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Dostoevskiĭ Fëdor Mikhaĭlovich


Russian novelist; b. Moscow, Oct. 30, 1821; d. St. Petersburg, Jan. 28, 1881. His family, although impoverished, was of the nobility. His father Michael was physician to a Moscow orphanage; his gentle and pious mother died when he was 17 years old. Fëdor received a deeply religious formation from her, and as a child he used to accompany her to churches and monasteries in Moscow, where the services impressed and attracted him. These early religious experiences were to become important factors in his life and writings.

In spite of his love for his mother, Fëdor found the home atmosphere cold and depressing under his martinet father. In 1837, the boy was enrolled in the school of military engineering in St. Petersburg, but he disliked and even resented the studies and military regime. His main and growing interest was in literature and the humanities. He avidly read Russian, French, and English classics, especially Balzac and Dickens. A bitter quarrel with his father ended tragically when that harsh man was murdered by his own ill-treated serfs. Appalled and shocked, Fëdor suffered the first of the epileptic seizures that were to become increasingly frequent. After graduation, he embarked on a writer's career, and his first short story, "Bédnye lyúdi" (1846, Poor People), won immediate recognition.

Suffering and Self-Realization. Dostoevski's rising fame was soon eclipsed. In 1849, he was charged with having taken part in a socialist underground movement, although actually he had merely attended the group's meeting. Arrested, tried, and condemned to death, he was pardoned at the last instant in the very place of his impending execution. He was taken in chains to Siberia, where he endured four years of hard labor among common criminals. His health and nerves were wrecked, but his spirit remained unbroken. His only book, a New Testament given him by a charitable woman who visited prisoners, sustained him and led him to a deep penetration of Christian mysteries and of the meaning of suffering. After his release, he was still obliged to serve in a regiment on the Siberian border. There he married a young widow, Maria Isayeva. Soon estranged from her, Dostoevski began to gamble and went abroad with a young and beautiful girl, Polina Suslova. When she returned his passionate love with coldness and finally left him, he returned to Maria, who was dying of tuberculosis. Deep remorse assailed him after her death and his epilepsy grew worse.

It was, however, in this period of deep distress and self-examination that he began to write his major novelsthe first, Prestupleniye i Nakazaniye (Crime and Punishment ), was published in 1866. A year later he married his stenographer, Anna Snitkina, who brought her husband love, security, and understanding. In spite of his passion for gambling, and in spite of poverty and ill health, his newly found peace of mind enabled him to continue his writing; Idiót (1868, The Idiot ), Bésy (187172, The Possessed ), and Brátya Karamázovy (187980, The Brothers Karamazov ) firmly established his fame.

The Quality of His Great Novels. Dostoevski's physical and mental afflictions deeply influenced his writings; his relationship with his father, for instance, was the seed of his frequent depiction in his novels of tensions and conflicts between father and son, murder, brutality, and guilt complex. But far more important are the deeply human quality of his novels and their constant spiritual theme: the struggle between good and evil, the problem of sin and salvation, the rebellion of the self-willed individualist who deems himself a superman (Crime and Punishment ) pitted against God, whose justice he refuses to accept. These were the problems that haunted Dostoevski until he found the answerin Christ, in His humility and love (The Idiot ), in pity for fellow men through Christ as exemplified in the Russian monastic ideal (The Brothers Karamazov ). If the law of love is rejected, man becomes not only bestial but monstrous (The Possessed ). This monstrous image of man prophetically foreshadowed the excesses of the Russian Revolution.

Besides the major novels mentioned above, Dostoevski wrote a number of other works: Igrók (1866, The Gambler ), Zapíski iz podpolya (1864, Notes from Underground ), Večnyj muž (1870, The Eternal Husband ), and others. He was not only a master of fiction but a precursor of modern depth psychology and an explorer of the sick and criminal mind. He betrayed in some of his writings a negative approach to Catholicism, not surprising, perhaps, in an author who was fervent, nationalistic, and militantly Russian Orthodox.

Bibliography: Latest editions of Dostoyevsky's works in Russian: Vospominanii[symbol omitted] (Leningrad 1930) and Sobranie sochinenti (Moscow 1956); The Diary of a Writer, tr. and ed. b. brasol, 2v. (New York 1949); Letters and Reminiscences, tr. s. s. koteliansky and j. m. murry (New York 1923). Literature. a. g. dostoevskaya, Dostoevsky Portrayed by His Wife, tr. and ed. s. s. koteliansky (New York 1926). j. s. coulson, Dostoevsky, a Self-Portrait (New York 1962). l. dostoevskai[symbol omitted], Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a Study (New Haven 1922). e. j. simmons, Dostoevsky: The Making of a Novelist (London 1950). h. troyat, Firebrand, tr. n. guterman (New York 1946). m. slonim, Three Loves of Dostoevsky (London 1955). n. a. berdiaev, Dostoievsky: An Interpretation, tr. d. attwater (New York 1934). v. i. ivanov, Freedom and the Tragic Life, tr. n. cameron (New York 1952). v. seduro, Dostoyevski in Russian Literary Criticism, 18461956 (New York 1957). r. guardini, L'Univers religieux de Dostoievski, tr. h. engleman and r. givord (Paris 1947). h. de lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, tr. e. m. riley (London 1949).

[h. iswolsky]

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