Born: November 11,
Died: February 9, 1881
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky
Fëdor Mihajlovic Dostoevskij, sometimes transliterated Dostoyevsky
listen is considered one of the greatest Russian writers. His works
have had a profound and lasting effect on twentieth-century fiction.
often feature characters living in poor conditions with disparate and
extreme states of mind, and explore human psychology while analysing
the political, social and spiritual states of the Russia of his time.
He is sometimes considered to be a founder of existentialism, most frequently
for Notes from Underground, which has been described by Walter Kaufmann
as "the best overture for existentialism ever written."
Dostoevsky was the second of seven children born to Mikhail and Maria
Dostoevsky. The family originated from the Polish Szlachta family Dostojewski
Radwan Coat of Arms.
was a retired military surgeon and a violent alcoholic, who served as
a doctor at the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in Moscow. The hospital
was situated in one of the worst areas in Moscow. Local landmarks included
a cemetery for criminals, a lunatic asylum, and an orphanage for abandoned
infants. This urban landscape made a lasting impression on the young
Dostoevsky, whose interests in and compassion for the poor and oppressed
tormented him. Though his parents forbade it, Dostoevsky liked to wander
out to the hospital garden, where the suffering patients sat to catch
a glimpse of sun. The young Dostoevsky loved to spend time with these
patients and hear their stories.
There are many stories
of Dostoevsky's father's despotic treatment of his children. After returning
home from work, he would take a nap and his children, ordered to keep
absolutely silent, stood silently by their slumbering father in shifts
and swatted flies around his head.
Shortly after his
mother died of tuberculosis in 1837, Dostoevsky and his brother were
sent to the Military Engineering Academy at St Petersburg. Mikhail Dostoevsky,
too, died in 1839. Though it has never been proven, it is widely believed
that he was murdered by his own serfs. Reportedly, they became enraged
during one of his drunken fits of violence, restrained him, and poured
vodka into his mouth until he drowned. Another story holds that Mikhail
died of natural causes, and a neighboring landowner invented the story
of his murder so that he might buy the estate inexpensively. The figure
of his domineering father would exert a large effect upon Dostoevsky's
work, and is notably seen through the character of Fyodor Pavlovich
Karamazov, the "wicked and sentimental buffoon" father of
the three main characters in his 1881 novel The Brothers Karamazov.
At the St Petersburg
Academy of Military Engineering, Dostoevsky was taught mathematics,
a subject he despised. However, he also studied literature by Shakespeare,
Pascal, Victor Hugo and E.T.A. Hoffmann. Though he focussed on different
areas to mathematics, he did well on the exams and received a commission
in 1841. That year, he is known to have written two romantic plays,
influenced by the German Romantic poet/playwright Friedrich Schiller:
Mary Stuart and Boris Godunov. The plays have not been preserved. Though
Dostoevsky, a self-described "dreamer" as a young man, at
the time revered Schiller, in the years which yielded his great masterpieces
he usually poked fun at him.
Beginnings of a
Dostoevsky was made a lieutenant in 1842, and left the Engineering Academy
the following year. He completed a translation into Russian of Balzac's
novel Eugenie Grandet in 1843, but it brought him little or no attention.
Dostoevsky started to write his own fiction in late 1844 after leaving
the army. In 1845, his first work, the epistolary short novel, Poor
Folk, published in the periodical "The Contemporary", was
met with great acclaim. The editor of the magazine, the poet Nikolai
Nekrasov, walked into the office of the liberal critic Vissarion Belinsky,
and announced: "A new Gogol has arisen!" Belinsky, his followers
and many others agreed and after the novel was fully published in book
form at the beginning of the next year, Dostoevsky became a literary
celebrity at the age of 24.
In 1846, Belinsky
and many others reacted negatively to his novella, The Double, a psychological
study of a bureaucrat whose alter ego overtakes his life. Dostoevsky's
fame began to cool. Much of his work after Poor Folk was met with mixed
reviews and it seemed that Belinsky's prediction that Dostoevsky would
be one of the greatest writers of Russia was mistaken.
