Portrait by Vasily Perov, 1872
|Born:||November 11, 1821 |
|Died:||February 9, 1881 |
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (Russian: Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский, Fëdor Mihajlovič Dostoevskij, sometimes transliterated Dostoyevsky ) (November 11, 1821 [O.S. October 30] – February 9, 1881 [O.S. January 28]) is considered one of the greatest Russian writers, whose works have had a profound and lasting effect on twentieth-century fiction. His works often feature characters living in poor conditions with disparate and extreme states of mind, and exhibit both an uncanny grasp of human psychology as well as penetrating analyses of the political, social and spiritual states of Russia of his time. Many of his best-known works are prophetic precursors to modern-day thoughts. He is sometimes considered to be a founder of existentialism, most frequently for Notes from Underground, which has been described by Walter Kaufmann as "the best overture for existentialism ever written."
Dostoevsky was the second of seven children born to Mikhail and Maria Dostoevsky. (Origins from Polish Szlachta family Dostojewski CoA Radwan). Shortly after his mother died of tuberculosis in 1837, he and his brother Mikhail were sent to the Military Engineering Academy at St. Petersburg. In 1839 they lost their father, a retired military surgeon and a violent alcoholic, who served as a doctor at the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in Moscow. While not known for certain, it is believed that Mikhail Dostoevsky was murdered by his own serfs, who reportedly became enraged during one of Mikhail's drunken fits of violence, restrained him, and poured vodka into his mouth until he drowned. Another story was that Mikhail died of natural causes, and a neighboring landowner invented this story of a peasant rebellion so he could buy the estate inexpensively. The figure of his domineering father would exert a large effect upon Dostoevsky's work especially seen through the character of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the "wicked and sentimental buffoon" father of the three main characters in his 1881 novel The Brothers Karamazov. There are many stories of what a despot Dostoevsky's father was over his children, such as after returning home from working, he would take a nap and his children, while ordered to keep absolutely silent often in shifts stood silently by their slumbering father and swatted flies around his head.
As a child, Dostoevsky's physical environment did little to lift the sense of gloom. The hospital sat in a neighborhood of squalor, one of the worst areas in Moscow. The landmarks included a cemetery for criminals, a lunatic asylum, and an orphanage for abandoned infants. The hardships of this urban landscape made a lasting impression on the young Dostoevsky, whose interests in and compassion for the poor and oppressed tormented him. Though his parents forbade it, Dostoevsky liked to wander out to the hospital garden, where the suffering patients sat, devouring any small bit of sun. The young Dostoevsky loved to spend time with these patients. Their sad stories were living examples of human suffering.
Dostoevsky was sent to the St. Petersburg Academy of Military Engineering, an environment in which he was taught much about mathematics, a subject he despised. However, he mostly studied literature by Shakespeare, Pascal, Victor Hugo and E.T.A. Hoffmann. It is quite impressive that even though focusing on different areas than the one he was taught, he did well on the exams and received a commission in 1841. An interesting fact about that year is that he is known to have written two romantic plays, influenced by the German Romantic poet/playwright Friedrich Schiller: Mary Stuart and Boris Godunov. Unfortunately these two plays have not been preserved. It is also interesting to note that although Dostoevsky, a self-described "dreamer" as a young man, at the time revered Schiller, in the years which yielded his great masterpieces he usually poked fun at Schiller. He was made a lieutenant in 1842 and left the Engineering Academy the following year. A translation into Russian of Balzac's novel Eugenie Grandet in 1843 brought little or no attention and Dostoevsky, who was determined to be famous, started to write his own fiction in late 1844 after leaving the army. In 1845, his first work, the epistolary short novel, Poor Folk, published in the periodical "The Contemporary" was met with great acclaim by the editor of the magazine, the poet Nikolai Nekrasov who said upon walking into the office of the influential liberal critic Vissarion Belinsky, "A new Gogol has arisen!" Belinsky, his followers and many others agreed and after the novel was fully published in book form at the beginning of the next year, Dostoevsky was a literary celebrity at the age of 24.
