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Lessons From Great Russian Novelists

Professor Gary Saul Morson says literature is the best way to come at life’s biggest questions.

Gary Saul Morson
Professor Gary Saul Morson has taught more than 10,000 Northwestern students.Image: Shane Collins

By Gary Saul Morson
Spring 2023

Despite today’s focus on STEM, the humanities are still vitally important, in part because literature is the best way to come at life’s biggest questions. And no one did that better than the great Russian novelists. 

For two centuries, Russians have behaved as if life exists to be made into great literature. If you had something to say about human psychology, you analyzed Dostoevsky’s characters. If you wanted to discuss life’s meaning, you might explicate Tolstoy’s novels. 

In her 1925 essay “The Russian Point of View,” Virginia Woolf enthusiastically praised newly translated Russian classics that were then taking Europe by storm. She found nothing like them in the West and no literary genius to rival Tolstoy. 

In my teaching at Northwestern, I try to convey the excitement of asking life’s ultimate questions and show why reading great literature is really worth the effort. In my forthcoming book on the Russian literary and political tradition, Wonder Confronts Certainty, I explore the positions Russian writers took on issues that will always matter. Does life have a meaning, and if so, what is it? If the universe is wholly explicable in terms of material cause and effect, are right and wrong mere conventions, or do they have some objective basis? How do people avoid taking responsibility for their actions (or inactions)? Are the most important moments of life the dramatic ones we all notice or the countless ordinary ones, including the tiniest movements of consciousness, that we overlook precisely because they are so ordinary? 

Tolstoy, for instance, insisted that life is a matter of “tiny, tiny alterations,” that goodness really exists and is seen most often in the small acts of kindness available at every moment, and that people too often use great theories about life and society as an alibi to avoid taking individual responsibility. 

The extreme nature of the Soviet experience intensified these questions. Millions — finding themselves arrested, tortured and sent to labor at 60 degrees below zero without sufficient calories in Siberia’s “north pole of cold” — could no longer regard evil as a mere convention.  

And when millions of peasants were being deliberately starved to death during the  collectivization of agriculture, could anyone seriously maintain that life’s point was individual happiness rather than a common moral good? Lenin and the Soviets regarded their version of Marxism as absolutely certain, and it was this certainty that made people accept their cruel actions as historically necessary and morally unchallengeable. Perhaps the greatest evil is committed by those intent on abolishing it forever. 

While 19th-century Russian revolutionaries and 20th-century Soviet officials were people of unfailing certainty, the great writers were people of wonder, marveling at a world of infinite complexity. For them, there were no final answers, but it was always important to deepen our understanding of the timeless questions. 

No matter what career they may choose, students will lead richer lives if they sometimes rise above the pursuit of worldly success to contemplate questions that will always lie at the core of human experience. Engaging with great literature, as the Russian writers demonstrated, is a uniquely favorable way to make such questions palpable, immediate and deeply felt.  


Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures. His new book Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter (Harvard University Press) will appear this spring. 

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