The following biographical sketch emphasizes those aspects of Dostoevsky’s life that most influenced his great masterpiece, Brothers Karamazov. This sketch is compiled from well-known facts about Dostoevsky, but also makes liberal use of the canonical biographies by Joseph Frank and Leonid Grossman. For additional biographical information and for complete citations for the Frank and Grossman biographies, consult our Bibliography.
Dostoevsky’s Early Years
Before the man comes the child, and before the child comes the parents. Russia’s greatest novelist, Fyodor Mikhailevich Dostoevsky, was born in Moscow on October 30, 1821, to parents of remarkably different character. Dostoevsky’s father was a stern man who held his son to rigorous standards. His mother was a generous woman who provided her son unconditional love. This tension – between harsh judgment and forgiving love – would be his life’s theme, recurring throughout his major works.
Dostoevsky’s father, Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky, was born into the clergy and was expected to become a clergyman himself. But after graduating from the seminary at fifteen, the senior Dostoevsky ran off to Moscow and enrolled in the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy. He graduated in 1812, and for many years served as a surgeon at various military posts. Though his medical career was successful, years of performing hopeless operations and gruesome amputations embittered the doctor, further twisting a nature that was already subject to despair.
Biographers presume that Dr. Dostoevsky suffered from an undiagnosed nervous disorder. Bad weather gave him excruciating headaches and threw him into fits of drinking, bad temper, and despondency. Exacerbating his physical problems was a profound religious temperament – Dr. Dostoevsky believed absolutely that he was one of God’s chosen ones, and that all of his trials carried special significance. His sufferings were therefore not merely physical; they were profoundly spiritual as well.
In contrast to his father was Dostoevsky’s mother, Maria, who was warm and loving. Dostoevsky’s mother had a different orientation to her religion: she was moved not by the trials of her religion, but by the generosity and joyfulness of Christ. Dostoevsky’s education was from the start infused by Maria’s religious spirit – it was she who taught her son to read using the stories of the Old and New Testaments. Still, it’s interesting to note that the young Dostoevsky’s favorite story was the story of– a man who suffered terrible trials in order to be obedient to the will of his God. We can imagine that the young Dostoevsky saw his father’s character reflected in this story. But in the soothing sounds of his mother’s gentle tutoring, this hard lesson of suffering was complemented by the promise and fulfillment of love.
The relationship between Dostoevsky’s parents was complicated. Publicly, they seemed a respectable couple. Indeed, documents exist that illustrate a very strong and passionate love. Dr. Dostoevsky found it difficult to be parted from his wife, and wrote loving, longing letters to her when she was absent. But longing has its darker sides, and Dr. Dostoevsky’s love was marked by jealousy, possessiveness, and a strong desire to control. At one point his jealousy became so fierce that he irrationally challenged the paternity of one of his children – causing the pious Maria to burst into a tearful plea in her own defense.
Dr. Dostoevsky was not only a controlling and demanding husband; he was a controlling and demanding father as well. He required the highest standards of his children, and he was cruel when these standards were not met. His despotism was so intense that it influenced even the most banal household routines. For example, every afternoon the doctor would return home for a nap. While he was napping, the children had to be absolutely silent. They were punished severely for the slightest of sounds. In summer months, they would take turns standing by their father for the duration of his nap, swatting away the flies.
Even a loving mother would find it difficult to counter the sense of oppression that surrounded Dostoevsky as a child. His physical environment did little to lift the sense of gloom. The hospital sat in a neighborhood of squalor, one of the worst areas in Moscow. The landmarks included a cemetery for criminals, a lunatic asylum, and an orphanage for abandoned infants. The hardships of this urban landscape made a lasting impression on the young Dostoevsky, whose interests in and compassion for the poor and oppressed tormented him. Though his parents forbade it, Dostoevsky liked to wander out to the hospital garden, where the suffering patients sat, devouring any small bit of sun. The young Dostoevsky loved to spend time with these patients. Their sad stories were living examples of human suffering.
Though his time in Moscow marked him, urban life was not the whole of Dostoevsky’s childhood world. In 1827, Dostoevsky’s father was promoted to a rank that permitted him to own land and. In 1831, he purchased the village of Darovoe, and a year later he bought the hamlet of Cheremoshna – 1400 acres of land and 100 “ .” For four months every year, Dostoevsky would go with his mother and brother to the country – a journey that liberated him from the moods of his father. In Darovoe, Dostoevsky experienced what he would later call “a happy and placid childhood.”
Dostoevsky loved the countryside, with its sweeping landscapes and open air. He spent most of his time wandering in the forest around his family’s estate. In fact, he spent so much time in the woods that his family referred to the forest as “Fedka’s Wood.” During his ramblings Dostoevsky discovered not only the majesty of the nature, but also the simple dignity of the peasants who inhabited countryside. The young Dostoevsky was enchanted by the way the peasants lived. He romanticized their simple poverty, admired the power of their faith, and developed a deep sympathy for their hardships.
In the spring of 1833, an event occurred that would underscore these hardships for the young Dostoevsky: a fire broke out and destroyed both of his father’s villages, leaving the landscape charred and thehomeless. This event would have a strong effect on the young Dostoevsky, whose heart bled at the sight of desolation and suffering. Many years later, Dostoevsky would recall the burnt landscape in Dmitri’s dream in Brother’s Karamazov.
The peasants’ suffering inspired an almost religious feeling in Dostoevsky. He came to idealize the peasant as capable of spiritual understanding purer than any that might be achieved by the overly intellectual members of his own class.
Dostoevsky’s mother shared her son’s sympathy for the peasants, but her husband did not. This difference was a source of division between the couple. Maria refused to treat herwith cruelty, even when her husband insisted that she beat them to keep them in their place. Nor would she berate her children for not mastering their lessons – something that her husband would frequently do. Maria’s small rebellions became a great source of irritation to her husband, who became increasingly demanding of her. The devoted Maria, who had been delicate to begin with, was exhausted by her husband’s relentless need to control her.
The exhaustion took its toll. The last several years of Dostoevsky’s life in Moscow were colored by his mother’s slow decline as she was diagnosed with, and then suffered from, consumption. In the final months the illness grew aggressive, ravaging her until she lost consciousness. And then, one morning, when her son was only 15 years old, Maria Dostoevskaya regained consciousness, called her family together, asked for an icon to kiss, wept, and then died. She was 35 years old. The family was devastated. It had lost its
After the death of his wife, Dr. Dostoevsky went into seclusion with his younger children in Darovoe, sending Mikhail and Fyodor to boarding school. In seclusion he became more bitter and more cruel. Dr. Dostoevsky often took his unhappiness out on his, beating them on a whim. This brutality would prove to be fatal. One day in early June, 1838, the doctor left Darovoe for his other property, Cheremoshna and did not return. He was later found murdered on the road between the two villages, suffocated by a cushion from the carriage. His driver was missing. So were his horses. Several of his had also disappeared.
