If only you knew how hard it is to be a writer, and to carry such a burden. I know for certain that if I had two or three stable years for this novel, as Turgenev, Goncharov and Tolstoy have, I would write a work they would talk about for a hundred years!
- Dostoevsky, before starting work on The Idiot
Born on 30 October, 1821, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky spent his life struggling with poverty and epilepsy. He also became an orphan at the age of 16, faced a death sentence, spent time in a Siberian penal colony, served in the Russian army, struggled against a gambling addiction, and lived through the deaths of his brother, first wife and, later, his three-year-old son. Despite, or perhaps because of, these hardships, Dostoevsky went on to become one of the greatest novelists of the 19th Century.
Dostoevsky was born in Moscow, the son of Mikhail Andreevich and Maria Fedorovna Dostoevsky. His father, an army doctor, was strict and his mother suffered from ill health, so his closest companion during his childhood was his elder brother Mikhail. In 1837, Dostoevsky's mother died and he was sent away to become a cadet at the Army Engineering College in St Petersburg. Two years later, his father died - although officially of natural causes, there were strong rumours that Mikhail Andreevich was murdered by his serfs1.
A Condemned Man
While at the Army College, Dostoevsky graduated as an engineer and gained the rank of second lieutenant, but resigned his commission in 1844 to pursue a career in writing. His first novel, Poor Folk was published in 1846 and was praised by the critics. His second novel, The Double, was published in the same year and Dostoevsky established himself as something of a literary celebrity.
It was while participating in some of the discussion groups to which he was invited that Dostoevsky became involved with the Petrashevsky Circle, a group of radical socialists who were trying to establish a utopian state. Although Dostoevsky's goals were to bring about this utopia peacefully, through the use of language rather than by political revolution, other members of the group, notably his friend Speshnev, had different ideas. Speshnev and his followers wanted to murder the Tsar and form a socialist, atheist state. At a meeting in 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested by the order of Tsar Nicholas I, who had established laws controlling the expression of free thought. Dostoevsky was sentenced to death and was marched out to face a firing squad in Semenovsky Square, St Petersburg. At the last minute, it was revealed that the execution was staged2 and his sentence was commuted to exile and penal servitude, to be followed by army service.
Dostoevsky was taken from his mock execution to a prison in western Siberia where he was sentenced to four years hard labour. On his release from prison, he was forcibly enlisted into the Russian army and posted to Semipalatinsk in western Siberia as a private in the infantry.
During his time in the army, Dostoevsky reattained the rank of second lieutenant and, in 1859 was finally allowed to resign his commission and return to European Russia. During his eight years of exile, Dostoevsky had become both a monarchist and a devout Christian in the Russian Orthodox Church. He also returned to the West with a wife, Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, whom he married on 6 February, 1857.
On his return from Siberia, Dostoevsky began writing in earnest. At first, his works drew, unsurprisingly, on his experiences in prison. The Insulted and the Injured (1861) featured a young writer closely based on the author himself, and described Dostoevsky's renunciation of the naive utopian ideals that led to his imprisonment. One year later he published Notes from the House of the Dead3 (1862), a fictionalised account of his time in prison.
In 1862, Doestoevsky left Russia for the first time and visited Western Europe, including England, France, Germany and Italy. His experiences on his journey found their way into his novels Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1862) and Notes From the Underground (1864).
During this period, Dostoevsky also became involved in the publication of journals. Vremia ('Time') was co-founded by Dostoevsky and his brother Mikhail in 1861, but was closed two years later by the authorities when they published an article on the Polish uprising. A second journal, Epokha, was launched in 1864 but collapsed through lack of money after only one year.
In April, 1864, Dostoevsky's wife Maria died of tuberculosis. Three months later, his brother Mikhail also died after refusing to heed doctors' advice about his liver disease. As well as contending with his grief, Dostoevsky was also left to care for their dependents. This, combined with his gambling problems, plunged him deeply into debt.
However, out of his emotional and financial troubles came some of Dostoevsky's most productive years of writing. Notes from the Underground was a psychological study of an outsider, offering the promise of eventual redemption. This was followed by what is, for many, his greatest work - Crime and Punishment (1866) - which was an instant and enormous success when it was published.
In 1866, Dostoevsky was under financial pressure to complete his next book, The Gambler. He dictated the novel to a talented stenographer called Anna Grigorievna Snitkina. After the book was published, they were married. Despite their lack of money, their marriage was a happy one. Anna was fiercely loyal to her husband, nursing him through his epileptic fits, his depression, his rages and his gambling addiction. Anna also had a talent for administration, which Dostoevsky lacked, allowing her to assist him with the business of publishing, leaving him free to continue writing.
After their marriage, the Dostoevskys travelled in Europe, living for a time in Dresden, as well as in Geneva, Florence and other European cities. During this time, Dostoevsky continued to write, his output during his stay in Europe including another of his recognised classics - The Idiot.
