Tolstoy and
Prerevolutionary Critics


Man discovers truth
   by reason only,
 not by faith.

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On the whole, most pre-revolutionary critics liked the artist but disliked the thinker. Even when the critics thought that the function of the writer was to communicate ideas, they did not like Tolstoy’s brand of ideas. Because his conclusions did not support their own brand of social philosophy, they attacked him. They misread Tolstoy because they did not understand him. In order to show this, I will describe the current problems as seen by the prerevolutionary critics and Tolstoy’s reaction to them.

Throughout Tolstoy’s lifetime, Russian society encountered awesome problems that required wise and effective solutions as alternatives to a bloody revolt. These problems had two aspects: an outer social one, in which injustice, for example, was objectively seen; and an inner psychological one, relating to the individual, where issues often appeared as ideological. The question had become not only "what to do?" but also "what to think?" about the realities of modern life. Tolstoy's answers to either side of the dual question struck his critics as inadequate. (Sorokin, 283)


At first there were relatively few major changes in Russian society, and adjustment to them was not an overwhelming problem. In the 1850s and 1860s the three burning issues were the freeing of the serfs, the conflicts between the old establishment and the raznochintsy, and nihilism. Reviewers saw none of these subjects treated in young Tolstoy’s works. The landlord-serf relations, powerfully represented in "A landowner’s Morning" and "Polikushka," and the typically Tolstoyan moral contrast of peasant (good) versus gentry (bad) outlined in "Three Deaths" were seen as mere Slavophile sentiment. The message was moral, rather than social and Tolstoy never mentioned the need to free the serfs. Although the various states of mind and psychological problems of his main characters were projected against a contemporary background, the relevance of the issues raised and characters portrayed to any social issue was minor.


In the 1870s and 1880s, however, these problems began to aggravate. During this period, Tolstoy wrote "The Divine and the Human," in which he depicted the tragic fate of the millionaire Lisogub who, like thousands of others in those days, went to live with the peasants in their wretched villages. But this true story and the fictional story of Levin in Anna Karenina were bitterly reviewed as narodnik and Slavophile, as marred by mysticism and irrelevance to social issues. (Sorokin, 286)

By the latter part of the nineteenth century Russia’s internal problems were countless. The major issues now were industrialization, upcoming capitalism, exploitation of labor, communism, anarchism, and terrorism. Although Tolstoy had organized some famine relief in this period, his pacifism and vague Christian anarchism were blamed by his critics for insensitivity to the situation, whereas his refusal to write any more fiction annoyed them. Critics reviewed his occasional fiction as remote from reality, dealing only with universals. He was accused of quietism. It was said that he had no need to relate to the present and its experiments, just so long as he received respect.


The controversial Russian message of moral regeneration bears a curious resemblance to Tolstoy’s international plea for moral renewal. Yet, despite widespread popular support, the latter received almost no understanding or support from Russian critics, who dismissed it as mysticism. They thought that the causes of moral problem were external, not within man.

The most perplexing problem confronting critics of Tolstoy was to decide to whether he merely wrote well about Russia past and present, or was able to find answers to her problems and a message for the future, that is, whether Tolstoy was simply a good storyteller or a prophet. Most critics never satisfactorily resolved this dilemma. Indeed, Tolstoy himself provided the clue to the chronic misinterpretation of his message and suggested why he was so frequently misread: his message was neither social nor ideological but psychological. "It was an attempt to reconcile civilized man with his shadow-the uncivilized, irrational side of our nature that we must face in order to grow. In Tolstoy’s works this inferior side is laid open with an incisive, psychologically subtle narrative technique, which analyzes the motive factors of consciousness. These are the will and compulsion- an unconscious dynamism that replaces our wills by an involuntary motivation or impulse, ranging from mere interest to possession. Tolstoy shows this compulsion to be the great mystery of human life that often thwarts our conscious will and our reason by an inflammable element within us, appearing now as a consuming fire and now as life-giving warmth." (Sorokin, 283)


In summary, it can be said that the critics rejected Tolstoy’s ideas because they disagreed with his interpretation of current events. They were too "spellbound by their own ideas to understand the innovative author."(Sorokin, 36) The Russians today, however, know Tolstoy far more thoroughly than their predecessors did. The amount that has been written in Russian on Tolstoy during the past decades would fill whole libraries. Tolstoy is popular today because he understood the Russians better that any other writer. His work often dealt with Russia’s destiny, which he regarded with profound optimism. Tolstoy is perhaps the only figure in the social history of the Russians to become identified with Russia itself. When a Russian reads Tolstoy, he communicates with his forebears, he relates to his colleagues, and he understands himself better. (Fodor, 146)



  • Fodor, Alexander. Tolstoy and the Russians. Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, 1984.

