “Tolstoy wrote bright, sunny novels”.
    Uh, what?
    That sounds more like Jane Austen. Tolstoy’s works aren’t full of madmen, neurotics, criminals… like Dostoyevsky’s, but bright and sunny? “War and Peace”? “Anna Karenina”? “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”? etc.
    I do love all of these 3 authors, but that statement is ridiculous.

  4. Tim ….I so totally loved the post about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I never read Tolstoy but read Brothers Karamazov (my favorite), Crime and Punishment, and some of The Double. I am smitten by your life of travel, experiencing so many things. I am a bit envious. You are on a great adventure of faith. I plan on reading many more of your posts. God bless and keep you always. Tovah

  5. Tovah: The Brothers Karamazov is a classic. I started reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but didn’t get very far. I have read several of Tolstoy’s short stories and I thought they were very good.

    It has been quite a journey: my life in Christ and my hitchhiking travels. It is beautiful what the Lord will reveal to us everyday, if we are truly surrendered to His will.

  6. Pingback: Christian History | The Road

  7. Awesome post! I love Russian lit. It was a great comparison between Tolstoy and Dostoeyevsky (though I wouldn’t say Tolstoy writes bright sunny novels necessarily). Dostoyevksy does a wonderful job of portraying the grittiness of reality yet shining the hope and light of Christ in it without coming across as a sermonizer. Love this post man!

  8. Pingback: The Three Hermits | The Road

  9. “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”

    –Fyodor Dostoyevsky

  10. Fascinating!

  11. Such a nice commentary!! Thanks for pointing me out to this place. Keep up the excellence!! Btw have you read Soul Survivor? I haven’t read that one but there, Yancey does describe more about Russian Writers and Christianity.

    • No, I haven’t read SOUL SURVIVOR. Thanks for visiting my blog.

      “Be not forgetful of prayer. Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education.”

      ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV

  12. Interesting and thought provoking research presented in this post . Thanks . And thanks for reading my post.

  13. Reblogged this on Studium Scientiam.

  14. “If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on the right road, and try not to leave it. Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute. Avoid being scornful, both to others and to yourself. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of your observing it in yourself. Avoid fear, too, though fear is only the consequence of every sort of falsehood. Never be frightened at your own faint-heartedness in attaining love. Don’t be frightened overmuch even at your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it—at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you. Forgive me for not being able to stay longer with you. They are waiting for me. Good-by.”

    –Fyodor Dostoyevsky, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV

  15. The Brothers Karamazov is the best novel ever written. Three brothers – the three parts of a man : physical, intellectual, spiritual. AND the chapter titled “The Master” (I think) is the greatest treaty on the nature of evil and man’s relationship to evil ever written.

  16. I have read both of these authors works and I love them all!

  17. “The world says: ‘You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.’ This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”

    –Fyodor Dostoyevsky

  18. Reblogged this on M. Matheson and commented:
    Great thoughts on grace and the Gospel through the eyes of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Kudos to the writer for his great depth of thoughts on these two writers and their stories. Worthy read.

  19. Beautiful material! Thank you!

  20. Be careful, it is not because some one believes Jesus existed or believes in him (in which way?) that the person is going to be saved. When one believes Jesus is the son of God and the sent one from God, one still has to live according to the Will of God. When stealing, murdering etc. without having a bad feeling about those wrong doings and not repenting over such wrong doings one shall not enter the Kingdom of God.

  21. Reblogged this on Gitardood's Weblog and commented:
    Having read some of these authoir’ writings I heartily enjoyed this post comparing the two.

  22. Pingback: to Resolve the tension between high ideals of the gospel and the grim reality of ourselves | From guestwriters

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