Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy; drawing by David Levine

Gary Saul Morson is the world’s leading authority on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. In his latest book, conceived as a stocktaking magnum opus, wonder confronts certainty and triumphs decisively. But is the contest fair?

Certainty is represented by the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia and its Bolshevik successors, wonder by the questions posed in Russian realist prose. Both are remarkable for their maximalism and urgency. As Ivan says to his brother Alyosha in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, “Russian boys do nothing but talk of the eternal questions. Isn’t it so?”

It is, says Morson. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, “the Russian tendency to take ideas to extremes magnified otherwise indiscernible implications.” Readers, writers, casual acquaintances, and literary characters began to argue feverishly, and sometimes murderously, “about what is most essentially human, about whether morality has any nonarbitrary basis, about the relation of abstract theory to lived experience, about life’s meaning, and other such topics.” Western readers stand to benefit, provided they are willing to have their complacency unsettled: “If, from our perspective, Russian debates seem exaggerated, then our assumptions, as Solzhenitsyn insisted, appear naïve in the light of Russian experience.”

Russian experience, Morson argues, with little regard for chronology, is both cause and consequence of the late-nineteenth-century outburst:

Russian writers and thinkers responded to their country’s experience, which, in its very extremity, did not invite euphemisms. Evil was evil, as no one in the Gulag could doubt; if ever there was goodness, it was amidst immense suffering.

Stalin’s Gulag was the natural outcome of the radical positions taken in the course of those feverish conversations. What experiences brought about those positions in the first place, Morson does not say.

The villain of the story is the “intelligentsia,” defined early in the book as a community of rootless radicals in pursuit, or jealous possession, of a revolutionary dogma. Originally composed of “people of various ranks” (mostly priests’ sons) who flooded into the universities and professions in the second half of the nineteenth century, it was, according to Morson, a protean group characterized by three main traits. The first was a refusal to identify with anyone outside its own sacred fraternity; for this reason “the intelligentsia was often compared to a monastic order” (“or religious sect,” if we are to complete the oft-quoted statement by the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev). The second was a commitment to socialism, which Morson defines as “a utopian or millenarian vision of a world that had banished evil once and for all.” The third was distinctive dress and demeanor. The first generation of the Russian intelligentsia favored blue-tinted glasses, walking sticks, abrupt speech, studied untidiness, short hair for women, and long hair and untrimmed beards for men. A famous poem by the fictitious versifier Kozma Prutkov,* first published in 1884, describes the intelligentsia at a provincial funeral procession:

Next come the Nihilists and the Slavophiles,
Their fingernails uncut and unfiled.
For, while disagreeing on the relativity of consciousness,
They resemble each other in slovenliness.

The violation of prevailing grooming norms is a common but by no means necessary corollary of political radicalism. By the turn of the twentieth century full beards had been reduced to goatees, which, through the efforts of Lenin, Trotsky, Yakov Sverdlov, Feliks Dzierżyński, Lev Kamenev, Aleksei Rykov, and Nikolai Bukharin, presided over the Bolshevik Revolution and founded the Soviet state. During the Communist Party’s struggle against left and right oppositions in the late 1920s the goatees were routed by the mustaches, led by Stalin and including his associates Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Lazar Kaganovich, Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan, and Andrei Andreev. Stalin’s death doomed the remaining whiskers, but the radically bald Khrushchev was condemned as “harebrained.” His ouster in 1964 resulted in the compromise of “collective leadership” and the long reign of Brezhnev’s eyebrows, known as “Stalin’s mustache raised to a proper height.” Beards moved into opposition, favoring Slavophiles over nihilists until, half a century later, hipster globalists balanced things out.

In Morson’s account the October Revolution represented the victory of the most radical and dogmatic wing of the intelligentsia. The rest died at the hands of the Bolsheviks, were forced into exile, or, in Solzhenitsyn’s words, quoted by Morson, “let themselves be hypnotized” by the party’s promise of socialism. But hadn’t they, in his telling, been hypnotized by it half a century earlier? At the gates of the Gulag, Morson revises his definition of the “intelligentsia” to include his heroes Solzhenitsyn and Nadezhda Mandelstam and accommodate their disapproval of the old intelligentsia’s betrayal of its “humanistic values.” “The lure of certainty, the irresistible appeal of escaping from doubt, the comfort of joining in collective affirmation” now become symptoms of a flight from the intelligentsia, not fealty to it.