Exile in Siberia
Monument to Dostoevsky in Omsk, his place of exileDostoevsky was arrested
and imprisoned on April 23, 1849 for engaging in revolutionary activity
against Tsar Nicholas I. On November 16 that year he was sentenced to
death for anti-government activities linked to a liberal intellectual
group, the Petrashevsky Circle. After a mock execution, in which he
and other members of the group stood outside in freezing weather waiting
to be shot by a firing squad, Dostoevsky's sentence was commuted to
four years of exile with hard labor at a katorga prison camp in Omsk,
Siberia. Dostoevsky described later to his brother the sufferings he
went through as the years in which he was "shut up in a coffin."
Describing the dilapidated barracks which, as he put in his own words,
"should have been torn down years ago", he wrote:
intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors were
rotten. Filth on the floors an inch thick; one could slip and fall...We
were packed like herrings in a barrel...There was no room to turn around.
From dusk to dawn it was impossible not to behave like pigs...Fleas,
lice, and black beetles by the bushel..."
His first recorded
epileptic seizure occurred in 1850 at the prison camp. It is said that
he suffered from a rare form of temporal lobe epilepsy, sometimes referred
to as "ecstatic epilepsy". It is also said
that upon learning of his father's death before the elder could reply
to a letter of criticism from Fyodor, the younger Dostoevsky experienced
his first seizure.
sporadically throughout his life, and Dostoevsky's experiences are thought
to have formed the basis for his description of Prince Myshkin's epilepsy
in the The Idiot. He was released from prison in 1854, and was required
to serve in the Siberian Regiment. Dostoevsky spent the following five
years as a private (and later lieutenant) in the Regiment's Seventh
Line Battalion, stationed at the fortress of Semipalatinsk, now in Kazakhstan.
While there, he began a relationship with Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, the
wife of an acquaintance in Siberia. They married in February 1857, after
her husband's death.
in prison and the army resulted in major changes in his political and
religious convictions. He became disillusioned with 'Western' ideas,
and began to pay greater tribute to traditional Russian values. Perhaps
most significantly, he had what his biographer Joseph Frank describes
as a conversion experience in prison, which greatly strengthened his
Christian, and specifically Orthodox, faith (the experience is depicted
by Dostoevsky in The Peasant Marey (1876)). In line with his new beliefs,
Dostoevsky became a sharp critic of the Nihilist and Socialist movements
of his day, and he dedicated his book The Possessed and his The Diary
of a Writer to espousing conservatism and criticizing socialist ideas
. He later formed a friendship with the conservative statesman Konstantin
Later literary career
In December 1859, Dostoevsky returned to St Petersburg, where he ran
a series of unsuccessful literary journals, Vremya (Time) and Epokha
(Epoch), with his older brother Mikhail. The latter had to be shut down
as a consequence of its coverage of the Polish Uprising of 1863. That
year Dostoevsky traveled to Europe and frequented the gambling casinos.
There he met Apollinaria Suslova, the model for Dostoesvky's "proud
women", such as Katerina Ivanovna in both Crime and Punishment
and The Brothers Karamazov.
Dostoevsky was devastated
by his wife's death in 1864, followed shortly thereafter by his brother's
death. He was financially crippled by business debts and the need to
provide for his wife's son from her earlier marriage and his brother's
widow and children. Dostoevsky sank into a deep depression, frequenting
gambling parlors and accumulating massive losses at the tables.
from an acute gambling compulsion as well as from its consequences.
By one account Crime and Punishment, possibly his best known novel,
was completed in a mad hurry because Dostoevsky was in urgent need of
an advance from his publisher. He had been left practically penniless
after a gambling spree. Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler simultaneously
in order to satisfy an agreement with his publisher Stellovsky who,
if he did not receive a new work, would have claimed the copyrights
to all of Dostoevsky's writing.
Motivated by the
dual wish to escape his creditors at home and to visit the casinos abroad,
Dostoevsky traveled to Western Europe. There, he attempted to rekindle
a love affair with Suslova, but she refused his marriage proposal. Dostoevsky
was heartbroken, but soon met Anna Grigorevna Snitkina, a twenty-year-old
stenographer. Shortly before marrying her in 1867, he dictated The Gambler
to her. This period resulted in the writing of what are generally considered
to be his greatest books. From 1873 to 1881 he published the Writer's
Diary, a monthly journal full of short stories, sketches, and articles
on current events. The journal was an enormous success.
Dostoevsky is also
known to have influenced and been influenced by the philosopher Vladimir
Sergeyevich Solovyov. Solovyov is noted as the inspiration for the character
Alyosha Karamazov. 
In 1877, Dostoevsky
gave the keynote eulogy at the funeral of his friend, the poet Nekrasov,
to much controversy. In 1880, shortly before he died, he gave his famous
Pushkin speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin monument in Moscow. From
that event on, Dostoevsky was acclaimed all over Russia as one of her
greatest writers and hailed as a prophet, almost a mystic.
In his later years,
lived for a long time at the resort of Staraya Russa, which was closer
to St Petersburg and less expensive than German resorts. He died on
February 9 (January 28 O.S.), 1881 of a lung hemorrhage associated with
emphysema and an epileptic seizure. He was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery
at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, St Petersburg, Russia. Forty thousand
mourners attended his funeral.1 His tombstone reads "Verily, Verily,
I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die,
it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit."
from John 12:24, which is also the epigraph of his final novel, The
Dostoyevsky is considered
one of the greatest writers in world literature. Best-known for his
novels Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment) and Bratya
Karamazovy (1880; The Brothers Karamazov), he attained profound philosophical
and psychological insights which anticipated important developments
in twentieth-century thought, including psychoanalysis and existentialism.
In addition, Dostoyevsky's powerful literary depictions of the human
condition exerted a profound influence on modern writers, such as Franz
Kafka, whose works further develop some of the Russian novelist's themes.
The writer's own troubled life enabled him to portray with deep sympathy
characters who are emotionally and spiritually downtrodden and who in
many cases epitomize the traditional Christian conflict between the
body and the spirit.
up in a middle-class family in Moscow. His father, a doctor, was a tyrant
toward his family, and his mother was a mild, pious woman who died before
Dostoyevsky was sixteen. Partly to escape the oppressive atmosphere
of his father's household, the boy acquired a love of reading, especially
the works of Nikolai Gogol, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Honore de Balzac.
At his father's insistence, Dostoyevsky trained as an engineer in St.
Petersburg. While the youth was at school, his father was murdered by
his own serfs at the family's small country estate. Dostoyevsky rarely
mentioned his father's murder, but Oedipal themes are recurrent in his
work, and Sigmund Freud suggested that the novelist's epilepsy was a
manifestation of guilt over his repressed wish for his father's death.
from engineering school but chose a literary career. His first published
work, a translation of Balzac's novel Eugenie Grandet, appeared in a
St. Petersburg journal in 1844. Two years later, he published his first
novel, Bednye lyudi (1846;Poor Folk), a naturalistic tale with a clear
social message as well as a delicate description of life's tragic aspects
as manifested in everyday existence. The twenty-four-year-old author
became an overnight celebrity when Vissarion Belinsky, the most influential
critic of the day, praised Dostoyevsky for his social awareness and
declared him the literary successor of Gogol. Dostoyevsky joined Belinsky's
literary circle but later broke with it when the critic reacted coldly
to his subsequent works. Belinsky judged the novel Dvoynik (1846;The
Double) and the short stories Gospodin Prokharchin (1846;Mr. Prokharchin)
and Khozyayka (1847; The Landlady) as devoid of a social message.
In 1848 Dostoyevsky
joined a group of young intellectuals, led by Mikhail Petrashevsky,
which met to discuss literary and political issues. In the reactionary
political climate of mid-nineteenth-century Russia, such groups were
illegal, and in 1849 the members of the so-called Petrashevsky Circle
were arrested and charged with subversion. Dostoyevsky and several of
his associates were imprisoned and sentenced to death. As they were
facing the firing squad, an imperial messenger arrived with the announcement
that the Czar had commuted the death sentences to hard labor in Siberia.