  • Sorokin, Boris. Tolstoy in Prerevolutionary Russian Criticism. Ohio: Ohio State University, 1979.






by David Gemperle


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"But the blindness of superiority continues in spite of all and upholds the belief that vast regions everywhere on our planet should develop and mature to the level of present day Western systems which in theory are the best and in practice the most attractive. There is this belief that all those other worlds are only being temporarily prevented by wicked governments or by heavy crises or by their own barbarity or incomprehension from taking the way of Western pluralistic democracy and from adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the merit of their progress in this direction. However, it is a conception which developed out of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, out of the mistake of measuring them all with a Western yardstick. The real picture of our planet's development is quite different."  -- From the Address by Alexander Solzhenitsyn  at Harvard University Thursday, June 8, 1978.


Aleksander Isaevich Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, a town north of the Caucas mountains, to Taissia Solzhenitsyn in 1918. His father, Isais, died shortly before his birth. Aleksander was raised in poverty in the industrial city of Rostov. There he entered Rostov University in 1936. He concentrated on Physics and Mathematics while also studying literature through a separate school. A year before he graduated and was sent to war, Solzhenitsyn married Natalya Reshetovskaya.

Solzhenitsyn was assigned to drive transport wagons for the war effort. Though he was inadequate at this task, his potential as an officer was recognized and he was promoted. Solzhenitsyn eventually advanced to the position of Captain and Battery Commander. Solzhenitsyn received the Order of Patriotic War and the Order of the Red Star for his bravery. On February 9, 1945 Solzhenitsyn was arrested by a Soviet counter-espionage service for the content of the letters he wrote while at war. He and a friend disparaged Stalin in their correspondence. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in a correction camps.


Solzhenitsyn learned of the ideas and experiences of a variety of prisoners during his punishment. Solzhenitsyn later described this time in The First Circle, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Cancer Ward. In The First Circle Solzhenitsyn describes aspects of the period in his life from 1946-1950. During this time Solzhenitsyn worked at a prisoner run scientific research institute under favorable conditions. In One Day, Solzhenitsyn details the harsh conditions and manual labor of the camp for political prisoners in Kazakhstan that he was sent to next. After being released from prison, Solzhenitsyn was forced into exile in 1953. While exiled in Kazakhstan Solzhenitsyn taught math and physics, and began writing as much as possible. In Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn describes his brush with death while in exile. The cancer in his abdomen seemed terminal. A new cancerous mass appeared after the original tumor had been removed. However, doctors in Uzbekistan successfully treated the illness with radiation therapy.


In 1956, at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party, Kruschev publicly criticized some of the appalling acts committed by Stalin. Kruschev denounced the purges and the handling of collectivization (Scammell, 353). A brief period of liberalization followed. Solzhenitsyn's exile was ended and he moved to Ryazan with his wife. He began writing seriously and once again taught math. In 1961, after the Twenty-second Congress, Kruschev's anti-Stalin campaign reached its peak(Klimoff, 90). In this relaxed atmosphere Solzhenitsyn submitted One Day to a literary magazine. After Kruschev himself had approved the book for its honesty and spirit, One Day was published (Klimoff, 99).


After an initial period of acclaim, criticism of Solzhenitsyn became increasingly harsh in the Soviet Union. In 1964 Brezhnev overthrew Kruschev and reversed the changes that began with the Twentieth Congress. Though Solzhenitsyn became prominent internationally during this period, his new works remained unpublished at home. Harassment by the KGB continued unchecked until Solzhenitsyn's deportation in 1974. He was accused of being from a wealthy family, and of being a "...tool of western intelligence agencies"(Scammell, 813). In 1970, Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize for Literature. KGB harassment increased. Solzhenitsyn remained in the Soviet Union to do research for his works (Scammell, 813). In 1973, the KGB found a copy of The Gulag Archipelago, collection of accounts of Soviet labor camps. Solzhenitsyn had planned to wait awhile before having the work published. He wanted to protect the individuals whose stories he compiled. Instead, Solzhenitsyn responded to the KGB's acquisition of the manuscript by having The Gulag Archipelago published in the West(Scammell,825). Shortly after The Gulag Archipelago appeared in the West, Solzhenitsyn was convicted of treason and deported. Solzhenitsyn openly stated his political and social thoughts while living in the West. His accounts of Soviet labor camps had a strong effect of western opinions about the Soviet Union. However, he was not as persuasive while discussing the superiority of traditional rural life. He said that western democracy would not be right for Russia. He also said that life in the West, with its modern transportation and urbanization, is unpleasant and unnatural(Scammell, 866). He preferred small towns and carriages to cities and automobiles. Contrary to what one might have expected, Solzhenitsyn was unimpressed by the wealth and high consumption of the West(Scammell, 907).


