An Introduction to Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky (pronounced dos-toy-ev-ski) is most popularly known as a Russian novelist as well as a philosopher. His works explore human psychology in the troubled socio-political atmosphere of 19th century Russia. His novels had a great impact on psychology, the study of how the human mind works, especially of people who lose their reason, who are nihilistic, or who become insane or commit murder. He is considered as one of the greatest psychological novelists in world literature.

Dostoevsky was born in Moscow, Russia, in 1821. His family was very religious and so was he. He began writing widely as a child, as well as being home-schooled until he was sent to a private school when he was 13 years old.

Two years later his mother died of tuberculosis. Dostoevsky’s father, an alcoholic with a short temper, retreated into seclusion, and became even more wretched in temperament. This anger was expressed as abuse on his serfs. When Dostoevsky reached 18 years of age, he attended school to become a military engineer. While still at school, Dostoevsky learned that his father had been murdered, the cause of death was left open to speculation, though some imagined it was his serfs who had killed him as an act of vengeance.

Fyodor’s father: Mikhail Dostoevsky

The death of his father, in circumstances so mysterious and sinister cannot but have affected Dostoevsky profoundly. His first seizure coincided with the death of his father; this was to be his first indication of his lifelong battle with epilepsy.

After finishing his studies in the engineering academy at 23 years old, his passion for literature made him resign from the career he was trained for and devoted himself to writing. Although he had produced some translations of foreign novels, they had little success, and he decided to write a novel of his own to try to raise funds.

He was in great financial difficulty because of his extravagant lifestyle and his developing gambling addiction.

Dostoevsky began his career writing fiction about poor people in harsh situations. In 1843 he published his first novel, Poor Folk, written in the form of letters. It is about an impoverished clerk who is hopelessly in love with a young woman he can never possess. It showcases the life of poor people, their relationship with rich people and poverty in general. The novel was praised by a respected critic, they named it Russia’s first “social novel” and a major socialist work. Unfortunately, his second work, The Double, was received less warmly (it later proved to be a huge success).

His later works did not gain much popularity. This lack of success troubled Dostoevsky. His life and work were characterised by aimlessness and confusion, publishing short stories that are for the most part experiments in different forms and different subject matters.

Some years later, he joined a literary discussion group of revolutionaries called the Petrashevsky Circle, focused on overthrowing the existing social order, opposing the Russian feudal system, which kept millions of serfs trapped in a life of servitude without full legal rights. Inevitably, the members were infiltrated by the secret police and eventually arrested, Dostoevsky was  among them. He found himself incarcerated and in solitary confinement. For Dostoevsky it was the true beginning of his inner life, of the illumination out of which his great works were to come. He was introduced to the theme of punishment he was suffering as well as crime.

Eight months later, he was sentenced to death. He was led to be shot by a firing squad in a public square. At the very last minute, as the rifles were loaded and aimed, a messenger arrived waving a white flag and telling the armed men to stop the execution. It had all been planned. Every last detail had been pre-arranged in a twisted form of psychological torture. 

Petrashevsky Circle - Wikipedia
The mock execution of Fyodor Dostoevsky

He was sent to a prison labour camp in Siberia for four years in extremely harsh conditions followed by another six years of compulsory military service in exile.

The decade of the 1860s was one of the most turbulent in Russian history as well as one with great reforms, with the long-awaited end of the serfdom era.

After he was permitted to return to St. Petersburg some ten years later, he returned a different man. He wrote and published a prison memoir titled Notes from a Dead House, in which he described his own experience as well as the lives of the variety of prisoners he’d encountered in Siberia.

His most popular novels are: Notes from the Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), Demons (1872) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).

You can take a look at the book review of Notes from the Underground and Crime and Punishment by clicking on the names (no spoilers).

The statue to Russia’s national poet Pushkin was unveiled in 1880 providing Dostoevsky with the opportunity he’d long sought, actually to speak to his fellow countrymen, warning them of the dangers that lie ahead and the ruinous consequences that would surely ensue if they followed the Westerners with their fraudulent promises of progress and freedom.

Pushkin’s statue

He delivered his address in a hall of columns used by the nobility. A truly prophetic figure, speaking with great force and eloquence and leading up to his tremendous climax when he proclaimed the coming of a universal brotherhood brought about not by socialism and revolution but by the full and perfect realisation of the Christian Enlightenment.

He died a year later in 1881, from his complicated health problems.

Everything that Dostoevsky had warned against had become a reality in Russia, the church had collapsed, nihilism and atheism became prevalent and the ideologies of Marx and Lenin that made people believe that it was possible to create a perfect society without God, caused millions of deaths.

1860's Russia: The Nihilists — Roleplayer Guild
Russian Nihilist Movement

Dostoevsky’s works, far from seeming to belong to a vanished past, grow ever more relevant to the dilemmas and distractions which are part of the experience of living in this age.

All his life he was questing for God and only seems to have found him, if ever, at the end of his days, after passing through what he called the hellfire of doubt.

What makes his books well worth reading now is the unsparing vision of what destructive forces come into the world when there is a vacuum of spiritual understanding.

Freedom to choose between good and evil he saw as the very essence of human existence. All our imperfections are part of the human condition and we shouldn’t torment ourselves with the dream that we could become perfect and ideal beings.

“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” – Dostoevsky.

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Greatest Philosophers In History | Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostovesky’s works explore human psychology in the troubled socio-political atmosphere of 19th century Russia. His novels had a great impact on psychology, especially of people who lose their reason, who are nihilistic, or who become insane or commit murder. He is considered as one of the greatest psychological novelists in world literature.

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