Fyodor Dostoevsky. Portrait by Vasily Perov, 1872
Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky (Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский, sometimes transliterated Dostoyevsky) (FYOH-dohr dohs-tah-YEHVS-kee) (born November 11, (October 30, Old Style), 1821, Moscow; died February 9, (January 28, O.S.), 1881, St. Petersburg, Russia), Russian writer, one of the major figures in Russian literature. He was an existentialist.
Born to parents Mikhail and Maria, Fyodor was the second of seven children. Fyodor's mother died of an illness in 1837.
Fyodor and his brother Michael were sent to the Military Engineering Academy at St. Petersburg shortly after their mother's death, though these plans had begun even before she became ill.
It was not long before his father, a retired military surgeon who served as a doctor at the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in Moscow, also died in 1839. While not known for certain, it is believed that Mikhail Dostoevsky was murdered by his own serfs, who reportedly became enraged during one of Mikhail's drunken fits of violence, restrained him, and poured vodka into his mouth until he drowned. Another story was that Mikhail died of natural causes, and a neighboring landowner cooked up this story of a peasant rebellion so he could buy the estate cheaply. Regardless of what may have actually happened, Sigmund Freud focused on this tale in his famous article, Dostoevsky and Parricide (1928).
Dostoevsky was arrested and imprisoned in 1849 for engaging in revolutionary activity against Tsar Nicholas I. On November 16 that year he was sentenced to death for anti-government activities linked to a radical intellectual group, the Petrashevsky Circle. After a mock execution in which he faced a staged firing squad, Dostoevsky's sentence was commuted to a number of years of exile performing hard labor at a katorga prison camp in Omsk, Siberia. The incidence of epileptic seizures, to which he was predisposed, increased during this period. He was released from prison in 1854, and was required to serve in the Siberian Regiment. Dostoevsky spent the following five years as a corporal (and latterly lieutenant) in the Regiment's Seventh Line Battalion stationed at the fortress of Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan.
This was a turning point in the author's life. Dostoevsky abandoned his earlier radical sentiments and became deeply conservative and extremely religious. He later formed a peculiar friendship with another archconservative, Konstantin Pobedonostsev. He began an affair with, and later married, Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, the widow of an acquaintance in Siberia.
In 1860, he returned to St. Petersburg, where he ran a series of unsuccessful literary journals with his older brother Mikhail. Dostoevsky was devastated by his wife's death in 1864, followed shortly thereafter by his brother's death. He was financially crippled by business debts and the need to provide for his brother's widow and children. Dostoevsky sunk into a deep depression, frequenting gambling parlors and blithely accumulating massive losses at the tables.
To escape creditors in Petersburg, Dostoevsky traveled to Western Europe. There, he attempted to rekindle a love affair with Apollinaria (Polina) Suslova, a young university student with whom he had had an affair several years prior, but she refused his marriage proposal. Dostoevsky was heartbroken, but soon met Anna Snitkina, a nineteen-year-old stenographer whom he married in 1867. This period resulted in the writing of his greatest books. From 1873 to 1881 he vindicated his earlier journalistic failures by publishing a monthly journal full of short stories, sketches, and articles on current events — the Writer's Diary. The journal was an enormous success.
In 1877 Dostoevsky gave the keynote eulogy at the funeral of his friend, the poet Nekrasov, to much controversy. In 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 Dostoevsky lived for a long time at the resort of Staraya Russa which was closer to St Petersburg and less expensive that German resorts. He died on January 28 (O.S.), 1881 and was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Dostoevsky's influence cannot be overemphasized: from Herman Hesse to Marcel Proust, from William Faulkner to Albert Camus, from Franz Kafka to Gabriel García Márquez — virtually no great 20th century writer has escaped his long shadow (rare dissenting voices include Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James and, more ambiguously, David Herbert Lawrence). Essentially a writer of myth (and in this respect sometimes compared to Herman Melville), Dostoevsky has created an opus of immense vitality and almost hypnotic power characterized by the following traits: feverishly dramatized scenes (conclaves) where his characters are, frequently in scandalous and explosive atmosphere, passionately engaged in Socratic dialogues a la Russe; the quest for God, the problem of Evil and suffering of the innocents haunt the majority of his novels; characters fall into a few distinct categories: humble and self-effacing Christians (prince Myshkin, Sonya Marmeladova, Alyosha Karamazov), self-destructive nihilists (Svidrigailov, Smerdyakov, Stavrogin, the underground man), cynical debauchers (Fyodor Karamazov), rebellious intellectuals (Raskolnikov, Ivan Karamazov); also, his characters are driven by ideas rather than by ordinary biological or social imperatives.
Dostoevsky's novels are compressed in time (many cover only a few days) and this enables the author to get rid of one of the dominant traits of realist prose, the corrosion of human life in the process of the time flux — his characters primarily embody spiritual values, and these are, by definition, timeless. Other obsessive themes include suicide, wounded pride, collapsed family values, spiritual regeneration through suffering (the most important motif), rejection of the West and affirmation of Russian Orthodoxy and Czarism. His work is sometimes characterized as 'polyphonic': unlike other novelists, Dostoevsky is free from a 'single vision', and although many writers have described situations from various angles, only Dostoevsky has engendered fully dramatic novels of ideas where conflicting views and characters are left to develop even unto unbearable crescendo.
By common critical consensus one among the handful of universal world authors, along with Dante, Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, Victor Hugo and a few others, Dostoevsky has decisively influenced 20th century literature, existentialism and expressionism in particular.
External links and references
- FyodorDostoevsky.com (http://www.FyodorDostoevsky.com) - The Definitive Dostoevsky fan site
- Fyodor Dostoevsky's brief biography and works (http://Dostoyevsky.thefreelibrary.com/)
- Project Gutenberg e-texts of some of Fyodor Dostoevsky's works (http://www.gutenberg.net/catalog/world/authrec?fk_authors=314)
- Selected Dostoevsky e-texts from Penn Librarys digital library project (http://digital.library.upenn.edu/webbin/book/search?author=Dostoyevsky%2c+)
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky (http://www.fmdostoyevsky.com) - Biography, ebooks, quotations, and other resources
- Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Vintage Classics, 1992, New York.
- Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Constance Garnett, introduction by Joseph Frank. Bantam Books, 1987, New York.