October 24, 2001

Fyodor Dostoevsky


Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky
October 30, 1821 - January 28, 1881 {Old calendar}
Portrait by V.G. Perov, 1872

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 ~ John 12:24

This Scripture passage appears on Fyodor Dostoevsky's tombstone in St. Petersburg. Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky's {also spelled Dostoyevsky}father was a middle class, former army surgeon and strict family man. Fyodor was educated in Moscow and at the military engineering school in St. Petersburg. This rigid and stuctured upbringing did not suppress Dostoevsky's passion for life, adventure, girls and the desire for fame. During his time at the military school, Fyodor enjoyed attending the theatre and was an avid reader of Russian and European literature. Upon graduation, he resigned his army commission to devote his life to writing. He faced no family resistance as his mother had since died and his father had been killed by serfs. At age 25 {1846}, Dostoevsky completed his first short novel, Poor Folk. The work was of little literary significance. However, a prominent critic of the time, Vissarion Belinsky, saw in it's writer the beginnings of a future great Russian social novelist.

Dostoevsky's appeal lay totally in his work. Socially, he was not successful. He was a small man with a sickly completion and very nervous. He poured his energies into his work and produced another novel, in 1846, The Double. This was a character sketch and clinical look at a person with a split personality and tremendous inner turmoil. He bored readers and caused Fyodor to loose Belinsky's support. However, it served as a model for many characters in Dostoevsky's future works.

Much of Dostoevsky's writings from 1846 to 1849, dealt with psychological and moral examinations of himself, as well as, life in St. Petersburg society. During this period, Fyodor was fascinated with the activities of current political and social reformists such as Mikhail Petrashevsky. He attended secret meetings where the concepts of French socialism were debated. The regime of Tsar Nicholas I feared a revolution and, eventually, arrested and condemned to death 21 of Petrashevsky's followers. One of them was Dostoevsky.

Fortunately, Dostoevsky's sentence was changed to four years hard labor in the prison camp at Omsk, Siberia. This was followed by four more years of military service. The years at Omsk directly affected Dostoevsky's later writings. He found unsung heros among his fellow convicts and became almost consumed by the human struggle for a decent life. It was during his imprisonment that Fyodor experienced his first documented epileptic attack. The only reading material allowed in the prison was the New Testament. Fyodor read it often and gained a personal and deeper understanding of the ideals of salvation through suffering. His desire for adventure and rebellion faded away. In its place was a conviction in the messianic purpose of the least of society, the insulted and injured.

Upon his release from prison in 1854, Dostoevsky began his four year hitch in the army. Serving in Siberia was tiresome, but he worked hard and achieved a commission. The only event of note, during this time, was his unhappy marriage to a widow with a son in 1857.

The additional burden of supporting a family, coupled with his intense desire to resume writing, resulted in Uncle's Dream {1859}. This is a short, comic story which seems out of place with Dostoevsky's former and future works. This was followed, the same year, by The Friend of the Family. Neither were met with any acclaim, but, Dostoevsky didn't mind, too much, as he was finally free to return to St. Petersburg.

Dostoevsky returned home as a hero to the local radicals. His prison time had made him an icon. How disappointed they must have been when he quickly let his "new" spirituality and support of Tsar Alexander II's social reforms! Fyodor quickly produced The House of the Dead {1861} which was praised by Leo Tolstoy as his best work. It is an account of Dostoevsky's experiences while in prison and the people he met there. These are set against a character facing incarceration for murdering his wife. In 1861-62, The Injured and Insulted was published. This novel was not appreciated by the literary critics but was eagerly read by the public. It was Dostoevsky's first, completely developed female character sketch. Natasha is a woman, condemned by her family, for insisting upon loving a man who they disapproved of. The novel also includes wonderful sketches of childhood intellect in the form of Nelly and the mind of society's villains as Valkovsky.

After a trip to Germany, Dostoevsky published Notes from the Underground {1864}. The author had gotten to the point where his concentration on self-examination and spirituality had detached him from the real world. This detachment would be reflected in almost all of his future works which focused on evolving moral, spiritual and social ideals.

In 1864-65, tragedy struck Dostoevsky's life again. His wife and brother died and his magazine, Vremya, went bankrupt. Deeply in debt and facing arrest, Fyodor fled abroad. He relied heavily on gambling for his means of support. Eventually, he received an advance from a publisher for his latest novel and was able to pay his bills and return to St. Petersburg. Crime and Punishment was published in 1866 and deals with events from Dostoevsky's prison days in Siberia. Finally, Fyodor had produced a work that was received equally well by both critic and reader. The depth of his text and character development amazed everyone and they were easily caught up in the spirit found in even the most base of human beings. While finishing Crime and Punishment, Fyodor was forced to, quickly, produce another novel so as not be liable to another publisher. He hired a secretary, Anna Snitkina, to assist him in the short novel about his gambling days. The Gambler was presented in 1866 and Fyodor married Anna the following year.

This was to be a marriage of love, endurance and faith. The couple spent their first four years together, moving from country to country to avoid creditors and unhappy family members. Their first child died and Fyodor's epileptic seizures increased. During this period, The Idiot {1868-69} was written. It is an incredibly intense study of a morally righteous man on trial, basically, for the crime of goodness. The model for the character of Myshkin, is Christ and the trial resembles Christ's experiences with the Pharisees. Between 1870 and 1872, Dostoevsky wrote The Eternal Husband, The Life of a Great Sinner and The Possessed. These works satirize revolutionaries and endorse the belief in the Tsarist regime and faith in Christ and the Orthodox Church.

Upon his return to St. Petersburg, an ailing Dostoevsky wrote several articles and short stories for local publications. During the period of 1873-77, he wrote The Diary of a Writer, A Raw Youth, A Gentle Spirit and The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.

In his twilight, Dostoevsky wrote, what is possibly, his greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov {1879-80}. By this time, he was an accepted and respected writer. Elected to the Academy of Sciences and constantly invited to speak and attend social functions, Fyodor preferred a more reclusive life-style. He moved to the small resort town of Staraya Russa, near St. Petersburg. Anna, Fyodor and their children, Fyodor and Lyubov, lived a peaceful existence in the country. The Brothers Karamazov is the culmination of Dostoevsky's life experiences and insights into the human mind and spirit. The theme of the novel is the struggle of man in search of God and truth. Sections of the work are so profound that they stand alone. These include Legend of the Grand Inquisitor and the teachings of the monk Zosima on the secret of world harmony. Fyodor planned a sequel to his masterpiece in which the ideals of Zosima would have been the central theme. But, Dostoevsky died shortly after the completion of The Brothers Karamazov, in St. Petersburg on January 28, 1881.

Fyodor Dostoevsky gained worldwide popularity during the years between the two World Wars. His search for spiritual truth, goodness and social justice hit home with a war torn world, struggling to find the same things. Lenin referred to Dostoevsky's writings as garbage. However, their positive influence was noted by persons such as the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzche and French novelist, Andre Malraux. Dostoevsky, through his tragic characters, continues to impose upon his readers, timeless principals of vision and hope and a renewed outlook on the human experience.

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