Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? 8 Experts on Who’s Greater

April 23, 2012 | 11 books mentioned 86 16 min read

This past winter I wrote a pair of essays about The Brothers Karamazov that included the admission that I preferred “Tolstoy’s ability to see the angles of everyday life to Dostoevsky’s taste for the manic edges of experience.”  That line elicited more of a reaction from readers than anything else I wrote, which prompted me to dive deeper into the question: Just which of these two titans of Russian literature is considered the greater novelist?

coverAs it turned out, I was not the first to consider the provocation. The literary critic George Steiner has provided the most authoritative resolution to the problem with his book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, which positions Tolstoy as “the foremost heir to the tradition of the epic” and Dostoevsky as “one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare.” Isaiah Berlin considered the seemingly opposing qualities of the two authors in his enduring essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Nabokov argued in Lectures on Russian Literature that it was Tolstoy in a landslide, while America’s First Ladies have tended to give the nod to Dostoevsky: both Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush cite The Brothers Karamazov as their favorite novel.

Still, I wasn’t satisfied with the answers I found online so I decided to get a second opinion — or rather, eight more opinions. I reached out to the foremost scholars of Russian literature as well as avid lay readers I know and asked if they’d be willing to contribute 500 words weighing the respective merits of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Almost everyone said yes, though a few echoed the sentiments of a distinguished emeritus professor who replied to me from a beach in Mexico, writing, “There really is no competition on Parnassus. From my point of view at least, they are both great writers and now live in a realm beyond competition.” And of course that’s true — just as it’s true that it is fun (and often illuminating) to debate Williams vs. DiMaggio and Bird vs. Magic even though at the end of the day we acknowledge that they’re all irreducibly great.

So with that, enjoy eight very knowledgeable, passionate takes on two of the great storytellers of all time. And when you’re done reading, please go ahead and share your own views in the comments section.

Carol Apollonio, Professor of the Practice of Russian, Duke University

The question shot straight into my brain and disabled the parietal cortex. There was a sizzle and a puff of smoke, and the smell of sulfur filled the air. I groped in the dark for a 50-kopeck piece and tossed it upwards. It clinked hollowly on the linoleum.  The flickering light of the candle from above illuminated the tiny but unmistakable image of the double-headed eagle. Heads up: Dostoevsky, then.

His protagonist is the head: bait for smart people. The intellect sends forth an unending flow of words. YES! You’ve thought this exact same thing so many times! How can there be justice on earth if it comes at the cost of a child’s tear? How can God be all good and all powerful, yet allow suffering in the world? If God exists, then how can he allow ME to walk the earth, sick, sniveling, spiteful creature that I am, scrawny spawn of the most abstract and premeditated city on the earth? If God does not exist, though, how can I be a captain? Should I return my ticket? Read on! They give us the bread that we ourselves have made, and we accept it back from them in exchange for our freedom: cheap sorcery in place of miracle. I love mankind, but how can you expect me to love the stinking, jabbering drunk across the table, the loser who sold his own daughter into prostitution so he could sit here and drink? Prove that you exist, then! Move this mountain, and I will believe!

His protagonist is the head, but his hero is the heart. Logic and words will get you nowhere: the more talk, the less truth. Twice two is four, but twice two is five is a charming little thing too. A hug, now, a kiss, a fall to the earth, a leg over the iron railing of a cold St. Petersburg bridge, a pouring forth of tears, a pouring forth of blood, a turning pale, a fainting dead away, an issuing forth of the spirit of decay, a slamming of your own finger in the door, the plaintive sounds of a pipe-organ on the street, ragged orphans begging, the dying gasps of the overworked, bludgeoned horse, the barely detectable breathing of the doomed old woman on the other side of the closed door — you, YOU are the murderer — the clink of coins in the cup, the dizzying whirl of the roulette wheel, brain fever, a silhouette in the doorway, the noble young lady bowing down to the earth before you, YOU, you lustful worm! Shrieks, a rope, a gun, a slap on the cheek, and suddenly…

Suddenly an image appears in the darkness: a thin, timid girl in a green shawl, her face pale and drawn from illness. She smiles joyfully and stretches out her hand to me. I must go, for if I do not, I will keep on talking and will never stop….

Ellen Chances, Professor of Russian Literature, Princeton University

The question, in my mind, is meaningless. One of the worrisome tendencies of contemporary society is its impulse to rank. Who is better? Who is Number One? The question should not be, “Who is the greater novelist?,” but rather, “What do I learn from reading the books of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or of anyone else?

Why does everything have to be a race? Why does everything have to be competitive? This implies that there is a winner and a loser. Why does the reading of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or of anyone else have to be part of a “success” or “failure” story? Framing the question, “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: Who’s the better novelist?,” in this way does a disservice, it seems to me, to the act of contemplating the meaning of these writers’ books.

Asking the question is equivalent to asking, “Which is the greater food, milk or orange juice? Which is the greater food, blueberries or strawberries? Which is better, the sky or the grass, night or day?”

covercoverTo me, both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are equally great writers. Each focused on some of the important “big questions” of life. Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, in The Brothers Karamazov, asked how a just God could have created a world that includes the suffering of innocent children. Tolstoy, through his character, Levin, in Anna Karenina, asked what the meaning of life is. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy asserted that the essence of life cannot be found by relying on the intellect alone. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy understood that being true to the authentic rhythms of life means respecting the non-linear nature of life.

Each of the two offers profound insights about psychology. Tolstoy emphasizes the ways in which people relate to one another in a societal context. Dostoevsky digs deeply into the individual human psyche. Tolstoy paints a world in which extreme things happen to ordinary people. Dostoevsky shows us the extremes of which people are capable. Each of the two writers describes crises in faith. Each describes the journey to a life of spiritual values.

Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy write in a way that conveys the energy of life. That energy comes about, in Dostoevsky, through the clash of ideas, through the tension he creates through suspense and the use of words like “suddenly.” Ivan Karamazov says that he loves life more than the meaning of life. Tolstoy shows a love of life of this world – the smell of the earth, the beauty of a flower. He speaks about living a life of authenticity.

Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy make me think about what is important in life. Both urge the reader to appreciate those things that money or competition cannot bestow – love, and life itself…

…So who is the greater writer, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy? Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are great…And then there is Chekhov, and Pushkin, and Mandelstam and Akhmatova and Bitov… And that’s just the Russians…

Raquel Chanto, Graduate Student, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs


It is likely that these words express more about me than about Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. I have long ago given up on the idea of objective appraisal of literature: reading is a much more mediated process than we would like to admit. All sorts of ghosts crawl into the pages, a prehistory of tastes and experiences and prejudices and fears. So if I say Dostoevsky is a greater writer than Tolstoy, I only mean he has been greater to me.

