Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born of lower-middle-class parents in 1821, the second of seven children, and lived until 1881. His father, an army doctor attached to the staff of a public hospital, was a stern and righteous man while his mother was the opposite — passive, kindly, and generous — and this fact accounts perhaps for Dostoevsky's often filling his novels with characters who seem to possess opposite extremes of character.
Dostoevsky's early education was in an army engineering school, where he was apparently bored with the dull routine and the unimaginative student life. He spent most of his time, therefore, dabbling in literary matters and reading the latest authors; the penchant for literature was obsessive. And, almost as obsessive was Dostoevsky's interest in death, for while the young student was away at school, his father was killed by the serfs on his estate. This sudden and savage murder smoldered within the young Dostoevsky and, when he began to write, the subject of crime, and murder in particular, was present in every new publication; Dostoevsky was never free of the horrors of homicide and even at the end of his life, he chose to write of a violent death — the death of a father — as the basis for his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov.
After spending two years in the army, Dostoevsky launched his literary career with Poor Folk, a novel that was an immediate and popular success and one highly acclaimed by the critics. Never before had a Russian author so thoroughly examined the psychological complexity of man's inner feelings and the intricate workings of the mind.
Following Poor Folk, Dostoevsky's only important novel for many years was The Double, a short work dealing with a split personality and containing the genesis of a later masterpiece, Crime and Punishment.
Perhaps the most crucial years of Dostoevsky's melodramatic life occurred soon after the publication of Poor Folk. These years included some of the most active, changing phases in all of Russian history and Dostoevsky had an unusually active role in this era of change. Using influences acquired with his literary achievements, he became involved in political intrigues of quite questionable natures. He was, for example, deeply influenced by new and radical ideas entering Russia from the West and soon became affiliated with those who hoped to revolutionize Russia with all sorts of Western reforms. The many articles Dostoevsky wrote, concerning the various political questions, he published knowing full well that they were illegal and that all printing was to be controlled and censored by the government.
The rebel-writer and his friends were, of course, soon deemed treasonous revolutionaries and placed in prison and, after nine months, a number of them, including Dostoevsky, were tried, found guilty, and condemned to be shot by a firing squad.
The entire group was accordingly assembled, all preparations were completed, and the victims were tied and blindfolded. Then, seconds before the shots were to be fired, a messenger from the Tsar arrived. A reprieve had been granted. Actually, the Tsar had never intended that the men were to be shot; he merely used this sadistic method to teach Dostoevsky and his friends a lesson. This soul-shaking, harrowing encounter with death, however, created a never-to-be forgotten impression on Dostoevsky; it haunted him for the rest of his life.
After the commutation of the death sentence, Dostoevsky was sent to Siberia and during the years there, he changed his entire outlook on life. During this time, amidst horrible living conditions — stench, ugliness, hardened criminals, and filth — he began to re-examine his values. There was total change within the man. He experienced his first epileptic seizure and he began to reject a heretofore blind acceptance of new ideas that Russia was absorbing. He underwent a spiritual regeneration so profound that he emerged with a prophetic belief in the sacred mission of the Russian people. He believed that the salvation of the world was in the hands of the Russian folk and that eventually Russia would rise to dominate the world. It was also in prison that Dostoevsky formulated his well-known theories about the necessity of suffering. Suffering became the means by which man's soul is purified; it expiated sin; it became man's sole means of salvation.
When Dostoevsky left Siberia, he resumed his literary career and soon became one of the great spokesmen of Russia. Then, in 1866, he published his first masterpiece, Crime and Punishment. The novel is the story of Raskolnikov, a university student who commits a senseless murder to test his moral and metaphysical theories concerning the freedom of the will. The novel exhibits all the brilliant psychological analyses of character for which Dostoevsky was to become famous and incorporates the theme of redemption through suffering.
Most of Dostoevsky's adult life was plagued with marital problems, epileptic seizures and, most of all, by creditors. Often he had to compose novels at top speed in order to pay his many mounting debts, but by the end of his life, he was sufficiently free of worry so that he was able to devote all his energy to the composition of The Brothers Karamazov and at his death, only a year after the publication of this masterwork, he was universally acknowledged to be one of Russia's greatest writers.