On Dec. 22, 1849, a 28-year-old Fyodor Dostoevsky was marched from a dank St. Petersburg jail into the bitter cold and placed before a firing squad. In a minute, Dostoevsky thought, he would be dead. He had published two novels — the first a success, the next a flop — but there was so much more he wanted to say and do.
As the executioners raised their rifles, a horse and cart pulled up waving a white flag. Czar Nicholas, a messenger reported, had spared Dostoevsky's life along with those of his fellow radicals. They would instead spend the next four years in a Siberian hard labor camp, a living hell instead of a sudden death.
Dostoevsky returned from Siberia a changed man. He had come face to face with his own mortality and had seen depths of cruelty that man can inflict and endure. But unlike some of his contemporaries, he didn't lose faith. In fact, his belief in God and the redemptive power of love were never stronger.
"Our image of Dostoevsky as this scowling, sickly Russian writer of weighty novels obscures a more nuanced picture of the real man," says Alex Christofi, author of "Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life," a literary biography of the Russian novelist.
Yes, Dostoevsky suffered from crippling epileptic seizures and struggled with a gambling addiction, but he was also a devoted family man who found the love of his life with his second wife and close collaborator, Anna. Some of his most famous works include "The Brothers Karamazov," "Notes from Underground" and "Crime and Punishment," books that shaped existentialism and even psychology.
Let's get to know the real Dostoevsky through five revealing quotes from his life and literature:
1. "Literature is a picture, or rather in a certain sense both a picture and a mirror."
In 1846, Dostoevsky wrote to a friend exulting about the success of his very first book, "Poor Folk," from which the above quote comes. The book had just been published to rave reviews and lucrative sales. "If I began to recount all my successes for you, I would run out of paper," he wrote.
"Overnight, he became a literary sensation," says Christofi.
Dostoevsky's life to that point hadn't been easy. He grew up in Moscow, spending most of his childhood at a hospital for the poor where his father was a doctor. At school, he got lost in daydreams and was bullied by more aristocratic classmates. Dostoevsky's mother died of tuberculosis when he was 15, and his father was murdered two years later.
Orphaned, Dostoevsky managed to graduate from a military academy and become an army engineer ("not a very good one," says Christofi), but what he really wanted to do is write like his literary hero Nikolai Gogol. So, he wrote a manuscript of what would become "Poor Folk," and a friend got it into the hands of a big-name literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky, who thought it was a work of genius.
With the success of his first novel, Dostoevsky was briefly embraced by the Russian literati and quit his engineering job with the military. But when his follow-up novel floundered, his new literary "friends" turned on him, poking fun at his odd mannerisms and way of speaking. Dostoevsky was always small, pale and physically weak, and his first symptoms of epilepsy appeared in his teenage years.
"Soon Dostoevsky fell into a much more dangerous, revolutionary group of writers who had a salon where they discussed ideas that challenged the czar, which was a huge no-no," says Christofi. This is when Dostoevsky's real troubles began.
Full quote: "Literature is a picture, or rather in a certain sense both a picture and a mirror; it is an expression of emotion, a subtle form of criticism, a didactic lesson and a document." "Poor Folk" (1846)
2. "A murder by sentence is far more dreadful than a murder committed by a criminal."
The above line comes from "The Idiot," a novel published decades after Dostoevsky's near execution and four-year ordeal in Siberia, but it reflects how his life was forever impacted by his arrest and imprisonment.
Dostoevsky and his circle of dissident thinkers were ratted out by an undercover officer of the czar's secret police. Found guilty of trumped up "conspiracy" charges — Czar Nicholas feared a coup like the failed 1825 Decembrist Revolt — Dostoevsky and his friends were sentenced to death by firing squad.
The last-minute reprieve was later revealed to be part of a choreographed "mock execution" meant to inflict psychological torture on the prisoners and evoke a misplaced sense of gratitude for the "mercy" of the czar.
While we can't know Dostoevsky's exact thoughts upon facing the firing squad, a character in "The Idiot" witnesses an execution by guillotine and puts himself in the place of the condemned man, saying, "[T]he strongest pain may not be in the wounds but in knowing for certain that in an hour, then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now, this second — your soul will fly out of your body and you'll no longer be a man."
Dostoevsky's four years in a Siberian prison were unspeakably gruesome. He was housed with the most dangerous criminals, and his hands were shackled 24/7. Conditions in the squalid, overcrowded cells were absolutely hellish, compounded for Dostoevsky by a prohibition against books.
"He had the New Testament with him, though," says Christofi. "And prison was a time when Dostoevsky thought very deeply about his own spirituality as an Orthodox Christian. It's a theme that you see in the majority of his work, post-Siberia, including his greatest novels."