This scene was to haunt the novelist the rest of his life. Dostoyevsky
described his life as a prisoner in Zapiski iz myortvogo doma (1862;
The House of the Dead), a novel demonstrating both an insight into the
criminal mind and an understanding of the Russian lower classes. While
in prison the writer underwent a profound spiritual and philosophical
transformation. His intense study of the New Testament, the only book
the prisoners were allowed to read, contributed to his rejection of
his earlier liberal political views and led him to the conviction that
redemption is possible only through suffering and faith, a belief which
informed his later work.
released from the prison camp in 1854; however, he was forced to serve
as a soldier in a Siberian garrison for an additional five years. When
Dostoyevsky was finally allowed to return to St. Petersburg in 1859,
he eagerly resumed his literary career, founding two periodicals and
writings articles and short fiction. The articles expressed his new-found
belief in a social and political order based on the spiritual values
of the Russian people. These years were marked by further personal and
professional misfortunes, including the forced closing of his journals
by the authorities, the deaths of his wife and his brother, and a financially
devastating addiction to gambling. It was in this atmosphere that Dostoyevsky
wrote Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underground) and Crime
and Punishment. In Notes from the Underground Dostoyevsky satirizes
contemporary social and political views by presenting a narrator whose
notes reveal that his purportedly progressive beliefs lead only to sterility
and inaction. Dostoyevsky's portrayal of this bitter and frustrated
Underground Man is hailed as the introduction of an important new type
of literary figure. Crime and Punishment brought him acclaim but scant
financial compensation. Viewed by critics as one of his masterpieces,
Crime and Punishment is the novel in which Dostoyevsky first develops
the theme of redemption through suffering. The protagonist Raskolnikovwhose
name derives from the Russian word for schism or splitis presented as
the embodiment of spiritual nihilism. The novel depicts the harrowing
confrontation between his philosophical beliefs, which prompt him to
commit a murder in an attempt to prove his supposed superiority, and
his inherent morality, which condemns his actions.
In 1867, Dostoyevsky
fled to Europe with his second wife to escape creditors. Although they
were distressing due to financial and personal difficulties, Dostoyevsky's
years abroad were fruitful, for he completed one important novel and
began another. Idiot (1869; The Idiot), influenced by Hans Holbein's
painting Christ Taken from the Cross and by Dostoyevsky's opposition
to the growing atheistic sentiment of the times, depicts the Christ-like
protagonist's loss of innocence and his experience of sin. Dostoyevsky's
profound conservatism, which marked his political thinking following
his Siberian experience, and especially his reaction against revolutionary
socialism, provided the impetus for his great political novel Besy (1871-72;
The Possessed). Based on a true event, in which a young revolutionary
was murdered by his comrades, this novel provoked a storm of controversy
for its harsh depiction of ruthless radicals. In his striking portrayal
of Stavrogin, the novel's central character, Dostoyevsky described a
man dominated by the life-denying forces of nihilism.
to Russia in 1871 and began his final decade of prodigious literary
activity. In sympathy with the conservative political party, he accepted
the editorship of a reactionary weekly, Grazhdanin (The Citizen). In
his Dnevnik pisatelya (1873-1877; The Diary of a Writer), initially
a column in the Citizen but later an independent periodical, Dostoyevsky
published a variety of prose works, including some of his outstanding
short stories. Dostoyevski's last work was Bratya Karamazovy (1880;
The Brothers Karamazov), a family tragedy of epic proportions, which
is viewed as one of the great novels of world literature. The novel
recounts the murder of a father by one of his four sons. Initially,
his son Dmitri is arrested for the crime, but as the story unfolds it
is revealed that the illegitimate son Smerdyakov has killed the old
man at what he believes to be the instigation of his half-brother Ivan.
Ivan's philosophical essay, The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, is a
work now famous in its own right. Presented as a debate in which the
Inquisitor condemns Christ for promoting the belief that mankind has
the freedom of choice between good and evil, the piece explores the
conflict between intellect and faith, and between the forces of evil
and the redemptive power of Christianity. Dostoyevsky envisioned this
novel as the first of a series of works depicting The Life of a Great
Sinner, but early in 1881, a few months after completing The Brothers
Karamazov, the writer died at his home in St. Petersburg.
To his contemporary
readers, Dostoyevsky appeared as a writer primarily interested in the
terrible aspects of human existence. However, later critics have recognized
that the novelist sought to plumb the depths of the psyche, in order
to reveal the full range of the human experience, from the basest desires
to the most elevated spiritual yearnings. Above all, he illustrated
the universal human struggle to understand God and self. Dostoyevsky
was, Katherine Mansfield wrote, a being who loved, in spite of everything,
adored life, even while he knew the dank, dark places.