Dostoevsky: A Most Interesting Life
Interesting History Online- Publish August 3rd, 2017
Fyodor Dostoevsky is often considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time. He had an influence on the existentialist movement, the popularity of the 'antihero' and wrote some of the best novels of ideas that exist. His writings are full of psychological depth, philosophy and a duality that has yet to be topped. Albert Einstein remarked, "Dostoevsky gives me more than any science, more than Gauss."
Dostoevsky was born on November 11, 1821. Both of his parents passed away before he was twenty one. He studied to be a military engineer, but it was short lived. He found some early success translating western literature into Russian.
He published his first novel in 1845. Poor Folk, a short novel, or novella, opened many new doors for him in St. Petersburg. The epistolary novella turned him into a minor celebrity in literary circles. He was hailed by Russia's foremost literary critic at the time, Vissarion Belinsky, for publishing Russia's first social novel.
His sophomore effort, The Double, was criticized in those same literary circles. The novella saw some of the psychological probing that would became standard in his later works. In a letter to his brother Mikhail in 1846, on the themes of The Double, he wrote, "the outward must be balanced by the inward. Otherwise, with the abscence of outward events, the inward will take too dangerous a sweep upward" (Magarshack, pg. 89).
Joseph Frank, the writer of the most well received of all Dostoevsky's biographies, and one of the best literary biographies of the twentieth century, commented:
"The idea embodied in The Double- the internal split between self-image and truth, between what a person wishes to believe about himself and what he really is- constitutes Dostoevsky's first grasp of a character type that became his hallmark as a writer."
(Frank, pg. 103).
Dostoevsky also wrote short stories during this time, one of the most well received, and unique, was White Nights. The short story is more closely linked to the Romanticism that was popular during, and right before, his early career. Joseph Frank wrote, "Charm is not a literary attribute that one ordinarily associates with Dostoevsky, but he was versatile enough to capture this elusive quality on the one or two occasions that he tried for it" (Frank, pg. 110).
"outgrowing one's old ideals: they are being shattered into fragments, into dust; if there is no other life one must build one up from the fragments. And meanwhile the soul longs and craves for something else! And in vain the dreamer rakes over his old dreams, as though seeking a spark among the embers, to fan them into flame, to warm his chilled heart by the rekindled fire, and to rouse up in it again all that was so sweet, that touched his heart, that set his blood boiling, drew tears from his eyes, and so luxuriously deceived him!”
Dostoevsky, White Nights
Dostoevsky was a Russian Orthodox Christian, and maintained belief in the Church throughout his life. But he also went through pivotal phase in his life where he was attracted to the radical western socialism that enjoyed popularity in St. Petersburg. Orlando Figes, in his cultural history of Russia, commented on Dostoevsky's prefered brand of socialism, "the type of socialism to which he subscribed had a close affinity with Christ's ideals. He agreed with Belinsky that if Christ appeared in Russia he 'would join the socialists.'" (Figes, pg. 328)
Dostoevsky joined a socialist discussion group in the late 1840s, called the Petrashevsky Circle. He was at odds with the more atheistic members, which would have been the majority of the group, but many of the topics that were discussed were of an intense interest to him. First and foremost, Dostoevsky believed that serfdom should end. See Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861.
In 1849, many of the members of the group were turned in to the authorities, and subsequently arrested and taken to the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. Dostoevsky's offense- he read out loud Belinsky's Letter to Gogol, which was by then famous but forbidden" (Figes, pg. 328)
One morning, Dostoevsky and other political prisoners were taken by carriage to Semenovsky Square in St. Petersburg. Once they had arrived, the prisoners were told they had been condemned to death by firing squad. Three of the prisoners, not including Dostoevsky, were led to three stakes lined up in front of the guards that had lined up with their rifles. Later in life, Dostoevsky stated "he felt only a mystic terror, and was completely dominated by the thought that in perhaps five minutes he would be going to another, unknown life" (Frank, pg. 178).
After allowing the prisoners to wait in suspense, the guards lowered their rifles, and it was announced that their death sentences would be commuted to hard labor in Siberia by the Tsar. It was the most famous "mock execution" in history, and left a life long effect on Dostoevsky. One of the men who had been tied to a stake before the firing squad never recovered his senses, and "remained a helpless, mental invalid for the rest of his days" (Frank, 179).
Dostoevsky later wrote about this experience, through a character in his novel The Idiot, recounting what he had once witnessed:
"His uncertainty and revulsion against this new thing which was bound to happen at any moment were terrible; but he said that nothing was more awful than the incessant thought, 'What if I was not to die! What if life was given back to me!"
(Dostoevsky, The Idiot, pg. 81).
Next, Dostoevsky was sent to a prison camp in Siberia for four years of hard labor. The time spent in Sibera "brought him face to face with the roughest and most brutal of the common people and gave him what he thought of as a special insight into the hidden depths of the Russian soul... What Dostoevsky found amongst his fellow convicts was a level of depravity that shook him from his old intelligentsia belief in people's innate goodness and perfectibility" (Figes, 329).
It was the "dark vision" of the human psyche he developed in Sibera, coupled with his Russian Orthodox beliefs that weaves a duality between faith and skepticism that made his later works so iconic. This dark period in his life inspired a regeneration, and in fact an evolution, of his faith.
He came to believe, like Leo Tolstoy, that the true goodness in the world was to be found in the spirit of the Russian peasant. The depravity in Siberia was the resonating "'filth' of centuries of oppression concealing, like a 'diamond', the peasant's Christian soul" (Figes, pg. 331).
D.H. Lawrence criticized this duality in Dostoevsky's writings, opining that "I don't like Dostoevsky. He is like the rat, slithering along in hate, in the shadows, and in order to belong to the light, professing love, all love." Dostoevsky Research Station
After being released from prison, Dostoevsky served in the Siberian Army Corps as part of the "commuting" of his death sentence. Following his time in the army, he spent time traveling Europe. In 1859, he returned to St. Petersburg, shortly before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861.
He published Notes from the Underground in 1864. Its considered to be one of the earliest examples of existentialist fiction. The novel pioneered the concept of the antihero, and by extension the film noir genre that became popular in Hollywood in the twentieth century.
Crime and Punishment was published in installments in 1866, and can be seen as an attack on the nihilist movement.
The Idiot was Dostoevsky's most personal novel. In it, Dostoevsky "embodies his most intimate, cherished, and sacred convictions" (Frank, pg. 577). In this novel he draws on his experiences with epilepsy that had plagued him since Siberia, and the mock execution he experienced.
The Brothers Karamazov was Dostoevsky's last work, and the culmination of the themes he had developed in his other post-Siberia novels. It is a grand novel of ideas, a murder mystery, and a contrast between his own faith and disbelief. It contains one of the greatest courtroom scenes in all of literature. The Brothers Karamazov also contains one of the strongest arguments for atheism in literary history, as well as his own rebuttal, through the character of the Elder Zossima. The chapter The Grand Inquisitor is widely held to be one of the most compelling single chapters in all of world literature.
Magarshack, David. Dostoevsky. Norwalk, CT: Easton, 1963. Print.
Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky. Princeton (N.J.): Princeton U, 1990. Kindle Edition.
Figes, Orlando. Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, Henry Carlisle, and Olga Andreyev Carlisle. The Idiot. Signet Classics: New York, NY, 1980. Print.