No trial was held for this murder; no conclusive motive was determined. Some say that the murder resulted from a fight that had broken out spontaneously between landowner and serf. Others believe that the senior Dostoevsky was ambushed as revenge for having dishonored some young girls in his household. Still others believed that the doctor had been punished for his cruelty.
Whatever the case, at the age of 16 Dostoevsky was orphaned. His family life had come to an end.
Setting Out to Petersburg
Even before his father died, Dostoevsky had been attending the Academy of Military Engineers, a prestigious boarding school that would insure the young Dostoevsky a bright future. The school was in, and Dostoevsky was thrilled to be going. What young man would not be excited by the majesty of the capital city? But his journey to Petersburg was marred by an episode that Dostoevsky called “his first insult” – an event that he would remember all of his life.
Dostoevsky had stopped on his journey in order to get something to eat. As he ate, he looked out the window to see a governmentpull up to the station across the way. A government courier jumped out of the , rushed into the station to have a glass of vodka, and then rushed out again, to a new . When he got into the , he began to beat the young driver mercilessly, simply from impatience, as a way of urging the driver to hurry the horses onbtheir way. The beating continued and intensified. Even as the horses galloped off, the courier was still pummeling the driver as the carriage pulled out of sight.
This episode would bring the young Dostoevsky face to face with the unjust behavior of the government and its officials. Later in his life, when he was joining the movement to abolish serfdom in Russia, he would recall this memory – still with a shudder. The physical punishment ofand servants would be a point of discussion even in his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov.
But Brothers Karamazov was many years away. Before he could become a great writer, Dostoevsky would have to finish his education. Unfortunately the education that he was being offered at the Academy of Military Engineers was not the sort of education he was craving. Dostoevsky was disillusioned by the academy: the course work wasn’t interesting, and his classmates were boorish. They did not care to discuss the “eternal questions” that so deeply interested Dostoevsky. He made a few close and important friends – those with whom he could discuss literature and philosophy. But mostly school bored him, and he earned mediocre grades.
In 1843, Dostoevsky graduated from military school and received a small post doing deskwork in. His average grades had kept him from a more prosperous position. He lived in poverty – not because of lack of money, but because he squandered every cent that fell into his hands. Dostoevsky had developed what would become a life-long addiction to gambling. Every payday, he would go immediately to gamble and would lose his pay at billiards or dominoes. (Later, his game of choice would be roulette.) He was generous with his money, and impulsive with it, often borrowing against expected money in order to throw parties. Still, despite the parties and the gambling, Dostoevsky found time to try his hand at writing, producing sketches, essays, and stories – mostly for his own amusement.
In 1844, Dostoevsky was ordered to travel to a distant post – an order that would take him away from both his fun and his writing for several months. Dostoevsky did not want to go, and so he resigned his commission. His relatives were against the resignation, worried that he would have trouble supporting himself. But the decision was a significant move. From here on, Dostoevsky would have to make a living from his writing.
His first work to appear in print was a translation of Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet. Dostoevsky was ecstatic to see his work in print. Even more important, the translation work gave him the opportunity to study the art of the novel. As he studied Balzac’s sentences and story structure, he began to plan stories of his own.
Then, on a cold day in January, 1844, Dostoevsky had a “vision on the” in which he saw the subject for his first book – a lowly civil servant and the woman who loves him. The work was to be called Poor Folk, a tragedy of noble-hearted people crushed by their poverty. The theme of the work – like many of Dostoevsky’s works – is the redemptive power of selfless love in a world of grim realities.
When Dostoevsky finished the novel, he gave it to his friend, the great poetwho loved it and took it immediately to the famed and influential literary critic, Belinsky. Belinsky read the entire work in one sitting. Late that night ran to Dostoevsky’s quarters to give him the news: Belinsky loved the book and wanted to see Dostoevsky immediately. Dostoevsky’s reaction was divided: he felt a kind of rapture over the praise, but he was terrified to meet Belinsky and to embrace the fullness of his success. At first he refused to go. In the end, however, he met with Belinsky. With that meeting he was initiated into the inner circles of Russian literary culture.
With the initiation into literary circles came an initiation into political circles as well. Belinsky was a socialist, as was Dostoevsky. But the difference between the two was profound. Belinsky’s socialism sought revolution against the Tsar and his institutions, while Dostoevsky’s socialism emphasized brotherhood for all. Moreover, Belinsky was an atheist, while Dostoevsky believed that Christianity, with its emphasis on love, held the answers to Russia’s social ills.
The disagreement with Belinsky set Dostoevsky up for ridicule within literary circles. Possibly the depth of his talent intensified this ridicule; certainly there were many in Belinsky’s circle who envied Dostoevsky for his talent and for the acclaim he was receiving. But it was his serious, spiritual nature that made Dostoevsky somewhat out of fashion with others in Belinsky’s Circle. Eventually, he would break with this circle and find another whose influence on his life would be profound.
Politics and Punishment
According to Dostoevsky’s biographers, Petrashevsky first approached Dostoevsky with great fanfare on Nevsky Prospekt and asked him what the subject of his next story would be.
Petrashevsky was a tremendously influential figure. He had a “circle” of young followers who met at his house off of Potrovsky Square to discuss the overthrow of the current social order. Petrashevsky aggressively criticized the reign of Nicholas I, calling for the abolition of serfdom, the reformation of the courts, and freedom of the press. Petrashevsky’s views were extreme: “We have sentenced the present social order to death,” he is often quoted as saying. “Now we must carry out that sentence.”
Petrashevsky was a follower of Fourier, the anti-capitalist, French utopian philosopher who proposed a romantic solution to social problems. Key to Fourier’s utopia was the concept of the “phalanx” – a joint agrarian/industrial association for community life, where concerts, dances, and readings would be held. Fourier argued that such a center would teach people of all walks of life to live together in harmony. A strong sense of community would bring people to love their work and their fellow man.
Dostoevsky never had revolutionary aspirations – that is, he never wanted to overthrow, in bloody fashion, the existing government. Fourier’s ideas were not a threat to Russia’s political structure; rather, they inspired a revolution of the mind and spirit. This sort of revolution interested Dostoevsky very much.
