Fyodor Dostoevsky Biography
Fyodor Dostoevsky is credited as one of the world’s greatest novelists and literary psychologists. Born in Moscow in 1821, the son of a doctor, Dostoevsky was educated first at home and then at a boarding school. When he was a young boy, his father sent him to the St. Petersburg Academy of Military Engineering, from which he graduated in 1843. Dostoevsky had long been interested in writing, and after graduation he immediately resigned from his minor military post to devote his time to his craft. His first novel, Poor Folk (1846), was immediately popular with critics.
Dostoevsky’s early view of the world was shaped by his experiences with social injustice. At the age of twenty-six, Dostoevsky became active in socialist circles, largely because of his opposition to the institution of serfdom. His political opinions were influenced by his experiences as a young boy—his father was murdered by his own serfs while Dostoevsky was away at school. Another experience that greatly affected Dostoyevsky, and that found its way into his writing, was the time he spent in prison. In April 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested for his participation in a group that illegally printed and distributed socialist propaganda. After spending eight months in prison, Dostoevsky was sentenced to death and was led, with other members of the group, to be shot. But the execution turned out to be only a show, meant to punish the prisoners psychologically. After his brush with death, Dostoevsky spent four years at a Siberian labor camp and then served in the military for another four years. During his time in prison, he rejected his extreme socialist views in favor of an adherence to traditional, conservative Russian values—a change in ideology that is evident throughout his later works.
Dostoevsky spent most of the 1860s in western Europe, immersing himself in the European culture that he believed was encroaching on Russia—an issue he explores in Notes from Underground. These years in Europe were a difficult time for Dostoevsky, as he struggled with poverty, epilepsy, and an addiction to gambling. The publication of Crime and Punishment (1866), however, brought him a reversal of fortune, earning him popular and critical success and rescuing him from financial disaster. His later novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880) brought him further critical success.
Dostoevsky was one of the pioneers of realism in the modern novel, and Notes from Underground (1864), along with his later novels, belongs to this genre. Realist writers—Honoré de Balzac in France, Charles Dickens in England, and Nikolai Gogol and Dostoevsky in Russia, among others—reexamined the entire purpose of the novel. Realism focused on “real” people, generally city dwellers, prostitutes, poor students, lowly craftsmen, and other types of characters who had been merely subjects of ridicule or providers of comic relief in previous literature. Prior to realism, everyday life had been considered below literature, which was meant to rise above the mundane. Dostoevsky’s work, often seen as the culmination of realism, aims not to rise above reality, but to portray it in all its complexity and difficulty.
Dostoevsky died in 1881 following a series of pulmonary hemorrhages. Many thousands of mourners attended his funeral. His epitaph reads:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it dies, it bringeth forth much fruit. – John 12:24
Fyodor Dostoevsky Study Guides
Fyodor Dostoevsky Quotes
The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.
Money is coined liberty, and so it is ten times dearer to the man who is deprived of freedom.
When… in the course of all these thousands of years has man ever acted in accordance with his own interests?
Every man has some reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends.