novelist Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821, on October 30 according to the Russian
(Julian) calendar, and November 11 according to the Western European
(Gregorian) calendar. The second of seven children of an army surgeon, he was
educated at home and then at boarding school. The family lived in the hospital
where Dostoevsky's father worked. It was situated in a poor area of town near a
lunatic asylum, orphanage and criminals' graveyard, and Dostoevsky grew up with
scenes of poverty and suffering that affected him greatly.
Both Dostoevsky's parents were intensely religious. His father was
cold, excessively stern and convinced that he was chosen by God to endure
special sufferings. In contrast, his mother was warm, loving and inspired by
the more joyful side of Christianity. After his mother died in 1837, his father
sent the children away to various locations. Dostoevsky was sent to the Army
Engineering College in St Petersburg. In 1839, Dostoevsky's father was murdered
by his serfs, possibly in
retaliation for his notorious cruelty. Dostoevsky never forgot this event,
which many critics believe inspired the character of Fyodor Karamazov in his
last novel, The Brothers Karamazov (published 1880).
On his father's death, Dostoevsky inherited some money and quit
the military academy. He threw himself into a profligate life of gambling, a
habit that was to deplete his resources for much of his life. In 1846, he
published his first novel, Poor Folk, to great acclaim.
In April 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested, together with other
members of the radical socialist Petrashevsky circle. He spent eight months in prison and was
sentenced to death. One day, the entire group was led out to be shot. The order
was given to the soldiers to take aim, but the order to fire never came. The
execution was a show, meant to punish the prisoners psychologically. The
experience made one of Dostoevsky's fellow prisoners become insane.
The death sentence was commuted to four years at a labor camp in
Siberia and four years'
military service in Semipalatinsk (in modern Kazakhstan). During his imprisonment, Dostoevsky
began suffering from epileptic seizures, a condition from which he suffered for
the rest of his life. In a
memoir, The House of the Dead (published 1862), Dostoevsky wrote of his
imprisonment, "I consider those four years as a time in which I was buried
alive and closed in a coffin. How horrible that time was I have not the
strength to tell you, dear friend. It was unspeakable, interminable suffering
because every hour, every minute weighed upon my soul like a stone." He
had only the New Testament to read. By the time he finished his sentence, he
had given up his radical socialist ideas and become a committed Christian. His
experiences of imprisonment and the criminal justice system were to inform his
novels The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment (1866).
In 1857, Dostoevsky married Maria Isaev, a
29-year old widow. He resigned from the army two years later. In 1861 he became
the editor of the monthly periodical Time, until it was suppressed by the
authorities in 1863.
In 1864-65 his wife and brother died and he struggled with
poverty. His fortunes improved with the publication of Crime and Punishment,
an account of an individual's fall and redemption, and The Idiot (1868),
depicting a Christ-like figure, Prince Myshkin.
Dostoevsky married Anna Snitkin, his 22-year old stenographer, in
1867. They traveled abroad and returned in 1871. They had three children: Sofia was born in Geneva in 1868,
but lived for only three months; Lyubov was born in Dresden in 1869, but had a
nervous breakdown when her father died and never recovered; and Aleksei was
born in 1875, but died three years later from fever.
By the time Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov, he was
recognized in Russia as one of its great writers. Dostoevsky died in St
Petersburg on February 9, 1881 and was buried in the Aleksandr Nevsky monastery
in St Petersburg.