Dostoevsky or Tolstoy?

I remember taking a course on Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky in college. The course’s title, “Tolstoy and Dostoevsky,” was pretty straightforward and bland, but it was also a reference to George Steiner’s classic Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: an Essay in Contrast (1960). In that book, Steiner explored the cultural and ideological tensions within and between those two great novelists’ bodies of work. We didn’t actually read Steiner in class. The course was instead a pretty basic introduction to nineteenth-century Russia and the authors’ most famous novels: Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov.

I had read each of these novels prior to taking the course. I discovered Constance Garnett’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov at a small, rural, Carnegie-endowed library at age 15. The experience of reading it was life-changing (and probably my first step toward Orthodoxy). I quickly read Crime and Punishment the following year. I read Anna Karenina in my last year of high school and War and Peace during a brief hospital stay. These were my favorite novels.

While I was taking the Tolstoy/Dostoevsky course, I was also studying the Russian language. My instructor was a language teacher named Irina who had earned her degrees from the University of Moscow and, during the last decades of the Soviet Union, had taught Russian everywhere from Cuba to North Korea (she had declined to join the Communist Party and, consequently, could only travel to other Communist nations). Like most underpaid college instructors without the privilege of a tenure-track job, Irina was amazing. She loved her students and loved languages; she comfortably spoke many languages but claimed only to know one, Russian.

My fellow Russian learners and I quickly discovered that we could distract Irina from the sometimes dull business of learning Russian grammar and vocabulary by asking her about Russian culture and history. During one class, we quizzed her about the great Russian writers. She loved Chekhov, Pushkin, and dozens of poets whose names we didn’t know, but she seemed less impressed by her nation’s two most renowned writers. “Tolstoy and Dostoevsky,” she said. “Hm. Tolstoy believed that people change. Dostoevsky believed that people stay the same.” She paused. “I agree with Dostoevsky.”

Irina’s comment remains the most revealing insight I’ve heard about those Russian giants. At the time, I sided with her on Dostoevsky: people don’t change. I frequently feel that I have not substantially changed since the age of six. When I remember my childhood, I am wholly recognizable to myself. I still possess all the passions and anxieties that I possessed as a very young boy. I have stayed the same.

But I think Irina may have underestimated Tolstoy’s capacity to represent both change and inertia within his characters. As Harold Bloom once observed, Pierre is a different person by the end of War and Peace, but he is still recognizably Pierre.

I was reading this morning about neuroplasticity and the capacity we have for dramatic change. Of course, neurologists define the self very narrowly and regard the notion of a singular, constant “self” with suspicion. Naturally, they believe that our self-conception and ability to alter that self-conception over time. Most neurologists and cognitive scientists reject the idea of a “soul.” But the view that we change, Tolstoy’s view, does conform to many basic teachings of the Orthodox Church. I’m thinking in particular of the doctrine of theosis, the Orthodox belief—unique among Christian churches—that we grow toward God and ultimately become like God.

As my spiritual fathers have explained to me, the doctrine of theosis indicates that our true, God-created selves belong to what Catholics and Protestants would call a “prelapsarian” state. We are, at our most authentic, images of God. Sin and the passions are aspects of our fallen nature that we engage not because we are predestined to do so nor because we possess some genetic “original sin,” but because we choose to. Orthodoxy arguably takes free will more seriously than any other church. And when we turn away from sin and our passions, we begin the long journey back to our truest selves. We change by returning to our God-created selves. We change, we stay the same.

Although he was the more heterodox of the two in his personal life, Tolstoy’s vision of our human nature now strikes me as truer than Dostoevsky’s.

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