Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Great Russian writer

"To love someone means to see them as God intended them"

Dostoevsky’s life in events

Dostoevsky was born on Novaya Bozhedomka Street in Moscow. The metric book records: “A baby was born in the house of the hospital for the poor to the staff physician Mikhail Andreyevich Dostoyevsky’s son Fyodor. The priest Vasily Ilyin prayed. The hospital is still there, and the street (and neighbouring metro station) is named after the writer. There is also a memorial museum of Dostoevsky.

January 1846 – literary debut

Nikolai Nekrasov’s ‘Petersburg Collection’ published ‘Poor People’. Dostoevsky’s first novel was a great success among the public. Belinsky appreciated the talent of the young writer as extraordinary, and in literary circles the name of Dostoevsky became famous. According to legend, Nekrasov, one of the first readers of the novel, excitedly told Belinsky, “A new Gogol has appeared!” – To which the critic sceptically objected: “You have Gogols growing like mushrooms”. It was Nekrasov, however, who later seems to have removed Belinsky’s most enthusiastic descriptions of Dostoevsky from his articles. Not all critical reviews of him were so praiseworthy: in particular, The Severnaya Bee reproached the novice writer several times for following the ideas of the same Belinsky. Later Belinsky, dissatisfied with the novel The Double, would be disappointed in the writer’s literary talent, and Dostoevsky would be sceptical of the critic’s Westernist and socialist ideas.

Spring 1846 – meeting Petrashevsky

Dostoevsky met Mikhail Petrashevsky in Wolf and Beranger’s confectionery on Nevsky Prospect. According to Dostoevsky, “He seemed to me a very original man, but not empty; I noticed his legacy, his knowledge”. Petrashevsky, a young St. Petersburg official, hosted meetings in his flat where the ideas of the French utopian socialists, among others, were discussed. Among the visitors of Petrashevsky’s “Fridays” were also writers, among them the young Mikhail Saltykov (Shchedrin) and the critic Valerian Maikov. These authors were published in the journal Otechestvennye zapiski, where Dostoevsky in particular published his novels The Double and The Mistress, which to many contemporaries not unreasonably seemed similar to the works of other members of the circle. Utopian socialism would soon cease to appeal to the writer, but the images of idealists wishing to rebuild the world according to the laws of justice would prove very significant in Dostoevsky’s later works.

December 22, 1849 – five minutes before execution

The death sentence was read to the arrested Petrashevites, including Dostoevsky, at the Semyonovsky Platz, and everything necessary for execution was prepared, but at the last moment the highest mercy was announced. The execution was staged: Nicholas I decided in advance to replace it with hard labor and exile.

The main accusation against the writer was the reading aloud of Belinsky’s famous letter to Gogol from Salzbrunn. Dostoevsky admitted that he had indeed read it on 15 April. The letter from Belinsky, indignant at Gogol’s orthodox and monarchist book “Selected passages from his correspondence with friends”, did indeed contain very harsh passages. The authorities, however, did not appear to be reacting to the reading of the letter per se. After the wave of revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848, the Russian government was very wary of secret conspiracies. In this climate, the police and the Third Branch were keen to uncover at least some secret organisation, and the Petrashevites were perfectly suited to this role.

The whole scene made the strongest impression on Dostoyevsky. According to the recollections of witnesses, Dostoevsky “was somewhat enthusiastic, recalled Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of the Condemned to Death and, approaching Speshnev, said: “We shall be together with Christ.”

February 6, 1857 – first marriage

Dostoevsky marries Mary Dmitrievna Isayeva, a widow, in Kuznetsk. He met his future wife in the spring of 1854, soon after he finished his hard labour and was released from prison. Mariya Dmitrievna lived at this time with her husband in Semipalatinsk, where Dostoevsky, according to his sentence, was to serve as a private. She had a son, Pavel, who would become the writer’s stepson. A year before his marriage, on 16-18 January 1856, Dostoevsky wrote to his brother Michael:

