Monday, Oct 03, 2022

Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Master Of St. Petersburg

Looking back at the life and works of the Russian author Dostoevsky born this week 200 years ago.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Master Of St. Petersburg
‘Dostoevsky II’ (1921) by artist Max Beckmann |
Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Master Of St. Petersburg

Two grand thinkers appear upon the screen of Russian literature in the final half of the 19th century, whose fame spreads in every corner of the world passing through the borders of Russia. We mean Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. There is great difference between the two in terms of psychology, character, life and style of writing. If there is any similarity in their thoughts, then it is that the goal of both is the quest for a path which leads Man to a higher moral life. In fact, both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky adopted the same destination through different routes. The thoughts of both at a collective level present a clear picture of the Russian character.

The works of these two writers are so much deeply related to their lives, the reflection of their experiences and observations carries so much importance in their writings that it is nearly impossible to understand their thoughts without studying their biographies.

Tolstoy spent the days of his childhood in a very pleasant environment. His youth was spent in military activities. His family was very rich, but very much in childhood, this question took hold in his mind, ‘What is life and how should Man spend a good life?’  

Therefore, the struggle of his conscience against wealth is a most important factor of his life.  

Tolstoy used to give charity, but Dostoevsky used to receive charity. Tolstoy wanted to live a simple life. ­Dostoevsky lived A rather very poor but happy life.

On the contrary, the life of Dostoevsky was an assemblage of unending miseries and misfortunes. He was born in a poor home and was caught in the claws of poverty till the last breath. Since he had spent most of the days of his life in an impoverished environment, he was aware of the pains of the poor and their needs. He was arrested innocent and he had to remain captive for four years in the frozen plains of Siberia. These pains had a great effect on Dostoevsky’s mind and made him a depicter of the deepest psychology of human life. Tolstoy used to give charity, but Dostoevsky used to receive charity. Tolstoy wanted to live a simple life. Dostoevsky not only lived a simple life, rather a very poor but happy life. But the same feeling surged in the hearts of both. Both of them desired to reach the kingdom of God.

Dostoevsky was born 200 years ago this week on November 11, 1821. After his school education, he entered an engineering college. Though he was educated in mathematics and science, he intended to make writing his profession. It was no surprise that even when he was a student, he wrote a novella Poor Folk, which was met with liberal approval in literary circles. The eminent poet Nekrasov gave space to this novella in his literary journal.

Carceral Archives

Photographs of prisoners at the Prison Castle museum in Tobolsk

In 1846, after the revolutionary movement in Europe, a socialist circle was established in St. Petersburg. Dostoevsky became a member of this circle. But immediately this circle was ­declared illegal and all members were sentenced to death. The prisoners included Dostoevsky too. At the last moment, just before the youth were to face the firing squad, the czar commuted the death sentence to four years’ rigorous imprisonment. Dostoevsky has ­narrated this terrifying incident in one of his letters, which he had written to his brother while departing for Siberia: “We kissed the cross and then we were dressed in shirts which were to be our shroud. Three of us were tied to the pillar of death. I was sixth in line. We were to be killed in threes. Therefore my turn was definitely in the second trio. Only a few ­moments remained in my life and death. At that time my heart was full of memory of you and your wife and children. My dear brother! In these last moments the memory of you and you alone was making me restless. Suddenly the ­soldiers (who were about to fire the bullets) were ordered to return and the three who were tied to the pillar were ­unt­ied. Then the order of the czar was read to us in which he had spared our lives. Now the death sentence has been changed to captivity of four years.”

The life in jail has been narrated with great ‘ruthlessness’ in his work Crime and Punishment. In 1854, he returned to St. Petersburg and immediately wrote The Insulted and the Injured in a year. Then, with the participation of his brother Mikhail, he issued a journal Time. He published the conditions of his captivity under the title of The House of the Dead. Now he had become quite famous and his journal too had come to be loved by everyone. Unfortunately, this journal was shut down in 1863 by order of the State. After this suppression, he took out ­another magazine with the name of Epoch. But this too was confiscated. Therefore, fed up with the demands of creditors, he escaped to Europe, but then returned to Russia that same year and lightened the burden of his debt by writing Crime and Punishment. The last few days of his life in St. Petersburg were happy. He passed away on February 9, 1881.

In Dostoevsky’s first novel Poor Folk we see the source of the spring of thought which ­assumes the shape of a stormy sea afterwards. The plot of this story is very simple. An ordinary clerk gives his life and heart to a poor girl. This girl proves to be a celestial beam of light within the dark ambience of his miserable life. His love is so great that when the girl marries a rich youth, it does not lead to feelings of hatred and contempt in his heart at all. Rather, he shows great sacrifice and affection. In this novel Dostoevsky has presented his ideal meaning of sympathy with oppressed humans. This ideal has been described in all his novels.

Writerly Monument

Dostoevsky’s statue outside the Russian State Library

The short story White Nights is sunk entirely in grief, though it is quite high from an artistic point of view. This is an attractive study of love in the dark atmosphere of St. Petersburg.