Morson does not seem to realize that his “change of landmarks” (to use a popular intelligentsia formula he does much to elucidate) may put in question the neatness of his dichotomy. He is not the first to associate the intelligentsia with both certainty and wonder. The Bolsheviks, who prided themselves on having escaped from doubt, admitted their origins in the truth-seeking intelligentsia while denouncing its flabbiness and timidity. Chekhov, celebrated by Morson for his humanism and often seen as the epitome of the intelligentsia, mocked its impotence as well as its rigidity. Morson, in his classification of “types of thinker” within the intelligentsia, portrays Hamlets as well as Don Quixotes. The Soviets had no use for either and adopted the term as a value-neutral description of all white-collar professionals. In the 1970s Solzhenitsyn and Nadezhda Mandelstam praised a few of them for reverting to the values that the old intelligentsia might or might not have had. “Humanists,” concludes Morson, “survived in some Soviet equivalent of the catacombs.”


The reason they survived, he argues, was realist literature, represented above all by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, and, after the intelligentsia in the narrow sense took over the empire, Solzhenitsyn and Vasily Grossman. Their writings make up Russia’s sacred scripture, a fictional world that reveals “truths about life beyond any purported social science”—the “tradition” that stands up to the “radical counter-tradition.” Russian literature, according to Morson, “is perhaps best compared not to French or English literature, but to the Hebrew Bible when the canon was open and books could still be added.” Canonical texts were—and still are—treated like gospel: memorized, venerated, commemorated, and used to interpret and guide human behavior. Canonical authors are prophets, visionaries, and lawgivers. “Poets,” wrote Shelley, are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In Russia, writes Morson, “they are acknowledged.” In eighteenth-century Europe, it became fashionable for readers to imitate literary characters (most famously when several young readers killed themselves after reading Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther); in novel-stricken Russia, as Morson, following Yuri Lotman and Irina Paperno, vividly demonstrates, literary characters imitated flesh-and-blood human beings who imitated revised literary characters who imitated reformed human beings in an unrelenting, ever-accelerating, head-spinning loop.

The core of Morson’s book is a story of how the quest for certainty drove the intelligentsia to terrorism, Bolshevism, and the Gulag, and how Russian prose writers preserved doubt and wonder for Russia and beyond. In his telling, Russian literature owes its extraordinary power to the accidental concentration of genius, the provocation provided by the intelligentsia, the moral intensity of the questions it posed, and the genre most of the best writers preferred and perfected. “The realist novel,” he writes, “speculates in categories of ignorance, makes its home in uncertainty, and dwells in the land of opinion.” When done right it assumes multiplicity, doubts self-confidence, restores “the open presentness of past moments,” and expects the same of the future. It is best viewed through the prism of “prosaics”—an approach that, unlike “poetics,” emphasizes the contingent, celebrates the ordinary, and “attends to distinctively novelistic qualities and devices.” Guns aren’t always fired, shoes may or may not drop, and miracles, including those that reveal ultimate meanings, are hidden in plain sight:

Realist novels represent views not as impersonal propositions but as emotionally charged thoughts in the consciousness of particular people. They give us not the objective view from nowhere, but a perspective from somewhere specific.

They oppose Bolshevism just by being read, and the Soviets kept reading, Party misinterpretations notwithstanding. Wonder foretold, frustrated, and outlived Bolshevik certainty.

Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov; drawing by David Levine

Morson’s discussions of Dostoevsky’s and Tolstoy’s novels are perceptive and convincing, but “if this study has a hero,” he writes on the second-to-last page of the book, “it is Chekhov,” and Chekhov did not write novels. To become the paragon of uncertainty, he had to struggle against the constraints of genre (his plays “dramatize the falsity of living dramatically”; his short stories rival Tolstoy’s novels in embracing the ordinary) and, implicitly, against Morson’s novel-centered argument. Other writers who might have challenged his binary are accomplished prose writers who happened to be Bolshevik true believers. Aleksei Tolstoy, the “Red Count” famous for his cynicism, could be dismissed as insincere, and the pointedly unprosaic Isaac Babel and Andrei Platonov as nonrealists, but what about Mikhail Sholokhov and Leonid Leonov, whose major novels (And Quiet Flows the Don and Road to Ocean, among others) have no difficulty living up to Morson’s requirements of “prosaic intelligence”? Did their wonder defeat their certainty? Could there be such a thing as a Bolshevik—and, by extension, a Catholic, Muslim, or nationalist—novel? Morson seems to presume a negative answer but provides no explanations.

