November 28, 2021

Dostoyevsky's Brilliant Wife Anna

Dostoyevsky's Brilliant Wife Anna
Anna Grigoriyevna Dostoyevskaya, the brilliant wife, stenographer, and business partner of the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Illustration by Haley Bader

The second wife of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anna Grigoriyevna Dostoyevskaya, nee Snitkina, wrote herself out of her husband’s history despite being his business partner, helper, confidante, creative muse, and much more. As Andrew Kaufman, author of the recently published The Gambler Wife: A Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky said, “people need to understand that they might not be holding some of Dostoyevsky’s greatest novels in their hands if [Anna] had not appeared.”

The beginning of Anna’s life with her husband was a paradox of tender love and mercurial abuses, where inexperienced Anna became both student of and support to the despondent and debt-ridden artist.

dostoyevsky's house
The house where Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment, as well as The Gambler, while Anna worked as his stenographer | Pablo Sanchez Martin on Flickr

In a complex reconstruction of Anna’s life with Fyodor, Kaufman’s work draws on rare archival materials, interviews with scholars, Anna’s “secret” diary from 1867 that was written during the first year of their marriage, and other materials never before translated into English, to reveal the depths of the pair's partnership. The Gambler Wife explores Anna’s transformation from a naïve but plucky bride to a woman of mental toughness, fortitude, and shrewd decision-making.

“Dostoyevsky was facing an almost helpless impasse when they met, but Anna had helped him stave off disaster through her intelligence, work ethic, and emotional support,” Kaufman wrote.

Cast as Dostoyevsky’s savior, Anna would insert herself into her husband’s life with “radical compassion and selflessness,” Kaufman said in an interview with Russian Life. Dostoyevsky would say to Anna one night in Geneva, “I cannot live without you, Anna. It was for those like you who Christ came.”

Although young women of her time were told not to trust their instincts, Anna would prove to be highly intuitive and anything but passive when she chose to remain with her husband. She would ascend to a position of authority within their relationship as Dostoyevsky, recognizing her creativity, business cunning, and profound love, accepted her as an indispensable part of his life.

“She was an extraordinary woman in her own right,” Kaufman said, explaining that he wanted to write a book that not only introduced English speakers to a woman “of psychological complexity,” but also a woman who “rewrote the script of what it meant to be a feminist in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russia.” No book about Anna has previously been published in English.

* * * * *

Anna Snitkina first met Dostoyevsky when she was invited to work as his stenographer for his book The Gambler, a novel he was forced to complete quickly after signing a devil’s contract with a wily publisher in the hopes of allaying debts of many years. As a proud Russian feminist of the 1860s, Anna accepted the position with the goal of gaining professional and financial independence.

dostoyevsky statue
A statue of Dostoyevsky in Tallinn, Estonia | Tony Bowden on Flickr

Anna’s father had been a fan of Dostoyevsky for many years, and she grew up with admiration for the author. The two became so close over their month of work that Dostoyevsky, previously overcome by romantic loneliness and dejection (his first wife and his brother had died two years before), proposed. Anna’s appreciation for her future husband's work likely played a great role in accepting his offer.

But their first years together were far from paradise. Anna, twenty-four years younger than her husband, was forced to contend with his depressive, sometimes domineering, and yet tender and devoted nature. While he was one of the only conservatives at the time to actively support women’s ascension in Russian society, he despised radical feminists and, at times, exhibited a contradictory misogyny. On their very first day working together, Dostoyevsky condescended that women were not “fit for work.”

Despite the contrast with Anna’s beliefs, Kaufman maintains that Anna was “not a star-struck innocent young woman who let [Dostoyevsky] say and do whatever he wanted.” If anything, staying with Dostoyevsky was a way to achieve some of her feminist ideals: she had not only a job and a career path, but a job that meant something to her – to help an author she knew and respected.

Anna also confronted hurdles such as his manipulative and financially demanding family, Dostoyevsky’s terrible gambling addiction, their four-year “exile” abroad due to Dostoyevsky’s previous debt, a resulting yearning for their homeland, as well as the death of their first-born child.

The first few years of their marriage were spent abroad after Anna convinced Dostoyevsky to leave his overbearing family. During these years she lamented Dostoyevsky’s self-interest and neglect of her needs, in large part due to his gambling – only to turn the narrative back on herself, self-flagellating for her perceived ingratitude and lack of graciousness.

baden baden casino
The interior of a casino in Baden-Baden, Germany, where Dostoyevsky was known to gamble | Wikimedia Commons

Such feelings were characteristically “Anna.” These qualities of self-sacrifice, self-blame, and yet grace and humility persisted throughout her life with her husband. They would also help end Dostoyevsky’s lifelong gambling addiction. After a last major loss in Europe, Dostoyevsky recognized his habit was placing the life of his wife at risk, and promised: “Anya, believe that our resurrection has arrived, and believe that beginning today I’ll achieve my goal – I’ll give you happiness.”

