Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Born: November 11, 1821
Died: February 9, 1881
St. Petersburg
Occupation(s): Novelist
Influences: Soren Kierkegaard, Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol
Influenced: Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Ayn Rand, J. D. Salinger, Joseph Heller

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (Russian: Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский, IPA: [ˈfʲodər mɪˈxajləvɪtɕ dəstʌˈjɛfskʲɪj], sometimes transliterated Dostoyevsky listen) (November 11 1821 [O.S. October 30] – February 9 1881 [O.S. January 28]) is considered one of the greatest Russian writers. His works have had a profound and lasting effect on twentieth-century literature.

Dostoevsky's novels often feature characters living in poor conditions with disparate and extreme states of mind, and explore human psychology while analysing the political, social and spiritual states of the Russia of his time. Some scholars consider him to be the founder of existentialism for having published Notes from Underground (1864). Walter Kaufmann argues that this text constitutes "the best overture for existentialism ever written." [1]





Early life

Dostoevsky was the second of seven children born to Mikhail and Maria Dostoevsky. The family originated from the Polish Szlachta family Dostojewski Radwan Coat of Arms[citation needed].

Dostoevsky's father was a retired military surgeon and a violent alcoholic, who served as a doctor at the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in Moscow. The hospital was situated in one of the worst areas in Moscow. Local landmarks included a cemetery for criminals, a lunatic asylum, and an orphanage for abandoned infants. This urban landscape made a lasting impression on the young Dostoevsky, whose interests in and compassion for the poor oppressed and tormented him. Though his parents forbade it, Dostoevsky liked to wander out to the hospital garden, where the suffering patients sat to catch a glimpse of sun. The young Dostoevsky loved to spend time with these patients and hear their stories.

There are many stories of Dostoevsky's father's despotic treatment of his children. After returning home from work, he would take a nap and his children, ordered to keep absolutely silent, stood silently by their slumbering father in shifts and swatted flies around his head.

Shortly after his mother died of tuberculosis in 1837, Dostoevsky and his brother were sent to the Military Engineering Academy at St Petersburg. Mikhail Dostoevsky, too, died in 1839. Though it has never been proven, it is widely believed that he was murdered by his own serfs. Reportedly, they became enraged during one of his drunken fits of violence, restrained him, and poured vodka into his mouth until he drowned. Another story holds that Mikhail died of natural causes, and a neighboring landowner invented the story of his murder so that he might buy the estate inexpensively. The figure of his domineering father would exert a large effect upon Dostoevsky's work, and is notably seen through the character of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the "wicked and sentimental buffoon" father of the three main characters in his 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov.

At the St Petersburg Academy of Military Engineering, Dostoevsky was taught mathematics, a subject he despised. However, he also studied literature by Shakespeare, Pascal, Victor Hugo and E.T.A. Hoffmann. Though he focused on different areas to mathematics, he did well on the exams and received a commission in 1841. That year, he is known to have written two romantic plays, influenced by the German Romantic poet/playwright Friedrich Schiller: Mary Stuart and Boris Godunov. The plays have not been preserved. Though 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 him.


Beginnings of a literary career

Dostoevsky was made a lieutenant in 1842, and left the Engineering Academy the following year. He completed a translation into Russian of Balzac's novel Eugenie Grandet in 1843, but it brought him little or no attention. Dostoevsky 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. The editor of the magazine, the poet Nikolai Nekrasov, walked into the office of the liberal critic Vissarion Belinsky, and announced: "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 became a literary celebrity at the age of 24.

In 1846, Belinsky and many others reacted negatively to his novella, 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 mixed reviews and it seemed that Belinsky's prediction that Dostoevsky would be one of the greatest writers of Russia was mistaken.


Exile in Siberia

Monument to Dostoevsky in Omsk, his place of exile
Monument to Dostoevsky in Omsk, his place of exile

Dostoevsky was arrested and imprisoned on April 23 1849 for being a part of the liberal, intellectual group, the Petrashevsky Circle. Tsar Nicholas I after seeing the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe was harsh on any sort of underground organization which he felt could put autocracy into jeopardy . On November 16 that year he was sentenced to death along with the other members of 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 with hard labor at a katorga prison camp in Omsk, Siberia. Dostoevsky described later to his brother the sufferings he went through as the years in which he was "shut up in a coffin." Describing the dilapidated barracks which, as he put in his own words, "should have been torn down years ago", he wrote:

"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..."[2]

His first recorded epileptic seizure occurred 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".[citation needed]

Seizures recurred sporadically throughout his life, and Dostoevsky's experiences are thought to have formed 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.

It is popularly believed that Dostoevsky's experiences in prison and the army resulted in major changes in his political and religious convictions. It is supposed that after his ordeal that 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)). While conversion plays a strong role in many of his works, not all his characters arrive at Christianity in a moment of crisis (notably, Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov is converted through the example of the good works and moral teachings of Elder Zosima.) While there is much supporting evidence that the more traumatic of Dostoevsky's experiences changed his style and views as a man and an as author, we can not assume with authority what his thoughts on the matter were, however clever or convenient 'before' and 'after' categorization may seem.

