Planet Dostoevsky

Even for a genius-rich 19th century Russian literature, Dostoevsky is a special case. Few have experienced such staggering ups and downs, written not one but several great novels, and found true fame not with his contemporaries but with his descendants.

The Boy from Bozhedomka

Fyodor Dostoevsky was born on October 30, 1821, on Novaya Bozhedomka Street, Moscow, in the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor, where his father, Mikhail Dostoevsky, was employed as a doctor. The writer’s family was not rich, but Fyodor and his siblings enjoyed a happy childhood that included many family outings and readings of Nikolay Karamzin, Gavrila Derzhavin, Vasily Zhukovsky, and Aleksander Pushkin. Heavily invested in his sons’ education, Mikhail Dostoevsky hired teachers for them, and later placed them in the Cermak boarding school on Novaya Basmannaya Street, one of the best private educational institutions in Moscow. At the boarding school, Fyodor began to consider a career in literature. However, his father was vehemently against the idea! Thus, Mikhail Dostoevsky moved his sons to Saint Petersburg, where they entered an engineering school. While at school, Fyodor read and wrote voraciously. Sadly, only the titles of his early works have survived, such as the dramas Mary Stuart and Boris Godunov. After graduating from school, Dostoevsky became so engrossed in his writing that he only worked as an engineer for a single year. He then resigned and instead devoted himself entirely to literature.

Rise, fall, rise 

Dostoevsky’s fame was almost immediate. In 1845, he completed his first novel, Poor People, and quickly became known as “the new Nikolay Gogol”. The budding writer made acquaintances among the literati, critics, and public figures of Saint Petersburg. After meeting thinker Mikhail Petrashevsky, Dostoevsky began to attend his “Friday” sessions, where they discussed freedom of print, changes in justice, and the emancipation of serfs. The most radical Petrashevites united to form a secret society that aimed to bring about a coup d’état in Russia. Although Dostoevsky did nothing more than read banned literature, he was arrested in 1849 and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. The court sentenced the writer to execution, but his death penalty was later commuted to hard labor. Nevertheless, Dostoevsky and his comrades were forced to go through a mock execution: the sentence was read, the sword was held over their heads, and only then was the pardon announced. The nervous tension was so great that one of the condemned went mad. What helped keep Dostoevsky sane? Probably faith. Before his execution he told his fellow prisoners, “We will be with Christ”. From this terrible moment, the image of Christ largely shaped the writer’s worldview. 

Dostoevsky underwent four years of hard labor in Omsk. The severity of the punishment was intensified by the fact that the writer was a nobleman and the other prisoners treated him with hostility. While in the infirmary (Dostoevsky began to suffer from epilepsy during his time in the penal colony), he kept notes in his “penal notebook”, which would later shape the novel, The House of the Dead. 

After completing his hard labor, Dostoevsky was sent to serve as a private in Semipalatinsk. There, he received news that Emperor Nikolay the 1st  had been replaced by Alexander the 2nd. On August 26, 1856, the coronation day of the new czar, the former Petrashevites were finally pardoned. A year later, Dostoevsky secured a full amnesty and was able to publish his works once again.

In a sense, Dostoevsky began his career anew. The House of the Dead was published by his brother Mikhail in the magazine Vremya. The very fact that someone had written a book about the life of a convict compelled readers to seek out, read, and discuss his work. The writer helped his brother release the magazine Vremya, and later, the magazine Epoch, in which they published stories, essays, and novels, such as “A Nasty Story”, “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions”, and “Notes from Underground”.  

Roulette and love

One might think that Dostoevsky’s life consisted entirely of meditations on moral subjects, but that is not so. Quite often, the darker side of his nature took over. For instance, Dostoevsky frequently got carried away in games of roulette, which led to a constant shortage of money. To make matters worse, Dostoevsky took on his brother’s debts following his death, causing the writer’s financial situation to become almost catastrophic. Dostoevsky was forced to enter into a contract with publisher Fyodor Stellovsky, stipulating that Stellovsky would publish a collection of Dostoevsky’s works, but requiring the writer to deliver a new novel by November 1, 1866. If the contract was breached, Dostoevsky would lose the copyright and royalties on his editions to Stellovsky for 9 years. This would have been fine, if not for the fact that the writer was working on the novel Crime and Punishment, for which he had already received an advance from Mikhail Katkov, the publisher of the magazine Russian Herald. Dostoevsky was entirely occupied by the book; each successive chapter of Crime and Punishment was sent straight to typesetting. Under such severe time pressure, it was simply impossible for Dostoevsky to write another novel. Fortunately, one of his friends recommended the services of professional stenographer Anna Snitkina. From October 4 to October 29, 1866, Dostoevsky dictated his novel The Gambler. Here, he was able to use his roulette experience to his advantage! The manuscript was sent to the publisher on time, and on November 8, Dostoevsky asked Anna for her hand in marriage. The writer was fortunate to find a friend and helper in his wife. She took over her husband’s financial affairs and helped him get out of debt. After Dostoevsky’s death, Anna not only collected his manuscripts, letters, and documents, but also wrote The Memoirs of Dostoevsky, which became a crucial source for the writer’s later biographers. 

The Great Five Novels  

The later period of Dostoevsky’s work was also the most ambitious: The Idiot was published in 1868, The Possessed in 1872, The Adolescent in 1875, and finally, The Brothers Karamazov in 1880. Along with Crime and Punishment, which was written earlier, these novels are known as “The Great Five Novels”. During this time, Dostoevsky took on “difficult thoughts”. In The Idiot, for example, he depicts a man who is as beautiful as Christ, but fails to make anyone happy. In The Brothers Karamazov, he answers questions about God and the immortality of the soul, offering different answers from each of the three Karamazov brothers. Following the publication of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky’s fame peaked. However, the writer could not enjoy the laurels in full, as he died just two months after the publication of his novel. Crowds of people came to mourn Dostoevsky, and his funeral procession stretched a mile long. Still, no one suspected at the time that Dostoevsky would become a pillar of Russian literature, and that each new generation would discover him again and again. So, why does this 19th-century writer still remain so close to our hearts? Pavel Fokin,  the national representative of the Russian Federation to the International Dostoevsky Society, has the answer: “Every time we read Dostoevsky, we enter a territory of self-discovery”.

Tatiana Borisova