Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich

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(18211881), preeminent Russian prose writer and publicist.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was born into the family of a former military physician, Mikhail Andreyevich Dostoyevsky (17891839), who practiced at the Moscow Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor. Dostoyevsky's father was ennobled in 1828 and acquired moderate wealth; he and his wife, Mariya Fyodorovna (18001837), had three more sons and three daughters. As a youth, Dostoyevsky lost his mother to tuberculosis and his father to an incident that officially was declared a stroke but purportedly was a homicide carried out by his enraged serfs.

After spending several years at private boarding schools (18331837), Dostoyevsky studied Military Engineering in St. Petersburg (18381843) while secretly pursuing his love for literature. He worked for less than a year as an engineer in the armed forces and abandoned that position in 1844 in order to dedicate himself fully to translating fiction and writing. Dostoyevsky's literary debut, Bednye liudi (Poor Folk, 1845), was an immense success with the public; a sentimental novel in letters, it is imbued with mild social criticism and earned enthusiastic praise from Russia's most influential contemporary critic, Vissarion Belinsky. But sub-sequent short stories and novellas such as "Dvoinik" (The Double, 1846)an openly Gogolesque story of split consciousness as well as an intriguing experiment in unreliable narrationdisappointed many of Dostoyevsky's early admirers. This notwithstanding, Dostoyevsky continued to consciously resist attempts to label him politically or aesthetically. Time and time again, he ventured out from grim social reality into other dimensionsthe psychologically abnormal and the fantasticfor which St. Petersburg's eerie artificiality proved a most intriguing milieu.

In April 1848, Dostoyevsky was arrested together with thirty-four other members of the underground socialist Petrashevsky Circle and interrogated for several months in the infamous Peter-Paul-Fortress. Charged with having read Belinsky's letter to Gogol at one of the circle's meetings, Dostoyevsky was sentenced to death. Yet, in a dramatic mock-execution, Nikolai I commuted the capital punishment to hard labor and exile in Siberia. A decade later, Dostoyevsky returned to St. Petersburg as a profoundly transformed man. Humbled and physically weakened, he had internalized the official triad of Tsar, People, and Orthodox Church in a most personal way, distancing himself from his early utopian beliefs while re-conceptualizing his recent harsh experiences among diverse classescriminals and political prisoners, officers and officials, peasants and merchants. Dostoyevsky's worldview was now dominated by values such as humility, self-restraint, and forgiveness, all to be applied in the present, while giving up his faith in the creation of a harmonious empire in the future. The spirit of radical social protest that had brought him so dangerously close to Communist persuasions in the 1840s was from now on attributed to certain dubious characters in his fiction, albeit without ever being denounced completely.

Eager to participate in contemporary debates, Dostoyevsky, jointly with his brother Mikhail (18201864), published the conservative journals Vremya (Time, 186163) and Epokha (The Epoch,65), both of which encountered financial and censorship quarrels. In his semi-fictional Zapiski iz mertvogo doma (Notes from the House of the Dead,1862)the most authentic and harrowing account of the life of Siberian convicts prior to Chekhov and SolzhenitsynDostoyevsky depicts the tragedy of thousands of gifted but misguided human beings whose innate complexity he had come to respect. One of the major conclusions drawn from his years as a societal outcast was the notion that intellectuals need to overcome their condescension toward lower classes, particularly the Russian muzhik (peasant) whose daily work on native soil gave him wisdom beyond any formal education.

An even more aggressive assault on mainstream persuasions was "Zapiski iz podpol'ia" ("Notes from the Underground," 1864); written as a quasi-confession of an embittered, pathologically self-conscious outsider, this anti-liberal diatribe was intended as a provocation, to unsettle the bourgeois consciousness with its uncompromising anarchism and subversive wit. "Notes from the Underground" became the prelude to Dostoyevsky's mature phase. The text's lasting ability to disturb the reader stems from its bold defense of human irrationality, viewed as a guarantee of inner freedom that will resist any prison in the name of reason, no matter how attractive (i.e., social engineering, here symbolized by the "Crystal Palace" that Dostoyevsky had seen at the London World Exhibition).

The year 1866 saw the completion, in a feverish rush, of two masterpieces that mark Dostoyevsky's final arrival at a form of literary expression congenial to his intentions. Prestuplenie i nakazanie (Crime and Punishment ) analyzes the transgression of traditional Christian morality by a student who considers himself superior to his corrupt and greedy environment. The question of justifiable murder was directly related to Russia's rising revolutionary movement, namely the permissibility of crimes for a good cause. On a somewhat lighter note, Igrok (The Gambler ) depicts the dramatic incompatibility of Russian and Western European mentalities against the background of a German gambling resort. Pressured by a treacherous publisher, Dostoyevsky was forced to dictate this novel within twenty-six days to stenographer Anna Grigor'evna Snitkina (18461918), who shortly thereafter became his wife.

