Author Profile: Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881)

Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov 1872

One of the greatest writers not only in Russia but in the world, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote books which reflect a deep appreciation of human psychology, a profound interest in philosophy, and a devout Christian faith. His plots at times seem rambling to the point of chaotic, and his cast of characters extensive, but the reader is never left in any doubt that the author has a point and intends to make it.

Dostoyevsky was born in Moscow on 11th November 1821, to Mikhail Dostoyevsky, a doctor estranged from his family, who had expected him to become a priest, and Maria Nechayeva, who came from a family of merchants. He was raised in the family home in the grounds of the Mariinsky Home for the Poor, where his father worked, an upbringing which was steeped from an early age in the Christian faith and the literature of Russia and Europe: Pushkin, Goethe, Cervantes, Walter Scott, and Homer all joined the Bible in expected family reading. He had a ‘delicate constitution’ but a determined attitude which would see him in good stead in later life.

When Dostoyevsky was fifteen his mother died of tuberculosis and he, along with his brothers, was enrolled in military academy. He enjoyed neither his study nor the environment, although he did earn the grudging respect of his peers. Just two years later his father also died, leaving Dostoyevsky an orphan. It was during this period that he discovered opera and ballet, as well as gambling, which would prove a life-long weakness, and obtained the rank of an engineer cadet. Although he continued as a military engineer he resigned after his first novel, Poor Folk, was published in 1846.

Mock execution of members of the Petrashevsky Circle, 1849.

Then follows the most dramatic episode in his life: in 1848 he joined the Petrashevsky Circle, a group of Russian intellectuals advocating for social change in Russia, which at that time was still a land of serfs and powerful aristocrats. Denounced as conspirators, Dostoyevsky and other members of the circle were arrested at the request of Tsar Nicolas I in April 1849. In December of that year they were sentenced to death by firing squad. Taken to Semyonov Place in St. Petersburg, the men were blindfolded and tied to wooden stakes. Then, in a premeditated move, a rider from the Tsar arrived with a message commuting the sentence to hard labour.

Hard it was indeed: Dostoyevsky spent four years in exile in Siberia, and although he was respected by many of the other inmates for his kindness and compassion he was deemed ‘dangerous’ and kept shackled. During his time in prison Dostoyevsky read and re-read the New Testament, the only book allowed in the labour camps, and by the time he was released he had a deep and sincere faith which he would retain for the rest of his life.

The suffering of prison also fuelled his literary career, and Dostoyevsky gave himself over almost entirely to his writing, although he continued to have an (un-)healthy side interest in gambling. This did not always mean an easy life for his family – he married for the first time in 1857, to Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, who died in 1864, and a second time in 1865 to his stenographer Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, with whom he would have four children although the eldest, Sonya, died in infancy.

Dostoyevsky’s funeral, 1881

By the 1870s he had become a well-known and highly-respected author, even being ‘invited’ to court to present his Diary to Tsar Alexander II and educate his two sons. But his health was declining, and he died in his apartment in St. Petersburg on 9th February 1881, of multiple pulmonary haemorrhages. According to one reporter, as many as 100,000 people attended his funeral. Even today his works continue to be highly regarded: although some passages of his books were shortened under the Communist regime only two, Demons and Diary of a Writer, were censored. I have sometimes heard it said that, at a time when religion and religious literature were totally banned, it was the works of Dostoyevsky, along with Tolstoy, which made up the ‘Russian Gospels’.

Starting points with Dostoyevsky: his most celebrated works are ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘The Idiot’, and ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. Of the three – I’ve read the first two and am trying to get through ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ – I would recommend ‘Crime and Punishment’ as the most intriguing.

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