Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in Moscow, as the second son of a former army doctor. He was educated at home and at a private school. Shortly after the death of his mother in 1837 he was sent to St. Petersburg, where he entered the Army Engineering College. In 1839 Dostoevsky's father died, probably of apoplexy but there were rumors that he was murdered by his own serfs. Dostoevsky graduated as a military engineer, but resigned in 1844 to devote himself to writing. His first novel Poor Folk appeared in 1846.
Famous critic V. Belinsky announced it to be the first attempt ever to create a "social novel". Dostoyevsky became famous at once, but his fame did not last long. Poor Folk was followed by The Double, which depicted a man who was haunted by a look-alike who eventually usurped his position. This novel was taken coldly by the public as well as his other eight stories printed in 1846-48. Their characters are "small people" too susceptive to life's grieves and troubles, and driven to despair by the misery of their existence. The author himself was quite miserable - he was in constant debt, and also he was sick with a nervous disease of unknown origin accompanied by serious fits which resembled that of epilepsy …
In 1846 Dostoevsky joined a group of utopian socialists headed by Butashevich-Petrashevsky. They exposed serfdom, censure and administrative abuse, and at times also religion, family and even the tsar. Dostoevsky was said to be helping to start a printing plant where banned literature would be printed (they didn't manage to use it). He was arrested in 1849 during a reading of Vissarion Belinsky's radical letter Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, and after a 8-month solitary confinement in Peter and Paul's Fortress sentenced to death. To the tsar's order Dostoevsky and his twenty mates were taken to the scaffold on the square and read their verdict. Shrouds were put on them and when the shooting team was about to start, the convicts suddenly heard that their sentence was commuted to imprisonment in Siberia. This mock execution was aimed at scaring them and the people around them, and it took its toll on the convicts.
Dostoevsky spent four years in hard labor and four years as a soldier in Semipalatinsk. These events provided subject matter for the author. His heroes and heroines reflected moral values which were vitally important to the author. They were men and women of action, who shaped the moral character of the young in Russia. During the years in Siberia Dostoevsky became a monarchist and a devout follower of the Russian Orthodox Church. He himself thought the change to be due to his socializing with ordinary folk. He took his penal servitude as a just punishment and even blessing. There he also married Maria Isaeva, a widow with a 9-year son.
Dostoevsky returned to St. Petersburg in 1854 as a writer with a religious mission and published two works that derive in different ways from his Siberia experiences: The Notes from the Dead House, a fictional account of prison life, and The Insulted and Injured, which reflects the author's refutation of naive Utopianism.
The Insulted and Injured was completed after Dostoevsky's penal servitude and exile and published upon his return to St. Petersburg. The narrator is Ivan Petrovich, a young aspiring writer. His literary debut, working methods and social situation were taken from Dostoevsky's own life. The hero falls from fame into poverty. When the book appeared it was coldly received by the critics. Dostoevsky defended the work in an open letter and wrote that he knew for certain that even though the novel should be a failure, there would be poetry in it and the two most important characters would be portrayed truthfully and even artistically.
The Notes from the Dead House, however, recovered his fame and his money situation, and in 1862 his old dream of going abroad came true. In summer he traveled throughout Europe and published an account of his trip - Winter Notes on Summer Impressions - upon return where he exposed the way of life of contemporary England and France which was far from being perfect.
By that time he already knew he had epilepsy, and he went to a Wiesbaden resort to improve his health. There he became addicted to gambling; he was only able to overcome this mania in eight years. From Germany he headed for France. While in Paris, he met Pauline Suslova, a young woman he had had a short love affair with back in St. Petersburg, and they went to Italy together. In autumn he returned to Russia to his ill wife.
In 1864 his wife died, and her death was followed by the death of Dostoevsky's brother in three months. Fyodor was burdened with debts, making his situation even worse by gambling and having his brother's wife and children on his hands, saying nothing of his own stepson. From the turmoil of the 1860s emerged Notes from the Underground, psychological study of an outsider, which marked a watershed in Dostoevsky's artistic development. The novel starts with a confession by a mentally ill narrator and continues with the promise of spiritual rebirth. It was followed by Crime and Punishment, an account of an individual's fall and redemption. This is one of the most important novels written by Dostoevsky. He himself called it "a psychological analysis of crime".
In 1866 he finished Gambler having written it in 25 days. His gambling experience and relationship with Pauline Suslova provided him with necessary material.
In 1867 Dostoevsky married Anna Snitkina, his 22-years old stenographer, who seemed to have understood her husband's manias and rages. They traveled abroad and returned in 1871. From 1873 to 1874 Dostoevsky was the editor of the conservative weekly Citizen, and in 1876 he founded his own monthly, The Writer's Diary.
In 1878 his next novel, The Idiot, was being published in the Russian Messenger magazine. Dostoevsky wanted his main character to be an epitome of moral perfection, a Christ-like figure. But his Prince Myshkin has one drawback - he is "an idiot". He resembles Ivan the Fool of old Russian fairy tales. Absolutely self-denying, he is patient and considerate to people, and his heart is full of sympathy to whoever he meets. However, he is unable to change this world and all the unfortunate events that haunt him and his people, and the outcome is tragic.
In 1871 he started to work on The Possessed, an exploration of philosophical nihilism. This work which is ranked among his greatest ones is a large multi-grounded tale and at once a political and metaphysical novel.
By the time of The Karamazov Brothers, which appeared in 1879-80, Dostoevsky was recognized in his own country as one of its greatest writers. Dostoevsky's final novel culminated his lifelong obsession with patricide - the assumed murder of his father had left deep marks on the author's psyche in his childhood. The novel is constructed around a simple plot, dealing with the murder of the father of the Karamazov family by his illegitimate son, Smerdiakov. One of the sons, Dmitry, is arrested. The brothers represent three aspects of man's being: reason (Ivan), emotion (Dmitry) and faith (Alesha). This material is transcended into a moral and spiritual statement of contemporary society. To show what the denial of God means for a person, Dostoevsky depicts the misled and the doomed - moral cripples, masochists, rebels, proud "supreme persons", exhausted and possessed by devil obsessions. But both a sinner and a criminal is given a chance for redemption, and through suffering the crippled soul can reach wholeness… The depth of The Karamazov Brothers makes this novel the highest achievement of Dostoevsky's genius and one of the greatest works of the world literature.
Dostoevsky died in St. Petersburg on February, 9 (New Style), 1881. He was buried in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra.
Dostoyevsky's novels anticipated many of the ideas of Nietzsche, and Freud, and influenced among others such non-Russian writers as Thomas Mann and Albert Camus as well as many others. Fyodor Dostoevsky is a recognized genius of psychological prose and though his own life was desperate and hard, he managed to win all-world recognition for centuries, and his works will be read and admired for ages and ages.