In 1989, Gorbachev's policy of increased freedom allowed Solzhenitsyn's works to be published in the Soviet Union. In 1991, the charges against Solzhenitsyn were dropped. Solzhenitsyn moved back to Russia in 1994. Today, among other things, he participates in the presentation of an award bearing his name.



  1. Bjorkegren, Hans "Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Biography" The Third Press, NY 1972

  2. Klimoff, Alexis "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: A Critical Companion" Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Il 1997

  3. Kodjak, Andrej "Alexander Solzhenitsyn" Twayne Publishers, Boston 1978

  4. Pontuso, James F. "Solzhenitsyn's Political Thought" University Press of Virginia, Charlottsville 1990

  5. Scammell, Michael "Solzhenitsyn: A Biography" W.W. Norton & Company, NY 1984





Suffering Creates Genius

by Michael Estok,
February, 1999



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Throughout his painful years, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) faced exile, punishment, bankruptcy, tragedy, obscurity, and loveless relationships. He strengthened his beliefs in the Orthodox Church and in the philosophy of unconditional love and forgiveness, and persevered by retelling his misfortunes through literature. His popularity grew, and in 1880, after delivering an historical speech at a memorial for Russian poet Pushkin, he was proclaimed as a prophet, saint, national hero, and genius. After his death, his works were discovered and cherished through translation in Western Europe. His revolutionary writing style inspired and influenced international authors such as Kafka, Hesse, and Faulkner, and in particular it was a precursor for Jean-Paul Sartre and "existentialism." Today his works still seem fresh and modern, because so much recent philosophy has been extracted from his novels. As a result, "it can be said without exaggeration that Western civilization in the second half of the 20th century has become ‘Dostoyevskian’" (http…dostoy.html).


Many Romantic authors concoct fantastical plots and difficult characters to enrich a tale; however, Dostoyevsky was ironically "blessed" with years of misfortune out of which to pull countless literary ideas. Scholars have chronicled his early life in order to grasp new depths in his later masterpieces.

Dostoyevsky was born in Moscow and grew up materially comfortable in a feudal environment under his military doctor father. Upon growing into an adult, he caught his first glimpse of tragedy. At age 16, his mother died, and two years later, after he had departed to St. Petersburg to attend the College of Military Engineering, angry serfs on his parents’ estate murdered his father. Dostoyevsky finished school, joined the military, and then withdrew, in order to focus on his burgeoning writing skills.


At this time in 1846, he published his first two novels, Poor Folk and The Double. As these novels received warm literary criticism, Dostoyevsky continued to write more, and he involved himself in revolutionary politics. He was drawn to a group of so-called "social realists," who discussed the liberation of the serfs. Socialist ideas and writers such as Hugo helped solidify his standing. Some scholars believe his vehement antagonism to serfdom stemmed from his past guilt regarding his father’s death (http…Autobiography.shtml).

His involvement in the socialist Petrashevsky circle and Speshnev’s secret revolutionary society led to his arrest by the Tsarist police in 1849. After six months in a morbid prison, Dostoyevsky and other revolutionists were led to a square for public execution. This display was merely a trick by the government to scare and deter the young intellectuals, and at the moment before death, he was given a reprieve and an exile of four years in Omsk in Siberia, followed by four years as a soldier.


Being treated as a criminal strengthened Dostoyevsky’s faith and led him to reject the West as a model for Russia. His opinion of mankind altered dramatically, and he "became convinced that man can live only through suffering. By suffering, man could eventually find hope and love; though God’s path, man had a future" (http…Autobiography.shtml). During his soldier tenure, he met his first wife, Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, and he returned to St. Petersburg in 1859.