These are minor qualms. Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky would have defeated the devil’s army with or without Chekhov and Sholokhov. So why rig the fight? The main problem with Morson’s setup is that most of his novelists’ antipodes, from the Grand Inquisitor to the silliest nihilist, are their own creations. Dostoevsky defeats Raskolnikov, Turgenev defeats Bazarov, and Tolstoy, the mightiest of them all, defeats Napoleon along with his Russian and German counterparts. The result is a one-sided, not to say circular, affair, with no suspense and few surprises. Morson provides some quotations from Lenin and a few other Bolsheviks, but most of what we know about the book’s main villains comes from Dostoevsky’s premonitions and Solzhenitsyn’s indictments. The result is a static picture that is the opposite of the open-endedness and presentness-in-the-past that Morson advocates, in novels and morals. Soviet life appears to him to have been entirely lifeless and, as such, unique (with the possible exception of Nazi Germany, which shows up unannounced on several occasions). “Soviet Russian writers,” Morson writes, “understood all too clearly that their totalitarian regime had no precedent.”


His guide to the Inferno, and the Soviet Russian writer par excellence, is Solzhenitsyn, who “described the key moral error behind the Soviets, Nazis, and similar regimes as the division of humanity into the evil and the good.” He also explained, to Morson’s satisfaction, that the Soviet system was “unique in world history” because “it demands of us total surrender of our souls.” In his unquestioning identification with Solzhenitsyn, Morson forgets about Christianity, Islam, and any number of other faiths that have made similar demands more consistently and successfully. Or rather he seems to believe, along with Solzhenitsyn and most Christians and Muslims, that surrender to virtue is no surrender at all (“Islam” means “submission”); the coincidence of one’s desires with God’s will is freedom, not slavery.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan, whose unfettered thought may have led to murder, argues that people should not be punished for their wishes: “Who has not the right to wish?” This position, writes Morson, taking the side of the saintly brother, Alyosha, “directly contradicts the Sermon on the Mount, which deems not just bad actions but also unworthy desires sinful.” But was the scrutiny of unworthy desires not the main task of Stalin’s thought police? Where is certainty here, and where is wonder? It was not the Bolsheviks who invented the surrender of souls, the sacrament of confession, or the office of the Grand Inquisitor.

According to Morson, “Russian literature might almost be described as the literature of conversion,” but only conversion to liberalism, sometimes disguised here as Christianity. (Texts centered on conversion to Bolshevism are not “Russian literature” as Morson defines it.) The real nemesis of intelligentsia radicalism is the “Western” reader, subsumed in the authorial “we” and assumed to be a common-sense liberal. “Westerners,” he writes, “find it hard even to comprehend that in Soviet ethics compassion, pity, and kindness were vices, since they might lead one to spare a class enemy.” More to the point:

Westerners often refute an opponent’s defense of his actions by asking: what if the shoe were on the other foot? If the other party had done the same thing and offered the same defense, would you accept it? However natural this question might seem to us, many Russian revolutionaries not only dismissed it, but even, at times, seemed not to grasp it.

“We” are few. If one expels from the ranks of Westerners all those who oppose moral equivalence (on the assumption that “we” are not answerable to the same moral standard), who fight against ever-regenerating “evil empires,” or root for Jesus as he tramples the grapes of wrath, one is left with a fairly small group ably represented, in Morson’s account, by a chastened Doctor Zhivago, who regrets having once succumbed to youthful enthusiasm and fears the “perpetual vitality” of utopian imagination. Add to the expulsion list those who “manage to hold the social and political beliefs most convenient for them to hold” and who train themselves “to sincerely accept contradictory beliefs” (a “particular state of mind, characteristic of the Soviet period”), and the West becomes vanishingly tiny.

More surprisingly, the Russian literature Morson admires for its “forthright posing of ultimate questions, which polite French and English novels did not ask or, at best, left merely implicit,” ends up standing for “prosaics” in the most quotidian sense (don’t wish the impossible or the possibly wicked). The Russian books we read—according to Virginia Woolf, as quoted by Morson, “feverishly, wildly,…now submerged, now in a moment of vision understanding more than we have ever understood before, and receiving such revelations as we are wont to get only from the press of life at its fullest”—turn out to be warnings against the very maximalism and urgency that make them irresistible. Zhivago, for one, does not act in accordance with his newfound wisdom. Toward the end of the novel, he meets another questing hero, and “they talk as only Russians can talk, particularly as they talked then, desperate and frenzied.”

