Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to the Religious-Philosophical Renaissance
Chapter 17: Prophetic Writers
Chapter 17Prophetic Writers
Russian literature, perhaps more than any other in the 19th century, was given to philosophical reflection on the meaning of human existence and was imbued with a deep sense of moral responsibility for the fate of its own nation and mankind as a whole. In 19th century Russia, as indeed in Poland, great writers came to treat literature as a moral mission, a tool in the struggle to change the world.
The most characteristic writers in this respect are those two great literary prophets – Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Both men experienced a spiritual crisis that marked a turning point in their lives and led them to become aggressive critics of modern civilization. Both assailed the conscience of their readers with violent pictures of corruption and at the same time pointed the way to moral and religious rebirth. Both expressed with profound insight the utter despair about God and the meaning of existence, and as an antidote put forward faith in Christ. In both men the return to religion was linked to the terrifying experience of approaching death. Finally, both writers were deeply influenced by their contact with the Russian peasants – the simple folk who seemed to them to represent a superior, truly Christian understanding.
For all these apparently far-reaching similarities, it would be difficult to name two novelists who were less alike. Any comparative analysis of their work – and this kind of confrontation has long been a critical tradition – immediately brings to...