Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was born in 1821 at a Moscow hospital where his father was employed as a doctor. The family was poor, but their descent from 17th-century nobility entitled them to own land and serfs. Dostoyevsky’s mother, Maria, was loving and religious; his father, Mikhail, tended toward alcoholism and violence, and his cruel behavior toward the peasants on their small estate resulted in his murder when Fyodor was eighteen years old.
Fyodor was the second of eight children. He was particularly close to his younger sister, Varvara, whose unfortunate marriage may have inspired Dostoyevsky’s portraits of both Dunya and Sonya. His older brother, Mikhail, shared Dostoyevsky’s literary and journalistic interests as well as his early social ideals. Together they attended secondary schools in Moscow, then the military academy in St. Petersburg, followed by service in the Russian army.
Dostoyevsky broadened his education by reading extensively in an attempt to sharpen his literary skills. As a youth he read and admired writers of all nationalities, including Dickens, Hugo, and Zola, and imitated some of Russia’s literary geniuses, particularly Gogol. He also began a tortured acquaintance with Turgenev, which was to continue throughout his life.
His first novel, Poor Folk, was published in 1846. This tale of a young clerk who falls haplessly in love with a woman he cannot possess led the literary lion Victor Belinsky to proclaim Dostoyevsky as the next Gogol. Dostoyevsky’s entrance into St. Petersburg literary society had begun—but his celebrity status was quickly overshadowed by his somewhat obnoxious behavior. Eventually, Dostoyevsky found another group to join, this time a circle of intellectual socialists run by Mikhail Petrashevsky. Given the reactionary climate of the time, the Petrashevsky group’s revolutionary ideas were both exciting and dangerous, and, although Dostoyevsky was far from being a revolutionary, his alignment with the faction brought him to the attention of the police. In 1849 he and the rest of the Petrashevsky group were arrested for subversion. Dostoyevsky was imprisoned at the Peter and Paul Fortress where he and others were subject to a mock execution—an understandably traumatic experience which seems to have triggered an epileptic condition that would plague Dostoyevsky throughout his life. He spent the next five years at hard labor in Siberia, where his acquaintance with the criminal community would provide him with the themes, plots, and characters that distinguish many of his greatest works, including Crime and Punishment.
Dostoyevsky returned to St. Petersburg in 1859. The next decade was filled with emotional and physical turmoil. In 1864 the deaths of his wife, Maria, and his beloved brother, Mikhail, deepened his debt and drove him to gambling. He embarked on a doomed affair with Apollinaria Suslova, who vacillated between admiring and despising him. He also witnessed the dissolution of his literary journal and formed a disadvantageous relationship with an unscrupulous publisher. Yet the 1860s were also a period of great literary fervor, and in 1865, the publication of Crime and Punishment paved the way for a series of novels—including The Idiot, The Devils, and The Brothers Karamazov—that both reclaimed his position in Russia’s pantheon of great living writers, and brought stability to his personal and financial affairs. He married his stenographer, Anna Grigorievna Snitkin, with whom he fathered four children, and established himself as a leading conservative who often spoke out against revolutionary activity. In June of 1880, Dostoyevsky attended a celebration of the great novelist, Pushkin, during which he delivered a speech in praise of the writer. His words were met with great adulation, and the event marked what was perhaps the highest point of public approbation Dostoyevsky would ever attain. Little more than six months later, on January 28, 1881, Dostoyevsky died of a lung hemorrhage. His funeral, attended by nearly thirty thousand mourners, was a national event.