Biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born October 30, 1821, in Moscow's Hospital for the Poor. He was the second of seven children born to a former army surgeon, who was murdered in 1839 when his own serfs poured vodka down his throat until he died.
Following a boarding school education in Moscow with his older brother Mikhail, Fyodor was admitted to the Academy of Military Engineers in St. Petersburg in 1838. He completed his studies in 1843, graduating as a lieutenant, but was quickly convinced that he preferred a career in writing to being mired in the bureaucratic Russian military. In 1844 he published a translation of Balzac's Eugenie Grandet, and he followed this two years later with his first original published work, Poor Folk, a widely-acclaimed short novel championed by the influential critic Vissarion Belinsky.
His works over the next three years were not as well accepted. The "literary lights" whose acquaintance he had made started to treat him with contempt and mockery. Under the influence of Belinsky, Dostoevsky turned to a materialist atheism. In 1847, he broke with Belinsky's group to join the socialist Petrashevsky group, a secret society of liberal utopians, where he associated himself with the most radical element.
On April 23, 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested with other members of the Petrashevsky circle and was sentenced to death. He was placed in solitary confinement in the Petropavlovsky Fortress for eight months. During this time, Tsar Nikolai I changed his sentence but ordered that this change only be announced at the last minute. On December 22, Dostoevsky and his fellow prisoners were led through all the initial steps of execution, and several of them were already tied to posts awaiting their deaths when the reprieve was sounded.
Dostoevsky's sentence of eight years' hard labor in a Siberian prison was reduced to four, followed by another four years of compulsory military service. During the latter, he married the widow Marya Dmitrievna Isaeva, with whom he returned to St. Petersburg in 1859.
Dostoevsky's harrowing near-execution and his terrible years of imprisonment made an indelible impression on him, converting him to a lifelong intense spirituality. These beliefs formed the basis for his great novels.
After his release, Dostoevsky published a few short works, including "Memoirs from the House of the Dead" (1860-1861), which was based on his prison experiences, in the journal Time, which he had co-founded with his brother Mikhail. In 1862, he made his first trip abroad, to England, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. While abroad, he had an affair with Apollinaria Suslova, a young and attractive student whom Dostoevsky considered an intellectual equal. He also made observations on Western society that fueled his rejection of Western philosophies as models for Russian society.
In 1863, Time was banned, so Fyodor and Mikhail founded another magazine, Epoch, which in 1864 published the complex Notes from Underground, generally considered the preface to Dostoevsky's great novels.
In that same year, both Marya Dmitrievna and Fyodor's beloved brother Mikhail died, leaving Dostoevsky saddled with debts and dependents. Apollinaria Suslova declined a marriage proposal, and in an attempt to win money through gambling, Dostoevsky mired himself further in debt. With creditors at his heels and with debts of around 43,000 rubles, Dostoevsky escaped abroad with 175 rubles in his pocket and a "slave contract" with bookseller F. T. Stellovsky. This agreement stipulated that if Dostoevsky did not produce a new novel by November 1, 1866, all rights to Dostoevsky's past and future works would revert to Stellovsky.
Time passed, and Dostoevsky, preoccupied with a longer, serialized novel, did no work on the book he had promised Stellovsky until at last, on the advice of friends, he hired the young Anna Grigorievna Snitkin as his stenographer. He dictated The Gambler to her, and the manuscript was delivered to Stellovsky on the very day their agreement was to expire. Through November, Dostoevsky completed the longer novel Crime and Punishment, which was published that year to immediate and abundant success. Fyodor proposed to Anna, and they soon were wed on February 15, 1867.
This second marriage brought Dostoevsky professional and emotional stability. Anna tolerated his compulsive gambling, managed his career, and nursed him through depression and epilepsy. His great works, notably The Idiot (1868), Demons (1871-1872, also known as The Devils or mistranslated as The Possessed), and The Brothers Karamazov, were all written in this last phase of his life.
Despite this relative success, the Dostoevskys were dogged by the massive debts left by Mikhail's death and Fyodor's gambling until about 1873. At this point, Anna became his publisher and he (according to his wife) gave up gambling. Their newfound financial stability enabled the Dostoevskys to purchase the house they had been renting in 1876, and between 1877 and 1880, Dostoevsky worked on The Brothers Karamazov, regarded by many as the apex of his career. During these last years of his life, he enjoyed prominence in his public life as well as his literary career.
Fyodor Dostoevsky died on January 28, 1881, of complications related to his epilepsy. At the funeral procession in St. Petersburg, his coffin was followed by thirty to forty thousand people. His epitaph 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," which is the quotation Dostoevsky chose for the preface of The Brothers Karamazov.
Dostoevsky is one of the first writers to explore the ideas of psychoanalysis in his works. His religious ideas are still relevant in theological debate. He also is one of the seminal creators of the ideas of existentialism. Despite his varying success during his lifetime, today Dostoevsky is considered to be one of the preeminent Russian novelists—indeed, one of the preeminent novelists—of all time.