They have been at it ever since. Most members of the dissenting intelligentsia would have loved Morson’s book had it been published in the late Soviet or early post-Soviet years. They would have been pleased to recognize themselves in the story of humanists who had survived in Soviet catacombs by wrestling with the “eternal questions” that had made Russia’s plight universally relevant. They thought of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed as a prophecy of the Bolshevik Revolution; admired Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift (his last Russian novel) for its merciless portrait of the radical journalist Nikolai Chernyshevsky (whose utopian novel, What Is to Be Done?, was one of Lenin’s favorites); and liked to recite David Samoilov’s 1965 poem “Pestel, the Poet, and Anna,” about the conversation between Pushkin and the would-be regicide Pavel Pestel in 1821. Pestel talks about tyranny; Pushkin can’t stop listening to Anna, who has been singing since morning. Pestel leaves, to be hanged five years later; Pushkin sits down to write a few words in his diary and suddenly stops: “Anna, dear God!”

Out marched Russian Brutus. The Russian genius,
With quiet sadness, watched him disappear.

Samoilov, born in 1920, had converted from orthodox Bolshevism to literary humanism (by way of the war and the Khrushchev Thaw). Most of his elite contemporaries, especially those who, like him, came from Jewish families, had traveled the same road and thought of themselves as the heirs of the old intelligentsia (whom they saw as humanists, not dogmatists). That peculiar fraternity, which everyone recognized but no one could define, had been Russia’s winning entry in the race of late-nineteenth-century radicalisms. Some national contingents had done better than others; some failed to show up.

The societies in which successful reformations had coincided with the defeat of old regimes (Britain, Holland, the United States, and, in a more muted, introverted form, Lutheran Scandinavia) channeled most forms of radical creativity into Protestant sectarianism, official nationalism, and franchise extension, leaving little room for integral socialism. The societies in which an unreformed church was subordinated to an infidel foreign state (Poland, Ireland, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece) fused Christian martyrdom with Romantic self-sacrifice to produce patriotism without iconoclasm. The societies in which revitalized Catholicism proved a match for new anticlerical elites (France, Italy, Portugal, Spain) went through a series of unresolved revolutions until both Christianity and communism ran out of ammunition. The most favorable environments for revolutionary ferment were unified Germany, where the new activist state had great difficulty managing a society split by the Reformation and fenced in by inherited borders, and Russia, where an uncompromising autocracy buttressed by a subservient church and repressive empire kept breeding would-be professionals for whom it had neither use nor respect. The more hopeless the clamor for reform, the more intense the millenarian expectations and the more eternal the questions.

Russian literature reflected the proliferating conspiracies and conversations in a way that does justice to their maximalism and urgency but does not lend itself to the stark distinction Morson makes between the “tradition” of the great books and the “counter-tradition” of millenarian radicals. In one of Chekhov’s canonical stories, “The House with the Mezzanine,” the narrator, a landscape painter with whom the author seems to identify, disapproves of a Protestant-style social activist, a young woman with a small mouth and loud voice who keeps busy setting up schools, pharmacies, and libraries for peasants. Small improvements, he argues, do nothing but add new links to the “great chain” of oppression; what people need is freedom from physical labor, so they can devote themselves to the arts, the sciences, and the “search for truth and the meaning of life.” Is Morson’s favorite writer on the side of tradition or countertradition, “prosaics” or utopia?

Either way, it is true that, as a national religion, Russian literature has overtaken Christianity, vanquished communism, and filled most of the “sacred space that never remains empty” (to paraphrase a Russian saying). One reason is state censorship: literature has become so dominant by trying to make up for whatever has been outlawed elsewhere. Another is the intelligentsia (in either of Morson’s definitions): the chosen people sanctify the books they choose to read. The third is Orthodoxy: reading was not an important part of religious practice in Russia; most people learned to read when they first went to school in the late nineteenth century, and some of the first books they read came from the recently established national canon. There were no family Bibles to compete with Pushkin and Tolstoy.

The prerevolutionary intelligentsia’s main pursuits were reading and talking, their main predicament existential loneliness. They were opposed to the state and divorced from the “people.” The state was to be avoided or destroyed, depending on which wing of the intelligentsia one belonged to; the people were to be worshiped, emulated, enlightened, or awakened. Morson describes the “going to the people” movement of the 1860s and 1870s, when guilt-ridden radicals moved into peasant villages in an attempt to do some of those things, but he does not dwell on its outcome. In fact, Romantic nationalism throughout Europe involved the discovery of the noble savage close to home—first in a variety of highlands (Scots leading the way) and eventually on the Russian plain, where the orphaned intelligentsia embraced “the people” as a matter of salvation and almost dissolved in disappointment when peasant virtue proved illusory. Some fugitives from populism found comfort in Marxism, which replaced the peasant with the proletarian and promised an imminent socialist revolution.

The prophecy came true, or so it appeared. The members of the radically elitist Marxist sect that took over the empire stopped calling themselves part of the intelligentsia, destroyed most of those who did not convert, and created a new professional and managerial elite by instituting a massive affirmative action program for workers, peasants, and national minorities (the most successful of which, Jews from the former Pale of Settlement, moved up without the benefit of preferential admissions and promotions). In the 1930s and 1940s the new students and scholars felt at one with the state and the people (and of course with comrade Stalin, who represented both) and thus were not “intelligentsia” by any recognizable definition, but they associated the term with high culture (centered on the mastery of the literary canon) and were happy to apply it to themselves.

By the 1970s this quasi intelligentsia became the real thing by turning against the state and discovering a widening gap between themselves and the “people.” Some Russians rushed back to the countryside, some Jews turned to Zionism, but most members of the metropolitan intelligentsia, Russian or Jewish, embraced what they understood to be “the West” in general and Western liberalism in particular. Nobody liked workers. For the first time in the history of the Russian intelligentsia the overwhelming majority of its members gave up on the “humiliated and insulted” (to use the title of one of Dostoevsky’s novels) in order to worship the proud and prosperous.

Meanwhile, in the West, post-Christian intellectual elites, cloistered and tenured on university campuses, had revised their view of the “wretched of the earth” (to use the phrase from the Internationale, aka the first Soviet anthem, borrowed by Frantz Fanon in the title of his classic book) and shifted from an agenda of charity and conversion to one of admiration and solidarity. The West had acquired its own semi-intelligentsia, which did not mind the state but did love the people, provided they were ethnically diverse enough. It was the opposite of nationalism, the first gasp of globalism. The late-Soviet intelligentsia members who knew about “the left” despised it, focused their love on the brazenly successful, attempted to build capitalism after the Soviet state’s collapse, and formed an even lower opinion of “the people” at the sight of their immiseration and apparent irreformability.

Putin’s return to bureaucratic authoritarianism and great power politics seemed to recreate the prerevolutionary mise-en-scène: by the 2020s Russia’s westernizing elite had again become a proper intelligentsia by virtue of being equally alienated from the state and the people. But their dreams were no longer transcendental. In fact, they no longer had any dreams: what they wanted was a market economy, liberal institutions, and—most fatefully and hopelessly—an alliance with the West at a time when the West was expanding its alliance against Russia. They had become what many of their nineteenth-century predecessors most despised—bourgeois. They started filing their fingernails, quit smoking, switched from vodka to wine, and embraced consumer connoisseurship. The one other thing they kept, besides the sense of caste isolation and the associated inner cohesion, was the passionate dedication to literature and the assiduously curated national canon.

The invasion of Ukraine put an end to this arrangement. As far as most members of the intelligentsia were concerned, the state had been shown to be irredeemable and any association with it toxic; the “people” were complicit and therefore contemptible. For the second time in a little more than a hundred years, a large proportion of Russia’s intellectual and cultural elite left the country. (World War II losses and the Jewish emigration of the 1970–1990s made their own significant contributions.) But if the postrevolutionary émigrés mourned the destruction of paradise, cultivated nostalgia, thought of themselves as exiles, and had little love for their new homes, the current ones tend to think of Russia as congenitally defective and of emigration as a long-postponed homecoming. Spiritual destinations range from Zionism to Ukrainian patriotism to pan-Westernism.

The question is: What to do with the Russian literary canon, the only value that connects most of the émigrés to one another, to their country of origin, and to their intelligentsia predecessors? The majority are unsure; some persist in the view that a love of Chekhov is compatible with a rejection of Russia; and a few have accepted collective responsibility for empire-building and pledged to “decolonize” themselves, one another, and the entire literary tradition. Morson enters the debate by ignoring it. His book, unabashed in its devotion to the canon, provides a much-needed landmark by advocating a wisdom that used to be conventional.