|Dostoevsky, Fyodor (1821-1881)|
| Russian writer and thinker,
one of the world's greatest novelists, whose works dramatize religious,
moral, political, and psychological issues.
Dostoyevsky was born in Moscow. He was educated at the School of Military Engineering in Saint Petersburg, but abandoned his military career in 1844 to devote himself to literature. His first novel, Bednye liudi (Poor People; also known as Poor Folk), appeared in 1846 and won immediate praise from Russia's most prominent literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky. Structured as a series of letters, the work is both a sentimental novel and a penetrating psychological study of its main character. The book that followed, Dvoinik (1846; The Double), is a startling psychological study of a disintegrating personality, but it was much less popular than Poor People. Over the next three years Dostoyevsky published ten undistinguished short novels and stories that barely rise above the literary conventions of the day.
In the late 1840s Dostoyevsky became involved with a group of idealistic young men who met in secret to discuss social problems and social reform in Russia. The repressive Czar Nicholas I, fearing the spread of revolutionary ideas, regarded the group as highly dangerous. In April 1849 Dostoyevsky and 23 others were arrested, tried, and condemned to death; however, the sentence was changed to imprisonment in Siberia. For the next four years Dostoyevsky lived in a prison in Omsk, sharing a barracks and doing hard labor with some of Russia's most desperate criminals. During this time, the epileptic seizures that he had begun to experience intensified, possibly as a result of the hardship and stress of prison life. In 1854 he was released from prison but required to serve in an army unit stationed in Siberia, where he married a widow with one son. Only in 1859 was he allowed to return to St. Petersburg.
Dostoyevsky's prison experiences left him with a firsthand knowledge of the criminal mind and of the human potential for evil. His youthful belief in the possibility of creating a good society by applying various social theories was replaced by the conviction that human life must be guided first of all by religious principles.
The decade from 1860 to 1870 was tempestuous for Dostoyevsky, marked by severe financial problems, ill health, and a gambling mania, as well as some literary success. Dostoyevsky's most significant works of the early 1860s are Zapiski iz mertvogo doma (1861; The House of the Dead), a powerful fictionalized memoir of his prison experiences, and Zapiski iz podpol'ia (1864; Notes from Underground). The latter is a penetrating psychological portrait of the spiteful and alienated narrator and, at the same time, a political work that challenges the idea that a good society could by constructed on the basis of reason alone. It also raises the dilemma of human freedom: If people are not free they are not truly human, but if they have freedom their human impulses to do evil may lead them to destroy themselves and others.
Dostoyevsky hoped to make a living by publishing a magazine, but his journalistic ventures, undertaken with his brother Mikhail, ended badly. Their first magazine had considerable success until it was abruptly shut down by the government in 1863 for a supposedly unpatriotic story about an uprising in Poland, and its successor never had sufficient funding to survive. In April 1864 Dostoyevsky's wife died, and his brother Mikhail died three months later. Dostoyevsky was left with enormous debts from the failure of his second magazine and from the obligation he felt to support his brother's family. In 1867 he married Anna Snitkina, a stenographer to whom he had dictated some of his writings. To avoid creditors the couple spent the next four years in Europe. Anna proved to be a steadying influence on her husband, sharing his poverty, enduring his frequent gambling sprees, nursing him through the aftereffects of his epileptic seizures, and helping repair his finances. They returned to Russia in 1871.
Dostoyevsky's finest work is found in four novels written during the last 20 years of his life. These works share exciting, even melodramatic, plots; murder as a central event; and a vivid treatment of profound ideas. The heroes are placed in extreme situations and torn by conflicting desires.
In Prestuplenie i nakazanie (1866; Crime and Punishment), Dostoyevsky's conflicted hero, the student Raskolnikov, is driven to test the limits of his freedom: If he is truly free, then "everything is permitted" and he should be able to step beyond the accepted limits of right and wrong. Pondering ideas current in his time, he convinces himself that true, rational morality means doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. On that basis he tries to justify intellectually his murder of an old pawnbroker who accumulated money by exploiting the misfortunes of others. But instead of committing murder coolly and using the pawnbroker's money to do good, Raskolnikov is haunted by what he has done. He eventually confesses his crime, influenced by the selfless love of a prostitute, Sonia; by the psychological probings of Porfiry, the detective investigating the murder; and by his repulsion at Svidrigailov, a character who flouts moral standards. Only at the end of the novel, in his Siberian prison, does Raskolnikov finally begin to recognize that he has violated not just a human law but God's law as well.
In Idiot (1868-1869; The Idiot) Dostoyevsky attempts to portray "a positively beautiful man." His hero, Prince Myshkin, is a Christlike figure who becomes entangled in a complex love intrigue involving two women, Aglaya and Nastasya, who are drawn to his innocence and loving personality. But Myshkin is too frail to survive amid a corrupt and greedy society, and the novel ends in tragedy: Nastasya chooses not Myshkin but the jealous and violent Rogozhin, who murders her. Myshkin himself is overcome by mental illness (his "idiocy"), for which he had earlier been treated, and returns to a sanatorium in Switzerland.
Besy (1871-1872; Devils, also known as Demons or The Possessed) is Dostoyevsky's most political novel. Its dark humor contains a direct and powerful attack on those who were, in the author's opinion, driving Russia to destruction by trying to build a society without God and therefore without genuine moral principles. Dostoyevsky argues that the ideas of a high-minded, idealistic generation of liberals of the 1840s had given birth to the violent and unprincipled revolutionaries of the 1860s. The novel also explores profound philosophic issues through its central character, the mysterious Nikolay Stavrogin. Stavrogin is Dostoyevsky's most willful character, but his will leads him only to inaction and he eventually commits suicide.
Brat'ia Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov), Dostoyevsky's longest and last novel, brings together themes and issues explored in his earlier fiction and journalistic writings. Its plot centers on the murder of a greedy and cynical old man, Fyodor Karamazov. Fyodor has three sons: Dmitry, the eldest, who is passionate and emotional; Ivan, a detached intellectual; and Alyosha, the youngest, who is pious and loving. The faith of each of the three brothers in the justice of the world is challenged in the course of the novel, but is ultimately reborn. Dmitry is humiliated by the interrogation that follows his wrongful arrest for his father's murder; after a crucial dream in which he confronts the depth of human sufferings, he begins to admit his moral accountability for his father's death and to accept his responsibilities for others. Ivan makes a powerful argument for the injustice of God's world, rejecting a God who permits innocent children to suffer and proposing a godless world where people would exchange their freedom for material security and comfort. Alyosha's spiritual father, the elder Zosima, argues that human beings must accept their share of the responsibility for evil in the world. All human actions are interconnected, and so "all are responsible for all." Life's justification, Zosima maintains, is to be found in practicing "active love"-that is, deliberately performing loving acts for others-in daily living.
Dostoyevsky became widely known in the English-speaking world only after his death, through translations by British scholar Constance Garnett between 1912 and 1920. His influence, however, has been immense, and not only in literature. His novels anticipate the 20th-century antiutopian worlds created by British writers George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. His psychological explorations, which intrigued Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, show the workings of the unconscious mind and the complexity of the human personality. The religious dimension of his works explores the consequences of a world without God. Even though they are deeply rooted in 19th-century Russia, his novels are surprisingly relevant to the 20th century in that they anticipate contemporary problems of alienation, social disruption, and totalitarianism, and the implications, both positive and negative, of human freedom.