Are we called to strive for ideals that can never be attained? I found no way to address the cognitive dissonance that kept me in a state of spiritual restlessness until I came upon the writings of two nineteenth century novelists. My understanding of the tension between Christian ideals and reality now consists of part Tolstoy and part Dostoevsky.1

– Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor

As Philip Yancey, popular Christian author and one-time editor of the monthly magazine Christianity Today, described various inspirational though “unlikely mentors” who helped his “faith survive the church,” Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) and Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81), a pair of Russian nineteenth century novelists, appeared on his list. The list included such luminaries as Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, John Donne, G.K. Chesterton, and Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo among others. These icons of Russian literature inspired not just Yancey, but scores of intellectual elites in communist Russia in the 1970s to explore spiritual matters, Yancey explains. Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge claimed that censors had ironically forgotten to banish their works, “the most perfect expositions of the Christian faith of modern times,” while otherwise widely banning other forms of Christian literature, including the Gospels.2

Tolstoy’s Novels as Therapy for Humanity

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, “whom no one would accuse of being balanced or even psychologically healthy” Yancey claims, yet helped him restore his own spiritual balance.3 Yancey cites the medical doctor Robert Coles (another of his mentors, originally a literature major) for claiming to find in literature a depth of insight not afforded by instructors in psychiatry; Coles thus echoes Sigmund Freud, who declared,

Poets are the masters of us ordinary men, in knowledge of the mind, because they drink at streams which we have not yet made available to science . . . everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.4

Tolstoy’s genius lay in combining a painstaking realism with philosophical insight. “In the long history of literature, no one has exceeded Leo Tolstoy’s ability to portray the full essence of life” asserts Yancey, citing renowned author Virginia Woolf on the writer:

Nothing seems to escape him. Nothing glances off him unrecorded . . . every twig, every feather sticks to his magnet . . . And what his infallible eye reports of a cough or a trick of the hands his infallible brain refers to something hidden in the character, so that we know his people, not only by the way they love and their views on politics and the immortality of the soul, but also by the way they sneeze and choke.5

A biographer of Tolstoy admitted that once he put down War and Peace, the “real life” he returned to felt “paler and less true than Tolstoy’s art,” Yancey further relates.6

Tolstoy’s observations on life and suffering came, ironically enough, from his interactions with the hundreds of peasant serfs he inherited with his ancestral estate. Russia itself in his day had fifty million serfs, nearly half of the population; the numbers of those owned by Tolstoy actually fluctuated due to his gambling. Unlike most other landowners, however, Tolstoy became familiar with the lives of those in his employ, and came to realize that,

The life of a laboring man, with its endlessly varied forms of labor and the dangers connected with this labor . . . the intercourse with his employers, overseers, and companions, and with men of other religions and nationalities . . . seems monotonous not of labor nor of production, but of consumption and destruction of that which others have produced for us. We think the feelings experienced by people of our day and class are very important and varied; but in reality they amount to but three very insignificant and simple feelings – the feeling of pride, the feeling of sexual desire, and the feeling of the weariness of life form almost the only subject matter of the art of the rich classes.7

Tolstoy thus interrupted his production of novels in a search to find meaning in both the suffering of such lives and the ease and comforts of his own. Studying Buddha, the German philosopher Schopenhauer, and Jesus, Tolstoy came to find spirituality in an aesthetic based on morality (as in his work, What is Art?), and an ardent desire for social justice (as found in his The Kingdom of God is Within You) that inspired both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. At a time when Russian landowners were often cruel to peasants, Tolstoy took to heart Jesus’s advice to the rich young ruler to sell all that he had, and adopted the life of a peasant laborer.

Tolstoy the Inhumane But Devoted Humanist

Tolstoy remained tormented as he found he could not attain the ideals that he and Jesus had espoused. Naïve, rigid, and unyielding in his espoused principles of charity, Tolstoy’s efforts were nearly as ironic as they were idealistic. He forced his fiancée Sonya (four days before their wedding) to read his confessional accounts of his dalliances with former mistresses, gave away his book royalties while neglecting his own family both financially as well as in terms of affection, took periodic vows of chastity over his wife’s objections, and signed away his estate to Sonya but remained to live in it. As she summarized, “there is so little genuine warmth about him; his kindness does not come from heart, but merely from his principles.”8