In the subsequent years, Dostoyevsky resumed his role as the journalist and author. He founded and ran two literary journals, Vremia and Epokha, which were moderately successful. Vremia focused on the evolving philosophy of pochvennichestvo, or the philosophy of the Russian soil, "in which he and his colleagues attempted to reconcile the warring Westernizing and Slavophile tendencies in the debates of the 1860s" (Jones (1), viii). He was no longer the active socialist, and his conservatism and open-mindedness were reflected in his several novels during this period, most notably Memoirs from the House of the Dead (1860-61), which was based on his experienced in Siberia.


Unhappy in wedlock, Dostoyevsky toured Europe. He lost the little money he had as a compulsive gambler, and he had an affair with the difficult socialist, atheist, nihilist Polina Suslova, who, as Dostoyevsky later wrote, "demands everything from people, every perfection" (Jones (1), xx). Their complex relationship gave Dostoyevsky more confusion than pleasure, and he would later use her persona to mold several femme fatale characters (most notably, Polina in The Gambler (1867)).

A Dostoyevsky scholar wrote, "If he had died in 1863 it is doubtful whether the present-day Western reader would even have heard of him" (Jones (2), 5). In 1864, Dostoyevksy’s writing style changed, and with the production of notes From the Underground, he had finally completed an important work. His style changed from focusing on people to focusing on ideas. He created in his novels "a pluralist, polyphonic world as opposed to the traditional monologic novel dominated by the authorial point of view" (Jones (2), 6). From henceforth, his novels dealt with such critical ideas as the death of God, social disintegration, anarchy, and power through a carnival-like ensemble of varied characters.


notes From the Underground focused on a alienated man living "underground," or separated from his surroundings and fellow men. The man’s first-person narrative is highly philosophical, and Dostoyevsky’s concept of the "underground" becomes a mentality of self-introspection that leads to the discovery that man is fully rational, superfluous, and a creature of free will. The main character’s musings were among the first signs of a philosophy later coined existentialism.


During the year notes From the Underground was published, Dostoyevsky’s personal tragedies continued. His close brother and his wife died, and his financial state worsened with the bankruptcy of his Vremia publication. Again, he used his suffering to grow stronger, and he resurfaced with the writing of Crime and Punishment in 1866, a novel about redemption through suffering that extended his existential dogma, and The Gambler in 1867, a novel he dictated in twenty days to a stenographer to receive needed cash payments. He eventually married the stenographer, who was named Anna Snitkina and who was over twenty years younger than him.


Ms. Snitkina was a sincere and loving wife, and her presence brought a much-needed stability and happiness into his hectic life. In 1868, Dostoyevsky completed another masterpiece, entitled The Idiot. This novel revolves around a saintly and honest Prince, who is considered a fool for his good behavior. In 1872, his next work, The Possessed or Demons, was released. This novel reflects his change in social thought. Here, Dostoyevsky attacks the radicalism that had supplanted socialism in the recent times. He "had no sympathy for the radicals’ contempt for established authority, religion, the family, and most humanistic values" (http…dostoy.html). This work would have further implications during the Bolshevik’s regime of so-called War Communism.

He continued writing in the 1870s, producing a new monthly publication called The Journal of a Writer. In 1880, Dostoyevsky completed his final and most complex novel, The Brothers Karamazov. One scholar writes, "The novel seems to encompass the breadth of the human condition and its capabilities; here, the art and vision of Dostoyevsky reached their peak" (http…dostoy.html). The characters of the four sons each represent a common tendency of humanity, and their interaction with each other, with their father, and with God impart understanding and entertainment to the reader. The novel is considered a triumph of world literature, and is taught in classes extensively in many languages.


Shortly after achieving fame and success in Russia, Dostoyevsky died in 1881, and his funeral was a national event attended by over 30,000 Russians. His popularity has continued to grow in the twentieth century and his impact on modern writing is substantial. For the intellectual of today, a study of Dostoyevsky’s nineteenth-century works provides insight to the roots of many twentieth-century models of thought.


Works Consulted:

http://members.aol.com/KatharenaE/private/Philo/Dostoy/dostoy.html, 2/4/99.


Autobiography.shtml, 2/4/99.

Jones (1): Jones, Malcolm, "Introduction." From Dostoevsky, Fedor, notes From the Underground, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1991.

Jones (2): Jones and Terry, editors, New Essays on Dostoyevsky, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1983.