In the novel The House of the Dead, Dostoevsky has detailed the observations and experiences of his days in prison. This book holds an extremely high stature in Russian ­literature. In its pages, Dostoevsky searches for the light of God within the chests of criminals, penetrating into the deep depths of the human soul. Notwithstanding the gruesome pictures of life of prisoners full of miseries, this novel ­carries an aspect of hope.

Crime and Punishment is the tragic tale of poverty-afflicted people who are struggling to pass their life nonchalantly in the sorrowful atmosphere of a big city. Dostoevsky has narrated the psychology of these people with ­extreme sympathy. In this classic work of his, Dostoevsky keeps very important moral issues in sight.

A poor student Raskolnikov kills an elderly woman, an usurer, for the sake of his sister and mother. Before committing the murder, he thinks: If Napoleon can kill thousands of ­humans, then can he not murder a useless and good-for-nothing woman living off his mother and sister?

In the house of the dead, Dostoevsky has detailed the observations of his prison days. He searches for the light of god within the chests of ­criminals.

Raskolnikov does not reflect further on this issue and murders the old woman, and thus establishes his own special moral philosophy by trampling human beliefs under his feet. The real crisis is created within his heart after murdering the woman; when he thinks that rather than crushing ‘a principle’, he has killed ‘a woman’. Then he comes to know that he has not been able to bring his real intention into action, and that committing a crime is easy, but turning it into the foundation of a new life is very difficult. The words of Dostoevsky’s hero are these: “Since I have not been successful in my goal, that is why I did not have the right to be the ­perpetrator of this crime. The people who ­advanced their life by shedding blood, they were superhuman personalities.”

After the murder, the second chapter of this spiritual story begins. So convinced was Raskolnikov of his reason that a feeling of any sort of regret or contemplation was not created  in his heart. Since he did not consider himself a criminal, the standard of moral law and good and evil for the sake of which he had murdered the woman and which he had thought of making the foundation of his life, was actually synonymous with a ridiculous idea. In the war between the voice of reason and conscience, the latter was victorious. Therefore, influenced by the ­reproach of his conscience, Raskolnikov pleaded guilty and accepted the pains of prison cheerfully. The error of Raskolnikov’s principle is one aspect of Crime and Punishment. Its ­second aspect are those conditions of awareness and emotions which lay bare the ­depravities of Raskolnikov.

The Idiot, in addition to being an interesting portrait of the mental delirium of Man, ­presents the  character of a strange human. Prince Myshkin (the idiot), the hero of this novel, is an extremely innocent, soft-hearted and sensitive person who is an admirer of every living thing. From the angle of the artistry of life and human nature, this novel can be deemed as Dostoevsky’s best.

Final March

Artist Arnold Karl Baldinger’s depiction of Dostoevsky’s funeral procession

The Possessed or Devils is a novel of an ­extremely complicated plot, in which an ­attempt has been made to narrate the activities of revolutionary circles. Dostoevsky was convinced of the sacred missions of Russia, meaning politics and religion. He hated socialism because he saw a lack of religious principles and moral materialism in it.

Kirillov (the hero of this novel) is the leader of a revolutionary party, the possessor of strong will power and an impressive personality. He dreams about such a revolution “when there will be new life, new Man. In short, everything will be new…then they will be able to divide ­history into two parts.”

The members of this revolutionary party remain unsuccessful in their objectives in moral and material respects. This work of Dostoevsky has been written against the ‘Nihilist’ philosophy of life, and tacitly, the materialism in Europe. The Russian writer has reflected upon this problem from two angles. One is external and the second internal. The first is related to ordinary culture and civilisation. The second is about the personal needs of awareness and human identity.

Dostoevsky made the art of novel-­writing a messenger for truth by ­carrying it to the highest level, and thus joined art and faith.

The final masterpiece of Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, is incomplete. In this novel, which is the thickest and most voluminous of all his works, Dostoevsky has analysed Russian life and Russian character. Though the plot is seemingly simple, it is actually much more complicated. Old Karamazov (a libertine) has three sons: Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha. The first two sons possess the father’s libertinism, but Alyosha is kind and resolute. The opening of this tale is a dispute over a girl between father and son. In this connection, old Karamazov is killed. So a murder case is heard in court. Within a crowd of debauched emotions, the pure soul of Alyosha appears, who follows the footsteps of his guru, Zosima. His goal is this: “Love every creation of God. Every particle of sand!”

Dostoevsky’s style of writing is very complex and tangled. A delirious condition is found in all his works. Russian critics state that he has ­murdered eloquence everywhere in his writings. There are very few literary qualities in the novels of Dostoevsky. The whole reason for this flaw is that in the presence of poverty, miseries and misfortunes, he could not work on his style of writing.

The novels of Dostoevsky are not mere fables. Actually he made the art of novel-writing—which had always remained limited to providing mere interest—a messenger for truth by carrying it to the highest level, and thus joined art and faith. In addition to thick novels, Dostoevsky also wrote short stories. But these are limited in number.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Master of St. Petersburg")

(Views expressed are personal)

Raza Naeem is a Lahore-based social scientist,book ­critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader. He is working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi. His email id:

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