Sue Young Histories

Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky 1821 – 1881

January 27, 2009

Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky (Dostoevsky, Dostoievsky, Dostojevskij, Dostoevski or Dostoevskii) 1821 –  1881 was a Russian fiction writer, essayist and philosopher whose works include Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky’s father treated him with homeopathy, and Dostoevsky remained an advocate of homeopathy throughout his life, writing about it often in his literature.

Dostoevsky became the Editor of a right wing journal, Grazhdanin (The Citizen), owned by Prince Vladimir Petrovich Meshchersky

Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy which seemed to begin around 1850 while he was imprisoned for his political beliefs. After this time, his father, a conventional physician, treated Dostoevsky for a severe throat affliction, but his conventional treatment didn’t provide benefit and even led to a permanent impairment of his voice (Rice, 1983).

Dr. Dostoevsky then resorted to prescribing homeopathic medicines for his son, though there isn’t evidence that his father was trained in homeopathy and the results were unclear. Later in life, Dostoevsky included in his classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), a dialogue in which one of the brothers tells the other: ”Homeopathic doses perhaps are the strongest”:

But you have the thousandth of a grain. Homeopathic doses perhaps are the strongest. Confess that you have faith even to the ten thousandth of a grain.”

Dostoyevsky was the second of six children born to Mikhail and Maria Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky’s father Mikhail was a retired military surgeon and a violent alcoholic, who served as a doctor at the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in Moscow.

The hospital was situated in one of the worst areas in Moscow. Local landmarks included a cemetery for criminals, a lunatic asylum, and an orphanage for abandoned infants. This urban landscape made a lasting impression on the young Dostoyevsky, whose interest in and compassion for the poor, oppressed, and tormented was apparent.

Though his parents forbade it, Dostoyevsky liked to wander out to the hospital garden, where the suffering patients sat to catch a glimpse of sun. The young Dostoyevsky loved to spend time with these patients and hear their stories.

There are many stories of Dostoyevsky’s father’s despotic treatment of his children. After returning home from work, he would take a nap while his children, ordered to keep absolutely silent, stood by their slumbering father in shifts and swatted at any flies that came near his head.

However, it is the opinion of Joseph Frank, a biographer of Dostoyevsky, that the father figure in The Brothers Karamazov is not based on Dostoyevsky’s own father. Letters and personal accounts demonstrate that they had a fairly loving relationship.

Shortly after his mother died of tuberculosis in 1837, Dostoyevsky and his brother were sent to the Military Engineering Academy at Saint Petersburg. Fyodor’s father died in 1839. Though it has never been proven, it is believed by some that he was murdered by his own serfs.

According to one account, they became enraged during one of his drunken fits of violence, restrained him, and poured vodka into his mouth until he drowned. Another story holds that Mikhail died of natural causes, and a neighboring landowner invented the story of his murder so that he might buy the estate inexpensively.

Some have argued that his father’s personality had influenced the character of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the “wicked and sentimental buffoon”, father of the main characters in his 1880 novel The Brothers Karamazov, but such claims fail to withstand the scrutiny of many critics.

Dostoyevsky had epilepsy and his first seizure occurred when he was 9 years old. Epileptic seizures recurred sporadically throughout his life, and Dostoyevsky’s experiences are thought to have formed the basis for his description of Prince Myshkin’s epilepsy in his novel The Idiot and that of Smerdyakov in T__The Brothers Karamazov, among others.

At the Saint Petersburg Academy of Military Engineering, Dostoyevsky was taught mathematics, a subject he despised. However, he also studied literature by Shakespeare, Pascal, Victor Hugo and Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann. Though he focused on areas different from mathematics, he did well on the exams and received a commission in 1841.

That year, he is known to have written two romantic plays, influenced by the German Romantic poet/playwright Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller: Mary Stuart and Boris Godunov. The plays have not been preserved. Dostoyevsky described himself as a “dreamer” when he was a young man, and at that time revered Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller. However, in the years during which he yielded his great masterpieces, his opinions changed and he sometimes poked fun at Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller.

Dostoyevsky was made a lieutenant in 1842, and left the Engineering Academy the following year. He completed a translation into Russian of Honore de Balzac’s novel Eugénie Grandet in 1843, but it brought him little or no attention.

Dostoyevsky started to write his own fiction in late 1844 after leaving the army. In 1845, his first work, the epistolary short novel, Poor Folk, published in the periodical The Contemporary (Sovremennik), was met with great acclaim. As legend has it, the editor of the magazine, poet Nikolai Nekrasov, walked into the office of liberal critic Vissarion Belinsky and announced, “a new Gogol has arisen!” Vissarion Belinsky, his followers, and many others agreed.

After the novel was fully published in book form at the beginning of the next year, Dostoyevsky became a literary celebrity at the age of 24.

In 1846, Vissarion Belinsky and many others reacted negatively to his novella, The Double, a psychological study of a bureaucrat whose alter ego overtakes his life. Dostoyevsky’s fame began to cool. Much of his work after Poor Folk met with mixed reviews and it seemed that Vissarion Belinsky’s prediction that Dostoyevsky would be one of the greatest writers of Russia was mistaken.

Dostoyevsky was arrested and imprisoned on April 23, 1849 for being a part of the liberal intellectual group, the Petrashevsky Circle. Tsar Nicholas I after seeing the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe was harsh on any sort of underground organization which he felt could put autocracy into jeopardy.

On November 16 that year Dostoyevsky, along with the other members of the Petrashevsky Circle, was sentenced to death. After a mock execution, in which he and other members of the group stood outside in freezing weather waiting to be shot by a firing squad, Dostoyevsky’s sentence was commuted to four years of exile with hard labor at a katorga prison camp in Omsk, Siberia.

