Rake’s progress: 190 years since the birth of the great Russian writer

Not just another bearded face – a man of many passions, Fyodor Dostoevsky created characters torn by passions. The turbulences of his life are worth a novel.

­Born in Moscow in 1821, Dostoevsky intended a military career. He graduated as an Army Engineer, but soon left the service to take up a writer’s life. After a number of failed publishing ventures with his older brother Dostoevsky was forced to live for days on little more than bread and water.

While the rest of Europe was in political turmoil, the 28-year-old Dostoevsky was arrested for participating in liberal circles, which were seen as threatening Russia’s monarchy at the time. A death sentence was commuted, and Dostoevsky had to serve 4 years hard labour in a camp in Siberia.

It was after his return from prison that his writing prowess rose to new heights. Constantly broke, Dostoevsky complained of being underappreciated by his publishers. However, memoirs of his contemporaries suggest it could’ve been not so much their under appreciation, as Dostoevsky’s penchant for squandering his money on drink and gambling.

At one point, forced to feed not only his own family, but also that of his deceased brother, Fyodor Dostoevsky began drafting a piece on drinking, and its effects on a family. Inebriation turned into ideological intoxication, and thus was born the character of Rodion Raskolnikov, the man who killed an evil grandmother and pawnbroker to make a world a better place. 

Crime and Punishment illustrates, perhaps, better than any of his other work Dostoevsky’s own mental anguish and moral dilemmas – frequent side effects of a world-class gambler and an overall complex personality.

And then there were the ladies, of course. According to another Russian great writer, Turgenev, Dostoevsky could lose peace of mind after seeing just a glimpse of a woman’s ankle on the street. He met his first wife, Maria Isaeva, just after leaving the labour camp. The woman was married with a son, but soon became widowed, and quickly accepted Dostoevsky’s proposal of marriage.

The family moved to St. Petersburg, where the writer was a familiar face in many a brothel. He soon became enamoured with a liberal aspiring writer Appolinaria Suslova. A tumultuous romance ensued, resulting in Dostoevsky’s broken heart and Appolinaria becoming immortalized in a series of the most devastatingly self-destructive female characters, such as Nastasya Philippovna in the Idiot and Katerina Marmeladova in Crime and Punishment.

While the great writer chased his love all across Europe, his wife lay dying from consumption in St. Petersburg. The return of her prodigal husband did little to aid Maria’s health, and she died in 1864.
Finally, at the age of 45, the writer met and married a 20-year-old Anna Snitkina, his stenographer. She was described by many contemporaries as an angel and a saint, who managed to pacify Dostoevsky’s many insecurities and passions. 

But Maria Isaeva’s son, adopted by the writer, saw Anna as a rival for what little fortune Dostoevsky had, and made the young woman’s life unbearable. Thus the couple began a four-year-long journey through Europe, during which Dostoevsky fell back into his gambling ways, and lost nearly all his savings playing roulette. Anna, however, stood by her man. The couple returned to St. Petersburg, and could be said to have lived happily ever after – if living with a genius, who suffered from epilepsy, fits of rage, intermingled with bouts of depression, could be described as a happy lifestyle.

But despite all his numerous quirks – or maybe because of them – Fyodor Dostoevsky’s genius continues to fascinate readers – and psychologists – more than a century after his death.

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