Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: Passion and Russian Society

  • John Orr
Part of the Edinburgh Studies in Sociology book series (ESIS)


In studying the political novel, we may take the liberty of starting by looking at two major novels which are hardly political at all—The Idiot and Anna Karenin. Dostoevsky’s novel was written towards the end of the 1860s, Tolstoy’s several years later. These works represent, arguably, the pinnacle of creative writing in the novel form. Greater than any work which preceded them, they have not since been rivalled—except by the other major works of the authors who wrote them. This provides us with a sociological lesson which cannot be overlooked. World-literature achieved its greatest peak in modern times in a society which was more backward—economically, socially and politically—than nearly all the rest of Europe. Between them, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky destroy the myth of the novel as a bourgeois art-form. If we add Turgenev the third great writer of the period, more liberal and generous of spirit, but no match for the creative genius of the other two, we have a literature whose concern barely touches upon bourgeois life. Instead it focuses on two significant social groups in mid-nineteenth-century Russia—the aristocracy and the intelligentsia. The great Russian novels portray the complex relationship between these two groups, a relationship characterised by the social rootlessness of the critical intelligentsia and the political backwardness of the ruling aristocracy.


Russian Society False Confession Privileged Class Bourgeois Society Creative Genius 
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© John Orr 1977

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  • John Orr

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