Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is regarded as one of the giants of modern literature and the "the greatest interpreter of the limitless depths of the Russian soul." His deeply psychological novels explore the dark sides of Russian soul, Western culture and the human spirit as well as the seamy side of tsarist Russia.

The critic Stefan Zweign praised Dostoevsky, with Balzac and Dickens, as one of "the supremely great novelists of the 19th epic master...endowed with encyclopedic genius...a universal artist, who constructs a cosmos, peopling it with types of his own making, giving it laws of gravitation that apply to it alone, and a starry fragment adorned with planets and constellations."

In an appreciation, Somerset Maugham described Dostoevsky as "vain, envious, quarrelsome, suspicious, cringing, selfish, boastful, unreliable, inconsiderate, narrow and intolerant. In short, he was an odious character." Russians coined the word dostoevhchina to describe a complex form of hysteria driven by morbidity and melodrama and manifested by suffering and self-consciousness.

In his biography on Dostoevsky, Avrahm Yarmolinksy observed that even though Dostoevsky wanted to reach everyone he remained "a writer's writer." A long list of great 19th and 20th century writers were influenced by seal-searching style.

Books: Princeton literary scholar Joseph Frank spent almost 40 years completing a five volume study of Dostoevsky and his work, published by Princeton University Press, It is arguably the longest literary biography in English (running over 2,500 pages) ver written and consists of: 1) Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt 1828-1849 (1979); 2) Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal 1850-1859 (1987); 3) Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation 1860-1865 (1988); 4) Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years 1865-1871 by Joseph Frank (1995); and the author Dostoevsky: The Mantel of the Prophet 1871-1881 by Joseph Frank (2002).

Dostoevsky Early Life

Dostoevsky was born in Moscow on November 11, 1821 in the same hospital where his father—a poor, religious army surgeon from a minor noble family—worked. Dostoevsky grew up in this hospital and many of his playmates as a child were patients. One of his closest friends, a nine-year-old girl, died shortly after being raped in a hospital courtyard, an episode that would later be addressed in novels. When Dostoevsky was 13 he was sent to boarding school while his family went to live on a small farm, where his father became a cruel, miserly drunkard who treated his serfs so badly they murdered him.

Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy. The seizures were relatively infrequent in his youth but increased after his years in a Siberian labor camp. After that time the seizures began occurring between once a month and twice a week.

Dostoevsky's parents instilled in him a love of literature. He spent many evenings with his family reading aloud Pushkin, Homer, Cervantes and Scott. A rare visit to see Schiller's play The Robbers left a lasting impression.

After attending school in Moscow, Dostoevsky was to St. Petersburg to attend a military engineering school. He showed little interest in the in school regimen of drilling and studying science and sought relief at night reading Shakespeare, Goethe, Rousseau, Byron, Balzac, Hugo, Gogol, and other Russian writers. After graduating from the engineering school at the age of 22 Dostoevsky resigned his military commission and stated his desire to be a writer.

Dostoevsky Early Literary Career

After translating Balzac's Eugénie Grandet, Dostoevsky said he was determined to write a full-length novel. The result was The Poor Folk (1846), which was a huge success and earned him a reputation as the new Gogol. The influential critic Vissarion Belinsky wrote, "That is truth in art! That is the artist's service to truth! The truth has been revealed and announced to you as an artist, it has been bought as a gift; hale this gift and remain faithful to it, and you will be a great writer.”

Responding to the praise 25-year-old Dostoevsky wrote: "I plunge into the depths. And while analyzing every atom, I search out the whole. Gogol takes a direct path and hence is not so profound a I. Read to see for yourself. Brother, I have a most brilliant future before me!" Dostoevsky next novel, The Double (1846), an exploration of split personalities, was a failure. He was working his third novel when he was arrested,

Dostoevsky Political Activity

In 1847, Dostoevsky joined a 20-member liberal discussion group that studied liberal French philosophy, professed atheism and secretly conspired against the tsar. The group met every Friday to discuss literary and political ideas. Dostoevsky and other serious members in the group planned to put out a reformist magazine, an act of treason at that time.

