I am very interested to know from Russian speakers about their attitude towards Tolstoy's language. When I read any of his work, whether it is his extended writing or short stories, the words he use strike me as being still contemporary and commonplace, as if it could have been written today. Certainly the elevated, aristocratic theme of his works could not be considered reflective of contemporary discourse, but the vocabulary by which he expresses them seems to be.

I am curious about this, because it has an influence on what I'm inclined to read. To some extent my choice of literature is based on pleasure and I read what I like, however, I don't want to be inundated with too much outdated vocabulary. I want what I'm reading to bear a resemblance to what a Russian speaker might speak today. I think it's good to read eclectically to a certain extent, but I want to know what classic Russian writer's vocabulary is closest to the lexicon of most Russian speakers in the present.

  • Well, that's a broad question. Roughly speaking, Russian prose of XIX century is mostly of "contemporary vocabulary".
    – Matt
    Sep 21, 2015 at 6:46
  • It is quite a general question and I've taken some things to be implicit in it, but I'll spell out my view more and you can determine whether it's worth considering. I think Tolstoy has a more timeless quality to his writing than other writers due to his philosophical slant--towards permanence and that is reflected in his writing. After reading 'Исповедь' it is hard not to come to such a conclusion. Other great writers of the 19th century appear to use more dated language. Tolstoy seems to use the most still extant words, over Dostoevsky, Leskov, Gogol. Chekhov and Turgenev are not too dated. Sep 21, 2015 at 6:58
  • I certainly need a longer period of time to be exposed to these writers and their individual styles and distinctive word choice, so if you think my view on this is incorrect, I would really appreciate hearing yours. Its very interesting. Sep 21, 2015 at 7:00
  • That's a matter of style. Well, try to read, say, "Hero of our time" by Lermontov. He is a bit older than others yet uses quite "contemporary-looking" language.
    – Matt
    Sep 21, 2015 at 7:43
  • 1
    @Конрад The language of the last two centuries is quite "contemporary" in terms of vocabulary and grammar. At least, from the POV of comprehension. Yet the structures and meanings themselves have changed somewhat. Words have changed meaning/got additional ones, and some ways of forming your thoughts have become obsolete. I think, it is close to how English literature written a little over 100 years ago sounds like. Quite undestandable and easy to read. But clearly not how you speak today. Make it 300 or 400 years, and the language becomes not-so-easy to read for an unprepared person.
    – Shady_arc
    Sep 21, 2015 at 8:15

4 Answers 4


While Tolstoy's works are easily understandable by a modern Russian speaker, his language is a bit different from how Russians speak now. Examples from "Война и мир", first paragraphs:

Так говорила в июле 1805 года известная Анна Павловна Шерер, фрейлина и приближенная императрицы Марии Феодоровны, встречая важного и чиновного князя Василия, первого приехавшего на ее вечер.

In the modern Russian, they don't speak "известная Анна Павловна Шерер". Either "знаменитая/прославленная/великая Анна Павловна Шерер" or "известная писательница/поэтесса etc. Анна Павловна Шерер".

There is no expression "чиновный князь". In this sentence the word "чиновный" is understandable only from the context.

Анна Павловна кашляла несколько дней, у нее был грипп, как она говорила (грипп был тогда новое слово, употреблявшееся только редкими).

  1. Грипп было тогда новым словом, or слово грипп было тогда новым.
  2. "употреблявшееся только редкими" sounds very unusual in modern Russian. Should be "Грипп было тогда новым словом, употреблявшимся лишь немногими."

В записочках, разосланных утром с красным лакеем, было написано без различия во всех:

  1. В записках. Diminutives are less used now. (For example, Nabokov calls male briefs "трусики", while today they are called "трусы".)

  2. "без различия во всех" is another obsolete expression.

So yes, many of his expressions (1-2 per sentence) would not be used today, albeit they are still easily understandable.

As for the theory that Tolstoy was a poor writer, the vast majority of Russians think that Tolstoy was a great writer and a genius. The sentence which Loginov calls "monstrouos" is, in my opinion, well written and easily understandable, in spite of its great length. Note that Loginov is not a renowned literary critique or literary scientist. He is an author of science fiction books, a chemist by education. Why his judgements about Tolstoy are important, is a mistery for me.

  • Very helpful! How did I not see such discrepancies before? I certainly look at his language differently now. :) Sep 21, 2015 at 19:17
  • I completely disagree with what you say )) The notion “contemporary” is a result of evaluating with something. Traditionalism and innovation, history and modernity. A comparable by amount and quality, with smth that has the reliable repetition. But it is compared to NULL.
    – Avtokod
    Sep 21, 2015 at 21:12
  • Also Так говорила in modern language means she repeated the action several times which is not the case judging from the context.
    – Anixx
    Sep 22, 2015 at 11:47

Your question is a bit ambiguous, at least I doubt that it can receive some definite answer here, not based on one's preferences, opinion etc.

For one thing, it is not clear what a Russian speaker might speak today. It highly depends on situation, habits, customs, culture, education, surrounding audience etc. of a speaker.

I've read, I'm pretty sure, more than a half of Tolstoy's works and the only examples of obsolete words I can remember are those related to some vehicles not used today (like экипаж etc.), some rural stuff and regional stuff (like one related to the Cossacks of the Don river and the Caucasus). But all these (in my opinion) are not rife in his works if the work is not completely devoted to such regional matters like his story the Cossacks.

Also Tolstoy never (at least I cannot remember) touches sexual content, even something which might be considered as erotics is almost skipped in his works if it cannot be avoided (like the medical examination of Kitty Shcherbatskaya at the beginning of Anna Karenina).

I'm pretty sure one can express his thoughts in a civil way using the Tolstoy's language.

From the other hand, if you read only Tolstoy and remember only his language, then sure, you will have problems to understand what a Russian speaker might speak today for instance in a garage with other men (in Russia, at least until recently, the garage was considered a place where men gather together, drink some alcohol drinks and speak about various matters, usually not about Tolsoy's heritage).

So in essence I do not think that there exists any writer, by reading the books of whom, you will be able to understand what a Russian speaker might speak today. You need to shuffle information, language from many sources like classical literature, modern newspapers, some forums, preferably without compulsory registration, in order to read foul words too.

But as for civil, cultural language Tolstoy is not obsolete by any means.


If you are asking whether Tolstoy's language is easily understood by present-day Russian speakers, then the answer is definitely "yes".

On the other hand, if you wonder whether present-day Russian talk the same way as Tolstoy's characters in their daily life, then the answer is probably "no", simply because life in Russia has changed drastically (several times) over the past 100 years. I would expect that few people in Russia today speak the same way as a mid-19th century Russian aristocrat or a mid-19th century Russian surf.


Язык Толстого немного устарел - все-таки он умер больше ста лет назад, в 1910 году и с тех пор многое изменилось. Но его читать трудно не только по этой причине. Его трудно читать еще и потому, что он пишет плохо. Если же коснуться его "философских" рассуждений - с глубочайшей многозначительностью и бесподобным занудством рассусоливание об элементарнейших предметах, которые постигаются в полной мере к пятнадцати годам.

С. Логинов в статье "О графах и графоманах или Почему я не люблю Льва Толстого" приводит пример:

Делаю вторую попытку. Палец сходу упирается в нечто монструазное: "Пятое то, что в нашем обществе, где влюбление между молодым мужчиной и женщиной, имеющее в основе все-таки плотскую любовь, возведено в высшую поэтическую цель стремлений людей, свидетельством чего служит все искусство и поэзия нашего общества, молодые люди лучшее время своей жизни посвящают: мужчины на выглядывание, приискивание и овладевание наилучшими предметами любви в форме любовной связи или брака, а женщины и девушки – на заманиванье и вовлечение мужчин в связь или брак". Комментарии излишни. Более густую смесь канцелярита с псевдонаучной терминологией трудно себе представить.

Из современных писателей я бы посоветовал Пелевина^W Лукьяненко, какого-нибудь Юрия Бригадира, братьев Стругацких (в их случае необходимо будет сделать скидку на то, что им приходилось писать свои произведения при СССР), Андрея Щербакова, Владимира Георгиевича Сорокина. Я бы еще советовал читать блоги в ЖЖ, к примеру (скажем, блог Артемия Лебедева, очень рекомендую его книгу "Ководство").

Константин Михайлов в статье "Язык, который мы потеряли" предлагает черпать знания не у писателей:

Понятно, что изменения в языке, происшедшие за XX век, можно проследить, как уже говорилось, не только на анализе газетных объявлений, но и сравнивая язык писателей, скажем, язык Бунина и Пелевина. Но это будет прежде всего сравнение языка литераторов, на котором ни тогда, ни сейчас никто из обычных людей не писал и не пишет. Иное дело – газетные объявления. Для понимания особенностей языка той уже далекой от нас эпохи эти короткие сообщения ценны прежде всего тем, что язык объявлений – это массовый, так сказать, «шаблонный» язык того времени: язык средних городских слоев – учителей, врачей, студентов, гимназистов, гувернанток, выпускниц разного рода женских курсов (типа Бестужевских), священнослужителей, части купцов и предпринимателей и т.п. Давая объявления в газету (о продаже дома, о найме на работу, о репетиторстве и прочем), эти люди, конечно же, не думали о красотах стиля. Они сообщали свою информацию, пользуясь речевыми штампами, которые были присущи тому времени. Именно поэтому в них – дух эпохи.

Надеюсь, мой ответ вам поможет.

  • Пелевин - это скорее игра словами. В качестве учебного пособия по русскому языку, пожалуй что, будет вреден.
    – Matt
    Sep 21, 2015 at 7:45
  • Я хотел написать "Лукьяненко" вместо "Пелевина", просто перепутал, прошу прощенья. Sep 21, 2015 at 7:51
  • A very perceptive, thorough answer. Yes, very much of help. It raises the question, however--If Tolstoy is perceived in his own language as being an altogether poor and convoluted writer, what contributed to his acceptance? Over time, Tolstoy has been held in very high and low regard to say the least. Is Tolstoy still important? Is he still canonical in Russian academia, in schools? It's particularly compelling to me, because in America we can't get enough of him. He has a very high reputation which is corroborated by the fact that a new translation of Anna Karenina is released every year. Sep 21, 2015 at 8:08
  • 2
    @Конрад Thinking of Leo Tolstoy as a "bad writer" is certainly unusual in Russia. I dare say he's almost always considered as an example of both deep philosophy and good style.
    – Matt
    Sep 21, 2015 at 8:21
  • If not acknowledged for original contribution regarding his philosophy, he's undoubtedly a supreme psychologist. About style, I'm in no position to be a judge, although I've heard a couple people say he writes poorly or has a poor style. I'm inclined to think he has a great efficiency of words. I can see how that might border on tedium for some. Sep 21, 2015 at 8:30

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