Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881)

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The Decembrist Uprising of 1825 marked the beginning of the Russian Revolutionary movement as the young officers from the prestigeous Guards Regiments attempted to change the system--Autocracy and Serfdom--instead of assassinating the Tsar and substituting one more to their liking. Having spent the formative years of their lives honing their deep love for the motherland (rodina) in the Napoleonic Wars, they also tasted the delights of the West during the Occupation of France that followed their termination.


Gathering in Senate Square on that frigid December morning, two thousand soldiers (and perhaps ten thousand onlookers) chanted, "Constantine and Constitution," thinking, albeit mistakenly, that Grand Duke Constantine was being cheated of his rightful throne and, also mistakenly, that he would promulgate a constitution. Under the orders of the newly crowned tsar, Nicholas I, the Preobrazhensky Regiment opened fire on their "brothers" from the Moscovsky. This bloody event set the tone for the subsequent reign and provides a useful backdrop for the life of Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. (image,


Dostoevsky was born just four years prior to the events described above and, during his adulthood, found himself swept up in the revolutionary currents that influenced the youth of St. Petersburg and Moscow. In 1848, Dostoevsky had already begun his literary career, first as a translator of Balzac and George Sand, and then as a published author: Poor Folk appeared to considerable acclaim in 1846. (left, cover of Poor Folk)


He attended school in St. Petersburg and participated in the intellectual discussions of his peers. Like young Raskolnikov, he was a student and part of the debates of science, materialism, and socialism that engaged the young men (and some women) of the Petersburg intelligentsia. Perhaps he haunted the bars and pubs of the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt (left) and probably some of its less reputable areas, too.


Of significance for Russia and ultimately for the young author, Parisian events in 1848 set off a chain reaction of nationalistic and liberal uprisings all over Europe, excluding Russia, which lay under the iron fist of "Nick the Stick." The Tsar tried to seal the borders and prevent the virus of revolution from entering Russia.


Young Dostoevsky joined the Petrashevsky Circle, to discuss revolutionary socialist, materialist ideas "on Friday evenings at the home of Mikhail Petrashevskii," (Kimball 1) becoming one of the ill-fated Petrashevtsy. Nicholas I's secret police, the notorious Third Section, quickly infiltrated the society and arrested its members in 1849. Dostoevsky spent eight months in the notorious Peter-Paul Fortress built by Peter the Great and where, rumor had it, Tsar Peter participated in the torture and murder of his son, the Tsarevich Alexis. Radishchev spent time there as well.


For his involvement in the Petrashevsky Circle, "Dostoevskii was found guilty and sentenced to death...." (Kimball 7) The sentence condemned him "...for participating in criminal plans and spreading of the letter written by Belinsky, which is full of impudent words against the Russian Orthodox church and Supreme power, and for the attempt at spreading other writings against the government...is deprived of all rights...and is sentenced to death by shooting." (Mataev 2) In December, 1849, the twenty condemned men were stripped of their clothes, blindfolded, and tied in groups of three to poles for their execution by firing squad. Dostoevsky was in the second group. "...[A]t the last minute, he was informed that he had been reprieved and sentenced to four years in a penal settlement in Siberia." (Massie 319)
As Dostoevsky prepared to set off for Nicholas I's great "roofless prison," specifically to Omsk in Siberia, he wrote to his brother Mikhail, "I did not whimper, complain and lose courage." (Matvaev 2) In harsh, overcrowded, filthy conditions, Dostoevsky suffered and survived. He experienced his first bouts of epilepsy, was irrevocably scarred both physically and emotionally by his prison years. (See below for photographs of Omsk.) During the first four years, he wore ten pound shackles and endured hard labor first in the mines and then in a brick factory. His prisonmates were "killers, robbers, rapists and maniacs...." who despised him. (Mataev 2) The terms of his sentence included four additional years in siberian military service.


The years in Siberia had a lasting impact on Dostoevsky: he discarded the materialism and nihilism of his youth for a profound Christianity, tied to his deep love for the land (rodina) and people (narod) of Russia. He became an ardent "believer in the Christian doctrine of salvation through suffering." (Massie 319) During the four years of his incarceration, "amid horrible living conditions--stench, ugliness, hardened criminals, and filth--he began to re-evaluate his life.... to reject a blind acceptance..." of western ideas. Crime and Punishment was the product of his Siberian experience; like Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky found his way to redemption through suffering.


Dostoevsky espoused the Slavophile side in the raging Slavophile v. Westernizer debate. Like other Russian authors, such as Tolstoy, he espoused a mystical admiration for the "values of the simple Russian people--meekness, compassion and acceptance of the will of God...." (Massie 320) He despised and condemned the West for its materialism and commercialism, even though contemporary Russian liberals branded his works as lunacy. One of Dostoevsky's great adversaries, Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky (left) galvanized the liberal intelligentsia as Dostoevsky did the conservative, religious Slavophiles. Chernyshevsky's epochal "What Is To Be Done?" called for sweeping changing, à la West, for every thinking man to be a revolutionary, for Russia to throw of the shackles of its mystical clinging to the past of imagined rather than real greatness.


Dostoevsky's message of patriotism and Christianity resonated with many. In 1880, in a speech honoring Pushkin, Dostoevsky took the opportunity to call upon Russia to fulfill its "mission of regenerating the world through the universal service of its people and the brotherly love of the Orthodox faith." (Massie 321) The listeners cheered and flung flowers at the podium.


For thoughtful summary of the plot and themes as well as character analysis, visit the Sparknotes site
and follow the links


Bos, Carole. "Emma and Alex: the Story Behind the Movie." Awesome Stores. Online Available.
< http://www.awesomestories.com/movies/alex_emma/alex_emma_ch1.htm >

The Braylin Archive."Fyodor Dosteovsky." Online Available.
< http://www.bralyn.net/etext/literature/fyodor.dostoevsky/main.html >

Chmar, Jacqueline, et al. "Fyodor Dostoevsky. Existentialism. Online Available.
< http://www.fcps.k12.va.us/westspringfieldhs/academic/english/1project/99exist/dos.htm>

Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich. Crime and Punishment. Tr. Constance Garnett. New York, et al:
Bantam Books, 1987.

Kimball, Alan. Petrashevtsy. Online Available.
< http://www.uoregon.edu/~kimball/Petrashevtsy.htm >

Frank, Joseph. "Introduction." Crime and Punishment. Tr. Constance Garnett. New York, et al.:
Bantam Books, 1987.

Kreis, David. "Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1821-1881." The History Guide. Online Available.
< http://www.historyguide.org/europe/dostoevsky.html >

Massie, Susan. Land of the Firebird. New York: A Touchstone Book, 1980.

Mataev, Olga. "Feodor Dostoevsky and Petrashevsky's Case." Olga's Gallery. Online Available.
< http://www.abcgallery.com/list/2001august01.html >

Roberts, James L. "Crime and Punishment Notes." Cliff's Notes. Lincoln: Cliff's Notes, 1963.

Rosen, Andrei Evgenevich. "The Memoirs of A. E. Rozen on the Decembrist Movement." Online Available.
< http://faculty.oxy.edu/richmond/tolstoy/decembrists.htm >

Spark Notes. Crime and Punishment. Online Available.
< http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/crime/ >

Timur, Gunung. "Fyodor Dostoevsky--His Life."Online Available.
< http://home.swipnet.se/~w-15266/cultur/fyodor/fdlife.htm >