After the 1848 revolutions in Europe, Tsar Nicholas I decided tip to repress and round up "revolutionists." On April 23, 1849, Dostoevsky's apartment was raided by police while he was asleep and he was taken to a prison in the Peter-Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. After a lengthy interrogation, Dostoevsky said that his subversive remarks had been unintentional and professed his loyalty the tsar and church.

Later in life Dostoevsky kept his liberal ideals and goals but changed his viewpoint on how to achieve them. He believed that social changes can only take place in the hands of autocrats who end servitude by decree and that spiritual transformation was a process that took place in accordance with beliefs of the Orthodox church. He was not a supporter of democracy. He attacked the radicals and populists of the 1860sand 1870s argued that Russia’s salvation lie in autocracy, nationalism and the Orthodox church.

Dostoevsky Mock Execution

After spending eight months in prison at the Peter-Paul Fortress, Dostoevsky was brought to Semonovsky Square, where disobedient soldiers were flogged and criminals executed, with 21 others on December 22, 1849 to be publicly executed.

The condemned men were dressed in white burial gowns, given their last rites, and tied to whipping posts in groups of three. The men listened to a sermon and then, one by one, keeled and kissed the cross. Noblemen, including Dostoevsky, had a sword broken over their heads. Just as the drums had started to roll and the firing squad was ordered to get ready to shoot, a royal courier arrived with a stay of execution and told the men they had been sentenced to hard labor in Siberia instead.

It was too late for one of the men. He went insane right on the spot. Another shouted, "The Good Tsar! Long Live the Tsar!" According to some reports of the event, Dostoevsky suffered an epileptic seizure. The whole affair was scripted by Tsar Nicholas I himself as a warning to political dissidents.

Describing the experience, Dostoevsky wrote his brother, "Never has there seethed in me such an abundant and healthy kind of spiritual life as now. Whether it will sustain the body I do not know...Now my life will change. I shall be born again in a new form. Brother! I swear to you that I shall not lose hope and shall keep pure my mind and heart. I shall be born again for the best. That is hope, all my comfort.

Dostoevsky in Siberia

Dostoevsky spent four years in chains, from 1849 to 1854, at a labor in Omsk, Siberia doing hard labor "packed like herrings in a barrel" with low born thieves and murderers. He believed his punishments were deserved. The New Testament was the only reading material he was allowed in prison and he read it over and over. He suffered a number of epileptic seizures while in prison.

Dostoevsky's experience in prison gave him a more positive outlook on life. Hist religious faith was resurrected in a mystical and humanistic form in which he equated Christ's suffering with the experience of the Russian working people and the criminals he met in prison.

After finishing his sentence in Siberia, Dostoevsky was given an additional penal term as a common soldier in Semipalatinsk, a military outpost in present-day Kazakhstan. Here, he played by the rules, and became a junior officer. In his free time Dostoevsky read books and befriended a troubled, tubercular widow, Marie Isavea, whom he later married and whom brought him nothing but grief. Finally after persistent lobbying, his friends secured his release.

Upon his return to St. Petersburg in 1860 Dostoevsky recalled his prison experiences in the House of the Dead (1861-62), a novel about a man condemned for murdering his wife. Serialized in his won literary magazine Vremya, the work helped Dostoevsky recapture some of the fame he had won with The Poor Folk.

Dostoevsky's Mid-Life Literary Career

In 1862, after Vremya was banned for publishing unpatriotic articles, Dostoevsky borrowed money for a trip around Europe. He visited Germany where he met up with a female contributor to his magazine, sought treatment for his epilepsy and spent a lot of time gambling. Upon his return to Russia he launched another magazine and published Notes from the Underground, which is regarded as prologue to his great novels.

Notes from the Underground begins: “I am a sick man. ... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don't consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can't explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot "pay out" the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don't consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well--let it get worse!”

“ I have been going on like that for a long time--twenty years. Now I am forty. I used to be in the government service, but am no longer. I was a spiteful official. I was rude and took pleasure in being so. I did not take bribes, you see, so I was bound to find a recompense in that, at least. (A poor jest, but I will not scratch it out. I wrote it thinking it would sound very witty; but now that I have seen myself that I only wanted to show off in a despicable way, I will not scratch it out on purpose!)

