Fedor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Dostoevsky, Fedor Mikhailovich


Born Oct. 30 (Nov. 11), 1821, in Moscow; died Jan. 28 (Feb. 2), 1881, in St. Petersburg. Russian writer. The son of a doctor at the Mariia Hospital for the Poor.

In 1843, Dostoevsky graduated from the St. Petersburg Military Engineering School and entered the drawing office of the Department of Engineering, but he retired after a year. Dostoevsky’s first novel, Poor People (1846), placed him in the ranks of the recognized writers of the Gogolian tendency—“the natural school.” V. G. Belinskii praised the novel highly for its portrayal of the social tragedy of the “little man.” In Dostoevsky’s next work, the novella The Double (1846), Belinskii noted Dostoevsky’s “enormous creative force” and the profundity of his conception but spoke critically of the work’s “fantastic coloring” (seePoln. sobr. soch., vol. 10, 1956, pp. 41, 42). Subsequently, White Nights (1848) and Netochka Nezvanova (1849) appeared. These works vividly displayed those features of Dostoevsky’s realism that distinguished him from the writers of the natural school: his profound treatment of psychology and the exceptional nature of his characters and situations.

Dostoevsky’s world view took shape under the influence of Belinskii’s democratic and socialist ideas and the theories of the French Utopian socialists, especially C. Fourier. Starting in 1847, Dostoevsky attended the circle of M. V. Petrashevskii; in 1848 he became active in the revolutionary circles of N. A. Speshnev and S. F. Durov. At meetings of the Petrashevskii group, Dostoevsky twice read Belinskii’s banned letter to Gogol. Indicted in the Petrashevskii case, Dostoevsky was given the death sentence, which was commuted, just before he was to be executed by a firing squad, to four years at hard labor followed by a term as a soldier in the ranks.

Dostoevsky’s epileptic attacks, to which he had been disposed, grew worse during the period of hard labor. In 1859 he received permission to return to St. Petersburg, where he published the novellas Uncle’s Dream (1859) and The Village of Stepanchikovo (1859) and the novel The Insulted and Injured (1861). One of his greatest works, written shortly after his term at hard labor and dealing with those experiences, was The House of the Dead (1861-62). His depiction of the sufferings of the common people resounded with a strong condemnation of the system of serfdom. I. S. Turgenev compared The House of the Dead with Dante’s Inferno, and A. I. Herzen compared it with Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.

In the atmosphere of social upheaval of 1859-61 and during the subsequent crushing of the revolutionary movement, Dostoevsky played an active role in public affairs. During these years he became close friends with the literary critic A. A. Grigoriev and the philosopher N. N. Strakhov. In the journals Vremia (Time) and Epokha (Epoch), which he edited with his brother M. M. Dostoevsky, Dostoevsky propagandized the theory of so-called pochvennichestvo (the movement back to cultural and national roots). While sharply criticizing Russia’s serfdom, the dissolution of the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry), and the rise of new, capitalist forms of exploitation, Dostoevsky at the same time thought that Russia’s special course of historical development would enable it to avoid the revolutionary upheavals which in Western Europe had led to the triumph of the inhuman laws of capitalism. Dostoevsky placed his hopes on moral improvement and on a reconciliation of the intelligentsia, detached from the “soil” [pochva], with the people. In the light of his ideal he fiercely condemned Western European bourgeois civilization (Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, 1863) and the spiritual “underground” of the individualist (Notes From Underground, 1864). Dostoevsky engaged in polemics with the ideologists of revolutionary democracy (the journal Sovremennik [The Contemporary]) and especially with the radical positivists (the journal Russkoe slovo [The Russian Word]) on the course of social reforms, the problems of ethics, the relationship to the people, and the essence of art.

In the 1860’s and 1870’s, Dostoevsky wrote his most out-standing novels: Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), The Devils (1871-72 [also known in English translation as The Possessed]), A Raw Youth (1875), and The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80). These works reflect his most important philosophical, social, and moral concerns. In 1873-74 he edited the journal Grazhdanin (Citizen; published with Prince V. P. Meshcherskii). In this journal he began publishing The Diary of a Writer, which continued to appear monthly in separate issues in 1876-77 and then came out in one issue in 1880 and one in 1881. Along with reflections on the burning issues of social life, literary criticism, and reminiscences, several creative works appeared in the Diary,including “The Heavenly Christmas Tree,” “A Gentle Soul,” and “Dream of a Ridiculous Man” (also published in English as “Dream of a Queer Fellow”). The speech on A. S. Pushkin in which Dostoevsky expounded his conception of the poet’s national significance while revealing his own moral and philosophical ideals also appeared in the Diary.

Dostoevsky’s works reflect the contradictions of reality and of social thought during a period of acute disruption of social relations in Russia and in Western Europe. The new bourgeois system led to a crisis of social ideals and to an instability in moral life. Dostoevsky wrote of himself: “I am a child of my century, a child of unbelief and doubt to this day and even (I know this) to the grave. What awful torments I have paid and am still paying for this thirst to believe, which becomes stronger in my soul the more I find arguments against it” (Pis’ma, vol. 1, 1928, p. 142). The basis of Dostoevsky’s realistic work is the world of human suffering, the tragedy of the downtrodden and humiliated individual. Through his mastery of the art of psychological analysis, Dostoevsky showed how the suppressing of man’s dignity destroys his soul and divides his consciousness in two, nurturing the feeling of one’s own worthlessness coupled with the growing urge to protest.