Dostoevsky wanted to form a different kind of circle – one whose concern was art, not politics. He asked his friend Speshnev to help him create the new circle. The two men had in common a belief in the power of language. Dostoevsky wanted to use that power to inspire utopia, not revolution. Speshnev, on the other hand, wanted to use language to spread “socialism, atheism, and terrorism – everything good in the world.” Though he disagreed with Speshnev’s ideas about the use of language, Dostoevsky shared with Speshnev the belief that freedom in language was essential to Russia’s future. Accordingly, Dostoevsky agreed to establish, with Speshnev, an underground press. This relationship with Speshnev would prove to be Dostoevsky’s undoing.
Scholars continue to debate Dostoevsky’s involvement in the plottings of Speshnev and his circle. What is clear is that Dostoevsky declared that he’d found himself in a kind of devil’s deal with Speshnev. For several months at the end of 1848 and the beginning of 1849, Dostoevsky was especially melancholy and agitated – so much so that he visited his doctor to see if there was some organic source for his malaise. His doctor found nothing, but was concerned for Dostoevsky and asked him what was troubling him so. Dostoevsky told the doctor that he had borrowed some money from his friend Speshnev – and in doing so he had “a Mephistopheles” of his own. He went on to tell the doctor that he could not repay the debt. And even if he could, Speshnev was not the sort of man to accept the repayment.
Joseph Frank believes that this final remark indicates that Dostoevsky’s debt to Speshnev was more than financial. Frank believes that Dostoevsky had become involved in Speshnev’s plot to revolt against the tsar and did not know how to extricate himself. Perhaps he wasn’t sure that he wanted to extricate himself. At this time Dostoevsky was overheard arguing bitterly with his brother Mikhail, who was committed to Fourier’s view that the new social order should be achieved through peaceful means. In the argument, Dostoevsky told his brother that he should read a book by Louis Blanc, which advocated using force to implement social change. From this conversation, Frank concludes that Dostoevsky had broken with Fourier’s views and was preparing to join Speshnev in his plot against the tsar. However, in the view of other scholars, Dostoevsky’s extreme agitation over the very mention of Speshnev indicates that it’s likely that he was ambivalent about how far he was willing to go.
The decision would never need to be made. Unbeknownst to the Petrashevsky Circle, Tsar Nicholas had been watching them for fourteen months. Events in Europe – in particular, the political uprisings in France- had made Nicholas nervous. He mobilized troops but never sent them. Instead, Nicholas turned his energies to his own country, putting intellectuals and revolutionaries under surveillance. Arrests began. In April 1849, Nicholas called for the arrest of all of the members of the Petrashevsky Circle. Dostoevsky’s name was on that list.
A little after four in the morning, on April 22, 1849, an officer burst into Dostoevsky’s room to tell him that he was under arrest. A dazed Dostoevsky was taken immediately to the Peter and Paul Fortress, where he was to be imprisoned while awaiting trial. Conditions at the fortress were severe. The dim cells were damp with mould. Each cell was far from the other, so that in solitary confinement prisoners would feel utterly and entirely alone.
Oddly, Dostoevsky claimed that his time in Peter and Paul Fortress was marked more by boredom than by anxiety or despair. For three days he felt that his life was over; then a feeling of calm descended on his soul. Some biographers say that the certainty of the upcoming trial was preferable to the uncertainty of the general paranoia that he had been feeling before his arrest. Others believe that his calm indicated that he had embraced his suffering and found strength in it.
In any case, Dostoevsky used his time in prison to read, write letters, and make notes for books to come. He read voraciously whatever books were sent him. He particularly requested the Bible, in several translations; he rejoiced over a collection of Shakespeare; he admired a serial publication of Jane Eyre. And he spent a good deal of time writing his defense.
Dostoevsky was accused of four different charges:
- As a former army office, he had listened to a story criticizing the army without objection;
- He had read a letter to the circle, from Belinsky to the famous writer Gogol, which criticized the church and government;
- He was in possession of an illegal printing press;
- He was part of a plot to murder the tsar.
The last of the four accusations Dostoevsky denied, but to no avail. In his written defense, he explained eloquently to his judges that though he believed in free speech and the abolition of serfdom, he was not seeking revolution. He further stated that Petrashevsky’s idol, Fourier, was not revolutionary; rather, Fourier claimed that art, not revolution, held the power to bring a universal harmony to man. Though he himself now believed that Fourier’s ideas were outdated and impossible to achieve, Dostoevsky continued to feel that socialism – of a particularly Russian character – might be the answer. He offers his own vision of what Russia might become:
All around us today, all whom life has trampled, all the worn-out women and starving children, all the alcoholics, the dying villages, and the cities’ horrible poverty and diseases – all will disappear into one jubilant hymn of unknown, unprecedented, universal and boundless happiness! [Leonid Grossman, Dostoevsky: A Biography, trans. Mary Mackler (London: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974) 146]
His eloquence got him nowhere. The judges remained unmoved. They wanted two things of their prisoners: 1) a sense of remorse, and 2) some new information about other subversive movements. Dostoevsky gave them neither. He did not renounce his convictions, and he was very concerned with protecting others. In the end, the judges sentenced all of the members of the Petrashevsky circle to death by firing squad. The prisoners were taken back to their cells to await their execution.
On the 22 of December, 1849, a 28-year-old Dostoevsky was marched out to face his death with the other members of the Petrashevsky Circle. The morning was cold; the wind was howling so fiercely that Dostoevsky could barely hear as each man’s name was called and his sentence read. The first three were called up to the line: Petrashevsky and two others. Dostoevsky was in the second group and stood watching as his three friends faced their executioners. The order was given for the soldiers to load their guns. A second order was given -
which Petrashevsky refused – to lower the hoods on the prisoners’ eyes. A third order was given to take aim. And then came a long silence.
At first, Dostoevsky did not understand what was happening – or not happening. And then, by the order of Tsar Nicholas, the death sentence was commuted, and the prisoners were instead sentenced to prison in Siberia. The prisoners accepted the news differently. Some were resentful; others rejoiced; one, Grigoryev, lost an already tenuous grip on his sanity. As for their leader, Petrashevsky: when the guards put on his chains, Petrashevsky grabbed the hammer and began to rivet the shackles with his own hands, mutilating himself in the process.
