Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?!

As far as we know, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky never met each other. Even though they were contemporaries and moved in the same literary circles. They are often named in the same breath, but there are probably more differences than similarities between these two giants. And that leads us to the eternal question: who is better, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?


They were both pretty full of themselves, especially Tolstoy. Tolstoy considered himself equal to Homer as a writer and better than the rest. He knew better than the tsar how to run the country and better than the church how to interpret the Bible, which didn't lead to any exiles, he was too famous, but it did lead to excommunication; he was to first Russian to get a civil funeral. Dostoevsky too was obsessed with religion. He saw himself as a prophet and warned against an immoral future without God.


Both writers had to deal with lack of money due to their gambling addictions, and were forced to write to pay off their debts. Tolstoy managed to lose the house where he was born and Dostoevsky resorted to terrible contractual conditions to get money. Both were able to overcome their addiction, but Dostoevsky struggled for money most of his life. Unlike Tolstoy he was not from an aristocratic family and had no family estate that raised money.

Dostoevsky would postpone writing until the deadline of his contract was about to expire. In a state of panic he would then resort to hiring a secretary to dictate to, so that he could write faster. This contributed to his somewhat hasty style. Of course he imagined his contemporary in his study at Yasnaya Polyana, meticulously rewriting War and Peace seven times.

Light and darkness

Tolstoy was a healthy and strong figure, always working. In his works life always prevails, a continuing flow of life, a life that needs to be lived. There is a contrast between city life and the countryside. In the countryside his personages can be their true selves. Tolstoy starts his novels somewhere in medias res, and ends them similarly. This emphasises the sense of the eternal circle of life. His message is good, yes, terrible things happen, but the sun also rises again, every day.

Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy, thought he was going to get shot in what turned out to be a mock execution and was sentenced to several years of forced labour in Siberia. In his works he explores the darkest corners of the mind and the city. His characters are tested to the maximum. Where Tolstoy leaves it at a hint of incest, Dostoevsky makes incest, abuse, murder, money, (mental) illness, prostitution and other moral decline his main subjects. The question of the existence of God is at the core of his writing.

Commercial success

If you have to share your convictions and philosophies with the world and you need money, it helps, of course, to have good commercial insight in order to reach as big an audience as possible. Both writers succeeded extremely well. Dostoevsky weaved his psychological and religious insights into dramatic, blood-curdling murder mysteries, for which he took inspiration from newspapers, the truth often being more fantastic than fiction. Tolstoy incorporated his visions into enthralling novels, life bursting from their pages.

Two very different writers. Both very, very good. The question will always remain open to discussion. I don't believe in God, but I can imagine these two somewhere up there, looking down upon all this and smilingly stroking their long beards…


© Elisabeth van der Meer

As a source of inspiration I read my father's old copy of Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. The photos of Tolstoy’s study and Dostoevsky’s manuscript are from Wikipedia. The others are mine. I'm adding the link to eight other opinions on this question and to my posts about incest in War and Peace and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy for further reading. Thanks for stopping by and until next time!




63 thoughts on “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?!

  1. This is one of your best posts, Elisabeth, and that’s saying something. It’s extremely well written. And, insightful as well as interesting. Balanced in its treatment of the two writers, whom a lot of people, it seems, have trouble choosing between. It always amazes me (sorry for the flattery) how you can say so much in a few paragraphs, and cover all the important things. This post is put together very well, in my opinion.

    Something that occurred to me in reading your post, with regard to Dostoevsky’s hasty method of composition without, presumably, much revision, is there are similarities with one of my favorite American writers, Theodore Dreiser.

    Congrats, and thanks!

    P.S. I originally thought I was a “Dostoevsky guy.” They I got bowled over by “Resurrection.” I’ve been a Tolstoy lover since, but your post wants me to go back and read some more Dostoevsky.


    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you so much, Roger, you really have put a huge smile on my face and I really value your feedback. I’m happy to hear I’ve inspired you into going back to Dostoevsky. Perhaps you can explore the relation between Dreiser and Dostoevsky. Never a dull moment.. happy reading!

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  3. It’s an impossible choice and I wouldn’t want to make it, but if I did I would have to pick Dostoevsky – I love the Tolstoy I’ve read but I’d rather be without him and not Dostoevsky, if push came to shove.

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  4. I love Dostoevsky but It wouldn´t be fair for me to choose one as I haven´t read “War and Peace” by Tolstoy… ((You´ve once recommended a series based on his novel Am I right?… Maybe I could give it a try?). I should read Anna Karenina too… 😉
    Back to Dostoevsky, I have read several of his books, and “Crime and Punisment” will be always a favourite one for me. I like his introspective, most times… nihilists character. Also, the way he digs into the behaviours of human beings and his “philosophy”, which some relate to Schopenhauer & Nietzsche… I think Dostoevsky was definitely a genius and I love his writing.
    Excellent post, dear Elisabeth… Thank you for sharing… Love & best wishes 😉

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Elisabeth, this is a great topic for a post! You had me hooked from the line, “They were both pretty full of themselves, especially Tolstoy.” 😉 While they look alike, they do certainly have their own styles… and I look forward to reading more from both of them. Enjoy the rest of your weekend ❤

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  6. Hello Amalia! Good to hear from you 😊 Crime and Punishment is such a fantastic novel, it’s my favourite from Dostoevsky. Yes, the BBC made a pretty good series from War and Peace, well worth watching. What can I say about Anna Karenina? It’s one of those books that stays with you throughout life. But I’m prejudiced 😉 Love and happiness 😚

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello Chris, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment. It’s good to hear that you enjoyed my post. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky lead lives that were just as interesting, or even more interesting, than their fantastic novels. Take care, dear, and have a great week 😚


  8. I love “Crime & Punishment”. Once I wrote a sort of essay concerning that book & Nietzche´s work (for the University)… I still remember it!… I read a short version of Anna Karenina. I agree with you: a masterpiece! 😉 Hugs & happy week 😉

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  9. I studied Laws… But the assignement I was telling you about was for a Philosophy class (when you were getting closer to finishing the career you could choose certain classes, which gave you “points”. And that´s pretty much the origin of the anecdote 😀 xx (PS I also have a degree in Geography and Social Sciences, tertiary degree, 3 years duration) 😉

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  10. Yes, I read the Idiot when I was in university, should read it again. It’s definitely true what you’re saying, we can discuss this forever. And I love that about Russian literature! Happy reading and thanks for stopping by.


  11. Thanks, Elisabeth. If I remember correctly, one of the first Dostoevsky books I ever read was “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions.” Not one of his greatest books. I happened to pick up a nice edition (which I still have) at a used bookstore.Also, “Poor Folk” (most of it), which I liked; “Crime and Punishment”; “Notes from the Underground”;; and portions of “Diary of a Writer.” For some reason, I never did really get into his longer books. I couldn’t get past the first 100 pages or so of “The Brothers Karamaxzov.” You have inspired me to try again. My not being able to finish “The Brothers Karamazov” says more about me (not much, however) than it does about Dostoevsky.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Oh, I can understand about The Brothers Karamazov. I got an audiobook, even though I have a hard copy, because I thought I would never finish it otherwise. Good luck the second time, Roger.


  13. Thanks, Elisabeth. Funny you should mention the audiobook. There is an audiobook in English of “The Brothers Karamazov” read by the late Frederick Davidson. He is a great reader. I listened to the whole “Les Miserables” read by him (in English).

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  14. Great post. I have to say I’m in the Dostoyevsky camp for sure. My favourite is Crime and Punishment, specially the Oliver Ready translation. Really good! I have read War and Peace, and Anna K. I actually enjoyed W & P more. I think I’m one of the few people that wasn’t crazy about Anna. Bits of it were great, but not enough for me. Other parts of it were interminably boring, I think Tolstoy needed an editor to pull him into line a bit. Maybe I should try something else of his, did he write anything short?

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  15. Thank you, Cynthia, good to hear from you! So you’re in the Dostoevsky camp. He is a bit more sensational than Tolstoy. As you say, Tolstoy can go on a bit. But I do think that 150 years ago things were a lot slower than they are now. Now everything is fast and we try to fit 28 hours in a day. Besides, Tolstoy would never have let an editor touch his work, he knew better than everyone else;-). He wrote plenty of novellas and stories a well. Happy reading 📚

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I should try some of Tolstoy’s shorter work. I agree, he never would have allowed an editor, which was a pity 😂. I’m reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. It’s taking me a little while to get into it. Will see how it goes.