In 1871, they returned to Russia to live in St Petersburg, and Dostoevsky's first son, Fyodor, was born. Over the next three years, the Dostoevsky's had three more children - Sofia, Lyubov and Aleksei.
By this time, Dostoevsky's reputation as a novelist was growing, with the publication of Devils4 (1871) and A Raw Youth5 (1875). He also returned to journalism, becoming the editor of the respected magazine Grazhdanin ('The Citizen') and starting his own monthly journal Dnevnik Pisatelya ('The Writer's Diary'), an enterprise in which his wife's business acumen was no doubt invaluable. Sadly, this successful period of Dostoevsky's life was again marred by tragedy when, in 1878, his youngest son, Aleksei died of epilepsy aged only three years.
Dostoevsky continued to write and, in 1880 produced his final masterpiece - The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky was also in great demand at this time as a public speaker. The peak of his career came in 1880 when he was invited to Moscow to speak at a celebration in honour of the Russian poet and playwright Alexander Pushkin.
On 28 January, 1881, Dostoevsky had an epileptic fit that led to a fatal lung haemorrhage. At his funeral, 40,000 mourners followed his coffin to his grave.
Despite his literary success, Dostoevsky never became rich. His entire career was spent on the borderline of poverty. He pawned his clothes, and on more than one occasion he had to hide from creditors demanding their money back.
From the hardships that Dostoevsky endured came some of the most revered literary works of the 19th Century. After his death, Dostoevsky's stature as a novelist continued to increase, the importance of his work being recognised far beyond his native Russia.
Today, Dostoevsky's name is known across the world. Often, that name is associated with books that are 'difficult' or 'depressing'. Looking more closely, Dostoevsky's works indeed describe lives that are harsh - there are few happy endings - but there is also wit, humour, warmth and deep psychological insight. Dostoevsky's characters are fallible, and that's what makes them human.
The following is a brief guide to some of Dostoevsky's most famous and important works, and is not intended to be a complete bibliography.
Poor Folk (1846)
Dostoevsky's first novel, and one that prompted a critic of the time to predict that he would go on to be a great success. It takes the form of an exchange of letters between a young woman and an older man. Although there is an obvious bond between the two, the relationship never progresses, and it is implied that it is their poverty that prevents marriage.
The Double (1846)
His second novel, and the one that cemented Dostoevsky's literary reputation. The central character, Mr Galyadkin, finds himself ostracised by everyone he knows. Eventually, he discovers that he has a double, also known as Mr Galyadkin, who behaves in an outrageous manner. Gradually, it is revealed that there is really only one Mr Galyadkin who is experiencing what is now known as multiple personality disorder.
Notes From the Underground (1864)
This was written when Dostoevsky's personal life was at its worst. His journals had failed, he was under attack from the critics, and his wife was dying. Because of this, Notes... has a sharp, bitter tone that is unlike Dostoevsky's other work. This is also the result of Dostoevsky's renunciation of the utopian ideals of his earlier life.
Crime and Punishment (1866)
Vying with The Brothers Karamazov as Dostoevsky's greatest work, Crime and Punishment is based on the author's experiences of the Russian justice system. The anti-hero, Raskolnikov, considers himself above the law and decides to commit a murder for the sake of it. Through the patient investigation of the lawyer Porphyrius Petrovich, Raskolnikov is eventually undone by his own conscience and the book ends with the possibility of his redemption through patience and suffering.
The Gambler (1866)
A novel about the compulsion to bet and the ups and downs that go with it - a feeling that Dostoevsky knew well. As described above, Dostoevsky dictated the entire text to Anna over the course of one month, during which time the couple fell in love.
The Idiot (1868)
The Idiot came out of Dostoevsky's desire to write a story about 'a positively good man' and is probably the most autobiographical of his novels - it tells the story of a young man with epilepsy, whose naivety is the eventual downfall of both himself and those around him.
Written partly as a response to Fathers and Sons by Dostoevsky's literary and philosophical rival Ivan Turgenev, Devils is a study of atheism. Dostoevsky charts the effect that a group of radical socialist revolutionaries has on a small Russian town. The tone of the book is mocking, as Dostoevsky dispairs of the Western European materialism and nihilism that were becoming fashionable in Russia at that time.
The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Dostoevsky's last great work, The Brothers Karamazov took three years to write, although the basic plot is a simple 'whodunit'. A wealthy, though generally disliked, landowner is murdered, and suspicion falls on his three sons - the 'brothers' of the title - and a fourth, illegitimate son. The three sons represent three different personalities that are common in Dostoevsky's novels:
- Ivan - the atheist
- Dmitry - the fanatic
- Alyosha - the simple, almost saintly, religious soul
The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoevsky's final attempt to put everything in which he believed into a novel, with the familiar themes of guilt and innocence, evil and goodness, religion and atheism explored through the thoughts and actions of the brothers.