Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Portrait by Vasily Perov, 1872
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (Russian: Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский, Fëdor Mihajlovič Dostoevskij, sometimes transliterated Dostoyevsky October 30/November 11, 1821 – January 28/February 9, 1881) is considered one of the greatest Russian writers, whose works have had a profound and lasting effect on twentieth-century fiction. His works often feature characters living in poor conditions with disparate and extreme states of mind, and exhibit both an uncanny grasp of human psychology as well as penetrating analyses of the political, social and spiritual states of Russia of his time. Many of his best-known works are prophetic precursors to modern-day thoughts. He is sometimes considered to be a founder of existentialism, most frequently for Notes from Underground, which has been described by Walter Kaufmann as "the best overture for existentialism ever written".


Dostoevsky was the second of seven children born to Mikhail and Maria Dostoevsky. (Origins from Polish Szlachta family Dostojewski CoA Radwan). Shortly after his mother died of tuberculosis in 1837, he and his brother Mikhail were sent to the Military Engineering Academy at St. Petersburg. In 1839 they lost their father, a retired military surgeon and a violent alcoholic, who served as a doctor at the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor in Moscow. 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 invented this story of a peasant rebellion so he could buy the estate inexpensively.

Dostoevsky was sent to the St. Petersburg Academy of Military Engineering and since he was not very good at mathematics, a subject he despised, he did not do very well. Instead, he focused on literature. His literary idol was Honoré de Balzac and in 1843 even translated one of Balzac's greatest works, Eugenie Grandet, into Russian. Dostoevsky started to write his own fiction around this time and in 1846, his first work, the epistolary short novel, Poor Folk, was met with great acclaim especially by the liberal critic Vissarion Belinsky with his famous exclamation, "A new Nikolai Gogol has arisen!"

Monument to Dostoyevskiy in Omsk, his place of exile

Dostoevsky was arrested and imprisoned on April 23, 1849, for engaging in revolutionary activity against Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. On November 16 that year he was sentenced to death for anti-government activities linked to a liberal intellectual group, the Petrashevsky Circle. After a mock execution in which he and other members of the group stood outside in freezing weather waiting to be shot by a firing squad, Dostoevsky's sentence was commuted to four years of exile performing hard labor at a katorga prison camp in Omsk, Siberia. His first recorded epileptic seizure happened in 1850 at the prison camp. It is said that he suffered from a rare form of temporal lobe epilepsy, sometimes referred to as "ecstatic epilepsy." It is also said that upon learning of his father's death before the elder could reply to a letter of criticism from Fydor, the younger Dostoevsky experienced his first seizure. Seizures then recurred sporadically throughout his life, and Dostoevsky's experiences are thought to form the basis for his description of Prince Myshkin's epilepsy in The Idiot. He was released from prison in 1854, and was required to serve in the Siberian Regiment. Dostoevsky spent the following five years as a private (and later lieutenant) in the Regiment's Seventh Line Battalion stationed at the fortress of Semipalatinsk, now in Kazakhstan. While there, he began a relationship with Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, the wife of an acquaintance in Siberia; they married in February 1857, after her husband's death.

Dostoevsky's experiences in prison and the army resulted in major changes in his political and religious convictions. He became disillusioned with 'Western' ideas, and began to pay greater tribute to traditional Russian values. Perhaps most significantly, he had what his biographer Joseph Frank describes as a conversion experience in prison, which greatly strengthened his Christian, and specifically Orthodox, faith (the experience is depicted by Dostoevsky in The Peasant Marey (1876)). In line with his new beliefs, Dostoevsky became a sharp critic of the Nihilist and Socialist movements of his day, and he dedicated his book The Possessed and his The Diary of a Writer to espousing conservatism and criticizing socialist ideas [1]. He later formed a peculiar friendship with the conservative statesman Konstantin Pobedonostsev.

In December 1859, 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 sank into a deep depression, frequenting gambling parlors and accumulating massive losses at the tables.

Dostoevsky suffered from an acute gambling compulsion as well as from its consequences. By one account Crime and Punishment, possibly his best known novel, was completed in a mad hurry because Dostoevsky was in urgent need of an advance from his publisher. He had been left practically penniless after a gambling spree. Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler simultaneously in order to satisfy an agreement with his publisher Stellovsky who, if he did not receive a new work, would have claimed the copyrights to all of Dostoevsky's writing.

Motivated by the dual wish to escape his creditors at home and to visit the casinos abroad, 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 Grigorevna, a twenty-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. Dostoevsky is also known to have influenced and been influenced by famous Russian Philosopher Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov. Solovyov is noted as the inspiration for the character Alyosha Karamazov. [1]

In 1877 Dostoevsky gave the keynote eulogy at the funeral of his friend, the poet Nikolai Alekseevich Nekrasov, to much controversy. In 1880, shortly before he died, he gave his famous Aleksandr 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 than German resorts. He died on January 28 (O.S.), 1881 of a lung hemorrhage associated with emphysema and an epileptic seizure and was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Lavra, St. Petersburg, Russia. Forty thousand mourning Russians attended his funeral.1 His tombstone reads "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." from John 12:24, which is also the epigraph of his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

Works and influence

Dostoevsky's tomb at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.

