Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born 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 self-righteous man while his mother was the opposite — passive, kindly, and generous — and perhaps this fact accounts for Dostoevsky's filling his novels with characters who seem to possess opposite extremes of temperament.
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; his penchant for literature was obsessive. And almost as obsessive was Dostoevsky's preoccupation with 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 The Brothers Karamazov.
After spending two years in the army, Dostoevsky launched his literary career with Poor Folk, a novel which was an immediate and popular success and one highly acclaimed by the critics. Never before had a Russian author so thoroughly examined the psychological complexities 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 questionable nature. 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 controlled and censored by the government.
The rebellious 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 method to teach Dostoevsky and his friends a lesson. This harrowing encounter with death, however, created an impression on Dostoevsky that he never forgot; it haunted him for the rest of his life.
After the commutation of the death sentence, Dostoevsky was sent to Siberia and during the four years in prison there, he changed his entire outlook on life. During this time, in horrible living conditions — stench, ugliness, and filth — he began to reexamine his values. There was a total change within the man. He experienced his first epileptic seizure, and he began to reject a heretofore blind acceptance of the new ideas which 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.
Dostoevsky married a young widow while still in exile. After his exile, he served four more years as an army private, was pardoned, and left Siberia to resume his literary career. He 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.
After finishing Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky married again and went abroad, hoping to find peace from numerous creditors and also hoping to begin a new novel. The peace of mind Dostoevsky longed for he never found; instead, he discovered the gaming tables of Europe — and accumulated even more guilt in addition to his ever-mounting debts. The novel Dostoevsky composed abroad was The Idiot, the story of a wholly good and beautiful soul. In his notes, Dostoevsky sometimes called this hero Prince Christ; he hoped to create a man who could not hate and who was incapable of base sensuality. The novel is one of his masterpieces, a fascinating, intense study of the destructive power of good.
Dostoevsky's last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was his masterwork and is a masterpiece of Western literature. Only a year after its publication, Dostoevsky was dead but already he was acknowledged to be one of Russia's greatest writers.