For Dostoevsky, the moment of reprieve was a resurrection. Having stood face to face with death, he was ready to embrace life – even life in exile. Dostoevsky related his feelings about the ordeal in the often-printed letter to his brother:
Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute will be an eternity of happiness! Si jeunesse savait! [If youth only knew!]…My brother, I do not feel despondent and have not lost heart. Life is life everywhere. Life is in ourselves and not outside us. There will be men beside me [in prison], and the important thing is to be a man among men and to remain a man always, whatever the misfortunes, not to despair and not to fall – that is the aim of life, that is its purpose. I realize this now. The idea has entered into my flesh and my blood. Yes, that is the truth! …I have still got my heart and the same flesh and blood which can love and suffer and pity and remember, and that is also life. Never before have I felt such abundant and healthy reserves of spiritual life in me as now… [Joseph Frank, The Years of Ordeal (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) 62-63. Quoted from Dostoevsky's Pisma, I: 129 - 131.]
Life in Exile
After a long journey across the Urals, in which the sledges were stalled in the snow and the cold bit brutally at the travelers, Dostoevsky arrived at the Omsk Fortress, in Siberia. It was a cold, hopeless, brutal place. Upon arrival, all prisoners had half of their heads shaved and were sent to a convict’s hut, which Dostoevsky describes as an “old, dilapidated wooden construction”:
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… [Frank 76. Quoted from Pisma, I: 135-137]
But the prison’s most threatening vermin was Major Krivtsov, the despot who ran it. Krivtsov believed it was his mission to break the prisoners’ spirits. He humiliated them, terrified them, flogged them. Dostoevsky became obsessed with a fear of being flogged. He would linger around prisoners who had experienced the whip and ask them to describe the pain to him in minute detail. He wanted to determine whether he, himself, could endure it. The hardships of prison proved to be a strain on his already-weak nerves, and Dostoevsky found himself often in the prison hospital, suffering fits of epilepsy.
Making matters worse for Dostoevsky was the class hostility between prisoners. The serf prisoners hated the gentlemen and took advantage of every opportunity to seek revenge for the wrongs done to them in the outside world. Dostoevsky describes the class hatred:
They [the peasant convicts] were coarse, ill-natured, cross-grained people. Their hatred for the gentry knew no bounds, and therefore they received us, the gentlemen, with hostility and malicious joy in our troubles. They would have eaten us alive, given the chance… [The peasants accused the gentry:] “You are noblemen, iron beaks that used to peck us to death. Before, the master used to torment the people, but now he is lower than the lowest, has become one of us.” [Frank 76. Quoted from Pisma, I: 135-137]
This revelation – that the peasants hated the gentry – challenged Dostoevsky’s earlier idealization of the “simple peasant.” It also challenged his belief that man is essentially good. In prison, Dostoevsky witnessed the abuse of the prisoners by the guards; he also saw prisoners abusing one another. They stole from each other, beat each other, cheated each other, and even raped each other. But worst of all, they seemed not to feel any remorse. Dostoevsky had believed that the peasants were spiritually superior to the intelligentsia. He also believed in the redeeming social power of remorse. Now he understood that he had misunderstood human nature altogether.
Even worse, he had misunderstood himself. Dostoevsky was surprised at the revulsion he felt towards his fellow man. In a letter, he says:
There were moments when I hated everybody I came across, innocent or guilty, and looked at them as thieves who were robbing me of my life with impunity. The most unbearable misfortune is when you yourself become unjust, malignant, vile; you realize it, you even reproach yourself – but you just can’t help it. [Frank 105. Quoted from a letter to Mme. Fonvizina, Pisma, I: 143]
Still, in the midst of abuse, corruption, and cruelty, Dostoevsky experienced a change of heart. It was during Pascha, a holiday very important to Orthodox Christianity, that Dostoevsky found that he did indeed share something with his inmates -Russian Orthodoxy. Dostoevsky writes about this moment in the “fictionalized memoir” he wrote after his return from exile, Notes from the House of the Dead:
The convicts took their prayers very seriously, and each time they came to church each one of them would…buy a candle or contribute to the collection. “I’m somebody, too,” was what they thought or felt as they gave it up – “everyone’s equal before God…” We took communion at early mass. When, with the chalice in his hand, the priest cam to the words “…receive me, O Lord, even as the robber,” nearly all the convicts fell kneeling to the ground with a jangling of fetters, apparently interpreting these words as a literal expression of their own thoughts.[Fyodor Dostoevsky, House of the Dead, trans. David McDuff (London: Penguin Books, 1985) 275]
This moment illustrates the beginning of Dostoevsky’s conversion. Once he saw the peasants as brothers in Christ, he came to believe once again that criminals were spiritual beings, worthy of care and capable of redemption:
Men, however, are everywhere men…Believe me, there are deep, strong, beautiful characters among them, and what a joy it was to discover the gold under the coarse, hard surface. And not one, not two, but several. It is impossible not to respect some of them, and some are positively splendid…I have lived closely with them, and so I think I know them thoroughly. How many stories of tramps and bandits, and in general or the dark and miserable milieu! … What a wonderful people … [Frank 77-78. Quoted from Pisma, I: 138-139]
Despite his conversion, however, Dostoevsky’s belief in Russian Orthodoxy would never be complete. As he wrote to a friend, he would always suffer as:
…a child of disbelief and doubt…and will remain so until the grave. How much terrible torture this thirst for faith has cost me and costs me even now, which is all the stronger in my soul the more arguments I find against it. [Frank 160. Quoted from a letter to Mme. Fonvizina, Pisma, I: 142]
Dostoevsky’s prison days — and, indeed, the whole of his life — would be a struggle to retain his faith both in God and in the goodness of man.
Release and Return
In February, 1854, Dostoevsky was released from prison. On the morning that his chains were finally cut from his legs, he experienced a powerful sense of resurrection. But he was not entirely free. The release from prison initiated the second part of his sentence, which he would serve in military exile in the far reaches of Siberia, not far from the Chinese border.
His several months of exile were difficult. Dostoevsky was reduced to the rank of private. He found himself once again living in close quarters with (mostly) the peasant class. Accordingly, he had no sympathy from his fellow soldiers. One wrote of Dostoevsky:
None of us soldiers in the barracks ever saw a real smile on his face…He never said a word about his past. In general he talked very little. The only book he had was the New Testament, which he looked after carefully and clearly valued very highly. In the barracks he never wrote anything; and of course a soldier then had very little free time. Dostoevsky rarely left the barracks, and mostly sat by himself sunk in thought. [Frank 177-178]
Two things happened to change Dostoevsky’s circumstances and to give him hope that the future would be brighter. First, in February 1855, Tsar Nicholas I died. Because the death of a tsar usually brought pardons to all criminals, Dostoevsky was hopeful that he would be pardoned and would be able to return to life in Petersburg. Second, Dostoevsky made the acquaintance of the local public prosecutor, Alexander Wrangel. Ironically, Wrangel had as a young man been a witness to Dostoevsky’s mock execution. He was also a fan of Poor Folk, and so was disturbed when the promising writer had been sent into exile. When Wrangel received his post in Siberia, he contacted Dostoevsky’s brother in order to bring Dostoevsky letters and books. The two struck up a friendship, and eventually moved into a dacha with a garden and horses. These they rode at every opportunity, exploring the wild and lovely steppe, and discussing the “eternal questions.” Dostoevsky’s life in exile became tolerable.
At this time that Dostoevsky met and fell in love with his first wife, Maria Dmitrievna Isaev, a woman who was married, although very unhappily. Maria’s husband was an abusive alcoholic whose illness had caused his wife and son to live in extreme poverty. Maria herself was consumptive, and between the abuses of her marriage and her ravaged health, she suffered terribly. Still, she was a woman very much in love with life’s joys, and the combination of joy and suffering drew Dostoevsky to her. She was also, in her illness, disturbingly beautiful. Soon, Dostoevsky was consumed by the torments of his first love.
Their relationship was a complicated one – not simply because Maria was married, but because the love was one-sided. Maria felt compassion for the young artist who had been treated so badly by fate, but she was not in love. Indeed, when her husband, whose alcoholism had left him for two years without a, finally found employment four hundred miles away, Maria agreed to go with him. Dostoevsky was shattered but could do nothing to stop her. On the day they left town, he and the prosecutor Wrangel rode out of town with the Isaev’s carriage. Wrangel got the husband drunk so that Dostoevsky and Maria could take a long ride in the moonlight. Wrangel writes that when the two lovers returned, and the coach finally rode away, “Dostoevsky stood…as if rooted to the spot, speechless, his head bowed, tears rolling down his cheeks. We did not get home until daybreak.” (Wrangel’s letter, quoted by Grossman in his biography)
But the relationship did not end there. Dostoevsky and Maria kept up a tormented correspondence until August 1855, when Maria’s husband died. Maria and her son were in terrible financial difficulties, and though he was in dire straights himself, Dostoevsky devoted himself to trying to arrange her affairs. But still Maria did not fall in love with him. Instead, her attentions turned to a young teacher who would become a serious rival for Maria’s heart. Dostoevsky was obsessed with anxiety that she would get married before his exile ended, and that he would lose her forever. He tried to torment Maria with the same jealousy that he felt, telling her about parties he had attended and women he had danced with. The tactic worked, and the two entered into the kind of mutual torment that is so common among the lovers of Dostoevsky’s later novels.
The details of this convoluted courtship are hard to sum up briefly. It is enough to say here that Dostoevsky persisted and eventually prevailed. He was eventually able to persuade Maria that, though he was still in exile and his future was uncertain, an alliance with him promised a future brighter than any she might have with her beloved schoolteacher. Finally, Maria agreed to marry him. Dostoevsky was, until the very last minute, worried about his rival. In fact, he went so far as to obsess that perhaps the teacher would come and kill Maria, ending their happiness forever. But his worry came to nothing. In February 1857, after several years of tormenting each other, the two were married in a small ceremony in Siberia. Dostoevsky felt that his happiness was complete.
Unfortunately, this happiness would not last long. Maria proved a difficult, capricious wife, and domestic drudgery in exile proved a real challenge to Dostoevsky. He turned his attention to other matters and spent his remaining time in exile with three aims: he worked to rehabilitate himself; he strategized to re-ignite the writing career that had been interrupted by his arrest; and he continued to ponder the “eternal questions” of God and man.
Somehow, for Dostoevsky, all of these issues depended on his spiritual regeneration. Dostoevsky believed that finding and living spiritual truth would return him both to Petersburg and to his life as a writer. However, complicating the spiritual questions was the matter of Dostoevsky’s epilepsy – a type of epilepsy that apparently begins with spells of incredible exhilaration before bringing on a fit so bad that the sufferer loses consciousness. These spells of exhilaration are often mystical in nature, and Dostoevsky’s experience was no exception. Frank describes an episode in Volume Two of his biography, in which Dostoevsky was arguing with a friend about the existence of God, and the “‘cursed questions’ of human life:”
Just at the moment when Dostoevsky was proclaiming, in a pitch of feverish exaltation, his belief in the existence of God, “the bells of the neighboring church began to sound the matins for Easter. The atmosphere began to vibrate and to dance. ‘And I had the sentiment,’ Dostoevsky continued, ‘that the heaven had come down to earth and swallowed me up. I really apprehended God and felt him in every fibre of my being. I then cried: Yes, God exists. I remember nothing after that.’” [Frank 197]
Dostoevsky was not sure what to make of these experiences. Like Ivan Karamazov, he would not be able to believe absolutely that what he experienced in these spells was truly God. But, as Frank says so eloquently “Neither could he accept a world in which the reality of these gleams of the absolute, no matter how treacherous and dangerous, was simply negated or denied.” (Frank, Volume Two, 198)
Though his time in exile did not resolve Dostoevsky’s spiritualquestions, it did make him sure of a few basic principles. First, he came to believe in the power of Russia, and to admire the faith of the Russian people. He yearned to return to Petersburg as a real Russian – not as a Europeanized intellectual. Most important, he came to understand that repentance was the key to his regeneration and his return. Frank includes in his biography the following poem, which illustrates this belief. In the poem, Dostoevsky addresses the ex-Empress, consoling her for the loss of her husband, Nicholas I:
Forgive me, forgive my wish;
Forgive that I dare to speak with you.
Forgive that I dare nourish the senseless dream
Of consoling your sadness, lightening your suffering.
Forgive that I, a mournful outcast, dare
Raise his voice at this hallowed grave.
But God! Our judge from all eternity!
Thou sent me thy judgment in the disturbed hour of doubt,
And with my heart I discovered that tears are – expiation.
That again I was a Russian, and – again a man!
Beginning the Writing Life
After several petitions and a long wait, Dostoevsky was in 1859 permitted to return to. He returned to a political climate very different from the one he had left. Tsar Nicholas was dead, and the new, more liberal reign of Alexander II had begun.
