It’s the birthday of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky (books by this author), born on this day in Moscow in 1821. He was one of seven children, and his father was an alcoholic and treated the children roughly. After his mother died, Fyodor was sent off to private school, then to military school, and when he was a teenager his father died. The cause of his father’s death has never been determined, but even at the time, there were rumors that he was killed by his own serfs.
A friend described Dostoevsky when he was in his 20s as “very fair with a rounded face and slightly upturned nose […] under the high forehead and sparse eyebrows were hidden the small, rather deeply set, grey eyes; the cheeks were pale and covered with freckles; the color of the face was sickly, pallid, the lips thick.”
He went to school and trained to become an army engineer, but after he graduated, he decided to devote his life to writing instead. He wrote a novel, Poor Folk (1846), and showed it to his friend, a poet, who showed it to a famous literary critic, and they went to Dostoevsky’s house in the middle of the night and woke him up to tell him that he was a new literary hero.
But his next novel and stories were failures, and he fell out of favor with the Russian literary elite. So he started hanging out with a different crowd, one that had meetings and discussed utopian socialism, and because of that, Dostoevsky was arrested. He spent eight months in solitary confinement, and then he was sentenced to death. He was marched outside to be shot, but as he was waiting for the gun to fire, he was informed that his sentence had been commuted to exile in Siberia. He spent eight years there, four of them doing hard labor, four as a lieutenant. He came back from Siberia with a new commitment to writing, and a new set of religious ideas.
And he went on to write some of the greatest classics of Russian literature, including Notes from Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).
He said, “There is no subject so old that something new cannot be said about it.”