In 1846, with the mostly negative reaction by Belinsky and many others to probably his strongest early work, the short novel, The Double, a psychological study of a bureaucrat whose alter ego overtakes his life, Dostoevsky's fame began to cool. Much of his work after Poor Folk was met with few positive reviews and it seemed that Belinsky's prediction that Dostoevsky would be one of the greatest writers of Russia was mistaken.
Dostoevsky was arrested and imprisoned on April 23, 1849 for engaging in revolutionary activity against Tsar Nikolai I. On November 16 that year he was sentenced to death for anti-government activities linked to a liberal intellectual group, the Petrashevsky Circle. After a mock execution in which he and other members of the group stood outside in freezing weather waiting to be shot by a firing squad, Dostoevsky's sentence was commuted to four years of exile performing hard labor at a katorga prison camp in Omsk, Siberia. Dostoevsky described later to his brother of the sufferings he went through and described his years of ordeal as his years in which he was "shut up in a coffin." Dostoevsky below is quoted in describing the dilapidated barracks which, as he put in his own words, "should have been torn down years ago."
"In summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors were rotten. Filth on the floors an inch thick; one could slip and fall...We were packed like herrings in a barrel...There was no room to turn around. From dusk to dawn it was impossible not to behave like pigs...Fleas, lice, and black beetles by the bushel..." [Frank 76. Quoted from Pisma, I: 135-137]
His first recorded epileptic seizure happened in 1850 at the prison camp. It is said that he suffered from a rare form of temporal lobe epilepsy, sometimes referred to as "ecstatic epilepsy." It is also said that upon learning of his father's death before the elder could reply to a letter of criticism from Fyodor, the younger Dostoevsky experienced his first seizure. Seizures then recurred sporadically throughout his life, and Dostoevsky's experiences are thought to form the basis for his description of Prince Myshkin's epilepsy in the The Idiot. He was released from prison in 1854, and was required to serve in the Siberian Regiment. Dostoevsky spent the following five years as a private (and later lieutenant) in the Regiment's Seventh Line Battalion stationed at the fortress of Semipalatinsk, now in Kazakhstan. While there, he began a relationship with Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, the wife of an acquaintance in Siberia; they married in February 1857, after her husband's death.
Dostoevsky's experiences in prison and the army resulted in major changes in his political and religious convictions. He became disillusioned with 'Western' ideas, and began to pay greater tribute to traditional Russian values. Perhaps most significantly, he had what his biographer Joseph Frank describes as a conversion experience in prison, which greatly strengthened his Christian, and specifically Orthodox, faith (the experience is depicted by Dostoevsky in The Peasant Marey (1876)). In line with his new beliefs, Dostoevsky became a sharp critic of the Nihilist and Socialist movements of his day, and he dedicated his book The Possessed and his The Diary of a Writer to espousing conservatism and criticizing socialist ideas . He later formed a peculiar friendship with the conservative statesman Konstantin Pobedonostsev.
In December 1859, he returned to St. Petersburg, where he ran a series of unsuccessful literary journals, Vremya (Time) and Epokha (Epoch) with his older brother Mikhail. The latter had to be shut down with its coverage of the Polish Uprising of 1863. That year Dostoevsky traveled to Europe and frequented the gambling casinos. There he met Apollinaria Suslova, the model for Dostoesvky's "proud women", such as Katerina Ivanovna in both Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky was devastated by his wife's death in 1864, followed shortly thereafter by his brother's death. He was financially crippled by business debts and the need to provide for his wife's son from her earlier marriage and his brother's widow and children. Dostoevsky sank into a deep depression, frequenting gambling parlors and accumulating massive losses at the tables.
Dostoevsky suffered from an acute gambling compulsion as well as from its consequences. By one account Crime and Punishment, possibly his best known novel, was completed in a mad hurry because Dostoevsky was in urgent need of an advance from his publisher. He had been left practically penniless after a gambling spree. Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler simultaneously in order to satisfy an agreement with his publisher Stellovsky who, if he did not receive a new work, would have claimed the copyrights to all of Dostoevsky's writing.