Tolstoy nevertheless accomplished great amounts of good with his efforts. He spent two years organizing care and hospitals for the destitute during a famine. He donated the proceeds from his final novel, Resurrection, written at the age of seventy-one, to help the Dukhobors, an Anabaptist group of twelve-thousand persecuted by the Tsar, to emigrate to Canada. Despite his personal flaws, Tolstoy endeavored to live up to Jesus’s challenge, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?” (Mark 8:36). Tolstoy asked what it mattered if he were to “be more famous than Gogol or Pushkin or Shakespeare or Moliere, or than all the other writers in the world – and what of it?”9 In place of moral systems found in established religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or even Judaism whence Christianity was begot, Tolstoy sought to internalize the moral law, as shown by his book title The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Thus, he declared that,

A man who professes an external law is like someone standing in the light of a lantern fixed to a post. It is light all round him, but there is nowhere further for him to walk. A man who professes the teachings of Christ is like a man carrying a lantern before him on a long, or not so long, pole: the light is in front of him, always lighting up fresh ground and always encouraging him to walk further.10

Tolstoy admitted his own failings, yet warned in a letter,

Attack me, I do this myself, but attack me rather than the path I follow and which I point out to anyone who asks me where I think it lies.11

As Yancey summarizes, “The x-ray vision into the human heart that made him a great novelist also made him a tortured Christian.”12

Tolstoy, Sin, and the Power of Love

Yet Tolstoy offers a valuable insight, exploring human depravity while holding out a rule of love which we never quite seem able to fully attain. From the magical green stick he imagined as a child, with words carved on it which would banish evil from the hearts of men, to the characters from his final novel, Resurrection, which indicted the hypocrisy of the Russian Orthodox Church and led to his excommunication, Tolstoy fought depravity. A character from Resurrection comes to realize,

quite clearly that the only sure means of salvation from the terrible wrongs which mankind endures is for every man to acknowledge himself a sinner before God and therefore unfit either to punish or reform others.13

Tolstoy approached a solution to depravity in Resurrection, as Yancey notes that the tale of “relentless, unquenchable love of an abused former prostitute, and the guilt of a man who abused her” just may be “the closest Tolstoy ever came to comprehending grace.”14

Tolstoy’s solution to the paradox of depravity is most clearly shown by Levin, a landowner in Anna Karenina, widely considered one of the finest novels of not just Tolstoy’s writing but of all time:

Knowledge unattainable by reasoning has been revealed to me personally, to my heart, openly and beyond a doubt, and I am obstinately trying to express that knowledge in words and by my reason . . . This new feeling has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened me all of a sudden as I had dreamed it would . . . But whether it is faith or not – I don’t know what it is – but that feeling has entered just as imperceptibly into my soul through suffering and has lodged itself there firmly.15

Levin continues, realistically but with hope and purpose,

I shall still get angry with my coachman Ivan, I shall still argue and express my thoughts inopportunely; there will still be a wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife, and I shall blame her for my own fears and shall regret it; I shall still be unable to understand with my reason why I am praying, and I shall continue to pray – but my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, every moment of it, is no longer meaningless but has an incontestable meaning of goodness, with which I have the power to invest it.16

Tolstoy’s Law of Love v. Dostoevsky’s Grace & Forgiveness

Dostoevsky offers a sharp contrast to Tolstoy’s systemic, near-legalistic application of the principles of love and grace. Nevertheless, each writer deftly presents the power of grace and of forgiveness by embedding the virtues in their stories and characters, bringing to life such core components of the Gospel in a way that no theology textbook could ever hope to rival. Yancey declares that,

As I read the two Russians, the core of Christian truth penetrated me more deeply, I learned the power of story, of truth being expressed in an embodied form, inarguably, incontestably. Tolstoy was far better at painting a picture of redemption than explaining it.17

Yet, his biographer A.N. Wilson claimed that Tolstoy’s “religion was ultimately a thing of Law rather than of Grace, a scheme for human betterment rather than a vision of God penetrating a fallen world.”18 Yancey followed suit, evaluating his life efforts as “ascetic schemes for self-improvement” which did not include “the further step of trusting God’s grace to overcome the inadequacy.”19 In stark relief, Dostoevsky’s novels “communicate grace and forgiveness, the heart of the Christian gospel, with a Tolstoyan force” and taught Yancey “the remedy for the relentless failures exposed by Tolstoy.”20

Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hedgehogs, Foxes, and the Philosophy of History

Academics have debated Tolstoy a great deal, and before we move on to Dostoevsky, it is useful to consider what has been said of both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Isaiah Berlin, a prominent intellectual and social theorist of the twentieth century (1909-1997, he was both educated and taught at Oxford University), famously classified important thinkers into one of two categories in his 1953 height-of-the-cold-war essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox. Hedgehogs possess a singular, profound insight about humanity, such as Dante’s stinging invective against the evils of the powerful and the process of purification from sin in his fourteenth century epic trilogy of poems in The Divine Comedy (Inferno or hell, Purgatory, and Paradise). By contrast, foxes understand a great many things but lack a key, central insight, as Berlin claims of Shakespeare (though our recent issue on Shakespeare indicates to the contrary).21 Other hedgehogs for Berlin include the likes of Plato, the Christian Pascal, and the atheist Nietzsche, while team fox stars wide-ranging thinkers as Aristotle and James Joyce.

