Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born on November 11, 1821, in Moscow, Russia. He was the second of seven children of Mikhail Andreevich and Maria Dostoevsky. His father, a doctor, was a member of the Russian nobility, owned serfs and had a considerable estate near Moscow where he lived with his family. It’s believed that he was murdered by his own serfs in revenge for the violence he would commit against them while in drunken rages. As a child Fyodor was traumatized when he witnessed the rape of a young female serf and suffered from epileptic seizures. He was sent to a boarding school, where he studied sciences, languages and literature. He was devastated when his favorite writer, Alexander Pushkin, was killed in a duel in St. Petersburg in 1837. That same year Dostoevsky’s mother died, and he moved to St. Petersburg. There he graduated from the Military Engineering Academy, and served in the Tsar’s government for a year.
Dostoevsky was active in St. Petersburg literary life; he grew out of his early influence by Nikolay Gogol, translated “Eugenia Grande” by Honoré de Balzac in 1844 and published his own first novel, “Poor Folk”, in 1845, and became friends with Ivan Turgenev and Nikolai A. Nekrasov, but it ended abruptly after they criticized his writing. At that time he became indirectly involved in a revolutionary movement, for which he was arrested in 1849, convicted of treason and sentenced to death. His execution was scheduled for a freezing winter day in St. Petersburg, and at the appointed hour he was blindfolded and ordered to stand before the firing squad, waiting to be shot. The execution was called off at the last minute, however, and his sentence was commuted to a prison term and exile in Siberia, where his health declined amid increased epileptic seizures. After serving ten years in prison and exile, he regained his title in the nobility and returned to St. Petersburg with permission from the Tsar. He abandoned his formerly liberal views and became increasingly conservative and religious. That, however, didn’t stop him from developing an acute gambling problem, and he accumulated massive gambling debts.
In 1862, after returning from his first major tour of Western Europe, Dostoevsky wrote that “Russia needs to be reformed, by learning the new ideas that are developing in Europe.” On his next trip to Europe, in 1863, he spent all of his money on a manipulative woman, A. Suslova, went on a losing gambling spree, returned home flat broke and sank into a depression. At that time he wrote “Notes from Underground” (1864), preceding existentialism in literature. His first wife died in 1864, after six years of a childless marriage, and he adopted her son from her previous marriage. Painful experiences caused him to fall further into depression, but it was during this period that he wrote what many consider his finest work: “Crime and Punishment” (1866).
After completion of “The Gambler” (1867), the 47-year-old Dostoevsky married his loyal friend and literary secretary, 20-year-old Anna Snitkina, and they had four children. His first baby died at three months of age, causing him to sink further into depression and triggering more epileptic seizures. At that time Dostoevsky expressed his disillusionment with the Utopian ideas in his novels “The Idiot” (1868) and “The Devils” (aka “The Posessed”) (1871), where the “devils” are destructive people, such as revolutionaries and terrorists. Dostoevsky was the main speaker at the opening of the monument to Alexander Pushkin in 1880, calling Pushkin a “wandering Russian, searching for universal happiness”. In his final great novel, “The Brothers Karamazov” (1880), Dostoevsky revealed the components of his own split personality, depicted in four main characters; humble monk Alyosha, compulsive gambler Dmitri, rebellious intellectual Ivan, and their cynical father Fyodor Karamazov.
Dostoevsky died on February 9, 1881, of a lung hemorrhage caused by emphysema and epileptic seizures. He lived his entire life under the pall of epilepsy, much like the mythical “Sword of Damocles”, and was fearless in telling the truth. His writings are an uncanny reflection on his own life – the fate of a genius in Russia.