Motivated by the dual wish to escape his creditors at home and to visit the casinos abroad, Dostoevsky traveled to Western Europe. There, he attempted to rekindle a love affair with Apollinaria (Polina) Suslova, a young university student with whom he had had an affair several years prior, but she refused his marriage proposal. Dostoevsky was heartbroken, but soon met Anna Grigorevna Snitkina, a twenty-year-old stenographer to whom, shortly before marrying her in 1867, he dictated The Gambler. This period resulted in the writing of his greatest books. From 1873 to 1881 he vindicated his earlier journalistic failures by publishing a monthly journal full of short stories, sketches, and articles on current events — the Writer's Diary. The journal was an enormous success. Dostoevsky is also known to have influenced and been influenced by the famous Russian Philosopher Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov. Solovyov is noted as the inspiration for the character Alyosha Karamazov. 
In 1877 Dostoevsky gave the keynote eulogy at the funeral of his friend, the poet Nekrasov, to much controversy. In 1880, shortly before he died, he gave his famous Pushkin speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin monument in Moscow. From that event on, Dostoevsky was acclaimed all over Russia as one of her greatest writers and hailed as a prophet, almost a mystic.
In his later years, Fyodor Dostoevsky lived for a long time at the resort of Staraya Russa which was closer to St Petersburg and less expensive than German resorts. He died on January 28 (O.S.), 1881 of a lung hemorrhage associated with emphysema and an epileptic seizure and was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, St. Petersburg, Russia. Forty thousand mourning Russians attended his funeral.1 His tombstone reads "Verily, Verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." from John 12:24, which is also the epigraph of his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov.
Dostoevsky's influence cannot be overemphasized. From Herman Hesse to Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henry Miller, Yukio Mishima, Gabriel García Márquez, Jack Kerouac and Joseph Heller, virtually no great twentieth century writer escaped his long shadow (rare dissenting voices include Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and, more ambiguously, D.H. Lawrence). American novelist Ernest Hemingway, in his autobiographic books, also cited Dostoevsky as a major influence on his work. Because of his immense influence upon the movements in twentieth century philosophy and psychology, Dostoevsky is often recognized as, albeit his death in 1881, a novelist who belongs to the twentieth century. His influence upon modernism is profound.
Essentially a writer of myth (and in this respect sometimes compared to Herman Melville), Dostoevsky displayed a nuanced understanding of human psychology evident in his major works. He created an opus of immense vitality and almost hypnotic power, characterized by the following traits: feverishly dramatized scenes (conclaves) where his characters are, frequently in scandalous and explosive atmosphere, passionately engaged in Socratic dialogues à la Russe; the quest for God, the problem of Evil and suffering of the innocents haunt the majority of his novels; characters fall into a few distinct categories: humble and self-effacing Christians (Prince Myshkin, Sonya Marmeladova, Alyosha Karamazov), self-destructive nihilists (Svidrigailov, Smerdyakov, Stavrogin, the underground man), cynical debauchers (Fyodor Karamazov), and rebellious intellectuals (Raskolnikov, Ivan Karamazov); also, his characters are driven by ideas rather than by ordinary biological or social imperatives. In comparison with Tolstoy, whose characters are realistic, the characters of Dostoevsky are usually more symbolic of the ideas they represent, thus Dostoevsky is often cited as one of the forerunners of Literary Symbolism.
Dostoevsky's novels are compressed in time (many cover only a few days) and this enables the author to get rid of one of the dominant traits of realist prose, the corrosion of human life in the process of the time flux — his characters primarily embody spiritual values, and these are, by definition, timeless. Other obsessive themes include suicide, wounded pride, collapsed family values, spiritual regeneration through suffering (the most important motif), rejection of the West and affirmation of Russian Orthodoxy and Tsarism. Literary scholars such as Bakhtin have characterized his work as 'polyphonic': unlike other novelists, Dostoevsky does not appear to aim for a 'single vision', and beyond simply describing situations from various angles, Dostoevsky engendered fully dramatic novels of ideas where conflicting views and characters are left to develop unevenly into unbearable crescendo.
By common critical consensus he is one among the handful of universal world authors, along with Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Cervantes, Hugo and a few others, Dostoevsky has decisively influenced twentieth century literature, existentialism and expressionism in particular. It might not be considered too far fetched to say that if one were to sum up literary modernism in two names, the names would be Nietzsche and the "only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn," Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky.