Fyodor Dostoevsky Biography
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821–1881), Russian author, born at Moscow, on the 30th of October 1821, was the second son of a retired military surgeon of a decayed noble family. He was educated at Moscow and at the military engineering academy at St Petersburg, which he left in 1843 with the grade of sub-lieutenant. Next year his father died, and he resigned his commission in order to devote himself to literature—thus commencing a long struggle with ill-health and penury.
In addition to the old Russian masters Gogol and Pushkin, Balzac and George Sand supplied him with literary ideals. He knew little of Dickens, but his first story is thoroughly Dickensian in character. The hero is a Russian “Tom Pinch,” who entertains a pathetic, humble adoration for a fair young girl, a solitary waif like himself. Characteristically the Russian story ends in “tender gloom.” The girl marries a middle-aged man of property; the hero dies of a broken heart, and his funeral is described in lamentable detail. The germ of all Dostoievsky’s imaginative work may be discovered here. The story was submitted in manuscript to the Russian critic, Bielinski, and excited his astonishment by its power over the emotions. It appeared in the course of 1846 in the Recueil de Saint-Pétersbourg, under the title of “Poor People.” An English version, Poor Folk, with an introduction by Mr George Moore, appeared in 1894.
The successful author became a regular contributor of short tales to the Annals of the Country, a monthly periodical conducted by Kraevsky; but he was wretchedly paid, and his work, though revealing extraordinary power and intensity, commonly lacks both finish and proportion. Poverty and physical suffering robbed him of the joy of life and filled him with bitter thoughts and morbid imaginings.
During 1847 he became an enthusiastic member of the revolutionary reunions of the political agitator, Petrachevski. Many of the students and younger members did little more than discuss the theories of Fourier and other economists at these gatherings. Exaggerated reports were eventually carried to the police, and on the 23rd of April 1849 Dostoievsky and his brother, with thirty other suspected personages, were arrested. After a short examination by the secret police they were lodged in the fortress of St Peter and St Paul at St Petersburg, in which confinement Feodor wrote his story A Little Hero.
On the 22nd of December 1849 the accused were all condemned to death and conveyed in vans to a large scaffold in the Simonovsky Place. As the soldiers were preparing to carry out the sentence, the prisoners were informed that their penalty was commuted to exile in Siberia. The novelist’s sentence was, four years in Siberia and enforced military service in the ranks for life. On Christmas eve 1849 he commenced the long journey to Omsk, and remained in Siberia, “like a man buried alive, nailed down in his coffin,” for four terrible years. His Siberian experiences are graphically narrated in a volume to which he gave the name of Recollections of a Dead-House (1858). It was known in an English translation as Buried Alive in Siberia (1881; another version, 1888). His release only subjected him to fresh indignities as a common soldier at Semipalatinsk; but in 1858, through the intercession of an old schoolfellow, General Todleben, he was made an under-officer; and in 1859, upon the accession of Alexander II., he was finally recalled from exile. In 1858 he had married a widow, Madame Isaiev, but she died at St Petersburg in 1867 after a somewhat stormy married life.
After herding for years with the worst criminals, Dostoievsky obtained an exceptional insight into the dark and seamy side of Russian life. He formed new conceptions of human life, of the balance of good and evil in man, and of the Russian character. Psychological studies have seldom, if ever, found a more intense form of expression than that embodied by Dostoievsky in his novel called Crime and Punishment. The hero Raskolnikov is a poor student, who is led on to commit a murder partly by self-conceit, partly by the contemplation of the abject misery around him. Unsurpassed in poignancy in the whole of modern literature is the sensation of compassion evoked by the scene between the self-tormented Raskolnikov and the humble street-walker, Sonia, whom he loves, and from whom, having confessed his crime, he derives the idea of expiation. Raskolnikov finally gives himself up to the police and is exiled to Siberia, whither Sonia follows him.
The book gave currency to a number of ideas, not in any sense new, but specially characteristic of Dostoievsky: the theory, for instance, that in every life, however fallen and degraded, there are ecstatic moments of self-devotion; the doctrine of purification by suffering, and by suffering alone; and the ideal of a Russian people forming a social state at some future period bound together by no obligation save mutual love and the magic of kindness. In this visionary prospect, as well as in his objection to the use of physical force, Dostoievsky anticipated in a remarkable manner some of the conspicuous tenets of his great successor Tolstoy. The book electrified the reading public in Russia upon its appearance in 1866, and its fame was confirmed when it appeared in Paris in 1867. To his remarkable faculty of awakening reverberations of melancholy and compassion, as shown in his early work, Dostoievsky had added, by the admission of all, a rare mastery over the emotions of terror and pity. But such mastery was not long to remain unimpaired. Crime and Punishment was written when he was at the zenith of his power. His remaining works exhibit frequently a marvellous tragic and analytic power, but they are unequal, and deficient in measure and in balance. The chief of them are: The Injured and the Insulted, The Demons (1867), The Idiot(1869), The Adult (1875), The Brothers Karamzov (1881).
From 1865, when he settled in St Petersburg, Dostoievsky was absorbed in a succession of journalistic enterprises, in the Slavophil interest, and suffered severe pecuniary losses. He had to leave Russia, in order to escape his creditors, and to seek refuge in Germany and Italy. He was further harassed by troubles with his wife, and his work was interrupted by epileptic fits and other physical ailments. It was under such conditions as these that his most enduring works were created. He managed finally to return to Russia early in the seventies, and was for some time director of The Russian World. From 1876 he published a kind of review, entitled Carnet d’un écrivain, to the pages of which he committed many strange autobiographical facts and reflections. The last eight years of his life were spent in comparative prosperity at St Petersburg, where he died on the 9th of February 1881.
His life had been irremediably seared by his Siberian experiences. He looked prematurely old; his face bore an expression of accumulated sorrow; in disposition he had become distrustful, taciturn, contemptuous—his favourite theme the superiority of the Russian peasant over every other class; as an artist, though uncultured, he had ever been subtle and sympathetic, but latterly he was tortured by tragic visions and morbidly preoccupied by exceptional and perverted types. M. de Vogüé, in his admirable Ecrivains russes, has worked out with some success a parallel between the later years of Dostoievsky and those of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Siberia effectually convinced the novelist of the impotence of Nihilism in such a country as Russia; but though he was assailed by ardent Liberals for the reactionary trend of his later writings, Dostoievsky became, towards the end of his life, an extremely popular figure, and his funeral, on the 12th of February 1881, was the occasion of one of the most remarkable demonstrations of public feeling ever witnessed in the Russian capital. The death of the Russian novelist was not mentioned in the London press; it is only since 1885, when Crime and Punishment first appeared, in English, that his name has become at all familiar in England, mainly through French translations.
A complete edition of his novels was issued at St Petersburg in fourteen volumes (1882–1883). Two critical studies by Tchij and Zelinsky appeared at Moscow in 1885, and a German life by Hoffmann at Vienna in 1899.
This Dostoevsky biography was adapted from the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica, now in the public domain.