Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was born in Moscow, Russia, in 1821. He had an older brother, his father was a doctor, and he was raised in his family’s home, which was on the grounds of the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor. This hospital was in a lower-class district on the edges of Moscow, and when playing in the hospital gardens as a child Dostoevsky encountered patients who were at the bottom of the Russian social scale.
When Dostoyevsky was four years old his mother used the Bible to teach him how to read and write, and he was introduced to books at an early age. His nanny read him fairy tales, legends, and heroic sagas, and his parents introduced him to a wide range of literature. Although his father’s approach to education has been described as “strict and harsh,” Dostoevsky reported that his “imagination” was “brought alive” by his parent’s nightly readings.
In 1837 Dostoyevsky left school to enter the Nikolayev Military Engineering Institute, and after graduating he worked as a lieutenant engineer and book translator, from French into Russian. In 1839 signs of Dostoevsky’s epilepsy first appeared, and his seizures plagued him throughout his life. During his 20s, Dostoyevsky recorded several journal descriptions of his seizures, and there are also descriptions in his novels. There have been numerous medical hypotheses about the type of epilepsy with which Dostoevsky suffered, the most notorious feature of his type of epilepsy being the so-called “ecstatic aura.” While these seizures were debilitating, they also appear to have contributed to mystical experiences that enhanced the creativity of his writing.
Dostoyevsky had this to say about his epileptic seizures, “I felt that heaven descended to earth and swallowed me. I attained God and was imbued with him… all the joys life can give I would not take in exchange for it… for a few moments before the fit, I experience a feeling of happiness such [that] it is impossible to imagine in a normal state and which other people have no idea of. I feel entirely in harmony with myself and the world, and this feeling is so strong and so delightful that for a few seconds of such bliss, one would gladly give up ten years of one’s life if not one’s whole life.”
Between 1844 and 1845 Dostoyevsky wrote his first novel, Poor Folk. His motivation for writing this novel was said to be largely financial. Dostoyevsky was having financial difficulties, due to an extravagant lifestyle and a gambling addiction, so he decided to write a novel to try and raise funds. The novel is written in the form of letters between the two main characters, who are poor relatives, and it describes the lives of poor people, their relationship with rich people, and poverty in general. This novel became a commercial success, and it gained Dostoyevsky’s entry into Saint Petersburg’s literary circles.
In 1846 Dostoyevsky’s second novel, The Double: A Petersburg Poem, about a bureaucrat struggling to succeed, was published in a journal and it received negative reviews. Around this time Dostoyevsky also published several short stories in a magazine, which also received negative reviews, and this caused him stress and greater financial difficulty. After this his health declined, his seizures increased in frequency, and Dostoyevsky’s life took a dark turn.
In 1847 Dostoyevsky was arrested for belonging to a particular literary group called the Petrashevsky Circle, which discussed banned books that were critical of Tsarist Russia. Dostoyevsky was sentenced to death, but at the last moment, his sentence was commuted. He later described this experience, of what he believed to be the last moments of his life, in his novel The Idiot. Dostoyevsky spent the next four years doing hard labor in a Siberian prison camp, where he had frequent seizures, and then after surviving that, he had to do six more years of compulsory military service.
In the years that followed Dostoyevsky worked as a journalist, editing several magazines, and he traveled around Western Europe. For a time, he experienced such serious financial hardship that he had to beg for money. In 1866, when he owed large sums of money to creditors, his widely acclaimed novel Crime and Punishment was first published in a literary journal, in twelve monthly installments. It was a “literary sensation” of 1866 and is now one of the most widely read books of all time.
The novel is about the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of an impoverished young man who plans to kill an unscrupulous old woman, who stores money and valuable objects in her apartment. What’s so remarkable about this story is how Dostoyevsky portrays the psychological process of his self-tormented main character.
Between 1868 and 1869 Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot was first published serially in a journal. The title of the book is an ironic reference to the central character of the novel, a young, Christ-like, epileptic prince whose “goodness, open-hearted simplicity, and guilelessness lead many of the more worldly characters he encounters to mistakenly assume that he lacks intelligence and insight.”
In 1880 Dostoyevsky published his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, a passionate and philosophical story about rival love affairs, that explores questions of God, free will, and morality. Dostoevsky’s body of work consists of thirteen novels, three novellas, seventeen short stories, 221 Diary articles, and numerous other works.
Dostoyevsky died in 1881. Since his death, he has become one of the most widely-read and highly-regarded Russian writers. Dostoyevsky’s books have been translated into more than 170 languages, they’ve served as the inspiration for numerous films, and his work has influenced many other writers.
In 1971, Dostoevsky’s former apartment in Saint Petersburg was opened as a museum, known as the F.M. Dostoevsky Memorial Museum. The apartment was Dostoevsky’s home during the composition of some of his most notable works, including The Double: A Petersburg Poem and The Brothers Karamazov. The museum library holds around 24,000 volumes and a small collection of manuscripts.
Some quotes that Fyodor Dostoyevsky is remembered for include:
To love someone means to see them as God intended them.
Beauty will save the world.
What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.
I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.
It takes something more than intelligence to act intelligently.
Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.
Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.
Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.
The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.