With penetrating insight, Dostoevsky discerned the growth of bourgeois individualism and the ideology of “Napoleonism.” This insight is reflected in a gallery of characters from the “underground man” in Notes From Underground to Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov. While defending the freedom of the individual, Dostoevsky at the same time believed that unlimited self-will leads to inhumane acts. He regarded crime as the most typical manifestation of the law of individualistic self-affirmation. Applying the principles of the artistic investigation of the individual to the domain of social relations, Dostoevsky saw in the revolutionary movement of his time merely anarcho-individualistic rebelliousness (especially in the novel The Devils). He feared that in revolutionary practice the immoral idea that “the end justifies the means” would triumph. Dostoevsky found a basis for his artistic generalizations on politics in the activity of his contemporaries like M. A. Bakunin and S. G. Nechaev, whose socialist ideas took on a perverted, petit bourgeois form, and in the history of bourgeois revolutions, in which the demands of the working people were mercilessly suppressed. The dream of preserving faith in man and of attaining an ideal founded on the triumph of the principle of goodness drew Dostoevsky to the image of Christ, whom he envisioned as embodying the highest moral values. However, historical experience implacably refuted this faith, confirming that Christianity was incapable of creating heaven on earth. Ivan Karamazov, repeating Voltaire’s tenet, exclaims: “Please understand that it is not god I do not accept, it is the world created by him, god’s world, that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept” (Sobr. soch., vol. 9, 1958, p. 295). In “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” the philosophical culmination of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky rejects the theory of the “happy” society in which man’s freedom and spiritual interests are eliminated.

To those heroes who possess the power of analytical, all-destroying reason, Dostoevsky opposes characters who are endowed with goodness of heart and subtle intellectual intuition. The latter include Sonia Marmeladova (Crime and Punishment), Lev Myshkin (The Idiot), and Alesha Karamazov (The Brothers Karamazov), who are ready to suffer for all humanity. Concerning the novel The Idiot, Dostoevsky wrote: “The main idea of the novel is to portray a positively beautiful man. There is nothing in the world more difficult than this, especially nowadays” (Pis’ma, vol. 2, 1930, p. 71). However, the tragedy of Myshkin lies in the disparity between the ideally good, trusting lover of truth and real life. For this reason he is comical and tragic like Don Quixote, with whom he is associated in the novel.

While believing that it was impossible to construct society on the basis of science and reason, Dostoevsky at the same time recognized “the reality and truthfulness of the demands for communism and socialism” (Literaturnoe nasledstvo,vol. 83, 1971, p. 446). In probing the “depths of the soul,” he felt social means of struggle against evil to be insufficient and sought moral support for humanity in the concept of god. In The Diary of a Writer (1877), Dostoevsky asserted that “evil is hidden in man deeper than the socialist-physicians suppose, … evil cannot be avoided in any social order” (Poln. sobr. khudozhestvennykhproizvedenii, vol. 12, 1929, p. 210). At the same time he wrote that” people can be beautiful and happy without losing the ability to live on earth. I do not want to and I cannot believe that evil is man’s normal state” (ibid.,p. 122). Thus, in his solution of the problem of good and evil, Dostoevsky was deeply contradictory.

Dostoevsky created special forms of realistic works, which he characterized in the following way: “I have my own special view of reality (in art), and that which most people call almost fantastic and exceptional sometimes constitutes for me the very essence of the real. Commonplace phenomena and the conventional view of them are not realism, in my opinion, but the very opposite” (Pis’ma, vol. 2, p. 169).

Dostoevsky combined the power of a brilliant psychologist, the intellectual profundity of a thinker, and the passion of a publicist. He was the creator of the ideological novel, in which the development of the plot is, in general, conditioned by the struggle of ideas and by the collision of world views embodied in the protagonists representing different ideologies. He posed social and philosophical problems within the framework of the detective plot. The dynamism of composition, the suspense in the development of conflicts, the expressive and condensed style served to personalize complex moral-psychological and sociophilosophical problems.

Dostoevsky’s novels are polyphonic. “The multiplicity of independent and unblended voices and consciousnesses, the genuine polyphony of voices, each with its full value, is indeed the fundamental feature of Dostoevsky’s novels,” writes M. M. Bakhtin, the first person to examine the polyphonism of Dostoevsky’s works (Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo, 1963, p. 7). At the same time the author’s relation to the world is revealed in Dostoevsky’s works with great vigor and fullness. The polyphonic quality of Dostoevsky’s artistic thinking was a reflection of the “many-voicedness” of the social reality that he brilliantly exposed in the middle of the 19th century, a polyphony that was to attain its culminating point in the 20th century. This social insight explains the powerful influence of Dostoevsky not only on art but also on the philosophical and aesthetic thought of the 20th century. The contradictory nature of Dostoevsky’s works was directly related to the contradictory interpretations of his activity as an artist and a thinker. One group of bourgeois philosophers considered Dostoevsky a Christian apologist (V. V. Rozanov, D. S. Merezhkovskii, N. A. Berdiaev). Others tried to transform him into a precursor of the Nietzschean ideas of anarchobourgeois individualism. Representatives of existentialism, who try to portray Dostoevsky, along with S. Kierkegaard and F. Nietzsche, as their ideological precursor, devote much attention to his work. Marxist criticism recognizes Dostoevsky’s genius as an artist without ceasing to struggle against his reactionary ideas. In the articles of A. V. Lunacharskii the contradictions of Dostoevsky’s world view are interpreted from a Marxist position.

The humanistic, antibourgeois character of Dostoevsky’s realism and his highly original ability in creating the intellectual novel exerted an enormous influence on Russian and world literature.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.