My first encounter with Russian literature was as random as can be expected for a twelve-year-old girl growing up in suburban Costa Rica. Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky emerged like potatoes out of a giant plastic bag containing several books of ranging worth. I was lucky enough to be, at the time, very young, very curious and seriously uninformed. Unlike most people, I read War and Peace without having the faintest idea of the book’s reputation. Crime and Punishment followed shortly after, with the same scandalous lack of veneration. I loved them both: Tolstoy, for the story he told, and Dostoevsky, for the thoughts he provoked.

Many years and many books later, the two authors continue to inhabit different places in my mind and in my memory. Tolstoy conjures up images of endless steppes and elegant Petersburg homes, where great and complex characters go about the business of living. His books are showcases of literary craftsmanship, epic tales told with impeccable skill. Dostoevsky’s work is less precise, more ambiguous. I experience his books as a ceaseless battle of demons that never rest — not even as you turn the page, as you end a chapter, as you finish the novel and read it again. A Dostoevsky novel sitting on a shelf is a bowl of anxiety and confusion, a bundle of frustrations marked by a desperate need for redemption. His protagonists are shown in extreme situations, where not only their personality but their very nature is put to the test.

What I find mesmerizing in Dostoevsky is not just the details of the story, the particular twists and turns of the lives of Rodion Raskolnikov or Dmitri Karamazov; it is the mere possibility of their existence. It is, in the end, the mind-bending notion that we could be just like them — that any of us, any ordinary, simple human being, carries around the highest plane and the lowest point of moral capabilities. Tolstoy’s characters tell me a lot about themselves. Dostoevsky’s characters tell me a lot about myself. If that is not writing of the ultimate importance, I do not know what is.

Chris Huntington, author of the novel Mike Tyson Slept Here

Reading Tolstoy transports me to another world; reading Dostoevsky makes me feel alive in this one. As I’m reading Tolstoy, I’m drawn into a dream of serfs and country estates, endless royal titles and army ranks. So many beautiful horses! A loyal dog! Women like Kitty and Anna Karenina! But then I put the book down and I find myself using a coat hanger to get the hair out of the shower drain, and it doesn’t feel like the Battle of Austerlitz. It feels like my life again.

On the other hand, many times someone will frustrate me at work, and I hear these words from The Brothers Karamazov thundering in my head:

‘Why is such a man alive!’ Dmitri Fyodorovich growled in a muffled voice, now nearly beside himself with fury, somehow raising his shoulders peculiarly so that he looked almost hunchbacked. ‘No, tell me, can he be allowed to go on dishonoring the earth with himself?’

I say this kind of shit to myself all the time. It’s part of the fun of being alive.

As I lead my every day life (so unlike ice-skating in Moscow or cutting grain on my estates), just imagining that I resemble beautiful Levin is to invite self-ridicule. I like him more than he would like me. I’m not nearly as nice, nor as sincere. I find that I can openly admire Prince Myshkin, however, because in The Brothers Karamazov, I’m right there doing it. I’m Dmitri or Ivan, holding Alyosha’s hand. The message of the brothers is that we are all each other; we share each other’s passions. We suffer identically. We demonstrate things differently. I can be innocent and guilty both.

That, to me, is life.

Borges, I believe, said there was something adolescent about a love of Dostoevsky – that maturity demanded other writers. All I know is, when I first read Crime and Punishment, that book represented a lot of work for me. I didn’t get it! What did I have to feel so guilty about, at eighteen? I hadn’t DONE anything. I was frantic with potential energy. I would have been better off with War and Peace – because I had the temperament of Prince Andrei, ready to go to war. I was angry with myself and frustrated, but I had no major regrets. I certainly could never have understood Ivan Fyodorovich’s madness. I had just spent a summer drifting with a beautiful 17 year-old girl on Harrison Lake; if you’d asked me why Prince Myshkin pursued the troubled Nastassya or allowed the beautiful Aglaya to get away, I would have had no idea.

In adolescence, I was loyal with my friends, but also so fiercely uncompromising that I would never have endured a friend like Myshkin’s Rogozhin. That kind of bond would only come later for me, when I understood what it was like to tie myself to someone for life- when I understood what mutual forgiveness was.  When I was in my early twenties, one of my friends drunkenly stabbed another. It wasn’t serious. One of my best friends asked me not to see a girl he’d broken up with. Instead, I married her. Later on, I lost her. I chased her in the snow, like Dmitri. I understand Dostoevsky now. What adolescent understands these things?

coverIn any case, I realize that the “competition” between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy is just an exercise in love. No one really has to choose one or the other. I simply prefer Dostoevsky. For my last argument, I will simply cite an expert far older and wiser than me:

Just recently I was feeling unwell and read House of the Dead. I had forgotten a good bit, read it over again, and I do not know a better book in all our new literature, including Pushkin. It’s not the tone but the wonderful point of view – genuine, natural, and Christian. A splendid, instructive book. I enjoyed myself the whole day as I have not done for a long time. If you see Dostoevsky, tell him that I love him.

-Leo Tolstoy in a letter to Strakhov, September 26, 1880

Andrew Kaufman, author of Understanding Tolstoy and Lecturer in Slavic Languages and Literature, University of Virginia

All mediocre novelists are alike; every great novelist is great in his own way. Which is why the choice between nineteenth-century Russia’s two supreme prose writers ultimately boils down to the question of which kind of greatness resonates with a particular reader. My own sympathies are with Tolstoy, and even my criteria for judging a work of fiction, I admit, are relentlessly Tolstoyan.

“The goal of the artist,” Tolstoy wrote, “is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to force people to love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” By this standard Tolstoy’s novels succeed where Dostoevsky’s fall short.

True, Dostoevsky saw and felt modern experience in all of its isolating, tragic depth. He showed the obsessive power of ideas and the psychological crises, cracks, and explosions of the soul that have become familiar in our modern world. What he doesn’t do, however, is make you love life in all its manifestations. In fact, when he tries to do so, he reveals his deficiencies.

At the end of Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov flings himself at the feet of Sonya, who has followed him to Siberia where he is serving his sentence for double homicide. Sonya jumps up, looks at him and trembles. “Infinite happiness lit up in her eyes; she understood, and for her there was no longer any doubt that he loved her, loved her infinitely, and that at last the moment had come…” If this smacks of modern soap opera or those maudlin French novels Dostoevsky was raised on, that’s because it is melodrama. Sonya’s “infinite love” is an ideal, “the moment” that has supposedly come, an abstraction.

coverWhat modern readers need, Tolstoy believed, is not more lurching after “infinite happiness” or “the Great Idea,” as Stepan Trofimovich, near the end of The Demons, claims to have discovered, but the ability to embrace an imperfect reality. The author of Anna Karenina teaches us how to seek meaning not through grandiose romantic strivings, like Anna and Vronsky, but within the limits of imperfect social and family structures, like Kitty and Levin.

Tolstoy’s novels depict the norms and continuities of human behavior by means of grand narratives that expand slowly over time and against the backdrop of vast natural tableaus. “As is usually the case” and “such as often occurs” are phrases you encounter frequently in Tolstoy. Dostoevsky’s world, by contrast, is one in which you can come home one evening and “suddenly” find an axe buried in your skull. Life is always on the verge of imploding on itself. Tragedy is just around the corner, or in your living room.

Tolstoy’s living room is a place where people, well, live. It’s where dark-eyed, voluble twelve-year old Natasha Rostova comes running with doll in hand, or where, a decade later, she enjoys with Pierre one of those endearingly mundane conversations between wife and husband about nothing and everything.

“I am a realist in a higher sense,” Dostoevsky rightfully claimed. But Tolstoy was a realist in the total sense. “The hero of my tale… is Truth,” he wrote. And that truth is one every generation recognizes as its own, not just those in a state of social crisis or existential despair. If Dostoevsky urges us to reach for the heavens, then Tolstoy teaches us by artistic example how we may touch the transcendent here and now in our messy, fleeting world.

Gary Saul Morson, Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts and Humanities, Northwestern University

A Soviet anecdote has it that Stalin once asked the Central Committee: which deviation is worse, the right or the left? Some fearfully ventured “the left,” others hesitantly offered, “the right.” The Great Helmsman then gave the right answer: “Both are worse.” I answer the question, “Who is the greater novelist, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?”: Both are better.

Dostoevsky spoke to the twentieth century. He was unique in foreseeing that it would not be an era of sweetness and light, but the bloodiest on record. With uncanny accuracy, The Demons predicted, in detail, what totalitarianism would be.

Bakhtin understood the core principle of Dostoevsky’s ethics: a person is never just the product of external forces. Neither heredity nor environment, singly or together, fully accounts for a human being. Each person retains a “surplus,” which constitutes the self’s essential element. True, some people, and all social sciences aspiring to resemble physics, deny the surplus. But they apply their theories only to others. No matter what he professes, nobody experiences himself as a mere play of external forces. Everyone feels regret or guilt, and there is no escaping the agony of choice. We behave as if we believed that each moment allows for more than one possible outcome and that our freedom that makes us in principle unpredictable. Without that unpredictability we would lack humanness. We would be zombies, and no one has ethical responsibility to zombies. Hence ethics demands: always treat another person as capable of surprise, as someone who cannot be explained entirely at second hand.

Dostoevsky despised both capitalism and socialism because each treats people as the mere product of economic (or other) laws. If socialism is worse, it is because it also presumes that experts know how to organize life for the best and socialism not only denies but actively removes choice for a supposedly higher good. At best, this view leads to the Grand Inquisitor, at worst to the nightmarish plans of Pyotr Stepanovich.

Tolstoy speaks more to the 21st century. His novels’ key concept was contingency. At every moment, however small and ordinary, something happens that cannot entirely be accounted for by previous moments. Like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy also denied the possibility of a social science, which must always wind up resembling the “science of warfare” preached by the generals in War and Peace. Like macroeconomists today, these “scientists” are immune to counter-evidence. To use Tolstoy’s word, social science is mere “superstition.”

If social scientists understood people as well as Tolstoy, they would have been able to depict a human being as believable as Tolstoy’s characters, but of course none has come close.

If we once acknowledge that we will never have a social science, then we will, like General Kutuzov, learn to make decisions differently. We intellectuals would be more cautious, more modest, and ready to correct our errors by constant tinkering.

If we have left the age of ideologies behind, we may need Dostoevsky’s warnings less than Tolstoy’s wisdom.

Donna Tussing Orwin, Professor of Russian and Chair, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto, and author of Consequences of Consciousness: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy

I inclined first to Tolstoy. His combination of moral sensibility and love of life appealed to me, and I didn’t like Dostoevsky’s over-the-top world of the self in crisis. The two authors have much in common, and yet diverge in ways that make comparison irresistible.

covercoverBoth associate the self with moral agency; for both therefore, the individual is the ultimate source of good and evil. For both, goodness, which consists in overcoming selfishness, is natural but weak. For both feelings trump reason in the soul, though Tolstoy is closer to the Greeks and the Enlightenment in his association of virtue with reason. For Dostoevsky, reason is always tainted by egotism, and therefore he relies on love to spur moral impulses. Dostoevsky concentrates more on evil; for this reason his writings anticipate the horrors of the twentieth and the nascent twenty-first centuries. Tolstoy depicts crimes, such as the lynching of Vereshchagin (War and Peace) or uxoricide in Kreutzer Sonata, but not the pure malice embodied in such Dostoevskian characters as Stavrogin (Demons) or Smerdyakov (Brothers Karamazov). Tolstoy’s most evil characters, like Dolokhov in War and Peace, seem to invade his texts from another (Dostoevskian?) world. Dostoevsky also portrays pure goodness. Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin (The Idiot), even though he is named after Tolstoy, is more virtuous than any Tolstoyan character could be, and so is Alyosha Karamazov. Both authors are wicked satirists. Tolstoy’s rationalizing solutions to social ills can seem naive, while Dostoevsky’s high-minded ones seem sentimental.

Tolstoy’s fiction encompasses a broader range of experience than Dostoevsky’s. No one has described childhood, family life, farming, hunting, and war any better. This reflects his affinity for the physical and the body. Not coincidentally, Tolstoy is also celebrated for his portraits of nature and animals. Dostoevsky usually associates the physical with the base. (Compare fleshy old Fyodor Karamazov with his ethereal son Alyosha.) In his writings illness often brings insight, while Tolstoy mostly (though not always) prefers healthy states to unhealthy ones.

Dostoevsky’s fiction aims at the revelation of character to the fullest extent possible. He believes that each individual is unique, however, and therefore ultimately inaccessible to others. His protagonists vacillate between good and evil; this makes the future of any one of them, even the most virtuous, unpredictable. Tolstoy’s characters are complex but not unique. The variety among them (greater than in Dostoevsky) is a result of a practically but not theoretically infinite number of combinations among all the possibilities inherent in human nature, and the interaction of these with the outside world. Tolstoy depicts the intersection of chance, historical forces, and character. In his view, the more disengaged we are from outside circumstances, the freer we are. Tolstoy gravitated in old age toward Christian anarchy, while Dostoevsky in his last novel (Brothers Karamazov) seems to advocate for a Christian theocracy headed by someone like Zosima.

I still prefer Tolstoy’s earthiness and expansiveness to Dostoevsky’s brilliant, edgy anatomy of the psyche, but I can’t imagine life without them both.

Joshua Rothman, graduate student in English at Harvard University, and author of the column, Brainiac, which appears every Sunday in the Boston Globe’s Ideas section

I have the usual reasons for thinking of Tolstoy as the “better” — really, as the best — novelist. There’s the incredible variety of scenes and subjects he explores; there’s his precise, uncluttered style; there’s his epic tone, with its special combination of detachment and humanity. And I’m always overpowered by the way his novels describe everyone from the inside, even the dogs and horses. I have the same reaction to Tolstoy’s writing as his sister-in-law, Tanya Bers, who was the model for Natasha in War and Peace: “I can see how you are able to describe landowners, fathers, generals, soldiers,” she told him, “but how can you insinuate yourself into the heart of a girl in love, how can you describe the sensation of a mother — for the life of me I cannot understand.” I think Tolstoy is better at “insinuating himself” than any other novelist.

It’s Tolstoy’s scenes, though, which impress me most. Tolstoy, I’m convinced, is the single greatest writer of scenes in literature. Dostoevsky is often given credit for being more “dramatic” (George Steiner, in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?, calls Dostoevsky “one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare”). But Tolstoy’s novels are unique in the way they’re constructed entirely out of short, perfect, easy-to-read scenes, and in the way those scenes build on one another until they address the most complex issues in a nonchalant, natural way.

Take the run of scenes around Kitty and Vronsky’s ball in Anna Karenina. In the first scene, Kitty and Anna are sitting on a sofa. Kitty invites Anna to the ball, and suggests that she wear a lilac-colored dress. Then a gaggle of children run to Anna, Anna takes them in her arms, and the scene ends. Reading the scene, we understand that that’s how Kitty sees Anna: as a mysterious, beautiful, poetic young mother. Then, two scenes later, Kitty arrives at the ball, wearing a peach-colored dress, and sees Anna — in black velvet. That’s the scene when Anna steals Vronsky from Kitty. Right there, in the juxtaposition of those two scenes, which are only two or three pages apart, you have the difference between childhood and adulthood, and between sexual innocence and experience. No other novelist can show you so much, so quickly.

It’s not just that his short scenes move quickly, though; it’s that they let Tolstoy focus on very ordinary things, like the color of a dress. One of the best scenes at the end of Anna Karenina is organized around a thunderstorm; in War and Peace, he does two scenes around an oak tree, bare and then in bloom. In each scene, the details feel unremarkable — but, over many scenes, they assemble themselves into a structure that’s more than the sum of its parts. Tolstoy called that structure a “network.” Dostoevsky built up networks, too, of course, and in some ways they’re more powerful. But I prefer Tolstoy’s ordinary materials to Dostoevsky’s extraordinary ones, because they can teach you to uncover the “scenes” and “networks” in your own life.

Images of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky via Wikimedia Commons

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. I can’t say I am an expert or have a great memory after reading these two great writers over a quarter century ago. What sticks out in my mind is that Tolstoy was a rural writer and Dosteyevsky an urban one. That is basic oversimplification but works for me. Now Chekov….I love! But Dosteyevsky’s judge who could not come up for the word banana is my hero!

  2. Nearly every aspect of these two authors (beyond ethnicity, book length, or notoriety) is opposite, even down to when and why they did their writing. Tolstoy, a morning writer, had the luxury of a palatial estate and storied name within Russia’s upper class. Dostoevsky, perennially in debt and the scion of a family which long before lost its noble status, wrote through the night to meet (or overshoot by a long distance) his deadlines. Evaluating the two based only on their actual lives, I’m inclined to root for the scrappy underdog, the one who was sentenced to death and saved from it at the last minute, the one who grappled with madness and the rough edges of human experience. That stuff’s thrilling in any age! Count me, then, devotedly within the Team Fyodor camp, though I will admit to the superiority of Tolstoy’s beard.

  3. I tried to tackle this meaningless but fun question another way: what would they be if they were alive today? My first thought was that Tolstoy would be a film director. He would have made Heaven’s Gate, except that his version would be good and interesting (and longer). Dostoevsky would be either a novelist or, if today’s commercial publishers turned him down, a blogger with a cult following.

    Then I thought, no, he’d be a film maker too. I’m tempted to say, Paul Schrader, but then I hit on it. If both were alive today, Tolstoy would be Francis Ford Coppola and Dostoevsky would be Martin Scorsese. So, what’s greater – Apocalypse Now or Raging Bull? Me, I go with Marty every time. But I get why others go with Francis.

    So, I have managed to completely restate your question and leave it unresolved.

  4. I love this essay! I’ve thought long and hard about this question and enjoyed Steiner’s eloquent and erudite book.

    Obviously, there’s really no imperative reason to make this an either/or question except for the fact that you can. I like having to throw down like this, and the necessary test of character and sensitivity is a good thing.

    Nick already pointed out that Dostoevsky is the underdog here, as in so many things. I do think that his suffering and vision was more about overcoming external obstacles rather than Tolstoy’s honest, lacerating, but essentially self-inflicted doubts and pains.

    I reread “TBK” before going into grad school because it was my casual answer to the “so what’s your favorite novel” question and I was surprised to see that it seemed much more of a frenzied soap opera than it did at first blush.

    I think I’ve learned more about life and how to live it from “Anna Karenina” and I’m betting that it will withstand a rereading someday in the near future.

    Let me put it this way- they’re both prophets, of course, but they intimated different things. I’m going to give Dostoevsky the first half of the 20th Century, and Tolstoy the second half. I think Tolstoy is really more of where we ought to be heading, though I think Dostoevsky represents where we’ve come from.

    I’m voting Tolstoy, with one caveat- I never read, and probably never will read, anything he wrote while standing alone on the roof my house, looking down at the driveway…

  5. Even though she has a cool name I think Ellen Chances is off-target in blaming the contemporary tendency to rank everything. Didn’t the Ancient Greeks literally make their dramatists compete? Some writers are better than others in the same way orange juice is better than milk and blueberries better than strawberries.

    Whatever preferences one has about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky the idea of even including Chekhov in that group, let alone preferring him, is ridiculous. I also wouldn’t call them 19th century Russia’s two supreme prose writers because besides slighting Pushkin’s prose it leaves out Gogol altogether.

  6. I choose Dostoevsky because I can relate to his characters better than Tolstoy’s. This seems strange, because his characters are often tortured adulterers and murderers, and I am not particularly tortured. However, I’m never able to relate to characters like Tolstoy’s, who occupy the upper crust of society. I’ve never been a part of, nor do I understand such a social status. I enjoy Tolstoy, but he has never affected me as profoundly as D. As mentioned by several writers; however, deciding whether one is “better” than the other is pointless endeavor.

  7. Tolstoy could write like Dostoyevsky when he wanted to (cf. Kreutzer…). Could Dostoyevsky write like Tolstoy? I doubt it.

  8. Frankly, I don’t like them both, and I believe both are greatly overrated. Even though both shows moments of brilliance, Tolstoy — when he wrote about inner feelings and Dostoyevsky — when he wrote about children, most of the time they were very sloppy and boring writers. Let’s just say, I hold Chekhov and Kuprin in much higher regard.

  9. Have any one of you, honestly, ever completed reading WAR AND PEACE? I have not., and felt bored on occasions I’ve tried. But I’ve gone through several stories of Tolstoy. And found them didactic, mostly. My reading experience of Dostoevsky, on the other hand, is always fascinating. I have never left any of his works half-way, or felt bored. I’ve always found him a much more intimate chronicler of life than Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s spirituality also puts me off.

