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Wonder Confronts Certainty

Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter

Gary Saul Morson

ISBN 9780674971806

Publication date: 05/16/2023

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A noted literary scholar traverses the Russian canon, exploring how realists, idealists, and revolutionaries debated good and evil, moral responsibility, and freedom.

Since the age of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, Russian literature has posed questions about good and evil, moral responsibility, and human freedom with a clarity and intensity found nowhere else. In this wide-ranging meditation, Gary Saul Morson delineates intellectual debates that have coursed through two centuries of Russian writing, as the greatest thinkers of the empire and then the Soviet Union enchanted readers with their idealism, philosophical insight, and revolutionary fervor.

Morson describes the Russian literary tradition as an argument between a radical intelligentsia that uncompromisingly followed ideology down the paths of revolution and violence, and writers who probed ever more deeply into the human condition. The debate concerned what Russians called “the accursed questions”: If there is no God, are good and evil merely human constructs? Should we look for life’s essence in ordinary or extreme conditions? Are individual minds best understood in terms of an overarching theory or, as Tolstoy thought, by tracing the “tiny alternations of consciousness”? Exploring apologia for bloodshed, Morson adapts Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the non-alibi—the idea that one cannot escape or displace responsibility for one’s actions. And, throughout, Morson isolates a characteristic theme of Russian culture: how the aspiration to relieve profound suffering can lead to either heartfelt empathy or bloodthirsty tyranny.

What emerges is a contest between unyielding dogmatism and open-minded dialogue, between heady certainty and a humble sense of wonder at the world’s elusive complexity—a thought-provoking journey into inescapable questions.


  • [A] masterly panorama of classic Russian literature and its hinterland of ideas…With light-footed erudition, Morson passes nimbly among a crowd of guests at this lavish banquet of ideas. Readers familiar with his book’s corpus of fictional classics may find fresh illumination, for instance, in the liberal thinker Semyon Frank; the storyteller Vsevolod Garshin, whom Morson considers ‘underrated’; or the heartrending Soviet memoirists Nadezhda Mandelstam and Evgeniya Ginzburg…Against the iron grip of ideology and destiny, his authors illustrate how freedom works—with all its chaotic consequences.

    —Boyd Tonkin, Wall Street Journal


  • Gary Saul Morson is a prizewinning literary critic and the author of “Anna Karenina” in Our Time, Narrative and Freedom, and, most recently, Minds Wide Shut, cowritten with Morton Schapiro. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Morson has written for the New York Review of Books, American Scholar, New Criterion, and Wall Street Journal. He is Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University, where for three decades he has taught an iconic course on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky that is frequently the university’s most popular class.

Book Details

  • 512 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press