Whether inspired solely by his prison experiences or for reasons known only to himself, Dostoevsky was a sharp critic of the Nihilist and Socialist movements of his day, and in part dedicated his book The Possessed and his The Diary of a Writer to espousing conservatism and criticizing socialist ideas [1]. He later formed a friendship with the reactionary statesman Konstantin Pobedonostsev embracing some of the tenets of Pochvennichestvo. While Dostoevsky's post-prison novels abandoned the European-style domestic melodrama and quaint character study which characterized his youthful work, this might also have been the result of his maturation and growing confidence in himself as a writer. Doestoevsky's mature fiction explored themes of existentialism, spiritual torment, religious awakening and the psychological confusion caused by the conflict between traditional Russian culture and the influx of modern, Western philosophy.


Later literary career

In December 1859, Dostoevsky 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 as a consequence of 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 Suslova, but she refused his marriage proposal. Dostoevsky was heartbroken, but soon met Anna Grigorevna Snitkina, a twenty-year-old stenographer. Shortly before marrying her in 1867, he dictated The Gambler to her. This period resulted in the writing of what are generally considered to be his greatest books. From 1873 to 1881 he published the Writer's Diary, a monthly journal full of short stories, sketches, and articles on current events. The journal was an enormous success.

Dostoevsky is also known to have influenced and been influenced by the philosopher Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov. Solovyov is noted as the inspiration for the character Alyosha Karamazov. [3]

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 February 9 (January 28 O.S.), 1881 of a lung hemorrhage associated with emphysema and an epileptic seizure. He was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, St Petersburg, Russia. Forty thousand mourners 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.


Works and influence

Dostoevsky's influence has been acclaimed by a wide variety of writers. From Herman Hesse to Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Ayn Rand, 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. Despite his death in 1881, Dostoevsky is often considered to have had an immense influence upon the modernist movements in twentieth century philosophy and psychology.[citation needed]

Though a writer of myth (and in this respect sometimes compared to Herman Melville), Dostoevsky displayed a nuanced understanding of human psychology in his major works. He created an opus of 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.

Dostoevsky and the other giant of late 19th century Russian literature, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, never met in person, even though each praised (Dostoevsky remarked of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina that it was a "flawless work of art"), criticised (Tolstoy once denounced Crime and Punishment in the account in the Henri Troyat biography where Tolstoy is reported to have remarked loosely that, "Once you read the first few chapters you know pretty much how the novel will end up") and influenced the other. There was, however, a meeting arranged, but there was a confusion about where the meeting place was and they never rescheduled. Tolstoy reportedly burst into tears when he learnt of Dostoevsky's death. Since their time, the two are considered by the critics and public as two of the greatest novelists produced by their homeland.

Nietzsche said of Jesus: "it is regrettable that no Dostoevsky lived near him." He also stated "Dostoevsky was the only psychologist from whom I had anything to learn: he belongs to the happiest windfalls of my life, happier even than the discovery of Stendhal." He said that Notes from the Underground "cried truth from the blood." According to Mihajlo Mihajlov's "The great catalyzer: Nietzsche and Russian neo-Idealism" Nietzsche constantly refers to Dostoevsky in his notes and drafts through out the winter of 1886-1887. Nietzsche also wrote abstracts of several of Dostoevsky's works.

Freud wrote an article entitled Dostoevsky and Parricide that asserts that the greatest works in world literature are all about parricide (though he is critical of Dostoevsky's work overall, the inclusion of The Brothers Karamazov in a set of the three greatest works of literature is remarkable).

By common critical consensus one among the handful of universal world authors, 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 (without forgetting, of course, the enormous differences between the two; for instance, Dostoevsky would have abhorred Nietzsche's Overman).


Major works


Short stories



1 Dostoevsky, Fyodor; Introduction to The Idiot, Wordsworth Ed. Ltd, 1996.


  1. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre Walter Kaufmann ISBN-10: 0452009308 page 12
  2. Frank 76. Quoted from Pisma, I: 135-137.
  3. Zouboff, Peter, Solovyov on Godmanhood: Solovyov’s Lectures on Godmanhood Harmon Printing House: Poughkeepsie, New York, 1944; see Czeslaw Milosz’s introduction to Solovyov’s War, Progress and the End of History. Lindisfarne Press: Hudson, New York 1990.

See also

External links

The Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky
Major Works: Poor Folk | The Double: A Petersburg Poem | The Village of Stepanchikovo | The Insulted and Humiliated | The House of the Dead | A Nasty Story | Notes from Underground | Crime and Punishment | The Gambler | The Idiot | The Possessed | The Raw Youth | The Brothers Karamazov
Short Stories: "White Nights" | "A Christmas Tree and a Wedding" | "An Honest Thief" | "The Peasant Marey" | "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man" | "A Gentle Creature" | "A Weak Heart"
Other: "The Grand Inquisitor" | Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov

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