  10. I was once a student of Literature, and read “Crime and Punishment” But now I am one who reads great literature for pleasure. I read “The Brothers Karamazov” on my own and got buried in it, only coming up for air a few times. It was riveting, powerful, outrageous, and touching. As for now, Dostoyevsky is my favorite Russian writer, though I love Chekhov and Pushkin, too.
    As for Tolstoy, I have read most of his short works, like “The Cossacks,” “The Raid,” “the Death of Ivan Illich,” and “The Kreutzer Sonata.” But when it came to “War and Peace,” I used to be intimidated by its sheer size. But now I am reading it, and it is slow going to begin with, but i love his characters and his sense of humor and I can see that the tale will gradually grow and expand into a whole created world. So I will reserve my comparison until I finish it.
    However, I do agree with Ellen Chances that there should really be no comparison as to which is greater, but which the reader likes better. Greatness has room for more than two!

  11. “All mediocre novelists are alike; every great novelist is great in his own way.”

    Merci, merci, merci, o kind sir, for rescuing me from the false belief that the great are all great in exactly the same way!

    And for ridding me of the false desire to read further in this article; that will free up the time needed to make sense of your bizarre remark about the mediocre, if sense there be.

  12. I covered Susan Sontag who gave a public lecture in 2000 at Fairfield University. She recalled the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky asking her who she thought the better writer, to which she asked, “Must I pick one?” He then said, “Susan, Susan, Susan, from Dostoyevsky comes Kafka, from Tolstoy comes Margaret Mitchell.”

  13. Which composer is greater: Bruckner or Mahler? Bruckner has faith, Mahler has doubts. Bruckner seeks heaven, Mahler seeks life. Bruckner likes beer, Mahler likes wine. Does any of this make any sense? No. Both are great composers on their own terms and we delight and suffer with them depending on our own moods. Which writer is greater: Dostoevsky or Tolstoy? Both are great writers.

  14. Cats better than Dogs?
    Chocolate better than Vanila?
    Ford better than Chevy?
    Such questions could keep writers busy for a long time.

  15. Goodness, what an assemblage of flatulent bloviation! Dostoevsky, without question, is the greater novelist; it well may be that Anna Karenenia, despite that vacuous opening sentence, is greater than any of Dostoevsky’s novels.

  16. The question posed in the title of this article (“who is greater”) differs from the question which in the first paragraph (“who is the greater novelist”). In the excerpt below, Nicolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), the Russian philosopher, in his Dostoievsky – An Interpretation, tries to answer both:

    “It is possible that Tolstoy was a finer artist than Dostoievsky, that his novels, as novels, are the better…. But Dostoievsky is the greater thinker of the two, his awareness of things is more extensive, and he knows the eternal human contradiction which makes it necessary to take one step back for every two forward, while Tolstoy went straight on without turning his head. Again, Dostoievsky saw life with reference to the spirit of man: that is why he knew that the revolution seething within that spirit would take place; but for Tolstoy life is just an emanation of nature, merely the fluid that continually vitalizes plants and animals; he could see only a biological process, against whose laws he rebelled. And his one-sided morality could in no case have been shared by such a seer of the human heart as Dostoievsky.” (pgs. 23-24)

    “People may be divided into two types: those who are drawn to Tolstoy’s mind and those drawn to Dostoievsky’s, and we shall find that the ‘tolstoyans’ have great difficulty in understanding Dostoievsky properly; not only that, but they often dislike him. Those who are satisfied by Tolstoy’s rationalism and monism do not appreciate the tragic contradictions of such works as The Possessed: they are frightened by the writer’s spirit, which seems to them antichristian. Tolstoy, to whom the idea of the Redemption was quite foreign and who lacked any personal feeling for our Lord, is their representative figure of an authentic Christian, faithful to the word of the gospel; Dostoievsky, who loved Christ consumingly and was immersed in the mystery of his atonement, him they regard as an unchristian, gloomy, disturbing writer who opens the pits of hell. There is an unbridgeable gap, over which the holders of two differing fundamental conceptions of existence face one another.” (p. 216)

    And this is how he closes off his book:
    “So great is the worth of Dostoievsky that to have produced him is by itself sufficient justification for the existence of the Russian people in the world; and he will bear witness for his countrymen at the last judgment of the nations.” (p. 227)

  17. I tried reading War and Peace and believe me, it wasn’t even close to as good as ‘The Idiot’ Dostoyevsky’s 4th best work.

    No contest here.

  18. They’re both indispensable. Like others have argued; it’s a matter of preference, depending on one’s attitudes towards life.

    Tolstoy wrote about the experience of living in its all-encompassing detail and sweep, Dostoevsky wrote about the utmost secrets and mysteries of the human mind and soul.

    I think Dostoevsky’s thoughts are more revolutionary in that they make me try an approach to life that is very alien to mine, almost like an epiphany (no other writer has made me question my ideas on morality, politics, love, religion, etc more). Tolstoy makes me consider life from all its possible angles and somehow feels closer to my experience of living in all its greatest minutae. Life writes through Tolstoy.

    I guess I give Dostoevsky the edge for challenging me more but more often than not, it comes down to what mood I am in; sometimes life is a struggle and reading Tolstoy almost feels like medicine because he understands and values it with such power that you’re reminded it is worth it despite the sorrows.

  19. To Jacques Bonhomme:

    Read the very first line of Anna Karenina, and ponder no longer.

  20. I’ve recently reread much of both, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. What strikes me about Tolstoy, when you read him parallel to Dost., is how few lower-class characters there are in his novels. He sees the world through the eyes of an upper-class, well-off person. And when he tries to get into the heads of simple people he fails. I’ve constantly felt Tolstoy’s condescending, patronising attitude to characters who are not of his class.

    Dostoyevsky, an officer and a nobleman like Tolstoy but never as secure, doesn’t have this attitude. He explores the farthest corners in people’s heads, both upper class and the lowest of the low, with the reach and power that, to me, Tolstoy is simply incapable of.

    Dostoyevsky, of course, had a life very different from Tolstoy. He suffered from epilepsy, Tolstoy form syphilis, D. went through a mock execution and years in forced labour camps, Tolstoy went to war, Dostoyevsky was bankrupt himself and took on his brother’s debts, Tolstoy never really had to worry how to feed his family. I think these differences show in their writing.

    Comparing Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, I often think of it also as a competition between their two first editors – Sophia Andreyevna and Anna Grigoriyevna. Sophia A., it seems, was a stronger editor. Tolstoy’s writing is easy-flowing, smooth, there’s hardly ever a splinter or a gap. Dostoyevsky isn’t as polished but there is more raw energy, passion in his style, and perhaps more authenticity.

    Maugham, in ‘Great Novelists and Their Novels’, 1948, puts both T. and D. on the top ten list. To him, War and Peace is the world’s greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov is number nine. But ranking is not the point. Maugham, a bridging figure between 19th Century realism and 20th modernism, had a shrewd understanding of how literature works and good novels are constructed – and an ability to explain it. I am mildly surprised none of the experts above mentioned this work, I recommend it.

  21. Interesting: 8 of the “foremost scholars of Russian literature,” and not a single one of them appears to be Russian! Was there no one over in la Vielle Russie who had an opinion about this? In these posts, I see a ton of blather about “the meaning of life,” “a life of authenticity,” “the rhythms of life,” “the essence of life,” “wisdom,” etc … but nothing about, say, what it means to be Russian, or Russia’s place in the world, or class relations in a society recently emerged from serfdom, or, let’s see, Russian Orthodox Christianity. Arguably, “T” and “D” were both as concerned about these matters as anything. Honestly, it’s like reading a symposium on Joyce without any hint that Irishness had anything to do with his work. Urgh!

  22. Tolstoy: epic figure; physicality; lack of deeper spiritual experience; more accomplished artist; more “sociologically” interesting; less influential in the 20th C; master of the normal; great psychologists; great at female psychology; big daddy for a few modern writers (Solzhenitsyn, Martin Du Gard, Lawrence, Hemingway,..); precursor- Homer

    Dostoevsky: dramatist visionary; pneumatologist, not psychologist; inferior in portraiture of women and everyday life; great technical innovator (interior monologue in “The Gentle Creature”; confessional narrative in the “Underground”; compression of time in great novels); sometimes lapses into bad taste and sentimentality; visionary prophet, knows of worlds Tolstoy is unaware of; big daddy of many modern novelists (Gide, Faulkner, Camus, Proust, Miller, Mann (in “Faustus”), Coetzee, Hamsun, Conrad (unwillingly), Pio Baroja, Garcia Marquez, Kafka, ..); precursors- Dante and Shakespeare

  23. To me there is no doubt who is the greatest. Dostoevsky by far! I read all his novels, short stories, and a good part of his articles in a couple of years in my early twenties and his great novels (my favourites were “The Idiot” and particularly “The Brothers Karamazov”) made an overwhelming impression on me. I think I can fairly say than no other author has made even close to such a profound impression on me. Several of his books I re-read (Karamazov I have read three times over a period of about five years) without them losing any of their power. Still it is true that he is an author best read when young. I recently tried to re-read “The Demons” at the age of 46 and found it somewhat tedious and didn’t bother to complete it. But I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. It seems everyone is assuming that what one likes as a young person is somehow of less value. I beg to differ.

    I have enjoyed reading Tolstoy too. I remember liking “Anna Karenina” very well. I also enjoyed “A Confession” and especially “Hadji Murad”, but found “War and Peace” to be pretty boring although I did finish it.

    I guess with Tolstoy you get everything in “good taste” and well balanced, while Dosotevsky is much more over the top and “bad taste”, but too me his writing is just much more poignant and “true”. So there is no competition, Dostoevsky wins hands down.

  24. I owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to Dostoevsky. His imagination helped me make sense of my world a few years back. I go back to his books for comfort and a reminder that deepest truths – anything worth knowing – comes from crises and inner turmoil.

    Tolstoy was a great writer and a fascinating individual, but he never experienced life’s breadth and depth to the degree Dostoevsky did.

  25. Tolstoy writes in the boundaries of normality. Nothing unusual. Nothing unpredictable. But glorious, nevertheless.

    Dostoevsky is twisted. He has no sleep. The heart is uncontrollable. Dostoevsky teaches you the game of witnessing your own life. It shows you a path to the light without morally forcing you. With Dostoevsky you face the Spirit. With Dostoevsky you are in trouble. There is no other way than to face the hell itself. You will overcome the night of your life if you stick with the Christ. Dostoevsky presents you the devil in person. Sometimes is fascinating. Many times you get lost. Dostoevsky challenges you. Totally. That’s his uppermost quality…I feel I can praise this author all my life. You know, Dostoevsky is not a cheater. He attacks the most intimate problems of human soul. And gives you to choose. You are naked. You are free. The unbearable freedom. Therefore, what is your Soul’s destiny ?

  26. There are many different criteria that can be used in measuring the two novelists – story telling, emotional excitement, style, form etc. The most useful criterion, in my opinion, is how satisfactorily the two authors answer the question: What is the Meaning of Life? This is the driving question for both Russians.
    Dostoevsky’s answer lies in fervent Christian faith, which redeems the most despicable man, despite all the much, slime and filth we find in this paradoxical world. It is almost this unconditional embrace of the paradox, in spite of reason, “truth” and intellect, that fuels one’s passion.
    Tolstoy’s answer, on the other hand, is not as idealistic, but grounded in the earth itself. The Tolstoy of Anna Karenina believes in a life of warm community, healthy use of reason, healthy dose of faith and morality – it is all about health, both in body and spirit.
    There is this sense of wholeness and satisfying completeness in Tolstoy that is lacking in Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky went all in with his cross. Why didn’t he consider other paths, other solutions? He didn’t have to, because he was only writing about himself – his problem, and his solution. Tolstoy may have only written about himself as well, but he was farsighted – his final argument is a synthesis of many factors, derived straight from life. That is why Tolstoy is still much relevant to us all, while Dostoevsky speaks only to a relative few, for whom God is still alive.

  27. I find it impossible to say which writer is better. It depends on what I’m looking for. I go to Dostoevsky for the intensity of the psychologica struggles, Tolstoy for a more contemplative assessment of life. I will say, though, that Mahler is unquestionably a better composer than Bruckner, even though I like Bruckner very much.

  28. When we say what Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are very different novelists, we should remember what they lived very difference lifes. Dostoevsky was an introvert. He had very dramatic experiences in his life. He search for love, he doubt, he was ambiguous, jealous and loving passionate and shy at the same time. The thoughts and ideas he represents in his novels are very close to himself, very autobiographic. He recognized the good and the evil in all of us.
    Tolsvoj was a pedagogue, a father, a husband. He is very focused on the children, on education. That’s why he so perfectly describes family life, as it was mentioned. He want to describe LIFE in generally (while Dostoevsky describes HUMAN BEING in his depth).
    For me Tolstoj is still unkown writer, but I wish to read War and Peace soon.

  29. Interestingly enough, I am currently in a lecture with Gary Saul Morson (at Northwestern University), and we read Anna Karenina as well as Brothers K. I give the edge to Dostoevsky primarily because of the wider range of experiences and challenges Dostoevsky had within his own life. He essentially crossed to “the other side” and came back from the dead after the full conviction that he would die during the mock execution. This experience guided his works, and placed within his characters unmatched depth.

    Tolstoy supporters consistently attack the “over the top” and unrelatable characters in Dostoevsky’s novels, yet I would argue Dostoevsky’s characters are in fact more realistic than almost any in literature. Dostoevsky has the ability to write in third person yet enter inside a character’s mind quickly and convincingly. I believe that most humans are just as erratic as Dostoevsky’s characters, it’s just that their inner struggles and psychological states are not directly observable. But if you imagine what an average person deliberates about inside their minds each and every second, you’ll realize that Dostoevsky is adding that intangible feature of each human being into his characters, making them more human than Tolstoy’s, whose characters are understood from a more limited upper class position. As Morson suggests above, we have a field of possible choices before us at every moment, and these “fields” are not observable, but they are to the person making the choices in life. Embedded within those choices are actions of great good and great evil, which cause us suffering. Dostoevsky showed us just how real and wide this field of possibilities is. That’s an authentic process we go through every day.

