FYODOR MIKHAILOVICH DOSTOEVSKY STOOD PREPARED TO DIE. Sentenced to death in 1849 for his participation in the liberal socialist Petrashevsky circle, the 28-year-old writer had risen from near poverty to literary acclaim, only to stand blindfolded in the bitter cold, attended by a firing squad. Tsar Nikolai I sadistically cut the execution short at the last moment and shipped the paper revolutionaries o. to a Siberian labor camp. It is said that at least two of the prisoners went mad on the spot. Nervous fits would plague Dostoevsky (1821-1881) for the remainder of his days.
Dostoevsky's writing can have a similar shocking effect on his readers. His novels and short stories are a collision of grand moral and philosophical questions and petty impulses. Here self-absorption meets Christian giving; family loyalties confront social order; the gold-hearted Magdalene absolves the bitter misanthrope. From the perspective of the early 21st century, it is impossible to understand the scope and depth of Dostoevsky's influence without experiencing his texts firsthand. His novels, from Notes from Underground (1864) to The Brothers Karamazov (1880), remain some of the most emotionally confrontational works in literature.
Most of Dostoevsky's great novels feature crime, especially murder, as a central plot element. The settings are often squalid, and very few characters strike the reader as wholly sympathetic. But despite the spectral hue of his fictional world, it is difficult to call Dostoevsky a pessimist. The genius of his work was its psychological refinement. Not only did Dostoevsky revolutionize characterization by forcing the reader's sympathies toward outright criminals--recall Raskolnikov's motives in Crime and Punishment (1866)--but he did so in the service of larger ideas. Dostoevsky's works are literature in the grand tradition of Dante and Shakespeare, where questions of what it means to live and die often supersede questions of mere life and death. His fictional world reflects a Russian society astir with revolutionary impulses and deep social inequality; but opposed to the Victorian panorama, Dostoevsky presented his view of Russia from the level of the soul.
Dostoevsky was born in 1821, the second son of a middle-class Muscovite family. His father was a drunken and demanding retired military doctor who, following his wife's death from tuberculosis in 1837, sent Fyodor away to the Military Engineering School in St. Petersburg.
Dostoevsky filled his free time at the school reading Pushkin, Gogol, Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac, and Schiller. In 1839 his father died, reputedly the victim of a brutal murder by the serfs on his country estate. Fyodor finished his schooling but continued his literary work, publishing a translation of Balzac's Eugenie Grandet, which he followed with his first novel Poor Folk (1846). The book was an immediate success, and St. Petersburg's literary community embraced the young writer. He published other works on the heels of Poor Folk, but none of them received the same acclaim as his debut. Soon his social alliances led him to the Petrashevsky circle and revolutionary activities against Tsar Nikolai I, and to his subsequent mock execution and exile.
Though his five years in Siberia and his following few years stationed as a Siberian Regiment corporal in Kazakhstan represented only one of many tragic periods of Dostoevsky's life, it forced a seismic shift in his artistic development and his intellectual beliefs.
When he returned to St. Petersburg in 1859, Dostoevsky was a married man (he had wedded Marya Isaeva in 1857) with limited financial prospects. He published two novels, Memoirs of the House of the Dead (1861), a fictional account of prison life, and The Insulted and the Injured (1862), a bildungsroman which rejects utopianism. They received little critical acclaim but reinvigorated the public appetite for his work. He also made his first voyage to Western Europe and found in the liberal social order of the great capital cities more justification for his embrace of a deeply held conservatism. (After his return from Siberia, Dostoevsky had become increasingly sympathetic to imperialist ideas and the Russian Orthodox Church.)
The appearance of Notes from Underground (1864) heralded a new psychological complexity to Dostoevsky's work. Its main character, the unnamed Underground Man, became a key figure in...