Alexander’s government was more responsive to public opinion. A freer press had been established. The liberation of thewas imminent. Inspired by his brother’s return from exile, Mikhail Dostoevsky determined to start the magazine Vremya. Dostoevsky – who had continued to write throughout the second part of his exile — would be the chief contributor.
Vremya was designed to advance the pochva movement. The movement was based on yet another idealistic notion of the Russian peasant and suggested that Russia might be saved by a return to her roots. Followers of the movement believed that class antagonism did not exist in Russia, and that all groups – rural and urban, peasants and nobility – could join together to govern the nation. Dostoevsky liked this movement because it championed the moral superiority of the Russian people – an idea that would grow stronger in every year of Dostoevsky’s life.
Dostoevsky’s writings for Vremya were concerned with trying to unite Russia. He was sympathetic to the disenfranchised people and their anger, and he encouraged love and compassion for the oppressed. In Vremya, Dostoevsky would also publish the aforementioned Notes from the House of the Dead, which reported on his prison years, painting portraits of his fellow prisoners as capable of rehabilitation and spiritual regeneration. This theme of the essential goodness in the hearts of all sinners would recur in many of Dostoevsky’s works, including Brothers Karamazov.
Meanwhile, in opposition to utopian journals like Vremya, revolutionary ideas were stirring. In May 1862, a revolutionary document appeared at Dostoevsky’s door, calling for a social and democratic government and for the destruction of the tsar and his family. Fires broke out all over, and Vremya was investigated. Alexander II decided to let the magazine continue to operate, but he kept it under secret investigation.
The reprieve would be short lived. Early in 1863, an insurrection occurred in Poland, which the Russians quickly put down. The question on the minds of all Russian intellectuals was: should Poland be occupied or independent? For three months Vremya kept quiet. Then they published “The Fateful Question,” which argued for a controversial but spiritual solution: the question of Poland’s fate should be decided by determining which of the two countries, Poland or Russia, was spiritually superior. The article was in fact a call to Russia to act in morally and spiritually superior ways, so that it might justify its occupation of Poland. However, the Tsar perceived the article as defiantly pro-Polish. They had had enough of Vremya. In 1863, the journal was shut down.
The year that followed the closing of Vremya dealt three terrible blows to Dostoevsky. First, he and his brother would attempt a second magazine, Epokha. The journal promised great things for Dostoevsky, whose brilliant Notes from the Underground began serial publication in its first issue. In Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky had created an anti-hero: a cynical, self-loathing Russian man who wants to be better than he is. He can’t achieve his desire, however, because his world is corrupt and will not provide him an opportunity for goodness. Though this work would survive as one of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces, the magazine that published it would not be so fortunate. Epokha would fail after just a few months of publication.
Dostoevsky’s bitterness over the collapse of the magazine and its utopian ideals was made more acute by the fact that his wife Maria was losing her battle with consumption. Near the end, she began to hallucinate that devils were occupying the corners of her room. She would not rest until the doctors opened the windows and made a show of letting the devils out. Spring only worsened her disease. In April she had a terrible hemorrhage from which she would not recover. She died on April 15, 1864. Though he had not been happy with Maria, Dostoevsky had loved her and, perhaps more important, he had suffered for her. In the end he came to feel that the suffering he had done in Maria’s name had given his life meaning and weight. He grieved her.
The third embittering loss was still to come. Not long after Dostoevsky buried his wife, he found out that his brother, Mikhail, was very ill. Mikhail’s liver was failing him. Despite warnings, Mikhail refused to pay attention to his diagnosis. He did not take the rest cure, nor was he willing to stop working. In a few short months the disease ravaged him, and he died on July 10, 1864, leaving a family and a host of debts behind. In losing his brother, Dostoevsky had lost an important partner: his brother had worked for his return from exile, and he had run the literary magazines in which Dostoevsky published. Without Mikhail, there would be no more magazines. Further, there would be no more income for his brother’s family. Dostoevsky felt responsible for his brother’s children and for the very large publishing debts his brother had accrued.
The events of 1864 had embittered Dostoevsky in a way that his time in prison had not. In order to escape his bitterness (and the financial woes that accompanied it), Dostoevsky lost himself in romances with several complicated but unattainable women. He traveled. And he began to work on a novel, the idea for which had occurred to him half a decade before. This novel was to be about murder: its causes and its consequences. For the novel, Dostoevsky envisioned a proud and intelligent protagonist, impoverished by circumstance, who commits a “perfect” crime and then suffers from an attack of a conscience that he did not know he had. Furthermore, the book would reflect Dostoevsky’s long-standing interest in the nature of crime and criminals, as well as the social problems caused by the financial crisis and extreme poverty of Russia of the 1860s. The book was, of course, Crime and Punishment. In it, Dostoevsky would explore many of the same themes that he would take up in Brothers Karamazov, including the ideas that:
• An individual is doomed to isolation until he embraces his responsibilities to the human community;
• The laws of conventional moral wisdom will prevail over amoral intellectual constructs;
• A man’s fall can bring his resurrection;
• Love will redeem all wrongs.
Love and Marriage
Though Dostoevsky held dear the belief that love could redeem all wrongs, he had yet to put this theory into practice in his private life. His first marriage had been unhappy, and his several love affairs had not been successful. But the tide was about to turn.
In October of 1866, Dostoevsky found himself running behind on a contract to produce a novel. Failure to produce the novel on time would have dire financial consequences, as Dostoevsky had promised to deliver to his publisher, free of charge, anything he would write in the next nine years should he fail to meet his contract. He had but a few weeks to produce the novel, and he had not yet written a word. He went to a good friend of his to ask what he should do, and the friend suggested that Dostoevsky hire a stenographer in order to speed up the writing process. Two days later, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina appeared, ready for work. Together, the two of them managed to produce the novel in question (The Gambler) before the deadline. Despite their age differences (she was twenty, he was forty-four) they also managed to fall in love. Dostoevsky asked her to marry him before the novel had been entirely dictated.