    In contrast, Tolstoy chooses to describe his characters in the following format: “[Anna] looked as if [she] was thinking, ‘[I really don’t like him].” Tolstoy stresses the act of looking and also the contrast between what we say and what we think, which is interesting. But when reading Anna Karenina I felt disconnected from this very simple way of looking at humans. Even though Tolstoy imagined what the characters might be thinking, I only felt that I was watching the characters develop, but not myself. When I read Dostoevsky, I felt that he was tapping into my personal psychology, and I could feel my understanding of myself grow instead. I could feel that “field of possibilities” before me, which causes an agony of choice.

  30. there is just one answere to say . dostoyevsky . why ? its simple . cause of his books . so what about tolstoy books ? its simple too . there is no more tragedie in the words that can be raised . at all …. dostoyevsky …. dostoyevsky …. dostoyevsky .

  31. I’m rereading Brothers Karamazov and came across a line that didn’t register with me the first time. In Book XI, 9, the devil (or Ivan’s subconscious) describes how in dreams, and especially in nightmares “a man sometimes sees such visions … such events … woven into a plot with such unexpected details from the most exalted matters to the last button on a cuff, as I swear Leo Tolstoy has never invented.”

    So I give him loads of points for a sense of humour! But he does acknowledge a main strength of Tolstoy.

    It lead me to this site, because I was puzzled, when I first was in Russia, how little attention is paid to Tolstoy. There it is all Pushkin – Dostoevsky, Dostoevsky-Pushkin. While I couldn’t find anyone who could direct me to a small Tolstoy museum, on my way back from my fruitless search I came across an enormous statue of a slouching Dostoevsky prominently place at the front of the public library. I was searching Google for information on which is considered more important in Russia.

    I love them both (and for the Chekhov admirers, him equally) so I’ll go back now and read all the learned comments and the posts. I’m happy to not be the only crazy person in the world.

  32. I have read alot of novels from both.I should say truth.dostoevsky is god for me.I have read Anna karenina and and another best novels of tolstoy.but belive me dostoevsky is best in the word if you understand him.if you like human then you should love him.

  33. Whose characters would you rather talk to? Tolstoy’s guys are mostly shallow bores and his women are total airheads. Anna and Vronsky may be the dumbest couple in literature – not a single interesting thought or conversation. Natasha is a wonderfully charming teenage girl, but utterly ignorant of anything outside her rich little world. Who could imagine an interesting conversation with her or anna? Would be sheer torture. Yet both are geniuses compared to kitty who is a complete and utter bore from start to finish.

    Not a single dostoevsky character fails to throw out thought provoking statements. And his women are always smarter than his men. Even poor unschooled little sonia has far more native intelligence than raskolnikov. One of poor nastaya filipovna’s problems is that she is way smarter than any of her suitors – Maybe tht’s why she keeps getting bored with them! It’s obvious that dostoevsky had far more respect for women than tolstoy.

    No question in my mind that fyodor would have been way more interesting to talk to than leo. Every time i re-read karamazov or c&p or idiotbor possessed i get sucked in completely all over again. When i tried to re-read anna k i fell asleep – like being trapped on an elevator with a beautiful but utterly stupid woman. Such lovely prose, such little substance.

    For those of us who read to give our brains something to chew on, only cervantes compares with dostoevsky and tolstoy is not even in the running.

  34. Tolstoy is great with his imagery, and I agree with whoever stated that one is placed into a whole seperate world when reading his novel, War and Peace. His witty, imaginitive, and multifaceted genius is unsurpassed in terms of pleasure reading.

    I must say, however, that in terms of portraying sharpness, every-day intelligence, and sophistication to the finest point of a character, Dostoevsky trumps all who face him. Philisophically, one would render great works such as Crime and Punishment as much better.

    In Truth, I dont find Tolstoy to be such a genius and Dostoevsky neither. They were base in thier views of motivation for living. Dostoevsky could have broke the barrier for fiquring out the world’s greatest quandary of motivation for living but he was stymied by the Roman-Catholic Religion. (Tolstoy gave an extremely ambiguous explanation of why one should live). If Dostoevsky knew about predestination he could have figured it out.

    I dont know who this Chekhov is, but i will look into him. Perhaps i can surpass both of thier ignorance in the future.

    Really, both of them have a very surface-level understanding on life.

  35. Maybe there still is sole Tolstoevsky all around! And then Chekhov can look like the most intelligent punk to me.

  36. “one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare.”

    Are you kidding me? So called “Shakespeare” is just a digest of second-rate Italian novels. Yeah, some are thiefs, but clumsy thiefs. They stole stale goods, Read “A Critical Essay on Shakespeare” by graf Leo Tolstoy and you’ll understand it.

    P.S. One of the greatest gifts in my life is my native language. Thanks to God, that I can not only read discussed authors, Checkhov, Bulgakov and others in the original, but can speak and think russian.

  37. I am a vain man. I am a cowardly man. But all vain men are alike; cowardly men are cowardly in their own way. Therefore my answer, presented here principally for self-aggrandizement (as most answers are), is also tempered with the fear of a coward, terrified to be wrong. My answer, gentlemen (and let us not forget you ladies)–my answer is that of the greatest teacher I ever had, and the greatest answer he ever gave, when asked on hierarchies of literary greatness:

    “Sir. Of Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, and Othello–which is the greatest?”

    “My dear boy. Whichever I am reading at the time.”

  38. I think people have been brainwashed into believing Tolstoy is a great novelist. His War and Peace is boringly and a waste of time to read. Tolstoy is more like a historian than a novelist. You can see how the imperial Russia worked but his works give you no clue at all about how to better our current lives and the future lives of our progeny.

    On the contrary every Dostoevsky read is an entertaining, thought-provoking, humorous, down-to-earth experiences. D is also a much more humane personality than Tolstoy. You can feel the boundless love for human kind in his works.

    If everyone followed the advice of the guy in the 20-page The Dream of A Ridiculous Man this world would automatically become heaven. But like D said in many of his works people are stupid and here we are dreaming about something that we should have had hands down.

  39. “Both are better” — agreed!

    But I just finished W&P — fabulous, of course, although the 40 page lecture that ends it feels both didactic and redundant, as though Lev didn’t trust his readers to get the point. But i love how after 1200 pages of strum und drang peace breaks out with the 2 conjugal couples nattering on in their respective bedrooms about nothing and everything, as one of the reviewers pointed out, the very essence of “peace.”