* * * * *

In her memoirs, Anna would write that enduring those four terrible years of suffering in Europe and her husband’s gambling madness were what made her strong. She reflected that she had “developed from a timid, bashful girl into a woman of decisive character, no longer frightened by the struggle with life’s misfortunes.”

After returning to Russia, the family launched into a flurry of activity. “As her husband strove to reestablish his literary connections, Anna worked fourteen hours a day – not only as a wife and mother, but also as a stenographer, secretary, and financial manager – all the while seeking outside work to supplement the family’s income.”

the dostoyevsky museum
The interior of the Dostoyevsky Museum in St. Petersburg, the home where Anna would help her husband write The Gambler and Crime and Punishment | St. Petersburg Theological Academy on Flickr

During this time, Anna developed her business acumen through her own shrewd exploration of other publishing houses. She spent months visiting potential competitors under the guise of a buyer and would ply businessmen with questions to learn the information she needed to begin her own trade. This was the start of the first publishing business owned and run by a woman in Russia.

Eventually, Anna would distribute seven editions of Dostoyevsky’s complete collected works, which created the model for how other such collections of future Russian authors would be published. It was such a successful venture that Sofia Tolstoy approached Anna for advice on how to set up a similar operation for her husband Lev.

Her perseverance, risk-taking, and overwork would eventually pay off in a publishing business that netted her family over $5 million dollars in today’s money by the end of her lifetime. More astounding, perhaps, is that Anna ran the business from start to finish with no help, not even from her husband; and this included taking dictation, assisting with editing, purchasing needed materials, and negotiating prices.

Beyond her role as publisher and financial manager, Anna gifted Dostoyevsky with a creative wisdom that he grew to deeply respect. While Dostoyevsky had first taken it upon himself to educate her in literature, even attempting to control most of what she consumed, Anna would eventually contribute to his material and even draft unpublished stories and plays of her own.

Dostoyevsky “trusted her literary judgment implicitly: When she advised him to change the color of a character’s hair or dress, he listened. If she could visualize a scene he’d created, Dostoyevsky was certain that his readers would, too; if not, he knew something was amiss.”

the adolescent
The Adolescent, written in 1874, eight years into Anna's marriage to Dostoyevsky | romana klee on Flickr

In July 1876, a decade after their marriage, Dostoyevsky wrote to Anna: “I know that everything is in your power alone… I so highly value and trust in your mind and character… Anya, I believe in your enormous intellect.”

* * * * *

When Anna wrote her memoirs of her life with Dostoyevsky, she faded into the background of a life and a body of work that would never have been accomplished without her influence. Anna wished to convince the world of her husband’s genius and was so successful at crafting this image that people did not understand the role she had played.

Although this is another seeming contradiction by today’s feminist standards, Kaufman insists that it was not a case of a controlling husband taking advantage of his wife’s work and stealing her ideas. Rather, Anna was intentional in crafting her husband’s legacy and derived great satisfaction from running a prosperous business while remaining unseen. “She was a victim of her own success,” Kaufman said.

The Brothers Karamazov
The Brothers Karamazov, published in installments between 1879 and 1880 | Robert Maguire on Flickr

Despite her attempt at self-erasure, Anna achieved astounding professional success, no less as a woman who needed her husband’s permission to run her own business. Besides ascending as the first solo female publisher and developing one of the first book distribution companies in Russian history, she founded hospitals and schools in Dostoyevsky’s name, as well as a peasant school that graduated one thousand girls; created Russia’s first literary museum; and published Dostoyevsky’s complete collected works, which is how they were disseminated for thirty years after his death and how her husband remained at the forefront of Russian culture.

While Anna was never the sort of radical Russian feminist who aspired to enter a “sham” marriage to relieve herself of domestic responsibilities (as was a popular idea at the time of her youth), nor was she the type to smoke, drink, wear pants, and crop her hair short in defiance of gendered norms; she was also not the housewife of yesteryear.

Anna broke the mold of nineteenth-century Russian feminism when she embarked on a path both radically progressive and traditional: though financially competent and independent, she chose to elevate family and support her husband against all odds and despite his flaws.


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