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Prominent Russians: Fyodor Dostoevsky

October 30, 1821 – January 28, 1881

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Fyodor Dostoevsky was one of Russia’s greatest writers, one whose works are read and discussed all over the world. His writing is steeped in deep psychology and the exploration of human nature, while it also accurately depicts the Russian reality of his times. 

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was the second of seven children born to a staff doctor at Moscow’s Mariinskaya Hospital for the poor (now a medical research institution). According to some sources, his father may have descended from Belarusian nobles. A well educated and caring family man, he was still rather ill-tempered and distrustful, and brought up his children in the old orthodox fashion, in an atmosphere of fear and obedience. The brightest memories of Fyodor’s childhood were those of life in the countryside, on an estate in the Tula region, where his family spent the summer months. The father was usually not present and the children enjoyed almost complete freedom. It was here that Fyodor acquired the knowledge of peasant life that would add truth to many of his fictional characters later.

His mother taught him how to read and write. He also studied religion and French. In 1834, his father sent him to one of Moscow’s best boarding schools, where he was drawn to literature and reading. He came to adore Aleksandr Pushkin, who is widely considered Russia’s greatest poet. Dostoevsky called him a “demigod” and a “prophet.”

Pushkin’s death in 1837 was a heavy blow to Dostoevsky, almost as heavy as the death of his mother, who was taken by tuberculosis that same year.

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Later, in May, he followed his father’s wishes and entered St. Petersburg’s military engineering college, one of the country’s best educational institutions at the time. He remembered those years as “labor servitude.” He was uninterested in the lectures and training and acquired the reputation of an “unsociable crank.” However, some of his co-students shared his loathing of military studies and love of literature, which led to the creation of a literary club around him.

The death of his father in 1839 – different sources suggest suicide and murder by his own serfs, while, according to official records, he died of an apoplectic seizure – provoked a serious nervous fit, forestalling the future development of epilepsy.

In 1841, during a party organized by his elder brother, who studied at the same institute, Dostoevsky read out excerpts from two romantic plays he had written that year, “Mary Stuart” and “Boris Godunov.”

He graduated in 1843 and was enrolled as a field engineer to a military engineering team stationed in St. Petersburg. He resigned just half a year later, deciding to live off his literary works alone and “work like hell.” His first novella “Poor Folk” (“Bednye Lyudi”) was ready by that time, and he published it in Nikolay Nekrasov’s “Petersburg Collection” (“Peterburgskiy Sbornik”) to extraordinary success. Dostoevsky remembered this as the brightest time of his youth, which later in life provided him with much needed spiritual strength.

The famous literary critic Vissarion Belinsky praised him as a rising star and a future great artist of the “Gogol school” – the movement for an increasingly realistic and truthful depiction of life and reality in Russia, with criticism of the nobility and city officials and support for the “little man.”

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Belinsky accepted him into the close circle of his associates as an equal, however, the good relations between the group and Dostoevsky didn’t last long. Members of the group continuously insulted Dostoevsky’s vulnerable self-esteem and made fun of his works. Dostoevsky maintained relations with Belinsky, though he was deeply insulted by the criticism.

The following years saw Dostoevsky write a number of novellas: “The Double” (“Dvoynik” 1846), “The Landlady” (“Hozyayka” 1847), “White Nights” (“Belye Nochi” 1848) and “Netochka Nezvanova” (1849). The works revealed Dostoevsky’s unparalleled realistic style while his deep psychological insight and the uniqueness of his characters distinguished him from other writers of the time.

The work on “Netochka Nezvanova” was interrupted by Dostoevsky’s arrest on the night of 23 April 1849 because of his connection to the Petrashevsky’s circle – a literary discussion group of officials, officers and other progressive-minded people who were strongly opposed to monarchy and serfdom. Originally intended for self-education and discussion of the theories of French socialists, the club later became a place to discuss the existing flaws in Russia’s system, and even spurred talk of a secret society and a revolution to create a democratic Russia and free the serfs.

Dostoevsky was detained for eight months. While in detention, he wrote “A Little Hero” (“Malenkiy Geroy”), which was published in 1857. He was then sentenced to death, but the Tsar changed the sentence to four years of punitive labor. Dostoevsky, together with other prisoners, was brought to the Semenovsky drill ground in St. Petersburg (known today as Pioneers’ Square), where the death sentence was announced. He did not know until the very last moment that the sentence had been changed. The horror Dostoevsky felt at that moment later echoed in one of his most famous novels, “The Idiot” (1869).

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He served his sentence in 1850-1854, describing the experience in “The House of the Dead” (“Zapiski iz Mertvogo Doma” 1862). Afterwards, he was forcibly enrolled into the Siberian line battalion. During this period he apparently continued reading; he sent letters to his brother, asking him to send him books. He fell in love with Maria Isaeva, the wife of an overseer. The relationship with a married woman was not an easy one for Dostoevsky, but soon her husband died, and in 1857, he married her.

Almost a decade of physical and moral suffering seemed to sharpen his perception of the woes of others and his ability to see and analyze their anguish and respond to the social injustice grew more acute.

It wasn’t until 1859 that he was allowed to retire. At first, he was only permitted to move to the city of Tver. That same year he published two novels, “Uncle’s Dream” (“Dyadushkin son”) and “The Village of Stepanchikovo” (“Selo Stepanchikovo i ego obitateli”). However, he longed to return to St. Petersburg, the centre of the country’s literary life, and in 1860, he managed to procure a permit to go there.

At the time, Dostoevsky was in great need of money; his wife was ill with tuberculosis

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and writing didn’t earn them a lot. In 1861, he started to publish the magazine “Time” (“Vremya”) together with his elder brother. The magazine quickly garnered great popularity and provided a decent living for both of them. In it, Dostoevsky published his novels “The Insulted and Humiliated” (“Unizhennye I Oskorblennye”), “The House of the Dead” and the short story “A Nasty Story” (“Skverny Anekdot”).

In “Time” and its successor magazine “Epoch” (‘Epokha”), Dostoevky expressed his views on the political situation in Russia, which he developed during his years in exile. He thought the country should unite every social layer and class under the wise leadership of a monarch and the Orthodox Church. He deemed the way of Western Europe ruinous for Russia.

In June 1862 Dostoevsky went abroad for the first time, visiting Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy and England. In Paris, he met Appolinaria Suslova. His dramatic relationship with her was later reflected in “The Idiot,” “The Gambler” (“Igrok”) and his other works. She is believed to be the main inspiration for Dostoevsky’s female characters.

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Dostoevsky returned to Russia in 1863. In April 1864 he suffered a great loss when his wife died of tuberculosis. Her personality, as well as the details of their unhappy relationship, inspired several images in his most famous works (that of Katerina Ivanovna in “Crime and Punishment” and Nastasya Filippovna in “The Idiot”). In June, his brother died too. After that, Dostoevsky took upon himself the publishing of the magazine “Epoch,” which was heavily in debt and had skipped three issues. Business improved for a short while, but plummeting circulation forced him to close the magazine down.

In 1865 he went to the resort town of Wiesbaden in Germany to improve his health. There, in 1866, he started work on one of his best-known novels, “Crime and Punishment” (“Prestuplenie i nakazanie”).

The novel is centered on a psychological effect of one crime. Dostoevsky himself described the central idea as follows: “The criminal is faced with unsolvable questions, unexpected and unsuspected feelings torment his heart. God’s truth and Earth’s law prevail in the end, forcing the criminal to do himself in. He is forced, albeit through dying in forced labor, to re-join the people…” In the novel, St. Petersburg is shown in great detail with its multi-faceted life and its multiple social layers. Philosophical discussions, ominous dreams, confessions, nightmares, grotesque and caricature scenes flowing seamlessly into tragic situations, all work to show the writer’s deep vision of his epoch and the social and psychological turmoil of his characters.

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In 1866 Dostoevsky’s expiring contract with his publishing house forced him to work on two novels simultaneously - “Crime and Punishment” and “The Gambler,” based on the impressions of his trip to Europe. He tried a new approach to work, employing the stenographer Anna Snitkina, whom he married in 1867.

That same year the couple went abroad, living first in Germany, then in Italy. Dostoevsky worked on the novels “The Possessed” (“Besy”; other translations “Demons, “Devils”) and “The Idiot.”

“The Possessed” was centered on the nascent social-democratic movement in Russia. Dostoevsky drew a vivid picture of the country’s political life of the 1860s-1870s, including a parallel to the social-democratic group of Sergey Nechaev, a formation known for its terrorist methods of working towards a revolution at all costs. “The Possessed” includes a record number of varied characters among Dostoevsky’s works: from the governor’s family and the local nobility to military officers, students, menial workers and former serfs.

The idea of “The Idiot” was described by Dostoevsky himself as his favorite. He said that his goal was “to show a positively splendid person” and that “nothing in the world was more difficult than that, especially in these times.”

In 1871, Dostoevsky and his wife returned to Russia. In May they moved from St. Petersburg to Staraya Russa, a small town in the Novgorod region, where they later bought a house and lived with their two children.

Starting in December 1872, Dostoevsky became the chief editor of the magazine “Citizen” (“Grazhdanin”). In it, he implemented his long-time plan to create “A Writer’s Diary,” a collection of political, literary and autobiographical short stories and sketches united by the idea of direct communication with his readers. He published the diary until 1877.

In 1878-1879 he wrote “The Brothers Karamazov” (“Bratya Karamazovy”), a novel that summed up his views on life in Russia at the time. He described it as a “summarized depiction of contemporary reality, of the educated modern Russia” written in the form of a family chronicle. It explores matters of faith, reason, spirituality and morality. The novel has found acclaim with some of the world’s major thinkers, from Sigmund Freud, who ranked it among the best literature of all time alongside “Hamlet” and Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King,” to Pope Benedict XVI.

In the last years of his life, Dostoevsky’s popularity grew. In 1877, he was elected a member of the Academy of Sciences. In 1879 he was invited to an international literary congress in London, where he was elected a member of the Honorary Committee of the International Literature Association. He attended literary and musical parties and gatherings, reading excerpts from his own works and Pushkin’s poems.

In 1881 he decided to restart publishing the “Writer’s Diary” and began working on the first new issue. However, it was never published. His health had been deteriorating and on the night of 26 January his throat started bleeding. In the afternoon on 28 January he was able to say his last goodbyes to his children and in the evening he died.

On 31 January 1881, a huge gathering came to see Dostoevsky’s funeral in Aleksandr Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg.

Fyodor Dostoevsky has left a legacy of literature that makes him one of the world’s - not just Russia’s - greatest writers of the 19th century. His works have been translated into numerous languages. They are still popularly read and assigned in schools and universities. He explored and captured the depth of the human soul, surfacing emotions and feelings in times both dark and happy. And though his writing was inspired by what he saw in Russia or experienced himself, those feelings rang out as part of universal inner struggles facing readers from every part of the globe.

Written by Aleksandr Bondarenko, RT

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