Dostoevsky's literary influence cannot be overemphasized. From Herman Hesse to Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henry Miller, Yukio Mishima, Gabriel García Márquez, Jack Kerouac and Joseph Heller, virtually no great twentieth century writer escaped his long shadow (rare dissenting voices include[Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and, more ambiguously, D.H. Lawrence). American novelist Ernest Hemingway, in his autobiographic books, also cited Dostoevsky as a major influence on his work.

Essentially a writer of myth (and in this respect sometimes compared to Herman Melville), Dostoevsky displayed a nuanced understanding of human psychology evident in his major works. He 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 à 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 Tsarism. Literary scholars such as Bakhtin have characterized his work as 'polyphonic': unlike other novelists, Dostoevsky does not appear to aim for a 'single vision', and beyond simply describing situations from various angles, Dostoevsky engendered fully dramatic novels of ideas where conflicting views and characters are left to develop unevenly into unbearable crescendo.

By common critical consensus one among the handful of universal world authors, along with Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Miguel de Cervantes, Victor Hugo and a few others, Dostoevsky has decisively influenced twentieth century literature, existentialism and expressionism in particular.


1 Dostoevsky, Fyodor; Introduction - The Idiot, Wordsworth Ed. Ltd, 1996.



Many Orthodox readers prefer the translations of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky because of their attention to Orthodox liturgical terminology. These replace the translations of an earlier generation by Constance Garnett.

Major works

  • Бедные люди (1846) Translated as Poor Folk by Garnett (ISBN 978-1593081942).
  • Двойник. Петербургская поэма (1846) Translated as The Double by Pevear and Volokhonsky (ISBN 978-0375719011).
  • Неточка Незванова (Netochka Nezvanova) (1849)
  • Село Степанчиково и его обитатели (The Village of Stepanchikovo or The Friend of the Family) (1859)
  • Униженные и оскорбленные (The Insulted and Humiliated) (1861)
  • Записки из мертвого дома (novel) (1860) Translated as The House of the Dead by Garnett (ISBN 978-1593081942).
  • Скверный анекдот (1862) Translated as "A Nasty Story" by Jesse Coulson (ISBN 978-0140441796).
  • Записки из подполья (1864) Translated as Notes from Underground by Pevear and Volokhonsky (ISBN 978-0679734529) and by some as Letters from the Underworld.
  • Преступление и наказание (1866) Translated as Crime and Punishment by Pevear and Volokhonsky (ISBN 978-0679734505) and by Garnett (ISBN 978-1905432516).
  • Игрок (novella) (1867) Translated as The Gambler by Pevear and Volokhonsky (ISBN 978-0375719011) and Garnett (ISBN 978-0812966930).
  • Идиот (novel) (1868) Translated as The Idiot by Pevear and Volokhonsky (ISBN 978-0375702242) and Garnett (ISBN 978-0679642428).
  • Бесы (1872) Translated as Demons by Pevear and Volokhonsky (ISBN 978-0679734512), as The Possessed by Garnett (ISBN 978-1593082505), and as Devils by Michael Katz (ISBN 978-0199540495).
  • Подросток (1875) Translated as The Adolescent by Pevear and Volokhonsky (ISBN 978-0375719004) and as A Raw Youth by Garnett.
  • Братья Карамазовы (1880) Translated as The Brothers Karamazov by Pevear and Volokhonsky (ISBN 978-0374528379) and Garnett (ISBN 978-0486437910).

Short stories

  • Белые ночи ("White Nights") (1848)
  • Елка и свадьба ("A Christmas Tree and a Wedding") (1848)
  • Честный вор ("An Honest Thief") (1848)
  • The Peasant Marey (1876)
  • Сон смешного человека (1877) in Pevear and Volokhonsky The Eternal Husband and Other Stories (ISBN 978-0553214444).
  • "The Meek One" (1876) in Pevear and Volokhonsky The Eternal Husband and Other Stories (ISBN 978-0553214444).
  • "A Weak Heart"
  • "The Eternal Husband" in Pevear and Volokhonsky The Eternal Husband and Other Stories (ISBN 978-0553214444).


From The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880)

  • It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.
  • If they drive God from the earth, we shall shelter Him underground.
  • So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find some one to worship.
  • The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.
  • Fathers and teachers, I ponder, "What is hell?" I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.
  • People talk sometimes of a bestial cruelty, but that's a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that's all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it.
  • I think if the devil doesn't exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.
  • If you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up.
  • Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed, for God sets us nothing but riddles. Here the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side.

From Crime and Punishment (1866)

  • "Nothing in this world is harder than speaking the truth, nothing easier than flattery."

See also

External links


  1. Zouboff, Peter, Solovyov on Godmanhood: Solovyov’s Lectures on Godmanhood Harmon Printing House: Poughkeepsie, New York, 1944; see Czeslaw Milosz’s introduction to Solovyov’s War, Progress and the End of History. Lindisfarne Press: Hudson, New York 1990.

Articles and Books on Dostoevsky and Orthodox Christianity



  • Steven Cassedy, Dostoevsky's Religion ISBN 0804751374
  • Malcolm Jones, Dostoevsky and the Dynamics of Religious Experience ISBN 0804751374
  • P. Travis Kroeker, Bruce Ward, and Travis Kroeker, Remembering the End: Dostoevsky as Prophet to Modernity ISBN 0813366089
  • George Pattison and Diane Oenning Thompson, Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition ISBN 0521782783
  • Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction ISBN 978-1602581456