"The pinnacle; DOSTOEVSKY: THE MIRACULOUS YEARS 1865-1971," The Economist. April 15, 1995. (from LEXIS/NEXIS)








by Elena Talalaeve




"The study of any literature, if undertaken in the right spirit, should enable us to follow the successive patterns of the life and consciousness of the nation which gave it birth. "(Janko Lavrin, p.1) If examining the history of Russian Literature more closely then it could be found out that for some time Russia did not have its own distinctive writing style. At the end of tenth century Kievan Russia received Christianity and the first religious book  was written by Balkans. For a long time Russian writers (most of them were religious representatives) used Church-Slavonic language in their work (Janko Lavrin, pp.1,2) in 1667 as a result of Poland giving up east part of Dnieper (to Russia) Kiev once again became a link with Western Europe. Because of that Western writers started influencing Russian literature but the influence was not very strong. (Janko Lavrin, p.7)


During ruling of Peter the Great things started to change for Russian literature. He made changes in alphabet and he also created the first Russian newspaper (in 1703). (Janko Lavrin, p.10) Also Russia was learning writing style from European countries until the end of eighteenth century. (Janko Lavrin, p.11) However, "It was only after Russia's continuous military successes against the Turks that her national conciseness began to grow and to take an interest not only in her warlike but in her cultural achievements as well." (Janko Lavrin, p.12) As a result Russian writers started to write about Russia echoing French writing style. (Janko Lavrin, p.12)

"If Peter I "annexed" Russia to Europe and at the same time turned her into a Great Power, Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837) achieved, just over a century later, something similar with regard to Russian literature and, for that matter, Russian culture in general." (Janko Lavrin, p.7)


Pushkin was born in a well-known and influential family. However, it seems that young Pushkin was not very close with his parents. But there was one person who had a big impact in his life: his nanny Anna Rodionovna who was coming from a peasant background She was the first person who exposed Pushkin to Russian culture and traditions. (Janko Lavrin, p.20) When Pushkin was twelve he left Moscow for Tsarskoye Selo, where he received his education. He was not a very good student, but he was recognized for his outstanding poetic ability (Janko Lavrin, pp.27,28) "To My Poet Friend" was his first published poem in 1814. (Janko Lavrin, p. 28)

"In spite of her eagerness to make up for lost opportunities in the past, Russia, between Peter the Great and Alexander 1, failed to express herself adequately in terms of literature. What the world now understands and admires under the name of Russian literature came with and after Pushkin. "(Janko Lavrin, p.65) He had a unique writing style - not complicated, understandable by many (Lavrin, p.65)


Much of work of young Pushkin was dedicated to revolutionary topics. However he did not limit himself just to that. (Troyat, p.126) In 1817 while still in school he started working on "Ruslan and Ludmila" and he continued for three years. " (Troyat, p.126) "it seems almost as if the difficulties of versifying did not exist for him... The heavy, rugged Russian verse form in his hands became as malleable as wax. He could do anything he liked with it. ...he was a juggler of words, a virtuoso of rhymes, a demon of facility. "Troyat, p.127) The poem was one of the best known work of Pushkin in Russian literature. Probably not everybody read it but it could be safely assumed that majority of Russians al least heard of it. (my experience)

The main "highlight" of his career was his lyrical creation "Evgeny Onegin". Pushkin was writing it for eight years before it was first published. (Troyat, p.] I9,120) But Pushkin was not only writing poems,  he also dedicated much of his time writing prose. He started doing it because he wanted "...to explore the possibilities of prose in the same way as he had explored the possibilities of verse. Here too he proved to be a pioneer, and was largely responsible for the character of modern Russian prose... "(Janko Lavrin, pp. 18Z 183)


Russian literature developed its identity due to Pushkin's work in lyrics, drama, prose. His work was also unique because he was able to incorporate European experience in literature into his work. Great Britain and Russia developed connection through his work (Lavrin, p.214). "Since the future of the world depends largely on the rapprochement between these two countries, it is almost imperative that such a process should first take place in the realm of cultural values. "(Lavrin, p.214)

Pushkin's work was timeless and was appreciated by his readers in 1800s and 1900s.(Lavrin, p. 214) Even during revolutionary years in Russia (in 1917s) when communists were changing many values of the post, he still remained the Russia's favorite writer. (Lavrin. pp.214,215) His place in Russian literature was established over a century ago and will be kept forever.


Lavrin, Janko. "Pushkin and Russian literature." New York: The MacMillan Company,1 948. pp.1,2,7,10,12,l 7,'''' l82,183~2l4,2 15, Troyat, Henri. "Pushkin a biography."(translation: Weaver, Randolph). New York: Pantheon Books, Inc.,1950. pp.119,120,126,127.




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