Dostoevsky lived in Russia in the mid-19th century, a particularly tumultuous time in the country’s long and chaotic history. The agitation, despair, and pride of the time worked their way into much of Dostoevsky’s prose. Thus, understanding Dostoevsky’s context and personal life is extremely valuable in interpreting his work.
When Dostoevsky was born in 1821, Russia saw a bright future ahead. In 1812, Napoleon had tried to invade the massive country, but Russia had repelled the attack. Around the world, Napoleon was viewed as a rampaging tyrant, and Russia was admired and cheered for having halted such a dangerous force. Alexander I was called the “savior of Europe.”
During the Industrial Revolution, Russia was on the verge of Westernizing and becoming more technologically advanced, and its people were becoming increasingly progressive. It was truly an exciting time for the people, especially in the cities. In 1825, there was a revolt later named “The Decembrist Revolt,” which was intended to install a constitutional monarchy (with more protections than before), but Nicholas I became more protective of his government. Instead of becoming more liberal, the country adopted the slogan “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, Nationality.” Russia slid back into its traditions and moved away from Westernization. Many in the country, however, remained sympathetic to revolutionary influences, including anarchy and nihilism.
In the 1860s, nihilists rose to prominence. After being stymied when they appealed to the government for reform, they decided to take a much more grassroots approach and go straight to the people. The “Narodnik Movement,” as it was called, was not harmless. The nihilists in the Narodnik Movement committed acts of terrorism and even assassination. Most famously, they carried out the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, the year Dostoevsky died.
The most important change in Russia during Dostoevsky’s lifetime was the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 by Alexander II. This grand shift in the socioeconomic hierarchy turned out to be nominal, from the point of view of material conditions, for the most part. Many of the serfs did not leave the land they had worked, choosing to stay on the land and work for pay. A low pay scale and special taxes for former serfs meant that their situations stayed relatively stagnant. Thus, the revolutionary tensions that Alexander had been trying to avoid continued to grow; the liberation of the serfs kept paving the way for further reformist movements.
Russia’s battles during the 19th century were not restricted to its internal affairs. Russia fought several wars during this time. In 1853, Turkey declared war on Russia, beginning the Crimean War. In 1875, Russia clashed with the Ottoman Empire because Russia wanted to extradite the Balkan Christians from their Ottoman rulers. In 1877, just four years before Dostoevsky’s death, the Ottoman Empire and Russia went to war. This was the second time during the 19th century that Christian Russia had gone to war with a nation (or empire) of a different faith. It is no wonder, then, that Russians took their religion as seriously as their nationalism.
Russia’s political turmoil, its religious battles, and its constantly shifting world status kept its citizens from gaining a sense of stability. Its material strife and its ideological crises meant that no aspect of life was safe from constant challenges. This is the Russia that Dostoevsky wrote about, and Russia’s struggles were his struggles. His works reflect how man can survive and comprehend life in a troubled nation. The Brothers Karamazov, a long and complex novel (see the themes in this ClassicNote), engages with his contemporary Russian experience even while it speaks beyond his time and place.