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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
The life and literary career of the author makes for as much fascinating reading as that of any of his great novels. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821-81) was born on February 8, 1821 in a Moscow hospital, where his father, Mikhail Dostoevsky, was the chief doctor. The second of eight children, he was given to reading and a life of solitude. His mother, Maria, a generous, fragile and religious woman, faced the wrath of a miserly, possessive and jealous husband. She died tragically of consumption in 1837 at the age of thirty-three. The author experienced another tragedy in 1839, when his father, an alcoholic, was murdered on his country estate by his serfs because of his cruel and despotic ways. The portrait of Fyodor Karamazov, the father in The Brothers Karamazov who is murdered by one of his sons, is based partially on Dostoevsky's own father.
In 1838, Dostoevsky entered the Military Engineering School in St. Petersburg. Six years later he resigned his commission in the army in order to devote himself fully to a literary career. The success of his first story, Poor Folk (1846), brought him into contact with the leading writers of the time. In 1847 he joined a progressive circle of intellectuals led by the revolutionary socialist, Butashevich-Petrashevski. Like Raskolnikov in his novel, Dostoevsky adopted radical ideas, derived mostly from western thinkers. The anti-autocracy stance of this circle angered Tsar Nicholas I, who ordered the arrest of its members, including Petrashevski and Dostoevsky, in April of 1849.
For eight months, the prisoners were kept in solitary confinement in the fortress of saints Peter and Paul. Then they were sentenced to death. As Dostoevsky and the fifteen other revolutionaries were about to face the firing squad, a last-minute reprieve came from the Tsar. Actually, he had intended only to frighten the prisoners and did not plan to have them executed. Dostoevsky was terribly shaken by this experience that served to aggravate his congenital epilepsy and left him bitter all through his later life. Dostoevsky had his sentence commuted to five years hard labor in Siberia, and subsequently served four more years of punishment as a common soldier in the Siberian regiment (1854-58). He rose to be a commissioned officer and was granted amnesty by Tsar Alexander II in 1859.
In the cold and unforgiving climate of Siberia, Dostoevsky served his years of penal servitude. He was constantly kept in shackles and was made to bake bricks and unload barges on the River Irtish. His experiences as a prisoner in Siberia are reflected in The Manor of Stepanchikovo (1859) and, in Memoirs from the House of the Dead (1862). While in prison he was surrounded by rapists, robbers and murderers, but there were also innocent political prisoners like himself who were the victims of the Tsar's oppressive regime. Ironically, he meekly accepted his rather unjust punishment, seeing it as an opportunity to make amends for his faults. This conviction that man must repent and suffer to find his salvation remained an obsession all through his life and dominates his novels.
In 1857 Dostoevsky married Maria Isaeva, the widow of a colleague. Her sickly nature and Dostoevsky's fondness for gambling and women made their marriage an unhappy one. To supplement his meager income, he often gambled desperately both in Russia and at various casinos in Europe. He tells of his wild compulsion for gambling in his story, The Gambler (1866). Between the years of 1862 and 1864, he visited Paris and London; he also passed through Germany, Switzerland and Italy. While in Paris, he had a tempestuous affair with a sensual but enigmatic woman named Pauline Suslova.
On returning to Russia, he found his wife grievously ill. She died of tuberculosis in 1864. In the months before her death, Dostoevsky wrote Notes from the Underground. It is, in his own words, a "harsh and bizarre" piece containing the ravings of an almost schizophrenic mind. It defines, in greater detail, Dostoevsky's concepts on the psychology of duality that he first explored in The Double (1846). It also introduces the realm of "the underground" and the image of "the underground man." Later in 1864, his elder brother Mikhail (to whom he was very close and who was his fellow-editor) died, leaving Dostoevsky in serious debt.
The author was keenly aware of the unstable political and social situation in both Russia and Europe in those days. He commented on it in magazines like Vremya (Time) and Epoka (Epoch), which he published, and the journal, Grazhdanin (The Citizen), of which he was an active editor. In 1865, after Epoka was shut down by the Tsar's censors, Dostoevsky began work on Crime and Punishment (1866). In that same year he completed The Gambler in 26 days. He had hired a stenographer, the twenty-year-old Anna Grigorievna Snitkin, to help him with his work. Attracted by her selfless devotion, Dostoevsky married her in 1867.
His second marriage was a happy one, and it led to a fruitful period in his literary and personal life. To escape their creditors, the Dostoevskys lived abroad for four years. There he wrote The Idiot (1868), which tells of the need to preserve one's faith in goodness and to trust one's fellow humans, despite the presence of greed, selfishness and evil in the world. In it Dostoevsky created the memorable character of Prince Myshkin, a Russian variation of Cervantes' Don Quixote, and like his creator, an epilepsy patient.
When Dostoevsky returned to Russia in 1871, his son Fyodor was born. The Dostoevskys now began to lead a prosperous and more settled existence. In 1872 the novel The Possessed was published. This novel is also known as The Devils, and it portrays political radicals as ambitious men who turn against God. From 1876 onwards, Dostoevsky brought out an influential journal called A Writer's Diary. In it he discussed social, political, religious and literary issues. His greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, appeared in 1880. It is a tale of a bitter family feud caused by the presence of a domineering father. The novel centers around the murder of the evil Fyodor Karamazov and its effect on his four sons.
In the same year, 1880, Dostoevsky made a famous public speech on Pushkin (1799-1837). Dostoevsky was by now firmly established as one of Russia's greatest novelists, as Pushkin, his ideal, was Russia's greatest 19th-century poet. His political conservatism and faith in the Russian Orthodox Church won him favor in his final years even from Tsar Alexander II. Dostoevsky died in 1881 and was given an impressive public funeral by the state. His grave at the Tikhvin cemetery in St. Petersburg is adorned with a fine bust of the author by the famous Russian sculptor, Nikolai Laveretsky.