“Coming out of my sad penitentiary, I came here with happiness and hope. I was like a sick man who begins to recover from a long illness and, having been at death’s door, feels the pleasure of living in the first days of recovery even more strongly. I had a lot of hope. I wanted to live. What can I tell you? I didn’t notice how my first year here passed. I was very happy. God sent me the acquaintance of a family that I will never forget. It is the Isayev family, of whom I seem to have written to you several times, I even entrusted you with one commission for them. It was not he who attracted me to him, but his wife, Marya Dmitrievna. It is a lady, still young, 28 years old, pretty, very educated, very intelligent, kind, sweet, graceful, with an excellent, generous heart. She bore this fate proudly and unruffledly and managed the position of a maid by herself, following her careless husband, to whom I read a lot of instructions by right of friendship, and her little son. She only became ill, impressionable and irritable. Her character, however, was cheerful and frisky. I hardly ever left their house. What happy evenings I spent in her company! I seldom met such a woman. They were almost all acquainted, partly through their husbands. They couldn’t keep up the acquaintance”.

“In May ’55 I escorted them to Kuznetsk; two months later he died of stone sickness. She was left on a foreign side, alone, exhausted and tormented by long grief, with a seven-year-old child and without a piece of bread. She couldn’t even bury her husband”.

“Now here’s the thing, my friend: I have loved this woman for a long time and I know that she can love too. I cannot live without her, and therefore, if only my circumstances change, though somewhat for the better and positive, I will marry her. I know she will not refuse me. My mind is made up, and though the earth may collapse beneath me, I will carry it out. But I cannot now, having nothing, take advantage of the disposition of this noblest creature towards me and now induce her to this marriage. Since the month of May, when I parted from her, my life has been hell. Every week we correspond”.

September 1, 1860 – “Notes from the Dead House”

The Russian World newspaper began publication of Notes from the Dead House. For many of his contemporaries it was this book, devoted to hard labor and prison, that turned out to be Dostoevsky’s most important work. Conveying his contradictory experiences, the writer combines the fictitious and the true in a complex way. In his book one finds both a true picture of life in prison and Dostoevsky’s typical complex analysis of the self-consciousness of the modern educated man. In the era of the Great Reforms, the description of a kind of ‘melting pot’, where representatives of very different estates find themselves on an equal footing, was particularly relevant. Ironically, for a long time this book was considered a far more significant work than, for example, Dostoevsky’s novels. Even the writer’s irreconcilable ideological opponents, such as the radical critic Dmitry Pisarev, praised Notes.

January 8, 1861 – Vremya magazine

The first issue of Vremya magazine, published by Dostoevsky’s brother Mikhail (in fact, both brothers were actively involved in the editorial staff), was published. The pages of that edition would publish, among other things, the novel The Humiliated and the Insulted. The magazine’s staff included the poet and critic Apollon Grigoriev, the philosopher Nikolai Strakhov and many others. The magazine, which polemicized both with conservative publications, such as the Russian Herald, and with the radical Sovremennik and Russkiy Slovo, offered a “psevennik” political and literary program, insisting on the careful attitude towards the folk spirit. This, however, did not interfere with the relative liberalism of Dostoevsky’s publication, which expressed very bold views on a wide range of social and political issues. Such courage led to the magazine’s closure: at the height of the Polish uprising in 1863, Strakhov published an article very boldly treating relations between Russia and Poland. “Vremya” was a success among readers, so shortly after the closure of the publication, Fyodor and Mikhail Dostoyevsky would open another magazine called Epoch. However, it won’t be as popular anymore.

8 June 1862 – Dostoevsky is abroad

Dostoevsky travels outside the Russian Empire for the first time. Like many Russians, the writer wanted to experience life in Western Europe. The writer visited Prussia, France, England, Switzerland and Italy. Conflicting, far from enthusiastic impressions of modern life in Western Europe are reflected in the journalistic ‘Winter notes on summer impressions’. However, many of Dostoevsky’s observations are also quite sympathetic: suffice it to recall the descriptions of Switzerland in The Idiot. During this journey, Dostoevsky would meet the political émigré Alexander Herzen, whose personality and work he would later become interested in. Finally, it was during the European trip that Dostoevsky became interested in playing roulette. The psychological side of this fascination is depicted in the novel The Gambler. The writer returned from his European trip by winter, but later would visit European countries repeatedly.

