Biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Russian Novelist

Author of 'Crime and Punishment'

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881).

 Heritage Images/Getty Images

Fyodor Dostoevsky (November 11, 1821 – February 9, 1881) was a Russian novelist. His works of prose deal heavily with philosophical, religious, and psychological themes and are influenced by the complicated social and political milieu of nineteenth-century Russia.

Fast Facts: Fyodor Dostoevsky

  • Full Name: Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky
  • Known For: Russian essayist and novelist
  • Born: November 11, 1821 in Moscow, Russia
  • Parents: Dr. Mikhail Andreevich and Maria (née Nechayeva) Dostoevsky
  • Died: February 9, 1881 in St. Petersburg, Russia
  • Education: Nikolayev Military Engineering Institute
  • Selected Works: Notes from Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868–1869), Demons (1871–1872), The Brothers Karamazov (1879–1880)
  • Spouses: Maria Dmitriyevna Isaeva (m. 1857–1864), Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina (m. 1867⁠–⁠1881)
  • Children: Sonya Fyodorovna Dostoevsky (1868–1868), Lyubov Fyodorovna Dostoevsky (1869–1926), Fyodor Fyodorovich Dostoevsky (1871–1922), Alexey Fyodorovich Dostoevsky (1875–1878)
  • Notable Quote: “Man is a mystery. It needs to be unravelled, and if you spend your whole life unravelling it, don't say that you've wasted time. I am studying that mystery because I want to be a human being.”

Early Life

Dostoevsky descended from minor Russian nobility, but by the time he was born, several generations down the line, his direct family did not bear any titles of nobility. He was the second son of Mikhail Andreevich Dostoevsky and Maria Dostoevsky (formerly Nechayeva). On Mikhail’s side, the family profession was the clergy, but Mikhail instead ran away, broke ties with his family, and enrolled in medical school in Moscow, where he became first a military doctor and, eventually, a doctor at the Mariinsky Hospital for the poor. In 1828, he was promoted to collegiate assessor, which gave him status equal to certain nobles.

Head and shoulders portrait of Mikhail Dostoevsky
Portrait of Mikhail Dostoevsky, circa 1820s. Heritage Images/Getty Images 

Along with his older brother (named Mikhail after their father), Fyodor Dostoevsky had six younger siblings, five of whom lived to adulthood. Although the family was able to acquire a summer estate away from the city, most of Dostoevsky’s childhood was spent in Moscow at the physician’s residence on the grounds of Mariinsky Hospital, which meant that he observed the sick and impoverished from a very young age. From a similarly young age, he was introduced to literature, beginning with fables, fairy tales, and the Bible, and soon branching out into other genres and authors.

As a boy, Dostoevsky was curious and emotional, but not in the best physical health. He was sent first to a French boarding school, then to one in Moscow, where he felt largely out of place among his more aristocratic classmates. Much like the experiences and encounters of his childhood, his life at boarding school later found its way into his writings.

Academia, Engineering, and Military Service

When Dostoevsky was 15, he and his brother Mikhail were both forced to leave their academic studies behind and begin pursuing military careers at St. Petersburg’s Nikolayev Military Engineering School, which was free to attend. Eventually, Mikhail was rejected for ill health, but Dostoevsky was admitted, albeit rather unwillingly. He had little interest in math, science, engineering, or the military as a whole, and his philosophical, stubborn personality didn’t fit in with his peers (although he did earn their respect, if not their friendship).

In the late 1830s, Dostoevsky suffered several setbacks. In the fall of 1837, his mother died of tuberculosis. Two years later, his father died. The official cause of death was determined to be a stroke, but a neighbor and one of the younger Dostoevsky brothers spread a rumor that the family’s serfs had murdered him. Later reports suggested that young Fyodor Dostoevsky suffered an epileptic seizure around this time, but the sources for this story were later proved unreliable.

After his father’s death, Dostoevsky passed his first set of exams and became an engineer cadet, which allowed him to move out of academy housing and into a living situation with friends. He often visited Mikhail, who had settled in Reval, and attended cultural events such as the ballet and the opera. In 1843, he secured a job as a lieutenant engineer, but he was already distracted by literary pursuits. He began his career by publishing translations; his first, a translation of Honoré de Balzac's novel Eugénie Grandet, was published in the summer of 1843. Although he published several translations around this time, none of them were particularly successful, and he found himself struggling financially.

Early Career and Exile (1844-1854)

  • Poor Folk (1846)
  • The Double (1846)
  • "Mr. Prokharchin" (1846)
  • The Landlady (1847)
  • "Novel in Nine Letters" (1847)
  • "Another Man's Wife and a Husband under the Bed" (1848)
  • "A Weak Heart" (1848)
  • "Polzunkov" (1848)
  • "An Honest Thief" (1848)
  • "A Christmas Tree and a Wedding" (1848)
  • "White Nights" (1848)
  • "A Little Hero" (1849)

Dostoevsky hoped that his first novel, Poor Folk, would be enough of a commercial success to help pull him out of his financial difficulties, at least for the time being. The novel was completed in 1845, and his friend and roommate Dmitry Grigorovitch was able to help him get the manuscript in front of the right people in the literary community. It was published in January 1846 and became an immediate success, both critically and commercially. In order to focus more on his writing, he resigned his military position. In 1846, his next novel, The Double, was published.

Black and white photograph of Dostoevsky, bearded and wearing a coat
Photograph of Dostoevsky, date unknown.  Bettmann/Getty Images

As he immersed himself further in the literary world, Dostoevsky began embracing the ideals of socialism. This period of philosophical inquiry coincided with a downturn in his literary and financial fortunes: The Double was poorly received, and his subsequent short stories were as well, and he began suffering from seizures and other health problems. He joined a series of socialist groups, which provided him with assistance as well as friendship, including the Petrashevsky Circle (so named for its founder Mikhail Petrashevsky), who frequently met to discuss social reforms such as the abolition of serfdom and freedom of press and speech from censorship.

In 1849, however, the circle was denounced to Ivan Liprandi, a government official at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and accused of reading and circulating banned works that criticized the government. Fearing a revolution, the government of Tsar Nicholas I deemed these critics to be very dangerous criminals. They were sentenced to be executed and were only reprieved at the last possible moment when a letter from the tsar arrived just before the execution, commuting their sentences to exile and hard labor followed by conscription. Dostoyevsky was exiled to Siberia for his sentence, during which time he suffered several health complications but earned the respect of many of his fellow prisoners. 

Return From Exile (1854-1865)

  • Uncle's Dream (1859)
  • The Village of Stepanchikovo (1859)
  • Humiliated and Insulted (1861)
  • The House of the Dead (1862)
  • "A Nasty Story" (1862)
  • Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863)
  • Notes from Underground (1864)
  • "The Crocodile" (1865)

Dostoevsky completed his prison sentence in February 1854, and he published a novel based on his experiences, The House of the Dead, in 1861. In 1854, he moved to Semipalatinsk to serve out the rest of his sentence, forced military service in the Siberian Army Corps of the Seventh Line Battalion. While there, he began working as a tutor to the children of the nearby upper-class families.

It was in these circles that Dostoevsky first met Alexander Ivanovich Isaev and Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva. He soon fell in love with Maria, although she was married. Alexander had to take a new military posting in 1855, where he was killed, so Maria moved herself and her son in with Dostoevsky. After he sent a letter of formal apology in 1856, Dostoevsky had his rights to marry and to publish again restored; he and Maria married in 1857. Their marriage was not particularly happy, due to their differences in personality and his ongoing health problems. Those same health problems also led to him being released from his military obligations in 1859, after which he was allowed to return from exile and, eventually, move back to St. Petersburg.

Oil color painting of Dostoevsky
Oil painting of Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872. Tretyakov Gallery/Corbis/Getty Images 

He published a handful of short stories around 1860, including “A Little Hero,” which was the only work he produced while in prison. In 1862 and 1863, Dostoevsky took a handful of trips out of Russia and throughout western Europe. He wrote an essay, “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions,” inspired by these travels and critiquing a wide range of what he viewed as social ills, from capitalism to organized Christianity and more.

While in Paris, he met and fell in love with Polina Suslova and gambled away much of his fortune, which put him in a more severe situation come 1864, when his wife and brother both died, leaving him as the sole supporter of his stepson and his brother’s surviving family. Compounding matters, Epoch, the magazine he and his brother had founded, failed.

Successful Writing and Personal Turmoil (1866-1873)

  • Crime and Punishment (1866)
  • The Gambler (1867)
  • The Idiot (1869)
  • The Eternal Husband (1870)
  • Demons (1872)

Fortunately, the next period of Dostoevsky’s life was to be considerably more successful. In the first two months of 1866, the first installments of what would become Crime and Punishment, his most famous work, were published. The work proved incredibly popular, and by the end of the year, he had also finished the short novel The Gambler.

To complete The Gambler on time, Dostoevsky engaged the help of a secretary, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, who was 25 years younger than him. The following year, they were married. Despite the significant income from Crime and Punishment, Anna was forced to sell her personal valuables to cover her husband’s debts. Their first child, daughter Sonya, was born in March 1868 and died only three months later.

Manuscript page covered in handwriting and doodles of facees
A handwritten manuscript page from "Demons". Heritage Images/Getty Images 

Dostoevsky completed his next work, The Idiot, in 1869, and their second daughter, Lyubov, was born later that same year. By 1871, however, their family was in a dire financial situation yet again. In 1873, they founded their own publishing company, which published and sold Dostoevsky’s latest work, Demons. Fortunately, the book and the business were both successful. They had two more children: Fyodor, born in 1871, and Alexey, born in 1875. Dostoevsky wanted to start a new periodical, A Writer's Diary, but he was unable to afford the costs. Instead, the Diary was published in another publication, The Citizen, and Dostoevsky was paid an annual salary for contributing the essays.

