Tolstoy vs Dostoevsky: Who’s the daddy?

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We won't rest until this matter is resolved once and for all. And for that, your expert help is required.

The time has come to tackle the most burning question in the history of human civilization, and decide which of two immortals is the cooler. No, the choice is not between Batman and Superman, but two bearded doyens of Russian literature. Whose works do you proudly display on your coffee table to impress the neighbors, and whose do you use as loft insulation? Which of them do you quote pretentiously over a glass of wine, or tearfully staring down a bottle of vodka?

Just in case you don’t remember your Marmeladovs from your Bolkonskys (surely not), here’s a quick recap.

Main arguments for:

Dostoevsky.

The psychologist-in-chief of Russian literature. He introduced the word “nadryv” into the Russian language, which is difficult to translate, so let’s not bother. Suffice it to say that it refers to the anguish and torment of the Russian soul. For Russians, there is no half-way house. Life is a car with no brake pedal, a choice between too much or nothing at all. Love isn’t real unless you bleed it. A drinking spree that doesn’t kill you is an aperitif.

Returning to Dostoevsky for a second, he created the legendary Raskolnikov, a memetic character with an ax to grind (and swing). “Raskolnikov will get you,” readers message us on Facebook if for some reason they object to something we’ve written.

Tolstoy.

In case you didn’t know, he wrote War and Peace, a literary canvas of Russian life in the early 19th century with highly detailed depictions of war, high society intrigue, and the role of family, kinship, and honor. Time and again, the reader is struck by his ability to get under the skin and into the bone marrow of his panoply of characters, from the idealistic Natasha to the war-mongering Napoleon, with countless others along the way.

And let’s not forget Anna Karenina, who is unfairly overshadowed by W&P’s sheer monumentality. As the heroine and victim of what is probably Russia’s (and the world’s) greatest book about love and betrayal, she throws herself under a train, becoming another literary meme in the process.

Main arguments against:

Dostoevsky.

Too downbeat. His books make readers want to shoot themselves, which isn’t good for future sales. The central tenet is that salvation of the soul lies in faith, but for the body there is no redemption, only suffering. Due to publishing demands, many novels were written on the fly, in a very short time. He was constantly in need of money to cover his gambling and other debts.

What's worse, he forever ruined the image of St. Petersburg, turning it into a perennially gray, gloomy city.

Tolstoy.

Too wordy. When a sentence ends, you don’t remember how it began. Plus there’s lots of obtrusive moralizing. So obtrusive in fact that the author's presence at times overshadows his characters.

Despite all the sermonizing, he didn’t practise what he preached, bickering endlessly with his wife and fathering many children on the side.

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