The proposal was a literary one. Afraid of rejection, Dostoevsky at first disguised his proposal as a plot for a new novel. He told Anna that his character was a writer, middle-aged, sick, and tormented, who has fallen in love with a young girl. He asked Anna if she thought it psychologically plausible that this young girl might return the old man’s love. Anna replied that she thought it was possible. Her reply gave Dostoevsky the courage to come to the point:
“Imagine,” he said, “that the artist is – me; that I have confessed my love for you and asked you to be my wife. Tell me, what would you answer?” Anna Grigoyevna understood, from the inner torment manifest in Dostoevsky’s countenance, that “if I gave him an evasive answer I would deal a deathblow
to his self-esteem and pride. I looked at his troubled face, which had become so dear to me, and said, “I would answer that I love you and will love you all my life.” [Joseph Frank, The Miraculous Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995) 167]
They were married a few months later, in February 1867. From the start, the marriage was marked by difficulties. At their wedding reception, Dostoevsky had too much champagne and had a terrifying epileptic seizure. The episode was severe: Dostoevsky screamed in pain for hours. When the screaming subsided, he was incoherent and seemed “mad.” Not a good introduction to married life for his young bride. Still, Anna acted well: she took Dostoevsky’s head in her lap and held it as he convulsed. Dostoevsky would later tell her that he was terrified of dying during one of his attacks. From then on, Anna would stay with him regardless of his condition, sometimes sitting on the sofa near his bed for days.
In addition to the health problems were Dostoevsky’s financial woes. Creditors were pursuing Dostoevsky mercilessly, trying to collect on promissory notes that he had no hope of paying. Collectors began to pester Anna herself, even before the marriage, threatening to take property from her. Here Anna proved herself a shrewd financial presence in Dostoevsky’s life. She stood up to the creditors and determined to find a way to afford a trip abroad. She sacrificed her dowry and pawned everything she owned in order to get herself and her husband out of Russia. In April, 1867, the Dostoevskys left Russia for Europe, intending to visit for a few months. In the end, they would stay away for four years.
The Years in Europe
The years in Europe were not easy for the Dostoevskys. Dostoevsky was productive – he was beginning The Idiot and collecting impressions for later novels. But he would face great challenges in his financial and emotional lives.
The most persistent challenge would prove to be Dostoevsky’s addiction to gambling. Dostoevsky was obsessed with games, particularly roulette. In gambling, he found the terrific thrill of staking his fortunes, but he also felt great shame in not being able to stop himself. For Dostoevsky, gambling was high spiritual drama. In it he found expression of the soul’s despair and its twin hope for redemption. But gambling was also a source of marital tension. While Anna insisted that she never scolded her husband for his losses, certainly they were a great strain on them both. Dostoevsky, for his part, did not hide his strain; his losses at the table left him haggard and crazy with despair. Dostoevsky lost such large sums that he regularly had to pawn his wife’s jewelry – generally with no hope of retrieving it. One of his binges was so total and devastating that he was forced to pawn even his wife’s wedding ring. Fortunately, this binge was followed by a winning spree, and Dostoevsky was able to reclaim the ring and to return it to his bride with champagne and flowers.
Dostoevsky’s gambling losses were perhaps chief among the reasons that he stayed in Europe for so long. He simply could not afford to make the expensive journey back home. He didn’t like Europe – in fact, he felt an extreme loathing for the Germans and the Swiss. Though he avoided the Russian immigrants living abroad, finding them irritating and banal, he pined for Russia itself. He began to believe more vehemently in the superiority of the Russian soul over the European intellect. He quarreled with the great writer (and his former friend) Turgenev, because Turgenev had turned his back on Russia and considered himself a German. He also turned his back on his former friend and mentor Belinsky, who did not believe in the immortality of the soul and who argued that Christ had no role in the modern world. Dostoevsky yearned to return to Russia – he in fact felt that the future of his writing depended on it.
But then something happened to make his European life happier. In the summer of 1867, his wife Anna became pregnant. On March 5, 1868, when Dostoevsky was in his later forties, his daughter Sonya was born. Perhaps because parenthood had come so late in life, Dostoevsky was an especially attentive father. He was consumed by the tenderness he felt for his child. He found joy in every one of her gestures.
While still an infant, Sonya caught a cold. It grew quickly and unexpectedly worse. She died, at the age of three months, leaving her parents devastated. When she died, Dostoevsky experienced a loss worse than any he had felt so far. In this suffering, Dostoevsky could find neither hope nor redemption. His already dim view of Europe grew darker. He determined with greater urgency that they should return home.
But this return would not happen for another three years. Unable to raise money to return to Russia – mostly because Dostoevsky repeatedly gambled their savings away – the couple resumed their travels. They lived for a time in Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. Despite his anguish, Dostoevsky was able to finish The Idiot.
In Germany on September 14, 1869, Anna gave birth to their second daughter, Lyubov. This child would survive and bring Dostoevsky much happiness. But when Anna became pregnant for a third time (with their son, Fyodor),
the writer decided that it was, indeed, time to come home. The Dostoevsky’s scraped together the money by turning to family and friends. Even though he had abused their generosity throughout his gambling binges, many believed in his talent, and he was able to secure the funds.He arrived in in the spring of 1871, ready to begin his life as a truly Russian writer.
Continuing the Writing Life
In 1868, Leo Tolstoy had finished his epic novel, War and Peace. Readers and critics loved the book. Dostoevsky, inspired and perhaps also envious, began to consider writing an epic of his own. He wanted to write a grand book, even longer than Tolstoy’s, that would give him room to express his philosophies regarding the spiritual dilemmas of the modern Russian man. This epic – first titled Atheism and later The Great Sinner – was to be “the story of a Russian skeptic who, after many years of moving back and forth among all sorts of theologies and popular sects, in the end finds the Russian Orthodox religion and the Russian soul” (quoted from Grossman’s biography). The Great Sinner was originally designed to contain five volumes, connected by one hero. The five books would eventually be distilled down to one: Brothers Karamazov.
However, before Brothers Karamazov could come to be, Dostoevsky had one more important novel to write. In December, 1869, when he was still in Europe contemplating his plan for The Great Sinner, Dostoevsky read, with great moral shock, about the Ivanov murder in Moscow. Ivanov had been a student at the Agricultural Academy and was a member of an underground group, the Society of the Axe. The group consisted of disciples of the terrorist Mikhail Bakunin, the Geneva leader of the Russian revolution. Chief disciple of Bakunin and head of the Moscow branch was Sergei Nechaev, with whom Ivanov had ideological differences. The two opposed each other at the group’s secret meetings, and Ivanov went so far as to threaten to form his own group. For this insurrection, Nechaev secretly ordered Ivanov’s death. One evening in November, 1869, five members of the Society of the Axe ambushed Ivanov, murdered him, and threw his body into a pond.
