top of page
  • nadinebjursten

Literary Quotes About Life, Love and War by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky

Updated: Apr 30, 2022

It is an understatement to say that much has been written about the differences between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: Homer vs. Shakespeare, realist vs. visionary, pastoralist vs. gothicist, spiritualist vs. Christian. Still, as an American expatriate living in Sweden watching Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, I can't help but reflect on how staunchly against war both novelists were. For Tolstoy, “war is so unjust and ugly that all who wage it must try to stifle the voice of conscience within themselves.” For Dostoevsky, it is the “most civilized gentlemen who have been the subtlest slaughterers.” He was critical of so-called

civilization that created men who gave flowery speeches about patriotism and freedom but show themselves to be “more bloodthirsty” than their less-refined ancestors.

Leo Tolstoy
Portrait of Leo Tolstoy Resting in a Wood, Moscow, Ilya Repin, The Tretyakov Gallery.

Pacifism was not the only thing Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had in common.

Literary critic George Steiner, after enumerating some of the differences between the

literary giants in his book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, tells us what brings them together:

All their lives, the two novelists wrestled with the angel, demanding of him a coherent myth of God and a verifiable account of God's role in the destiny of man.

Their novels diverged from other Western literature, most particularly from European novels, which were "secular in outlook, rational in method and social in context."

The realities Tolstoy and Dostoevsky created were "sensuous and concrete, yet pervaded by the life and mystery of the spirit."

George Steiner asserts that the flowering of the Russian novel in the 19th century represents one of three predominant moments of triumph in the history of Western literature, the other two being the age of the Athenian dramatists and Plato and the era of Shakespeare.

Below is a list of some favorite quotes from the literary giants that highlight this sameness of spirit:

"To the men of both sides alike, worn out by want of food and rest, it began equally to appear doubtful whether they should continue to slaughter one another; all the faces expressed hesitation, and the question arose in every soul: 'For what, for whom, must I kill and be killed?…You may go and kill whom you please, but I don’t want to do so any more!'” — Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

"If nations fail to live by superior disinterested ideas, by the lofty aims of serving mankind, and merely to serve their own 'interests,' they must unfailingly perish, grow benumbed, wear themselves out, die." — Fyodor Dostoevsky

"He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that their happiness depends on the realization of their desires." — Leo Tolstoy

"The world says: "You have needs—satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don't hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more." This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder." ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

"The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity."— Leo Tolstoy

"The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity." Leo Tolstoy
Fyodor Dostoevsky on a 2021 stamp, Russia.

"Mere existence had always been too little for him; he had always wanted more." — Fyodor Dostoevsky

"You never reach any truth without making fourteen mistakes and very likely a hundred and fourteen." — Fyodor Dostoevsky

"The darker the night, the brighter the stars, the deeper the grief, the closer is God!" — Fyodor Dostoevsky

"I think... if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts." — Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

"We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken." — Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

"He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking." — Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

"I can see the sun, but even if I cannot see the sun, I know that it exists. And to know that the sun is there - that is living." — Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

"Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them." — Leo Tolstoy

"Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth." — Fyodor Dostoevsky

"The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man." — Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

"Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering..." — Fyodor Dostoevsky

"We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom." — Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

"It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently." — Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

"If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to the men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you." — Leo Tolstoy, Essays, Letters and Miscellanies

"If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don't bother analyzing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he's a good man." — Fyodor Dostoevsky

"A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor — such is my idea of happiness." — Leo Tolstoy, Family Happiness

"It is not the brains that matter most, but that which guides them — the character, the heart, generous qualities, progressive ideas." — Fyodor Dostoevsky

It is not the brains that matter most, but that which guides them: the character, the heart, generous qualities, progressive ideas. Fyodor Dostoevsky

"Man is a mystery. It needs to be unravelled, and if you spend your whole life unravelling it, don't say that you've wasted time. I am studying that mystery because I want to be a human being." — Fyodor Dostoevsky

"Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it." — Leo Tolstoy, A Confession

"I've always loved you, and when you love someone, you love the whole person, just as he or she is, and not as you would like them to be." — Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

"Be bad, but at least don't be a liar, a deceiver!" — Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

"A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself and for others. When he has no respect for anyone, he can no longer love, and in him, he yields to his impulses, indulges in the lowest form of pleasure, and behaves in the end like an animal in satisfying his vices. And it all comes from lying — to others and to yourself." — Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

"Nothing in this world is harder than speaking the truth, nothing easier than flattery." — Fyodor Dostoevsky

"All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow." — Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

"Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day, and you will come at last to love the world with an all-embracing love." — Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the Frenchmen with the gunners ended, whether the red-haired gunner had been killed or not and whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky- the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it. "How quiet, peaceful, and solemn; not at all as I ran," thought Prince Andrew- "not as we ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God! — Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

309 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page