1863 – Dostoevsky and Suslova

August-September 1863 is the most intense period in Dostoevsky’s love affair with Apollinaria Suslova: they meet several times in European cities from Paris to Rome. Dostoevsky’s sweetheart, whom he met in the early 1860s, was much younger than him and very different in her political views. According to a contemporary, Suslova was “a girl with cropped hair, wearing a suit which from a distance resembles a man’s, a girl who appears everywhere alone, attending (formerly) university, writing, in a word emancipated”. She pursued literature and published several novels, including one in the magazine Vremya; she later married Vasily Rozanov, a future famous writer. The romance between Dostoevsky and Suslova was painful: Suslova was concurrently experiencing an unhappy love affair with another, while Dostoevsky was married. Both are believed to have described this love story in their works: Dostoevsky in his novel The Gambler and Suslova in her novel Stranger and Alien.

April 15, 1864 – the death of Maria Dostoevskaya

Maria Dostoevsky’s wife Maria died of consumption. A year later Dostoevsky would write to his friend, the diplomat Alexander Wrangel:

“She loved me without measure, I loved her also without measure, but we did not live happily with her. Despite the fact that we were positively unhappy with her together (due to her strange, vague and morbidly fantastic nature), we could not stop loving each other, even the more unhappy we were, the more attached to each other. Strange as it may seem, it was. She was the most honest, noblest and most generous woman I had ever known in all my life. When she died – though I agonised watching her die (for a whole year), though I appreciated and agonised over what I was burying with her – I could not imagine the pain and emptiness that became in my life when she was buried in the earth. It’s been a year now, and the feeling is still the same, it doesn’t diminish… After burying her, I rushed to Petersburg to my brother, he stayed with me alone, but three months later he also died, being unwell for only a month and a little, so that the crisis turned into death, it happened almost unexpectedly, in three days”.

30 January 1866 – “Crime and Punishment”

An issue of Russky Vestnik with the first part of his novel Crime and Punishment is out of print. It was Dostoevsky’s first, but not his last, novel to be printed in Mikhail Katkov’s journal, probably Russia’s most influential publisher. Katkov was a supporter of strong state power, sharply criticised liberals and ‘nihilists’ and stopped at nothing (including conflict with the censorship office) to defend his views. Dostoevsky later gave “The Idiot” to Katkov, and a conflict occurred with “The Imp”: Katkov refused to print a chapter of the novel describing the rape of a girl – and Dostoevsky was forced to remove it from the novel (this chapter is now printed in a supplement to “The Imp”). Dostoevsky printed his next novel, Podrostok, in Nekrasov and Saltykov-Shchedrin’s rival Otechestvennye Zapiski (Notes of the Fatherland), but The Brothers Karamazov was again published by Katkov. Despite the reader’s success, most critics did not believe that Crime and Punishment (and Notes from Underground, which had appeared the year before) represented a new step in Dostoevsky’s work.

February 15 1867 – second marriage

Dostoevsky marries Anna Grigorievna Snitkina, the stenographer to whom he dictated his novel “The Gambler”. Bound by contractual deadlines, Dostoevsky would not have been able to finish the work in time if he had written by hand. Working with Anna Grigorievna proved successful, Dostoevsky invited her to work on completing Crime and Punishment – and, falling in love with his assistant, he proposed. His wife continued to help Dostoevsky prepare his work for print, maintain correspondence, etc. Anna Grigorievna has pawned her dowry to pay the numerous debts of the writer. Soon after their wedding, the couple would leave Russia for several years, not least to escape creditors. Snitkina was much younger than Dostoevsky and outlived him. After her husband’s death she wrote a book of memoirs, published Dostoevsky’s works and became a well-known philatelist. The marriage produced four children, two of whom died in infancy.

January 28, 1881 – death of the writer

Dostoevsky died of tuberculosis in St Petersburg. The writer’s death was unexpected: on the morning of the same day, Dostoevsky was composing business letters and making notes regarding the number of subscribers for The Writer’s Diary. In the evening, shortly after a quarrel with his sister Vera Mikhailovna Ivanova over an inheritance, he had a heavy bleeding which resulted in his death. The writer’s funeral became a social event: several thousand people (some reports claim up to thirty thousand) gathered there, speeches and poems were read. The funeral procession blocked Nevsky Prospect for several hours. Contemporaries noted that in the crowd met representatives of the most different social strata and political views; there were especially many students and pupils.