Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in Moscow on Oct 30, 1821. His father was a doctor who aspired to improve his family’s modest standings in Russian society. Young Fyodor (the name is the Russian equivalent of “Theodore”) was brought up to be a religious and hard-working young man, and began training to be a military engineer at a school in St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg was the most intellectual and “European” city in Russia, and the intense, shy young man felt strong attractions to the literary societies that were beginning to flourish during these years. Fascinated by the unconventional writings of the satirist Nikolai Gogol, he wrote a poignant story of thwarted love between humble peasants, “Poor Folk”. Unexpectedly, the manuscript was passed around from friend to friend and suddenly discovered by the poet Alexey Nekrasov and the highly respected critic Vissarion Belinsky, who declared the amateur writer a genius and “the next Gogol”.
In his mid-twenties, the young novelist suddenly became a celebrity of immense proportions. Unfortunately he was not emotionally ready for this change in his lifestyle. The shy, awkward former military engineer was not up to the task of socializing in the vigorous, highly competitive intellectual “clique” of 1840’s St. Petersburg. Thrown into the center of numerous upscale dinner parties and proto-revolutionary gatherings, he quickly became the laughing-stock of his more socially secure peers, who found him insufferably serious and parochial. Among the young intellectuals who tormented him were Nekrasov and another rising literary star, Ivan Turgenev. The dream of sudden fame and wealth combined with the nightmare of social ostracism would later inspire one of his most original novels, “Notes From Underground”, which depicts an idealistic but arrogant St. Petersburg revolutionary who becomes an object of horrible ridicule at a dinner party.
Dostoevsky’s early literary career foundered, and he became increasingly involved in the anti-Tsarist circles that were trying to modernize feudal Russian society and overthrow the government. His luck was bad — in 1849 he was arrested with several other suspected members of the radical “Petrashevsky Circle” and sentenced to death. Along with several other prisoners, he was led out to face public execution by firing squad. A hood was placed over his head, and he heard the charges against him dictated to the crowd: “Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky … condemnded to capital punishment by shooting.”
At this moment he was 28 years old. His writing talents had been squandered, his early friends lost, and it is said that he now stood bravely to face his final scene. Astonishingly, he and his fellow prisoners were then informed that the execution would not take place. They had been put through this ordeal simply to set a public example. At least one of his fellow prisoners was said to have gone permanently insane after this experience. Their sentences were commuted to imprisonment in Siberia.
It was during his imprisoment at Siberia that a miraculous depth began to emerge in Dostoevsky’s soul. He began to question the well-meaning but glib political convictions that had nearly cost him his life. He also felt immense stirrings to fully embrace the religion of his people, the Russian Orthodox Church. When he returned to St. Petersburg in 1859 he found the city in a prosperous, fashionably liberal mood. Former rivals like Ivan Turgenev were thriving, and Dostoevsky registered his disgust with the complacent society that surrounded him with “Notes From Underground”, the first of a series of great novels that he would now write.
He followed “Notes” with an amazing run of future classics, including “The Idiot”, “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov”. Unlike later “neo-conservatives” of other cultures, Dostoevsky never lost his unique ability to capture both sides of a political, moral and philosophical argument in his writings. His writings present no easy answers. For the remainder of his life he was a steadfast Christian and proudly upheld “traditional Russian” values, but in his writings he allowed these ideals to exist alongside a profound awareness of the pyschology of radical, anti-Tsarist politics and moral nihilism. The conflict between these two world views — both of which Dostoevsky had fervently allied himself with at different times in his life — is at the center of his best novels. Instead of dismissing or simplifying either points of view, he allows the conflict to create dimension, energize his plots and illuminate his characters.
In his later years, Dostoevsky continued to struggle with the particulars of everyday life. He founded newspapers (including one called “Epokha”, which means “Time”, a name an American publisher named Henry Luce would later have more success with), fell in love, married, had children, suffered bitter marital crises, remarried, became a compulsive gambler, lost all his money, wrote a successful novel about a gambler who lost all his money, continued to argue virulently with Turgenev and other peers, and, finally, reached as happy an ending as was possible for such an existential soul. By the 1880’s he was widely beloved as one of Russia’s best writers. He was lovingly applauded at a tribute for the earlier Russian novelist Pushkin, his last major public appearance, and died at home, with his family present, on January 28, 1881.
Dostoevsky wrote about the swirling, uncontrollable contradictions of the human soul and the Russian people. But even he could not possibly have foreseen the trials such Dostoevskean characters as Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin would put his country through in the century that would follow his death.