Dostoevsky immediately saw in this story the seeds for a novel about a philosophical murder – in short, a murder motivated not by money or by passion, but by ideas. On trial was not simply Nechaev, but the revolutionary ideology of Bakunin. Bakunin was not simply calling for revolution; he was calling for revolution of the most violent sort. He was not content to ask his followers to overthrow the systems of oppression that existed outside of them; he also expected them to overthrow the systems of oppression that worked from within – including love and brotherhood. To Bakunin, these brotherly feelings were as dangerous to the revolution as the Tsar himself. They were to be overcome by any means – including hatred, violence, and murder. The hero of the revolution would be one whose intellect dominated and consumed all – including his own emotions and spirit.
Dostoevsky attended the trial when he returned to Russia in 1871. For Dostoevsky, Nechaev’s trial took on personal significance, calling for judgment of his own revolutionary past and of prevailing revolutionary philosophies. Dostoevsky would pursue this judgment first in Demons — where he satirizes and then tragically lampoons the revolutionary ideas of his era — and later in Brothers Karamazov, in which he holds up these ideas – and, indeed, all of Russia – for spiritual judgment.
By the 1870s, Dostoevsky had become a famous writer. He was loved by readers and compared often by critics to Shakespeare. His reputation as a subversive had entirely subsided – so much so that he was a frequent visitor in the royal court, and was an informal tutor to the tsar’s nephews. The great man had traveled a long way – from the gallows to the Winter Palace – in a span of twenty years.
Perhaps the greatest contribution to Dostoevsky’s new fame was his weekly column in Grazhdanin (The Citizen), called “A Writer’s Diary.” The column became so popular that Dostoevsky would eventually publish the essays independently, every month. The publication drew letters from all over Russia, asking Dostoevksy’s opinion about all matters Russian. His responses were unique and personal, delivered in an intimate tone, as if he were having a personal conversation with his reader.
Through “A Writer’s Diary,” Dostoevsky became a voice of the nation and for the nation. Because the column appeared originally in Grazhdanin (whose editor was well-connected to the royal family), Dostoevsky was seen as speaking for official and literary circles. But he was also sympathetic to the new brood of Russian revolutionaries, who, in the 1870s, were calling for ethical (not violent) social change. In short, Dostoevsky was popular because he seemed to speak to all of Russia’s literati- the official and the revolutionary. In doing so, he achieved the influence and fame that he’d spent his life pursuing.
Oddly, his fame was balanced by a quiet domestic life. By all accounts, Dostoevsky was a tender and tranquil husband and a playful father, fond of reading to his children, taking them often to the theater, dancing with them, and in all ways enjoying them. His marriage was also a source of great comfort and happiness. Anna had proved herself to be not only Dostoevsky’s spiritual savior, but his financial savior as well. She worked hard to get Dostoevsky out of debt (a feat she achieved just one year before he died by releasing his
serialized novels in separate volumes).
Still, even these happy years would be marked by struggle and suffering. Dostoevsky was stricken more and more frequently with bouts of epilepsy. Age had weakened him and had made it more difficult to recover from the attacks. Moreover, Dostoevsky would in these years have one more tragedy to face and endure: the loss of his three-year-old son, Alyosha.
Despite his poor health and personal tragedies, Dostoevsky yearned to write the novel that had so far gone unwritten. It would be his most demanding writing effort by far. Even in the past, Dostoevsky had been tormented by every line of his writing. His perfectionism made him a taskmaster:
[He] never tried to evade the enormous difficulties that confronted him in giving artistic expression to his ideas…The tensions of the creative process, which had him jotting dozens of plans, characters, and episodes down on paper, would suddenly be discharged with long break periods, during which he would have agonizing doubts about his ability to realize his concept. He began to write Crime and Punishment in the summer of 1865; in November he burned everything he had written and started developing his ideas anew. He revised The Idiot eight times…It is evident that during his first half year of his work on The Devils [Demons] he kept tearing up what he had written and starting all over again: he changed his plan at least ten times, drafted a huge number of variations, lost his reference files in the mountain of paper he had covered with writing, and at times was in complete despair at the complexity of the novel he had conceived. [Grossman 506]
When it came to Brothers Karamazov, however, Dostoevsky’s
writing process, always difficult, was even more daunting as he
faced the challenge of writing what would be the culmination of
his greatest ideas. The book took three years to write. Its basic
plot, according to Dostoevsky’s journal, was simple:
- The rivalry between father and eldest son over a woman;
- The murder of the father;
- The trials (actual and spiritual) of his sons.
His journal points to an equally simple plan for the themes:
- One brother is an atheist;
- The second is a fanatic;
- The third is of the future generation, a man of the people. (And, of course, Dostoevsky adds parenthetically, there is also the newest generation, the children).
But nothing about this masterpiece would prove to be simple. Into
this work, Dostoevsky would pour all of his deepest concerns. Around
the simple murder story, Dostoevsky would raise questions of guilt
and innocence. He would position European nihilist against Russian
Christian. He would explore the natures of the criminal and the
hero. He would examine the fundamental propositions of Orthodox
Christianity and would seek to define the essence of love. And finally,
he would try to light the way for the next generation, instructing
them to follow the ways of brotherhood and Christian love.
Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s last word on the subjects that haunted him. He did not plan it that way – in fact, the novel was to be the first of two exploring the life of his “hero,” Alexei Karamazov. Unfortunately, Dostoevsky would never write this novel.
Death came abruptly. In January of 1881, a conversation with his sister concerning the inheritance of some property upset him, and he began to hemorrhage from the throat. He recovered well enough to entertain his children with verses from a popular magazine. For two days he seemed well. But then, on the morning of January 28, his wife Anna woke up to find him wide-awake. When she asked what the matter was, he told her that he was going to die that day. She tried to convince him it was nonsense, but the great writer would
script his final scene. He asked his wife to read to him from the Bible that he had received on the way to prison. She read the parable of the prodigal son. He summoned his children, bid them good-bye, spoke some tender words to his wife. That evening he hemorrhaged again, and lost consciousness. He died at 11:38 that night.
The years that followed Dostoevsky’s death would be traumatic for Russia. Tsar Alexander would be assassinated later in 1881. Various bloody uprisings would occur. Finally, in 1917, the revolution that Dostoevsky had both courted and feared would deliver Russia to Marxism, atheism, and other “isms’ imported from the west. The spiritual and purely Russian salvation that Dostoevsky dreamed of for his nation would not be realized.
Still, his novels and his life survive as testimonies to the belief that the human spirit might prevail over humankind’s misbegotten theories and social constructs.
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.
John 12:24 and the epigram to Brothers Karamazov