Dostoyevsky described later to his brother the sufferings he went through as the years in which he was “shut up in a coffin.” Describing the dilapidated barracks which, as he put in his own words, “should have been torn down years ago”, he wrote:

“In summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors were rotten. Filth on the floors an inch thick; one could slip and fall…We were packed like herrings in a barrel…There was no room to turn around. From dusk to dawn it was impossible not to behave like pigs…Fleas, lice, and black beetles by the bushel…”

He was released from prison in 1854, and was required to serve in the Siberian Regiment. Dostoyevsky spent the following five years as a private (and later lieutenant) in the Regiment’s Seventh Line Battalion, stationed at the fortress of Semipalatinsk, now in Kazakhstan.

While there, he began a relationship with Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, the wife of an acquaintance in Siberia. They married in February 1857, after her husband’s death.

Dostoyevsky’s experiences in prison and the army resulted in major changes in his political and religious convictions. Firstly, his ordeal somehow caused him to become disillusioned with ‘Western’ ideas; he repudiated the contemporary Western European philosophical movements, and instead paid greater tribute in his writing to traditional, rural based, rustic Russian ‘values’.

But even more significantly, he had what his biographer Joseph Frank describes as a conversion experience in prison, which greatly strengthened his Christian, and specifically Orthodox, faith (Dostoyevsky would later depict his conversion experience in the short story, The Peasant Marey (1876)).

Dostoyevsky now displayed a much more critical stance on contemporary European philosophy and turned with intellectual rigour against the Nihilist and Socialist movements; and much of his post-prison work - particularly the novel, The Possessed and the essays, The Diary of a Writer - contains both criticism of socialist and nihilist ideas, as well as thinly veiled parodies of contemporary Western influenced Russian intellectuals (Timofey Granovsky), revolutionaries (Sergey Nechayev), and even fellow novelists (Ivan Turgenev).

In social circles, Dostoyevsky allied himself with well known conservatives, such as the statesman Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev. His post prison essays praised the tenets of the Pochvennichestvo movement, a late 19th century Russian nativist ideology closely aligned with Slavophilism.

Dostoyevsky’s post-prison fiction abandoned the European style domestic melodramas and quaint character studies of his youthful work in favor of dark, more complex story lines and situations, played out by brooding, tortured characters - often styled partly on Dostoyevsky himself - who agonized over existential themes of spiritual torment, religious awakening, and the psychological confusion caused by the conflict between traditional Russian culture and the influx of modern, Western philosophy.

This, nonetheless, does not take from the debt which Dostoyevsky owed to the earlier (Western influenced within Russia Gogol) writers whose work grew from out of the irrational and anti authoritarian spiritualist ideas contained within the Romantic movement which had immediately preceded Dostoyevsky in Europe.

However, Dostoyevsky’s major novels focused on the idea that utopias and positivist ideas being utilitarian were unrealistic and unobtainable.

In December 1859, Dostoyevsky returned to Saint Petersburg, where he ran a series of unsuccessful literary journals, Vremya (Time) and Epokha (Epoch), with his older brother Mikhail. The latter had to be shut down as a consequence of its coverage of the Polish Uprising of 1863.

That year Dostoyevsky traveled to Europe and frequented the gambling casinos. There he met Apollinaria Suslova, the model for Dostoyevsky’s “proud women,” such as the two characters named Katerina Ivanovna, in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoyevsky was devastated by his wife’s death in 1864, which was followed shortly thereafter by his brother’s death. He was financially crippled by business debts; furthermore, he made the voluntary decision to assume the responsibility of his deceased brother’s outstanding debts, and he also provided for his wife’s son from her earlier marriage and his brother’s widow and children. Dostoyevsky sank into a deep depression, frequenting gambling parlors and accumulating massive losses at the tables.

Dostoyevsky suffered from an acute gambling compulsion as well as from its consequences. By one account Crime and Punishment, possibly his best known novel, was completed in a mad hurry because Dostoyevsky was in urgent need of an advance from his publisher. He had been left practically penniless after a gambling spree.

Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler simultaneously in order to satisfy an agreement with his publisher Stellovsky who, if he did not receive a new work, would have claimed the copyrights to all of Dostoyevsky’s writings.

Motivated by the dual wish to escape his creditors at home and to visit the casinos abroad, Dostoyevsky traveled to Western Europe. There, he attempted to rekindle a love affair with Apollinaria Suslova, but she refused his marriage proposal. Dostoyevsky was heartbroken, but soon met Anna Grigorevna Snitkina, a twenty year old stenographer. Shortly before marrying her in 1867, he dictated The Gambler to her.

This period resulted in the writing of what are generally considered to be his greatest books. From 1873 to 1881 he published the Writer’s Diary, a monthly journal full of short stories, sketches, and articles on current events. The journal was an enormous success.

Dostoyevsky is also known to have influenced and been influenced by the philosopher Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov. Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov is noted as the inspiration for the character Alyosha Karamazov.

In 1877, Dostoyevsky gave the keynote eulogy at the funeral of his friend, the poet Nekrasov, to much controversy.

On June 8, 1880, shortly before he died, he gave his famous Pushkin speech at the unveiling of the Pushkin monument in Moscow.

In his later years, Fyodor Dostoyevsky lived for a long time at the resort of Staraya Russa in northwestern Russia, which was closer to Saint Petersburg and less expensive than German resorts.

He died on February 9 (January 28 O.S.), 1881 of a lung hemorrhage associated with emphysema and an epileptic seizure. He was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg. Forty thousand mourners attended his funeral. His tombstone 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.” from John 12:24, which is also the epigraph of his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov.