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The Core Curriculum

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky

1821 CE – 1881 CE


Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, by Vasily Perov, 1872 Oil on canvas The Tretyakov Gallery, MoscowPortrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, by Vasily Perov, 1872 Oil on canvas The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Russian writer Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky published journalism and literature prolifically throughout his life, remaining most famous for the psychological depth and dramatic structure of his novels. His father, Mikhail Andreevich, was a military surgeon with noble status and a reputation for alcoholism and violence: he is believed to have been murdered by his own serfs on his small estate south of Moscow in 1839. Dostoevsky’s gentle and religious mother, Maria Fedorovna Nechaeva, was descended from Moscow merchants. The young Dostoevsky and his older brother Mikhail attended the St. Petersburg Military Engineering School, but both showed an early preference for literature and journalism. After one mandatory year of service upon graduation, Dostoevsky resigned and devoted himself to the Petersburg cultural scene, initially as a translator. With the publication of his first novel Poor Folk (1846), he became something of a celebrity overnight. Influential leftist critics and writers like Vissarion Belinsky and Nikolai Nekrasov hailed the young writer as Russia’s ‘next Gogol.’

Dostoevsky followed up with the highly Gogolian but less sociological or realistic novella The Double (1846), a work that would inspire generations of writers and poets, as well as the Formalist school of Russian theory, but that was less well-received at the time. Further literary productivity of this period was interrupted by arrest and exile. Like many young men of his time, Dostoevsky was a member of a radically-leaning reading group that gathered to discuss social ills and forbidden literature, such as the utopian socialist works of Charles Fourier. On April 22 1849, the entire so-called Petrashevsky Circle was arrested and condemned to death. Dostoevsky was interrogated, condemned, and led before a firing squad, only to be theatrically pardoned at the last minute by Nicholas I. He was instead sent to Siberia and four years of prison labor, followed by an additional five years of military service in exile. He returned to St. Petersburg in 1859 eager to plunge into the public polemics of the reform era.  He and his brother Mikhail founded two journals – Time (1861-3) and Epoch (1864-5) – which propounded the doctrine of pochvennichestvo, a doctrine that was strongly influenced by Dostoevsky’s ten years of penal servitude and exile and that urged Western-educated Russians to return to their native soil (pochva) and the authentic Russian culture preserved by the masses.  As a nobleman in prison, Dostoevsky was painfully exposed to the class hatred of his fellow inmates, an experience he recounted in his semi-autobiographical novel Notes from the House of the Dead (1860-62), which he published in Time.  Yet he also discovered spiritual strength among the inmates, and the Russian peasant masses came to embody for Dostoevsky a repository of genuine Christian feeling and moral values that could enrich, if not transform, the entire nation.  He believed that the emancipation of the serfs (1861) would heal the deep divide between Russia’s educated minority and her peasant masses, thereby creating conditions for a strong Russian nation to emerge.   His novels dissected the strands of utilitarian, radical, and utopian socialist thought ‘infecting’ Russia, as well as anything else that seemed to imitate or derive from the West.

Dostoevsky’s four great masterpieces, murder novels all, were written from 1866 to 1880. Our text, Crime and Punishment, (1866) is the first of these, and deals with murder from personal ambition. The Idiot (1868) culminates in murder from sexual jealousy; Demons (1872, also translated as The Possessed) is based on an actual historical murder by a radical political cell and can be considered a stylized portrait of nineteenth-century Russian terrorism; and the epically proportioned Brothers Karamazov (1880) opens with and explores the shared guilt leading to a parricide. Most of Dostoevsky’s works were published serially in thick journals, and under pressing deadlines.

For seven years Dostoevsky was a compulsive gambler,  and at one point almost lost the rights to all future work to his publisher. In order to work (and to earn money) faster, he began composing drafts orally with the help of a twenty-year-old stenographer, Anna Grigorievna Snitkina. Anna became his second wife in 1867, and brought relative peace to the remaining years of his life. They had four children together. (Dostoevsky’s first wife, Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, suffered from tuberculosis and died in 1864.) Dostoevsky was a remarkably talented improviser and an inspired speaker: his famous 1880 “Pushkin Speech” provoked his audience to something resembling mass hysteria, momentarily reconciling the feuding intellectual factions of Slavophiles and Westernizers. When he died after an epileptic seizure in 1881, more than 40,000 mourners attended his funeral.

Sources: Adapted from the Handbook of Russian Literature, edited by Victor Terras (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); see also The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevsky, edited by W. J. Leatherbarrow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Dostoevsky in Context, edited by Deborah A. Martinsen and Olga Maiorova (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).


Historical Contexts

Crime and Punishment

Historical and political context

A Map of European Russia, by Iu.M. Shokal’skii, c. 1900. Scale: 1:15,300,000 Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary (1890-1907)A Map of European Russia, by Iu.M. Shokal’skii, c. 1900. Scale: 1:15,300,000 Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary (1890-1907) After the devastation of Kievan Rus’ by Turkic tribes and its fall to the ‘Mongol yoke,’ the Russian region developed in isolation from Europe between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. In consequence, Russia did not partake in the Renaissance, nor of course in the Reformation or Counter-Reformation. In the eighteenth century Russia gradually began to ‘join’ Europe, especially under the reign of Peter the Great, seen as Russia’s great (or terrible) Westernizer. As a result, Russian culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries essentially grafted Western European culture onto an agrarian, Christian Orthodox state. The upper classes were dramatically divided from the peasantry: quite literally, the different social castes did not speak the same language. In the nineteenth century, with the rise of the so-called intelligentsia, educated classes began to view the great divide from the people (raskol or split: the word is also used in reference to religious sectarians, who came to be called Old Believers) as a great historical tragedy.

Under Alexander II, Russia emancipated the serfs bloodlessly in 1861 and passed other progressive Great Reforms that sought to ‘catch Russia up to’ Western Europe. (There are parallels and telling contrasts with American history of the same period: cf. the 13th Amendment in 1865 and the Civil War.) The burning question of Dostoevsky’s day—arguably facing Russia even in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—remained: is Russia European or not? Should it be? The faction of the so-called Westernizers continued the older aristocratic trends of speaking French at home, dressing in the latest London fashions, or completing educations abroad. The rival Slavophiles meanwhile protested that Russia should instead ‘look to the people,’ and find roots in local folk tradition. (There is some irony in the fact that this very idea is borrowed from German Romantic thought.)

Philosophical context

Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment and in his other great tragedies responds also to the European philosophical context of his time. The ideas of the German idealist philosophers were very much in the air: Russian intellectuals were profoundly shaken by the works of Kant, Hegel, Marx and others, and Raskolnikov’s ‘exceptional man’ is something of a brutalized reading of Hegel’s world historical figure. Other competing and interpenetrating ideas came from the utilitarian thought of John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and William Godwin (the husband of early feminist Mary Wallstonecraft), echoing in such phrases as “the greatest good for the greatest number.” To round out the picture, we see notions borrowed from French utopian socialism à la Charles Fourier, nihilism (most simply, morality does not inherently exist), and the cult of Napoleon. In his novels, Dostoevsky often represents Western European ideas as dangerous diseases infecting, or as spirits possessing his morally shaken characters.

St. Petersburg

Dostoevsky’s Leningrad, by Inge Morath, 1967 Black and white photographDostoevsky’s Leningrad, by Inge Morath, 1967 Black and white photograph The capital of the Russian Empire, founded by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, St. Petersburg was built by Italian and Western European architects on the Neva river and the Gulf of Finland, and intended to be Russia’s ‘window onto Europe.’ To the Russian eye, there was something terrifyingly artificial about this beautiful, watery, and haunted city. Besides the cramped poverty, disease, and crime resulting from rapid urbanization (which are arguably the same everywhere, and Dostoevsky borrows liberally in this vein from the London of Charles Dickens), Petersburg was literally built on swampland and by means of forced labor. Recurrent and devastating floods could easily seem like nature’s own revenge on the lofty architecture and aesthetic layout of the city’s canals and streets.

Sources: Adapted from the Handbook of Russian Literature, edited by Victor Terras (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); see also A History of Russian Literature, by Victor Terras (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991); and The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevsky, edited by W. J. Leatherbarrow (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).