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  17. Yes, as a reader of both, I enjoyed very much your post, thank you, but it will be hard pressed to choose a favorite between them, since each one has strengths, and their particular style, that resonate with each of us differently I guess, but even Tolstoy liked his rival he wrote:

    ‘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

    When “War and Peace” came out, Dostoevsky was very impressed with it. He sought to meet Tolstoy, however by circumstances never met.
    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.

    However, Dostoevsky’s wife, Anna Snitkina, was friends with Tolstoy and his wife. They have seen each other many times, and after Dostoevsky’s death, it was Anna to whom Tolstoy confessed his regret of not having met the late great writer.

    Thank you! 🙂

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  18. Thank you, Burning Heart! Good to hear from a fellow Russian literature lover. Yes, the two writers respected each other indeed. I never read about the Tolstoy letter to Strakhov, thanks for pointing it out.
    Both are amazing writers, of course, yes, and both made the world think, isn’t that great?
    Happy reading 📚

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  19. No need to choose. Being fair, how could anybody choose between two writers like them?… It would be like being asked to choose between Mozart and Beethoven, or between dad and mom in a happy family 🙂
    Said this, I have enjoyed much your concise, very ponderate and extremely well informed post. Thanks for sharing your knowledge :)!!

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  20. I can not really compare great books or artists. If I could choose only one from their books to reread I would choose the Brothers Karamazov. If I had to choose one of their book to forget about I would choose The Idiot. So I can not really draw a conclusion.

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  21. You’re welcome, Prinnie! Thank you for stopping by 😊 As you know, I absolutely love Russian literature (a love we share!) and particularly Tolstoy, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky tremendously!

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  22. Astonishing that they have so much in common. I always think of Dostoevsky as a walk on the dark side, but I did not know Tolstoy considered himself as good as Homer! They are not at all alike, so that does sound arrogant. But I must admit I love Tolstoy so, so much. It’s almost better not to know who the writers are sometimes. 🙂

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  23. Yes, Dostoevsky explores the dark side of life. And Tolstoy was definitely full of himself. I plan to write a blog about the Homeric elements in is work, you’ll see that there really are parallels. Thanks for stopping by, Kat, take care and happy reading 😊


  24. I like Tolstoy better than Dostoevsky, but none of them is my favorite Russian author. Too long, too much detail (unnecessary) 😉 I really like Chekhov, Leskov, Bulgakov and some of Nabokov – the first names that come to mind.

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  25. Loved reading this article — fascinated!
    I’d have to go with Tolstoy because I always found it more difficult to read Dostoyevsky. Tolstoy’s easier to absorb and more “fun” that Dostoyevsky, I think. 🙂

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  26. Difficult choice I’ve obsessively read Tolstoy’s stories and work , absolutely fascinating but I guess it’s Dostoevsky who brought in his works the concept of anti-hero, the inner insight which is now typical of modern protagonists. We don’t get to see the internal workings in Tolstoy’s characters, take for instance the character of Raskholnikov in Crime And Punishment by Dostoyevsky, readers gets a rare insight into the dilemmas and fears, similarly in the story Little Hero we are made aware of the inner workings of twelve year old narrator and his infatuation with the older lady. The factors are external which causes havoc in character’s life in Tolstoy works where as in Dostoevsky’s works wars are internalized. My pick both when I seek puritanical wisdom I long for Papa Tolstoy and when a psychological probing its Dostoevsky!

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  27. Papa Tolstoy! Dostoevsky digs very deep into the soul, absolutely, he would have made a great psychoanalyst, or criminal behaviour expert. Although Tolstoy’s characters are more real to me. It’s amazing to think that these two brilliant writers are still very thought provoking nowadays.

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  28. They are the two of the most finest writers, and both had great influence on me. Yes I agree that Tolstoy’s characters are more real hence easier to read despite the lengths of his novels! Some of his stories carry lot of spirituality and wisdom specially stories he wrote in his later life. And yes Dostoevsky was a for founders of psychological novel a style further adopted by the likes of D.H Lawrence and Woolf, he wrote in times before the arrival of Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic theories👍👍

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Somehow Russian authors don’t get due credit in current literary intelligentsia as they should but still they will always be on my shelves 🙂 interesting thing is you can read them over and over 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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