Bonus quote: "Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him." "The House of the Dead" (1861)
3. "I would sooner remain with Christ than with the truth."
By the time Dostoevsky was released from prison in 1854, some of the "radical" ideas that had so threatened the czar were now de rigueur among young European intellectuals and writers.
"The fashionable thing at the time was atheism, and new political movements like socialism and utilitarianism, which rejected religion," says Christofi. "Against that backdrop, Dostoevsky was quite unusual in his staunch defense of Christian faith." In a letter he wrote from prison, he said that "if someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth," he'd prefer to remain with Christ than with the truth.
From his lifelong contact with the poor, Dostoevsky was sympathetic to the utopian movements that aimed to create a more egalitarian society, but he feared what would happen when God was unthroned and man was elevated in his place. Keep in mind that this was a half-century before the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of a totalitarian communist regime that imprisoned and killed tens of millions under Stalin.
"Dostoevsky felt very strongly that a socialism based in atheism would end in violence," says Christofi. "In that, I think he was very prophetic."
Bonus quote: "lf there's no God and no life beyond the grave, doesn't that mean that men will be allowed to do whatever they want?" "The Brothers Karamazov" (1879)
4. "I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing, too."
This quote is pulled from "Notes From Underground" (1864), Dostoevsky's response to a wildly popular philosophical novel from another Russian writer, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, called "What Is To Be Done?"
Chernyshevsky isn't a household name today, but back in the 1860s he influenced budding socialists, utilitarians and future communists with his utopian ideas. According to Chernyshevsky, human behavior is bound by the same rational, scientific laws as the rest of the universe.
"If we all just pursue our rational self-interest, then the world will become a wonderful place and we can do away with irrational concepts like God," says Christofi. "But all of this is based on the idea that human beings are these clockwork creatures who will only ever do the thing that is most rational."
In Dostoevsky's experience, that wasn't how people worked at all. As the quote above demonstrates, sometimes we can't resist saying that two and two is five, just to prove that we can.
"Sometimes people will do something perverse, even if it's just to prove that they're free," says Christofi.
Dostoevsky himself didn't always act in his rational self-interest. He was a gambler, for example. Today, we'd say that he had a gambling addiction, but Dostoevsky only knew that he couldn't pass up a game of roulette. Whether he was flush with cash or deep in debt, he gambled, and he lost far more than he won. There was nothing rational about such self-destructive behavior.
The anonymous main character in "Notes from Underground" was a mess of contradictions, a "free" human who could barely function in society. If left to follow his "rational self-interest," the result would be chaos, not utopia. Dostoevsky continued the theme in "Crime and Punishment," the first of his great novels, in which a man's cruelly rational plans to murder an old woman for money go terribly wrong.
Bonus quote: "There exists no greater or more painful anxiety for a man who has freed himself from all religious bias, than how he shall soonest find a new object or idea to worship." "The Brothers Karamazov" (1879)
5. "What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love."
This quote comes from Dostoevky's last and greatest novel "The Brothers Karamazov." "We have this image of Dostoevsky as this prolific writer who's constantly scribbling at his desk or arguing with his contemporaries, but he actually devoted much of his life to finding a partner with whom he could start a family," says Christofi.
Dostoevsky first married a widow named Maria in 1857, but the two soon realized they were incompatible and miserable together. Maria died in 1864, the same year that Dostoevsky lost his brother, Mikhail, and Dostoevsky found himself financially responsible for Maria's son and Mikhail's family.
Desperate to relieve himself of his and Mikhail's debts, Dostoevsky signed a contract to deliver a short new novel in one year, but he spent 11 months working on "Crime and Punishment" instead. With only one month left, he sought a stenographer to take notes in shorthand while he quickly dictated the novel.
The woman he hired, 20-year-old Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, would not only become his close literary collaborator and business partner, but also the love of his life. Anna and Fyodor married in 1867 and had four children, only two of whom survived to adulthood.
"Having seen everything that he went through — the mock execution, the prison in Siberia, his gambling addiction — it does feel very rewarding to see him finally find love," says Christofi.
With Anna at his side (and looking after his finances), Dostoevsky published "The Brothers Karamazov" in 1879. The sweeping epic was a monumental commercial success.
"'The Brothers Karamazov' was a huge sensation at the time," says Christofi. "It made him one of the most famous and revered writers in Russia. When Dostoevsky died in 1881 [from epilepsy], there was a street procession of tens of thousands of people for his funeral in St. Petersburg. Passers-by asked if they were burying the czar."
Bonus quote: "Beauty will save the world." "The Idiot" (1869)
HowStuffWorks earns a small affiliate commission when you purchase through links on our site.