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Fyodor Dostoevsky (also spelled Dostoyevsky) is renowned as one of the world’s greatest novelists and literary psychologists. His works grapple with deep political, social, and religious issues while delving into the often tortured psychology of characters whose lives are shaped by these issues. Born in Moscow in 1821, the son of a doctor, he was educated first at home and then at a boarding school. His father sent him to the St. Petersburg Academy of Military Engineering, from which he graduated in 1843. But, as he had long set his sights on literature, Dostoevsky immediately resigned his position as a sublieutenant in exchange for the much less stable life of a fiction writer. His first book, Poor Folk, was published to critical acclaim in 1846.
In 1847, Dostoevsky became active in socialist circles, largely because of his opposition to the institution of serfdom. On April 23, 1849, he was arrested for his participation in a group that illegally printed and distributed socialist propaganda. After spending eight months in prison, he was sentenced to death for membership in the group and led, with other members of the group, to be shot. But the execution turned out to be a mere show, meant to punish the prisoners psychologically. Dostoevsky then spent four years at a labor camp in Siberia, followed by four years of military service. Raskolnikov’s time in a Siberian prison, described in the Epilogue of Crime and Punishment, is based on Dostoevsky’s own experiences at a similar prison.
During his time in prison, Dostoevsky suffered the first of many epileptic seizures. He also underwent something of a political conversion, rejecting the radical socialist positions that had led to his arrest in favor of a conservative concern for traditional values. His dismissal of leftist political thought is evident in Crime and Punishment. For instance, Raskolnikov’s crime is motivated, in part, by his theories about society. Lebezyatnikov, whose name is derived from the Russian word for “fawning,” is obsessed with the so-called new philosophies that raged through St. Petersburg during the time that Dostoevsky was writing the novel. Luzhin, a mid-level government official, is continually afraid of being “exposed” by “nihilists.”
In 1857, Dostoevsky married Mariya Dmitriyevna Isayeva, who died of consumption seven years later. He spent much of the 1860s in Western Europe experiencing the culture that was slowly invading Russia and struggled with poverty, epilepsy, and an addiction to gambling. But with the 1866 publication of Crime and Punishment, a long, delirious trip through the psyche of a tormented murderer, his fortunes improved. The novel’s popular and critical success allowed him to keep ahead, just barely, of daunting debts and the burden of supporting a number of children left in his care after the deaths of his brother and sister. In 1867, he was married a second time, to Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, who helped him cope with his epilepsy, depression, and gambling problems, and who had served as his stenographer for his novel The Gambler. After Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky went on to write a number of other classics of world literature. These include The Idiot, published in 1868, and another masterwork, The Brothers Karamazov, published in 1880. He died in 1881.
Dostoevsky’s novels and other writings were major influences on twentieth-century literature and philosophy. Some people saw the political themes of his novels as prescient depictions of life under the Soviet regime. The existentialist movement that took shape in the middle of the twentieth century looked to him for his descriptions of human beings confronting mortality, despair, and the anxiety of choice. Writers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre valued Dostoevsky’s writing for his profound insights into human dilemmas, which, along with his style, themes, and unforgettable characters, continue to influence writers more than a century after his death.