I want to suggest to you two writers whom every Christian (and atheist) should read. I’m referring to two authors who did more to undermine the communist regime of Josef Stalin than any other writers. What is amazing is that both these authors died years before Stalin came to power! Through the enduring power of their fiction, however, these two giants of the literary world managed to undermine the entire foundation of Soviet, atheistic communism. I am speaking, of course, of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy. It’s difficult to find two more fascinating Russian figures.
Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in Moscow on October 30, 1821. Educated in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Dostoevsky served as a military engineer in the Russian army. In 1844, Dostoevsky resigned his Commission to devote himself to literature. Dostoevsky published his first novel at the age of twenty-five. Poor Folk brought instant fame to Dostoevsky and was widely read. At the age of twenty-seven Dostoevsky was arrested for belonging to a socialist group. He was tried and sentenced to death but, at the last possible moment, his sentence was commuted to hard labour in Siberia. This near-death experience was to haunt Dostoevsky for the rest of his life and is reflected in his writings. Following his release from prison and a forced stint as a soldier in the Siberian garrison, Dostoevsky returned to St. Petersburg in 1859 where he resumed his literary career.
Dostoevsky has gone down as one of the greatest novelists in history. As a committed Christian, Dostoevsky’s faith suffuses his writings. In his novels and short stories, Dostoevsky dramatizes the truth that, without God, humanity is left with nothing but falsehood and inevitably follows a path to self-destruction. Reflecting upon western civilization, Dostoevsky wrote: “The West has lost Christ and that is why it is dying; that is the only reason.” His novels display in dramatic fashion what happens to individuals and societies who lose their sense of accountability to God.
In contrast to this, Dostoevsky holds out that the great hope of civilization is the faith of simple, poor, and unlearned people who understand the essence of the Christian faith. For example, in one of his novels, Dostoevsky has a simple peasant woman say: “All the joy that a mother feels when she sees her child smiling for the first time . . . God feels every time He sees . . . a sinner praying to Him from the bottom of his heart.”
Leo Tolstoy, a contemporary of Dostoevsky, was born in Yasnaya Polyana, Russia in 1828. Orphaned at the age of nine, Tolstoy was taken in by an elderly aunt who provided for his formal education. As an adult there followed for Tolstoy several years of aimless wandering where most of his time was spent drinking, gambling, and visiting brothels. In an attempt to bring some order and direction to his life, Tolstoy joined the Russian army and began writing. Tolstoy’s two greatest novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, graphically portray two universal passions he had first-hand experience of—the lust for power and the appetite of the flesh.
In middle age Tolstoy underwent a spiritual crisis which was to fundamentally alter the remaining thirty years of his life. Tolstoy was confronted by the meaninglessness of his existence and that of western civilization. He became convinced that society was following a destructive path and serving false gods. Tolstoy’s spiritual pilgrimage led him to dedicate his life to extricating the Christian faith from the web of power, ritual, and tradition that was threatening to make it irrelevant to contemporary society.
The story of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy does not, however, end with their deaths. Years after both their deaths, Josef Stalin, atheistic dictator of the Soviet Union from the mid-1920’s until his death in 1953, sought to abolish the Christian religion from the minds and hearts of his citizens. Through control of the educational system, propaganda, the creation of anti-religious organizations, censorship, and the outright persecution of Christians and churches, Stalin sought to eradicate the memory of Christianity from his country. What Stalin failed to do, however, was to ban the writings of two hugely popular authors who, together, served to keep the light of the Christian faith burning brightly through the lonely, barren years of Soviet domination of Europe—you guessed it, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.
Today, over a century since their deaths, the writings of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy continue to blaze forth, illuminating the power and truth of the Christian faith for both Christians and atheists.