    And Tolstoy’s artistry is such that the seeds of the rest of the 19th century are planted in those 2 bedrooms — we know that Pierre will follow the Decembrists — his every scruple and struggle points him there (and how easy to see Natasha leaping onto the sledge and following him into the permafrost). And of course Prince Andrei’s forlorn son, the fruit of both Andrei’s superior intellect and morality and Marya’s spiritual depth, will join him, nay, lead the charge — those snapped pencils are just the beginning. Likewise, when Pierre extols the new men of St. Petersburg, hinting at “changes” to come, Nicolai angrily promises to shoot whoever threatens the status quo, and every second of his life, as carefully delineated by Tolstoy, will have placed him there — a privileged, loyal, brave hussar, unquestioning in his conservative beliefs.

    That’s how great Tolstoy is — after 1200 pages of victory and loss, life and death, humiliation and triumph,the threads of these lives come together with perfect clarity, both encompassing the past and presaging the future with ineluctable clarity. That is artistry, and that is powerful.

  40. Tolstoy and Dostoeyvsky were contemporaries and they knew of each other’s living existence. So the more interesting question I feel is how did both titans of the Russian literature regard each other. I did some research and found something astonishing. They had very high regard each other. It was also very moving. Here is an excerpt of my research from a website:

    “A year later, in 1881, Dostoevsky passed away. When Tolstoy learned about that, he grieved deeply. In a private letter, he wrote: “I’ve never seen this man and never had any relations with him, and all of a sudden, when he died, I understood that this was the closest, the dearest man for me, the man whose presence I needed the most… I considered him a friend, and had no doubt that we’ll see each other someday…” The last book that Leo Tolstoy had read in his life, during his final days before fleeing Yasnaya Polyana and dying at Astapovo station, was “The Karamazov Brothers” by Dostoevsky.”

  41. Many years ago I heard a professor at The University of Michigan compare Willie Mays to Joe DiMaggio. He said that Mays made amazing, sensational plays, but that DiMaggio made the same plays and appeared to make them effortlessly. Hence, he ranked Joe the better. Could the same observation lead to the conclusion that Leo was the better? Just another take on what is admittedly a silly, although fun, inquiry.

  42. Escribo en castellano, la otra lengua occidental más extendida.
    No se trata, por supuesto, de elegir entre uno y otro, Tolstoi y Dostoievski. Los dos son imprescindibles, los dos son grandísimos artistas. Sin embargo, en la historia de la literatura, suele haber un autor por lengua, rodeado de otros grandes, que lo complementan, que forma el eje esencial del canon: Homero, Virgilio, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Goethe. Lo que parece en cuestión es: en Rusia, entre esos maravillosos autores irrepetibles, Dostoievski, Tolstoi, Chéjov, ¿está el continuador de esa línea? Y quién parece más apto para serlo? En este sentido, muchos han preferido a Dostoievski. Aunque la correcta comparación entre Tolstoi y Homero, da que pensar.
    Lo mismo ocurrió entre Racine y Shakespeare, la duda persistió, en Francia sobre todo, dos siglos. Racine es majestuoso y perfecto, pero Shakespeare es más central para este juicio que la literatura da sobre la historia. El Shakespeare, o Dante o Goethe rusos, ¿lo sería entonces Dostoievski? Probablemente sí. Pero le es imprescindible el complemento de la perfección de Tolstoi y la de Chéjov, el autor de cuentos más admirado en el siglo XX.

  43. Una nota. Si hay otro genio que continuaría a Dostoievski en esa línea, ¿quién sería? Problemente Proust. Y en La recherche hay una clase sobre Dostoievski.

  44. En el libro que cita más arriba Fabio Franco, Berdiaeff compara a Dostoievski con Dante, Shakespeare y Goethe. ¿Será por el carácter profético de su obra o porque de verdad es tan grande como ellos? Es mi duda también.

  45. People prefer doewhatchadiddle over toystory because they have read the one and not the other. Only people looking at serious time will tackles the epics. The D, you can tackle in county, for The big T, you gotta be in the joint to really focus on.

  46. Ah, Tolstoy! The characters! The settings! The people! The intrigue! No one wrote like Kevin Tolstoy. Jesus, could that guy write!
    Who’s this Dostoevsky guy?

  47. I haven’t red a book for the last 30 plus years, the last one being Archipelago Gulag. (After that I couldn’t reed any fiction anymore).
    By my 30th year I’ve red War and Peace three times and I knew it almost by heart. Some call it epic, some call it godlike irony. I don’t know what it is but I know it is beyond comparison in modern literature. If it’s “literature” at all.

  48. “I haven’t red a book for the last 30 plus years”

    ” I don’t know what it is but I know it is beyond comparison in modern literature.”
    If you haven’t read a book in 30 years, you have nothing to compare it to, no?

  49. I think BK and C&P are great novels, but I would not put Dostoevsky in the same pantheon with Proust, Melville, Tolstoy, still less Shakespeare. One of the reasons is that Dostoevsky has a prose that is harnessed in translations, being this one of the reasons for his popularity outside of Russia, Tolstoy being the finest writer is more inaccessible although Dostoevsky is undeniably deeper artist. Another thing is that the characters and their themes are only a backdrop to their political views, Dostoevsky is ambiguous but also very emphatic, not as Milton and Dante used Christian themes, but more dependent.

  50. I believe it would have been even more interesting if you would have asked a Russian person, as due to translation, due to cultural difference, due to Russian Soul, some phrases are being misunderstood, which leads to the lose of the main moral of the book. (May be you have asked, but not mentioned, better to ask the professor from Russian Universities).

  51. They are both great in their own ways; however, I do believe Dostoevsky is a better story teller. For history, I lean towards Tolstoy, but I prefer Dusty’s writings.

  52. If one of them had never lived where would the greater loss lie?That being said, Tolstoy was the superior craftsman. His capacity for description was beyond compare.

  53. If one of them had never lived where would the greater loss lie?That being said, Tolstoy was the superior craftsman. His capacity for description was beyond compare. …..but Dostoevsky would represent the world’s greater loss.

  54. You know I’m really surprised at all the ‘too close to call’ comments. I do appreciate the respect that’s being shown and the good manners, but this one’s simple. Dostoyevsky is grueling and dark and often boring, the dialogues are simply not organic or believable. Tolstoy is everything to Russian social commentary and history and philosophy and literature and even story length that Dostoyevsky is, plus he’s readable. Tolstoy in a landslide.

  55. Now, to be honest, I’ve read very little – even so one selects. One never reads a book, one reads a person – even under a pseudonym.

    Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are accepted great novelists whose writings are concerned with the Eternal. It seems to me Tolstoy writes such from an orthodox theological perspective:
    ‘”is possible to love someone dear to you with human love, but an enemy can only be loved by divine love.” (War & Peace)
    For Dostoevsky the raw (personal) suffering of coming to the Eternal is reflected in his novels: “Accept suffering and redeem yourself by it, that’s what you must do.” (Crime and Punishment)
    Should one like to read a great novel that integrates orthodox beliefs then one should read Tolstoy, should one read Dostoevsky one may also hear of the paradoxes of the Eternal within life – and also possibly within the deeper self.

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