Declining Health (1874-1880)

  • The Adolescent (1875)
  • "A Gentle Creature" (1876)
  • "The Peasant Marey" (1876)
  • "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man" (1877)
  • The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
  • A Writer's Diary (1873–1881)

In March 1874, Dostoevsky decided to leave his work at The Citizen; the stress of the work and the constant surveillance, court cases, and interference by the government proved too much for him and his precarious health to handle. His doctors suggested he leave Russia for a time to try to shore up his health, and he spent some months away before returning to St. Petersburg in July 1874. He eventually finished an ongoing work, The Adolescent, in 1875.

Dostoevsky continued working on his A Writer’s Diary, which included a range of essays and short stories surrounding some of his favorite themes and concerns. The compilation became his most successful publication ever, and he began receiving more letters and visitors than ever before. It was so popular, in fact, that (in a major reversal from his earlier life), he was summoned to the court of Tsar Alexander II to present him with a copy of the book and to receive the tsar’s request to help educate his sons.

Although his career was more successful than ever, his health suffered, with four seizures in the span of a single month in early 1877. He also lost his young son, Alexei, to a seizure in 1878. Between 1879 and 1880, Dostoevsky received a slew of honors and honorary appointments, including the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Slavic Benevolent Society, and the Association Littéraire et Artistique Internationale. When he was elected vice president of the Slavic Benevolent Society in 1880, he gave a speech that was praised widely but also criticized harshly, leading to further stress on his health.

Literary Themes and Styles

Dostoevsky was heavily influenced by his political, philosophical, and religious beliefs, which were in turn influenced by the situation in Russia during his time. His political beliefs were intrinsically tied to his Christian faith, which placed him in an unusual position: he decried socialism and liberalism as atheist and degrading to society as a whole, but also disapproved of more traditional arrangements like feudalism and oligarchy. Still, he was a pacifist and despised ideas of violent revolution. His faith and his belief that morality was the key to improving society are threaded through most of his writings.

In terms of writing style, Dostoevsky’s hallmark was his use of polyphony—that is, the weaving together of multiple narratives and narrative voices within a single work. Rather than have an overarching voice of the author who has all the information and steers the reader towards the “right” knowledge, his novels tend to simply present characters and viewpoints and let them develop more naturally. There is no one “truth” within these novels, which ties in closely with the philosophical bend to much of his work.

Dostoevsky’s works often explore human nature and all the psychological quirks of humankind. In some regards, there are Gothic underpinnings to these explorations, as seen in his fascination with dreams, irrational emotions, and the concept of moral and literal darkness, as seen in everything from The Brothers Karamazov to Crime and Punishment and more. His version of realism, psychological realism, was concerned particularly with the reality of the inner lives of humans, even more so than the realism of society at large.

Death

On January 26, 1881, Dostoevsky suffered two pulmonary hemorrhages in quick succession. When Anna called for a doctor, the prognosis was very grim, and Dostoevsky suffered a third hemorrhage soon after. He summoned his children to see him before his death and insisted on the Parable of the Prodigal Son being read to them—a parable about sin, repentance, and forgiveness. Dostoevsky died on February 9, 1881.

Illustration of crowds in the streets at a funeral procession
Illustration of Dostoevsky's funeral procession by Arnold Karl Baldinger. Heritage Images/Getty Images

Dostoevsky was buried in the Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Convent in St. Petersburg, in the same cemetery as his favorite poets, Nikolay Karamzin and Vasily Zhukovsky. The exact number of mourners at his funeral is unclear, as different sources have reported numbers as varied as 40,000 to 100,000. His gravestone is inscribed with a quote from the Gospel of John: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it dies, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

Legacy

Dostoevsky’s particular brand of human-focused, spiritual, and psychological writing has played a part in inspiring a wide range of modern cultural movements, including surrealism, existentialism, and even the Beat Generation, and he is considered a major forerunner of Russian existentialism, expressionism, and psychoanalysis.

In general, Dostoevsky is considered one of the great authors of Russian literature. Like most writers, he was ultimately received with great praise alongside severe criticism; Vladimir Nabokov was particularly critical of Dostoevsky and of the praise with which he was received. On the opposite side of things, however, luminaries including Franz Kafka, Albert Einstein, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ernest Hemingway all spoke of him and his writing in glowing terms. To this day, he remains one of the most widely-read and studied authors, and his works have been translated across the globe.

Sources

  • Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871–1881. Princeton University Press, 2003.
  • Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821–1849. Princeton University Press, 1979.
  • Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • Kjetsaa, Geir. Fyodor Dostoyevsky: A Writer's Life. Fawcett Columbine, 1989.