"Life is in ourselves and not in the external," writes Fyodor Dostoevsky in a letter to his brother dated December 22, 1849. "To be a human being among human beings, and remain one forever, no matter what misfortunes befall, not to become depressed, and not to falter--this is what life is, herein lies its task." (The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, xii)
This passage was written immediately after Dostoevsky underwent the traumatic experience that Tsar Nicholas I ordered for several prisoners condemned to death for supporting the expression of free thought within the Russian state--a mock execution in Semyonovsky Square, a staged performance so terrifyingly real that it induced insanity within one of the author's fellow prisoners. (The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Garnett, x) The quote is evidence of Dostoevsky's strength of character; his would be a difficult life--living in bleak poverty, he would helplessly watch as many of the people closest to him died from the ailments of the poor. It also exposes the significant flaw common to some of his characters and tragic heroes--through despair, and weakness before the weight of misfortune, they falter, and commit barbaric acts that render them unfit to operate within the context of humanity. This is the case with both Baklushkin and Shishkov from The House of the Dead, as well as with Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.
The difficult facts of Dostoevsky's life, however, are likely the genesis of most, if not all of his work. Born on October 30, 1821 in Moscow, he lived much of his childhood distanced from his frail mother and officious father. (Hingley, 20) In these formative years, he formed a close bond with his elder brother Mikhail. They would spend many hours reading Pushkin by meager candlelight in their family's comfortable suburban home. When they were teenagers, however, both Fyodor and Mikhail were enrolled in separate boarding schools, Fyodor matriculating at an engineering school in St. Petersburg. It is possible that being confronted with the rigorous schedule of the engineering school (that served as a recruiting pool for the Russian bureaucracy) helped assure Dostoevsky that his destiny was the written word; even as he was studying the trade of government, he was honing his skills as a writer, inking drafts of what would become his first novel-Poor Folk. In 1846, it was published to warm critical response. Something of a literary figure at the age of twenty-five, Dostoevsky began attending the discussion group that would result in his imprisonment, and the eventual mock execution which would prompt him to write the aforementioned letter to his brother.
His sentence was commuted to four years in prison and four years of army service. His prison experiences, as well as his life after prison among the urban poor of Russia, would provide a vivid backdrop for much of his later work. Released from his imprisonment and service by 1858, he began a fourteen-year period of furious writing, in which he published many significant texts. Among these are: The House of the Dead (1862), Notes From The Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), and Devils (1871).
During this period, Dostoevsky's life was in upheaval, as he lost both his first wife and his brother. On February 15, 1867, he married his stenographer Anna Grigorevna Snitkina who would manage his affairs until his death in 1881. Two months before he died, Dostoevsky completed the epilogue to The Brothers Karamazov (1880), which was published in serial form in the Russian Messenger. His funeral attracted thousands of citizens, as Russia mourned the death of a significant literary hero.
Richard Peace is Emeritus Professor of Russian at Bristol University. He is the author of Dostoevsky: An Examination of his Major Novels.