Endlessly haunted by creditors and needy family members, the Dostoyevskys escaped abroad, spending years in Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. They often lived near casinos where the writer unsuccessfully tried to resolve his financial ills. Against all odds, during this period Dostoyevsky created some of his most accomplished works, particularly the novel Idiot (1868), the declared goal of which was to portray a "perfectly beautiful human being." The title character, an impoverished prince, clashes with the rapidly modernizing, cynical St. Petersburg society. In the end, although conceptualized as a Christ-like figure, he causes not salvation but murder and tragedy.

Dostoyevsky's following novel, Besy (The Devils,1872), was interpreted as "anti-nihilist." Openly polemical, it outraged the leftist intelligentsia who saw itself caricatured as superficial, naïve, and unintentionally destructive. Clearly referring to the infamous case of Sergei Nechaev, an anarchist whose revolutionary cell killed one of its dissenting members, The Devils presents an astute analysis of the causality underlying terrorism, and societal disintegration. Yet it is also a sobering diagnosis of the inability of Russia's corrupt establishment to protect itself from ruthless political activism and demagoguery.

While The Devils quickly became favorite reading of conservatives, Podrostok (A Raw Youth, 1875) appealed more to liberal sensitivities, thus reestablishing, to a certain extent, a balance in Dostoyevsky's political reputation. Artistically uneven, this novel is an attempt to capture the searching of Russia's young generation "who knows so much and believes in nothing" and as a consequence finds itself in a state of hopeless alienation.

In the mid-1870s, Dostoyevsky published the monthly journal Dnevnik pisatelia (Diary of a Writer ) of which he was the sole author. With its thousands of subscribers, this unusual blend of social and political commentary enriched by occasional works of fiction contributed to the relative financial security enjoyed by the author and his family in the last decade of his life. Its last issue contained

the text of a speech that Dostoyevsky made at the dedication of a Pushkin monument in Moscow in 1880. Pushkin is described as the unique genius of universal empathy, of the ability to understand mankind in all its manifestationsa feature that Dostoyevsky found to be characteristic of Russians more than of any other people.

Brat'ia Karamazovy (The Brothers Karamazov, 18781880) became Dostoyevsky's literary testament and indeed can be read as a peculiar synthesis of his artistic and philosophical strivings. The novel's focus on patricide is rooted in the fundamental role of the father in the Russian tradition, with God as the heavenly father, the tsar as father to his people, the priest as father to the faithful, and the paterfamilias as representative of the universal law within the family unit. It is this underlying notion of the universal significance of fatherhood that connects the criminal plot to the philosophical message. Thus, the murder of father Fyodor Karamazov, considered by all three brothers and carried out by the fourth, the illegitimate son, becomes tantamount to a challenge the world order per se.

Dostoyevsky's significance for Russian and world culture derives from a number of factors, among them the depth of his psychological perceptiveness, his complex grasp of human nature, and his ability to foresee long-term consequences of human actionan ability that sometimes bordered on the prophetic. Together with his rhetorical and dramatic gifts, these factors outweigh less presentable features in the author's persona such as national and religious prejudice. Moreover, Dostoyevsky's willingness to admit into his universe utterly antagonistic forcesfrom unabashed sinners whose unspeakable acts of blasphemy challenge the very foundations of faith, to characters of angelic purityhas led to his worldwide perception as an eminently Christian author. But it also caused distrust in certain quarters of the Orthodox Church; as a matter of fact, his confidence in a gospel of all-forgiveness was criticized as "rosy Christianity" (K. Leont'ev), a religious aberration neglecting the strictness of divine law. From a programmatic point of view, Dostoyevsky preached a Christianity of the heart, as opposed to one of pragmatism and rational calculation.

Dostoyevsky's impact on modern intellectual movements is enormous: Freud's psychoanalysis found valuable evidence in his depictions of the mysterious subconscious, whereas Camus' existentialism took from the Russian author an understanding of man's inability to cope with freedom and his possible preference for a state of non-responsibility.

Dostoyevsky was arguably the first writer to position a philosophical idea at the very heart of a fictional text. The reason that Dostoyevsky's major works have maintained their disquieting energy lies mainly in their structural openness toward a variety of interpretative patterns, all of which can present textual evidence for their particular reading.

See also: chekhov, anton pavlovich; gogol, nikolai vasilievich; golden age of russian literature; petrashevtsy


Bakhtin, Mikhail M. (1973). Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics. Ann Arbor: Ardis.

Catteau, Jacques. (1989). Dostoyevsky and the Process of Literary Creation. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Frank, Joseph. (1976). Dostoyevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 18211849. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Frank, Joseph. (1983). Dostoyevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 18501859. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Frank, Joseph. (1986). Dostoyevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 18601865. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Frank, Joseph. (1995). Dostoyevsky: The Miraculous Years, 18651871. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Frank, Joseph. (2002). Dostoyevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 18711881. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Pattison, George, ed. (2001). Dostoyevsky and the Christian Tradition. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Scanlan, James. (2002). Dostoevsky the Thinker. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Peter Rollberg