Dostoevsky was considered a hedgehog for his singular focus on redemption by the spiritual, a redemption by love. This focus fueled his Slavophilism, which derived from his view that only the Eastern, Orthodox church had remained true to the principles of Christ, in contrast to the Western church which had sided with more materialistic concerns.22 Tolstoy nearly defied classification, per Berlin: his ability to empathize widely in his novels indicated his talents as a fox, though his preoccupation with the philosophy of history showed that at heart, when he grew up, he aspired to be a hedgehog. Nevertheless, Tolstoy, like Dostoevsky, held great faith in the spiritual power of traditional, religious Russian culture, in short Slavophilism. Russian intellectuals embraced such a conservative response to the materialistic Marxism sweeping Europe, as the Slavophile ideology “believed that Western Europe had lost, or was losing all spiritual values and that Russia alone remained emotionally open and honest, capable love, capable of bringing salvation to the West.”23 24

Dostoevsky: From Bullets to Nihilism to Grace

Dostoevsky’s comfortable aristocratic life was forever altered when, as a young man, he was arrested for treason by Tsar Nicholas I, and was dragged through a mock execution, gaining a reprieve at the last minute. Intended to foster devotion to the generous Tsar (though Dostoevsky and his companions still endured years of prison afterwards), Yancey explains that the young writer instead “peered into the maw of death, and from that moment life became for him precious beyond all calculation.”25 Dostoevsky himself declared “Never has there seethed in me such an abundant and healthy kind of spiritual life as now . . . Now my life will change, I shall be born again in a new form.”26 Nevertheless, he would spend the next four years in hard labor in Siberia, then six more in exile. However, he was given a New Testament by some devout, welcoming locals (relocated wives of prisoners), the only literature allowed in prison, and nearly memorized it whole while in prison. “All his works are saturated with it, and it is this which gives them their power,” his daughter Aimee explained years later.27

Imprisonment was a crucible of spiritual development for the young Dostoevsky. Fellow prisoners served as models for characters in his own stories, their hatreds, loves, and the hope and grace by which they survived echoed throughout his subsequent writings. Yet, they gave him “the worst pain” he endured while in prison, given their contempt and hatred for his aristocratic background, despite the fact that he landed in prison precisely because of his opposition to the Tsar and his treatment of the peasantry. Nevertheless, he believed in an inherent goodness, though fallen, that could be found in his fellow prisoners, and contended that “only through being loved is a person made capable of love,” a process he called “raising up the lowly.”28 The murderous Raskalnikov in Crime and Punishment is a prime example, a composite of his experiences with his fellow prisoners, and who yet found redemption through the love he discovered in the Gospels and in Sonia.

Dostoevsky countered the philosophically trending wave of nihilism in his various novels. The nihilistic perspective jettisons any belief in a benevolent God (or any God at all), morality or meaning, and sees humanity as a mere physical specimen, governed only by biology and incapable of love beyond the mere physical sensation of sex. Nihilism was countered not by argument, but by showing how unlivable were its consequences. The Possessed recounts a (true) story in which revolutionaries kill one of their own rather than try to peaceably resolve differences. Crime and Punishment shows the result of a Nietzschean, or even Hegelian, individual who felt he could live above the claims of ordinary morality, and commits two murders just for the experience of it.29

In place of the bankruptcy of nihilism, Dostoevsky exemplifies the redemptive power of grace in his novels. In Crime and Punishment, Raskalnikov finds that grace from the converted prostitute Sonia, who follows him to his prison in Siberia, as “Love resurrected them, the heart of one contained infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.”30 An explicit Christ-figure appears in The Idiot, as the “strange and unpredictable” epileptic Prince Myshkin moves “quietly, mysteriously” among the upper classes, “exposing their hypocrisy while also illuminating their lives with goodness and truth.”31 Love and grace abound in the final scene, as he embraces the murderer of the woman he loved.

The Gambler also demonstrates this compassionate grace, though not so much in its story as in its circumstances. Dostoevsky found his writer’s block lifted only three weeks before its due date, which, if not met, would result in his forfeiting his rights to all his previous publications, owing to a deal with an opportunistic publisher to alleviate his gambling debts. Only by the extraordinary efforts of a nineteen year old stenographer named Anna, who endured his harsh treatment of her, returning day after day with edited manuscripts from the day before, produced by working through the night, did The Gambler make its deadline. The cranky, unkempt writer, widowed, with a weakness for gambling and alcohol, and twenty-five years her senior, came to recognize her grace and charm, and proposed marriage. “At considerable personal sacrifice” and from pity and knowing that he needed her, Anna agreed, giving him his fifteen “Miraculous Years” of happiness (as a biographer calls them) during which he produced all his major novels.32

The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s final and greatest work, sharply demonstrates the difference between a life of devotion to God and faithless agnosticism. The brilliant but agnostic Ivan critiques the problems of humanity and political systems, but can offer no solution for either. By contrast, his devout brother Alyosha, answers that “I do not know the problem of evil, but I do know love.”33 To Ivan’s building a case against God “as powerfully as anyone has since Job,” Alyosha can just kiss his brother on the lips, in the same way that Christ does to his tormentor in Ivan’s poem, “The Grand Inquisitor.”34 The Brothers Karamazov includes the same sufferings found in Dostoevsky’s own life, Yancey claims, including his own father’s brutal murder by servants, being jilted by the literary world, arrest and mick execution, prison camp, extra-marital affairs, the yearning of unrequited love, and epilepsy among others. To this bleak world, Dostoevsky lends despair, admitting that “without God, everything is permitted” (good or evil); he even prophesies, predicting that “man must bow down to something,” as did Russia in the following century, to such atheistic leaders as Lenin (enshrined in a mausoleum), Marx, and Stalin.35 However, he also shows the way of Christ by way of Alyosha, that one need not try to solve every problem: “Christ himself did not attempt that” Yancey reminds, and instead urged us to “respond, as he did, against all reason to dispense grace and love to those who deserve it least.”36


In both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Yancey found able guides for his soul. Tolstoy’s novels reflected the compassion he learned in the midst of his country’s poverty, and illustrated the actions of redemption, if he could not quite fully explain them. Dostoevsky, also familiar with the challenging circumstances of life, found and displayed the solution that Tolstoy could never fully grasp: a life devoted to God, and the acts of grace and love which thus follow.


1 Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 121.

2 Ibid., 122.

3 Ibid.

4 Sigmund Freud, “The Relation of the Poet to Day-Dreaming (1908)” in Character and Culture: Psychoanalysis applied to anthropology, mythology, folklore, literature, and culture in general: (The Collected Papers of Sigmund Freud BS 193 V), ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 34.

5 Yancey, Soul Survivor, 122.

6 Ibid., 123.

7 Ibid., 123-4. From Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? (1897).

8 Ibid., 127.

9 Ibid., 128.

10 Ibid., 129.

11 Ibid., 130.

12 Ibid., 131.

13 Ibid., 131.

14 Ibid., 132.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., 133.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., 134.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Shakespeare and Cultural Apologetics, An Unexpected Journal 5, no. 4 (Advent 2022),

22 European socialist reformers, often atheistic, and the Western Christian countries siding with Islamic Turks against Russia in the Crimean War of the 1850s also fueled his view of the Christian West as materialistic and secular. Discussed further in Dostoevsky the Thinker review in this issue.

23 Russian Philosophy, Volume 1: The Beginnings of Russian Philosophy, The Slavophiles, The Westernizers, ed. James M. Edie, James P. Scanlan and Mary-Barbara Zeldin, Vol. 1 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976), 161.

24 A more full discussion of Tolstoy’s philosophy of history is available in John Lukacs, “The Tolstoy Locomotive on the Berlin Track,” The Imaginative Conservative (January 31, 2011, first appearing in The University Bookman, vol. 20, no. 4, Summer 1980)

25 Yancey, Soul Survivor, 135.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., 136.

28 Ibid., 138.

29 To see the interplay between Nietzche’s atheism and Dostoevsky’s philosophy based on love, see my course paper turned blog, Seth Myers, “Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment aka What You Can’t Get Away,” Jan. 2, 2019. ( Paper prompt asked to compare Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment as a riposte to Nietzsche’s power-philosophy and critique of Christianity through the love story of Raskalnikov and Sonia.

30 Yancey, Soul Survivor, 139.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid., 140.

34 Ibid., 140.

35 Ibid., 142.

36 Ibid.