Friendship trumps conflict: a tale of three writers


Friendship trumps conflict: a tale of three writers

Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoevsky were close, but a proposed duel to the death threatened their enduring bond. HEINZ MÖDLER has the story.

  • 23 June 2023
  • Lifestyle
  • 5 min to read
  • article 17 of 23
  • Heinz Mödler

NO member of mankind is free from jealousy and envy. One would imagine that only those on the lower rungs of the ladder to success would display these emotions, but this is by no means the case. Even the select few who reach the highest levels jostle for the top position on the podium.

A good example of three big heads butting involved Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910).

Not only were these three iconic authors held in high repute worldwide, they were also close friends. Friends who were green with envy of each other.

A wealth of talent

The golden thread running through their many years of friendship was their writing talent.

Turgenev was the oldest of the three and his first publication, Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (1852), paved the way for many more. He gained the most prestige for Father and Sons (1862), a “liberal” view that discussed the conflict between the “old generation” of Russians who were opposed to innovation, and the nihilistic youth. This caused many a Russian to reach for their vodka.

Dostoevsky’s first book, Poor Folk (1846), was the beginning of a productive career as an author. He spent many years in a Siberian prison after he was sentenced to hard labour and produced a host of excellent books. Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) were probably the most famous. He was also popular among Western readers, and Sigmund Freud reckoned his work came close to that of William Shakespeare.

Tolstoy is considered by many critics to be the most important of the three authors. His two seminal books are probably War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1878), but you could fill a shelf with his works. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature five years in a row, as well as three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, but received neither.

In 1908, Tolstoy wrote A Letter to a Hindu, outlining his beliefs about how people can achieve independence without using violence. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) read the letter and began corresponding with Tolstoy during his struggle to liberate the Indian population in South Africa. The letter, with Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894), caused Gandhi to regard Tolstoy as the greatest apostle of peace. They corresponded until Tolstoy’s death a year later.

Gandhi dedicated his second ashram in South Africa, Tolstoy Farm, to his friend. Gandhi’s first ashram, Phoenix, is in KwaZulu-Natal. Tolstoy Farm is near Johannesburg, thanks to the architect Hermann Kallenbach, who bought the land in 1910 and donated it to Gandhi. (An ashram is a place where people pursue specific goals peacefully in an ordered and disciplined manner.)

Turgenev often acted like a father figure towards Tolstoy. This did not bother Tolstoy, because he liked the fact that Turgenev considered him a brilliant writer. In 1853, Turgenev wrote to Tolstoy, who served as a soldier in the Crimean War: “Enough! There is a limit to everything! You have proven that you are not a coward, but your tool is the pen and not the sword.”

Politics, vodka and a duel 

Unfortunately, the three friends’ tempers flared when it came to religion and politics. Turgenev was not religious, while Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were devout. Furthermore, Turgenev embraced Western ideas while Dostoevsky was an outspoken conservative nationalist.

And when religion, politics and vodka mix, conflict is inevitable.

While conversing during a congenial evening in May 1861, Tolstoy and Turgenev begin debating whether Russia should westernise. Tempers soon flared, to the extent that Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to a duel.

Tolstoy insisted that guns should be the weapon of choice. The outcome had to be clear and final. He sought death, not wounds.

Realising the gravity of the situation, Turgenev apologised unconditionally and suggested they bury the hatchet. Tolstoy accepted his apology and the matter was considered closed.

When Turgenev later heard that Tolstoy was telling everyone that he was a coward, the fat was in the fire once more and Turgenev insisted the duel should go forward. He was no coward.

However, Turgenev had already arranged a visit abroad and suggested the matter should be settled the moment he returned to Russia.

Now it was Tolstoy’s turn to apologise, which he flatly refused to do. Tolstoy considered himself a genius and openly declared that he was the best writer of all time. His ego and arrogance did not allow him to say, “I'm sorry”.

Ultimately, the duel was on the cards for 17 years before both decided to put an end to their madness and become friends again. During this period they did not speak a word to each other.

Gambling demon

Besides religion, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had another thing in common: gambling. They couldn’t get enough of it. Dostoevsky preferred the roulette table, while Tolstoy believed a deck of cards held his fortune.

Dostoevsky was often in trouble, and when  creditors hounded him he quickly turned to Turgenev for help. Fortunately Turgenev was not a poor man, and he was generous. He often saved his two buddies’ asses by settling their gambling debts.

Dostoevsky even asked his publisher for financial help. The agreement was one-sided, to say the least. He had to hand in a publication-ready manuscript within a year. If he failed to do so, he would earn no income from his publications for the next decade.

Desperation made Dostoevsky sign on the dotted line. But instead of writing, he went on holidays and gambled even more. Once again Turgenev had to save him.

A month before the due date, Dostoevsky began writing a book and handed over the manuscript for The Gambler (1867) on the last day. The subject was all too familiar to him.

Final words to his friend

Turgenev died at the age of 64. A few years before his death, he was diagnosed with a malignant tumour, a liposarcoma. Ultimately, it was a spinal abscess, a complication of his illness, that caused his death.  

On his deathbed, Turgenev’s greatest concern was once again Tolstoy, who had stopped writing. Turgenev was concerned, because even in the eyes of this iconic author, Tolstoy was the best.

As he breathed his last, his words were addressed to Tolstoy: “My friend, return to literature.”

♦ VWB ♦

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