“When petitioners used to come for information to the table at which I sat, I used to grind my teeth at them, and felt intense enjoyment when I succeeded in making anybody unhappy. I almost did succeed. For the most part they were all timid people--of course, they were petitioners. But of the uppish ones there was one officer in particular I could not endure. He simply would not be humble, and clanked his sword in a disgusting way. I carried on a feud with him for eighteen months over that sword. At last I got the better of him. He left off clanking it. That happened in my youth, though.”

Dostoevsky's Troubled Years

The year 1864 was bad for Dostoevsky. His wife died at the age of 43. His brother and friend Apollin Gorogyev also died. His gambling obsession got the better of him and his efforts to escape debtors prison by trying to sell a novel called The Drunkard proved futile. He was forced to enter into an agreement, on the eve of producing his greatest work, with a unscrupulous speculator who attached a clause that he would receive the rights for all his work free of charge for nine years if he failed to produce a novel by November 1.

In the meantime, The Drunkard was developing into Crime and Punishment, a work that was taking time to sort out. To meet his November deadline Dostoevsky decided to write a shorter piece, later known as The Gambler, which was completed in 16 days with the help of a 20-year-old stenographer named Anna Snitkin. The speculator skipped town to the prevent the manuscript’s delivery but Dostoevsky managed to secure a receipt that it was delivered on October 31.

Dostoevsky moved 20 times in the 30 years he lived in St. Petersburg. He often rented corner apartments so he could isolated from people and get a view of a church or cathedral. His poverty, many scholars believe, helped drive Dostoevsky to write and gave his work its edge. In the late 1860s Dostoevsky spent four years in western Europe, partly to find treatment for his epilepsy and partly to stay one step ahead of his creditors.

Dostoevsky gambled away the money he obtained from pawning his wife’s wedding ring at the spa in Baden Baden Germany. He recounted his experience in the novel The Gambler. After a bad run at the roulette tables in Weisbaden, he wrote Turgenev, "I have lost everything. I am completely broke—I have even gambled away my watch and I owe money to the hotel." Dostoevsky only managed to return home with a loan from Turgenev and a Russian priest.

Dostoevsky's True Love

Dostoevsky married Anna Girgoryevna Snitkin, his stenographer. During the celebration of their marriage Dostoevsky was struck with an especially severe epileptic seizure, which Snitkin later recalled made her fear "that my husband was in the process of going insane."

Snitkin, who was such a Dostoevsky fan as schoolgirl that she wept after reading one of his books and was nicknamed after the one of the characters, began working with Dostoevsky on finishing Crime and Punishment. Inspired by a dream about a diamond, Dostoevsky surprised Snitkin with a proposal of marriage masked by as a description of a plan to write a novel about an artist who falls in love with a girl 25 years his junior.

The match between Dostoevsky and Snitkin proved be a happy one. Patient, tolerant and devoted, Snitkin spent 14 years transcribing his best work and figured out how to deal his epilepsy, gambling obsession and disastrous finances. Clearly in love, he once called her "my life's sun" and his "little diamond." She took over his financial affairs and helped him save enough money so they could buy a house in the quite provincial town of Staraya Russia, where much of The Brothers Karamazov was written. Dostoevsky's poverty and pursuit by creditors kept him productive, but quiet domestic life also suited his writing career.

Dostoevsky's Writing

Described by Viscount Melchoir de Vogue, a French visitor to St. Petersburg, as the "Shakespeare of the lunatic asylum." Dostoevsky wrote about criminals, the insane, the sick and crippled. His novels are kind of like philosophical detective stories in which the characters interact more with themselves than they down with each other. Dostoevsky's best work is found in his four great novels: Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868-69), The Possessed (1871-72) and The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880). Mtya Karamazov is the most Russian of Dostoevsky’s characters and Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment is regarded as the most soulful and full of ideas.

Dostoevsky kept his desk immaculately neat but wrote quite haphazardly. The intensity and anarchy of his work is indicated throughout his manuscripts, which are filled with scribbles, scrawls, and notes in the margins and the back of the papers.

Dostoevsky admired Dickens. Unlike conventional mystery and suspense in which the writer supplies the clues, motives and the reader tries to figure out who did what, Dostoevsky informs the reader of who did what and lets the reader try to figure out the motives and clues, which are often locked deep in the protagonist’s soul.

Dostoevsky produced his own monthly journal, which became The Diary of a Writer. Published in 1873, 1876, 1877, 1880 and 1881, it was a unique effort that allowed him to carry on a unique, interactive dialogue with his reader. In this period he was introduced to Czar Alexander II, who asked the writer to serve a spiritual guide for his younger sons.

Dostoevsky Themes

Dostoevsky wrote about death, political violence, provincial society, and theology. He explored things like the meaning of life without God, morality and faith, the consequences of freedom and the relationship between evil, guilt, the individual and God. He believed that atheism sprang from a hatred of the world. He once wrote, "To recognize their's God without recognizing at the same time that you yourself have become God makes no sense.” He was at his best when he explored these themes through narratives rather than analysis.

Dostoevsky was also obsessed with the Russian soul and a committed Slavofile who once called Pushkin a “prophet” and a “symbol of his own Russia messianism.” Dostoevsky wrote in 1876: "It is the indifference towards everything that is vital—toward the truth of life, everything that nourishes life and generates health. In our day this indifference—compared, let us say, with the outlook of other European nations, is almost a Russian disease."

Dostoevsky has been accused of not having a sense of humor and despite his reputation for gloominess, Dostoevsky could also be quite positive. One character in the Idiot exclaimed, "I think every one should love life above everything in the world... love it, regardless of logic, as you say, it must be regardless of logic, and it's only then one will understand the meaning of it."

Dostoevsky wrote: "Ideas fly through the air, but they are conditioned by laws which we cannot understand. Ideas are infectious and an idea which might be thought the prerogative of a highly cultured person can suddenly alight in the mind of a simple carefree being and take possession of him.”

Some of Dostoevsky works contain anti-Semitic segments. A number of anti-Semitic remarks can be found in his works as well as in his letters. He also believed that the Orthodox church was superior to the Catholic Church and wars with Ottoman Turkey were justified to liberate the Orthodox Slavs in the Balkans from Muslim rule. He was also preoccupied with what can be done to fight terrorism (attempts by the Nihilist to assassinate the tsar was a theme of The Devils).

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment is a novel of murder, suspense and love. It combines crime novel tension and intense psychological exchanges with provoking thoughts about the human condition and injustice. The central characters are protagonist Rodion Rasholnikov, the drunkard Marmeladov, the inspector Porfiry and the monster Svidigailov.

Raskoslnikov is a young nihilist who defines good and evil on his terms and commits murder to achieve a higher purposes. In one of his notebooks, Dostoevsky he wrote that the "Idea of the Novel" was: "There is no happiness in comfort; happiness is brought by suffering. Man is not born for happiness." The book ends when Raskolnikov realizes that the only way his soul can be at peace is through confession and punishment.

One of the most famous scenes from the novel is Raskolnikov’s 730-step odyssey through the streets of St. Petersburg to commit the "crime": the a murder of an old woman moneylender. At “K” Bridge, Rasholnikov gazed into the murky waters to determine his future after killing the money lender with an ax. He thought briefly of throwing the murder weapon in the water but changed his after see passing barges.

Writing Crime and Punishment

The creation of Crime and Punishment ended up being a laborious process that spanned years and was abandoned and revived numerous times. It began appearing in serial form before it was even finished. The work was inspired by a newspaper article about a merchant's son from Moscow who killed two old women with an ax.

Dostoevsky wrote much of Crime and Punishment in a cell-like apartment on the Kaznacheyskaya, a cobblestone street where he lived three times in three different apartments. On visiting the apartment in the 1990s, Bob Cullen wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “We entered his apartment building via a dark, dank passage that seemed as if it had not been painted since Dostoevsky’s time.”

Crime and Punishment was a huge critical and popular success but the money he earned only covered a faction of his debts at that time. With funds earned from the sale of his wife's dowry and possession, Dostoevsky and Anna fled from Russia. The next fours was marked by severe poverty, regular gambling loses, increasingly frequent epileptic seizures, numerous moves to stay ahead of creditors, the death of his three-month-old daughter, and humiliating pleas to friends and relatives for money to keep them starving.

Crime and Punishment St. Petersburg

Crime and Punishment begins: "On a very hot evening at the beginning of July, a young man left his little room at the top of a house in S Lane, went out into the street, and as though unable to make up his mind." "S Lane" is a reference to Stolyarnin Lane (now Przhevalsky Street), where Dostoyevsky lived for several years.

Much of the novel takes place around Griboyedev Canal, an area that has not been gentrified and is still run-down and as dark as it was in Dostoyevsky's time, when it was known as Ekaterinsky Canal. It is possible to trace the 730 steppes of the Crime and Punishment Rasholnikov followed on his way to kill the money lender with an ax. Cross a bridge, pass Yusupov Palace gardens and look for a large six-story building facing the canal to 25 Prospekt Rimsky-Korsakov. The people living in the building are used to having their bells rung and being asked by tourists if they are at the right place.

"K Bridge" in the novel is reference to Kokushkin Bridge, another St. Peterburg landmark. Next to Ploschad Mira,it is where Rasholnikov, thought about what to do after killing the money lender with an ax. Other Crime and Punishment places include the pawnbroker’s apartment (Groboyedova 104 on Griboyedev Canal).

The Fyodor Dostoyevsky Literary Memorial Museum (Grazhdanskaya 19) is the most likely location of Raskolnikov's house. It is two blocks from Kokushkin Bridge and the place where Crime and Punishment begins. It is a tall building with a memorial on the outside. Grazhdanskaya was formally known as Srednaya Meshchanskaya. Dostoyevsky pilgrims visit the fifth-floor attic, where Raskolnikov is said to have lived. Graffiti like "Rodya, I understand you," "Why did she die?" and "Rodya, I know where another old woman lives” covers the walls. Local resident's will show where Raskolnikov found his ax.

The Idiot and The Possessed

After spending time in Berlin, Dresden, Baden-Baden, Geneva, Vevy, Milan and Florence, Dostoevsky and Anna returned to St. Petersburg in July, 1971. While on the move he poured through Russian newspapers for ideas. Trial by jury had just been introduced to Russia and the newspapers recorded all the lurid details.

The Idiot is an intense love story. Dostoevsky used a newspaper story about a country girl who was treated so cruelly she tried to burn down her family’s house, and eventually went insane, as the basis for The Idiot.

An article about a revolutionary found drowned with stones around his feet and head was the inspiration for The Possessed, a novel about the evils of Western materialism and nihilism. The revolutionary was a member of a secret society that planned to spark a popular uprising that would result in the public execution of the tsar. The book made him popular with the tsarist government.

Dostoevsky was interested in other stories he read in the newspapers. In his diaries, he recorded his obsession with the suicide not of a 17-year-old girl that read: "I am undertaking a long journey. If I should not succeed, let people gather to celebrate my resurrection with a bottle of Clicquot. If I should succeed, I ask that I be interred after I am altogether dead, since it is particularly disagreeable to awake in a coffin in the earth. It is not chic!"

Brothers Karamazov and Dostoevsky's Death

Dostoevsky's longest work, The Brothers Karamazov, used a host of characters to delve more deeply into religion and the Russian soul that his earlier works. Inspired by a pilgrimage to the Optina Passion Orthodox monastery, it was influenced by his prison experience, the news stories he collected and impressions accumulated over the years in voluminous notebooks.

Many regard The Brother's Karamozov as Dostoevsky best because it is a culmination of his thoughts and literary efforts. Revolving around the three Karamazov brothers Iva, Dimitri and lyosha and their corrupt father Fyodor, it addresses the breakdown of social and family life and the collapse of Western civilization and the embrace of the Orthodox Christian faith.

After the publication of The Brother Karamazov, Dostoevsky became famous enough that he was able to make money by doing public reading of his works and works by Pushkin, Gogol and others. Dickin’s made his living this way. As he approached the age of 60, Dostoevsky was finally able to pay off his debts and make money from the sale of his novels.

Dostoevsky was unable to fully enjoy the success of The Brother Karamazov. He died a couple of months after it was published from a hemorrhage of the lungs complicated by an epileptic seizure.

Dostoevsky died at the age of 59 on January 28, 1881. The night of his death he told his wife he felt bad and had a premonition that was going to die. He asked for the Bible he had with him in Siberia. he opened it, read it and died. He as buried in Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery. Some 80,000 people turned out the funeral.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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