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Fyodor Dostoyevsky ( 1821 - 1881 )  Category ( Writers ) [suggest a correction]

Fyodor DostoyevskyWhile his great literary talent and sharp mind for understanding human nature are gifts of his own, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky also lived through a childhood that informed his ideas and understanding of human development and behavior.

The author,  who is regarded by many as a founder of twentieth-century existentialism, as well as one of the greatest psychologists in world literature, was born to a Belarussian family with paternal noble Polish roots. By the time Dostoyevsky was born, the family had relocated to Moscow, Russia. He was the second of seven children. His parents, Mikhail and Maria, had a difficult marriage. The elder Dostoyevsky was a retired military surgeon. He was also a violent alcoholic, who treated his children and wife cruelly. The family lived in a small apartment on the grounds of the hospital where Dostoyevsky's father worked. The neighborhood was rough, and Dostoyevsky's childhood landscape included a cemetery for criminals, an asylum for the insane, and an orphanage for abandoned infants.

The climate was oppressive, yet the young Dostoyevsky was curious, and often wandered the grounds in and around the hospital, observing the strange sights and behaviors that were part of his world. Indeed, he enjoyed spending time with the patients, especially those who would share stories from their lives with the young boy. His parents disapproved, but he continued to sneak out to explore, learn, and listen. At home, there was a strange dichotomy. While his father could be despotic, family letters and journals attest to a family who displayed love toward one another.

Dostoyevsky's mother died from tuberculosis when he was still a teenager. He and his brother were sent away to St. Petersburg to military school. While they were there, word arrived in 1889 that their father had died. Rumors that he had been killed by his own serfs abound to this day. While Dostoyevsky was at military school, he had to endure mathematics (he was being trained to become an engineer), but he also was required to study literature. It was that discipline that he loved most, and he spent hours reading classics from Western Europe, as well as Russian writers.

He began to write during this period, including two romantic plays which have not survived. Once he achieved the rank of lieutenant, Dostoyevsky left school and began to focus on translating novels and continuing to write. He met with early success, if one legend is to be believed. According to famed critic Vissarion Belinsky, Dostoyevsky's arrival on the literary scene meant that "A new Gogol has arisen!" A few short years later found Dostoyevsky imprisoned for being a member of a left-leaning intellectual group. Afraid of the revolutionary fervor that was sweeping Western Europe at the time, Tsar Nicholas's courts sentenced Dostoyevsky and numerous others to death. He and his compatriots were forced to endure a mock execution, followed by a commutation of his sentence to four years exile with hard labor in Siberia.

Later, the author described the next period of his life as being "shut up in a coffin." Many prisoners did not survive the harsh conditions and back breaking labor. Dostoyevsky was one who did, but when he was released he was forced to serve in the Siberian Regiment. His time in prison and in the army changed Dostoyevsky emotionally. He changed his religious and political views as well. He became disillusioned with Western ideas and became a textbook example of a Slavophile. While in prison he also became a Christian, and was devoted to his Russian Orthodox faith. His writing changed as well. No more the romantic, he was somber, praising the qualities of humility, suffering, and submission.

During this period he wrote what some consider his greatest works, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. In 1864 personal tragedy struck again when his wife died. Shortly after her loss his brother died. His financial state was in ruin, and he was obligated to not only pay his own debts, but those of his brother. He also had to provide for his wife's son from her previous marriage and his brother's widow and children. In an effort to raise large sums quickly, he began to gamble. He was rarely successful in that endeavor, yet he developed an addition to gambling, which further devastated him financially. Indeed, he wrote The Gambler out of sheer desperation. His publisher threatened to claim the copyrights to all of Dostoyevsky's work if he did not submit something new. By this time, Dostoyevsky's work was not only renowned, but highly influential. His characters and ideas inspired authors and readers around the globe.

He is regarded as a founder of the Russian Symbolists movement. Major authors who were informed by Dostoyevsky's work include Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Virginia Wolf, T.S. Eliot, and others. Dostoyevsky died in 1881, having suffered a lung hemmorhage that resulted from years of emphysema. Buried in St. Petersburg, more than forty thousand mourners attended his funeral. His tombstone mirrors his epigraph for The Brothers Karamazov, and states: "Verily, Verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." The quotation comes from the New Testament's Book of John.

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