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Fyodor Dostoevsky

November 11, 1821, marks the birthday of Russian stream-of-conscious novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky.  He was born in Moscow, the second son of a former army doctor, and was educated at home and at private schools.  Shortly after the death of his mother in 1837, his father sent him to St. Petersburg, where he entered the Army Engineering College.  Two years later, his father died, most likely of apoplexy, although rumors circulated that he had been murdered by his own serfs.

In 1844, after being graduated as a military engineer, Dostoevsky resigned his commission in order to devote himself to writing.  His first novel, Poor Folk, appeared in 1846, the same year he joined a group of utopian socialists.  It was followed by The Double, which depicts a man who is haunted by a look-alike who eventually usurps his position.

An outspoken critic of the Russian bureaucracy, Dostoevsky began writing about the evils of Russian society under the Czars.  In 1849, the Russian government arrested him along with a group of other writers and charged them with planning to distribute political pamphlets advocating socialism and the emancipation of the serfs.  Czar Nicholas I sentenced the group to death.  The sentence was eventually commuted to imprisonment in Siberia, but not before the Czar carried out a mock execution so frighteningly real that it left all participants shaken.  The writers spent the next four years in hard labor, and Dostoevsky followed that by serving four more years as a soldier in Semipalatinsk.

In a letter to his brother, he wrote about how it felt to be a condemned man.  "They made us put on the white shirts worn by persons condemned to death.  Thereupon we were bound in threes to stakes, to suffer execution.  Being the third in the row, I concluded I had only a few minutes of life before me.  I thought of you and your dear ones and I contrived to kiss [my friends] who were next to me, and to bid them farewell.  Suddenly the troops beat a tattoo, we were unbound, brought back upon the scaffold, and informed that his Majesty had spared our lives."  One of Dostoevsky's comrades went mad following the incident.

Dostoevsky returned to St. Petersburg in 1854.  Three years later, he married Maria Isaev, a 29-year old widow.  By this time, he was a writer on a mission.  He published three works about his Siberian experiences in short succession: The House of the Dead (1860), a fictional account of prison life, The Insulted and Injured, which reflects the author's refutation of the naivety of Utopianism in the face of evil, and Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, about a trip he took to Western Europe. 

In 1864-65, his wife and brother died, and Dostoevsky found himself saddled with debt.  His gambling made his financial situation worse.  But from the turmoil of an unsettled life in the 1860s, Dostoevsky’s literary style mutated from realism into what he termed fantastic realism.  In 1864, he produced Notes from the Underground, the psychological study of a paranoid man living in his basement.  It was a watershed in the author’s artistic development.  The novel starts with the confessions of a mentally ill narrator and continues with the promise of spiritual rebirth.  

Dostoevsky followed that with Crime and Punishment (1866), the account of a college student who murders his landlady, The Idiot (1868), the tale of a Christ-like figure named Prince Myshkin, and The Possessed (1871), an exploration of philosophical nihilism.  All three were extremely popular with the general public at the time of their release.

In 1867, Dostoevsky married Anna Snitkin, his 22-year old stenographer, who apparently was comfortable with her husband’s various moods and manias.  The two traveled abroad and returned to Russia in 1871.  By the time Dostoevsky produced what many critics feel is his greatest work, The Brothers Karamazov—the haunting story of a brother who kills his own father—Dostoevsky was widely regarded as one of Russia’s greatest writers ever.

Dostoevsky once said, "You are told a lot about your education, but some beautiful, sacred memory, preserved since childhood, is perhaps the best education of all.  If a man carries many such memories into life with him, he is saved for the rest of his days."

An epileptic for most of his life, Fyodor Dostoevsky died in St. Petersburg on February 9, 1881, at the age of 59.  He was buried in the city’s Aleksandr Nevsky monastery.

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