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Fyodor Dostoevsky

No other figure in world literature is more closely connected with Russia – and St Petersburg – than Fyodor Dostoevsky. He was among the first writers to navigate the murky, uninvestigated waters of the human subconscious, blending powerful prose with psychology, philosophy and spirituality.



He, like most intellectuals, had deep but mixed feelings about his home country, calling it a ‘sublime, universal, ordered chaos’ and Russians themselves ‘half-saint, half-savage’. Increasingly religious as he grew older, he quoted two inspirations for his life views: the New Testament and the Russian people. He felt Russians have an unrealised Christ-like harmony that could redeem humanity if acknowledged. Yet he all too clearly saw, and depicted, the squalid reality around him, framed by a society that stifled individuality.
His first novel, Poor Folk, written when he was 24 years old, was immediately seen as the work of a genius, though his next offerings, The Double and White Nights, disappointed the other literary figures of the time, namely Nekrasov and Belinsky, who had championed him as the best writer in Russia since Gogol.
His career was halted – but ultimately shaped – by his casual involvement with a group of young free-thinkers who would meet weekly at the home of an eccentric socialist, Mikhail Petrashevsky, and free-associate liberal ideas.

Nicholas I decided to make an example of the harmless group to any burgeoning revolutionaries and had 34 of their members arrested and sentenced to death, including Dostoevsky. After spending a few months
in the Peter and Paul Fortress prison, he, along with 20 others, were marched out to Semyonovskaya pi (today’s Pionerskaya pi) on 22 December 1849 for the execution which, as the guns were aimed and ready to fire, was suddenly called off, commuted to a sentence of hard labour. The mock execution was Nicholas I’s idea of a good, sick joke.

In a labour camp in Omsk, Siberia, Dostoevsky witnessed incredible suffering at the hands of wicked brutality, yet also limitless courage and acts of unforgettable kindness. After he was pardoned by Alexander II and allowed to return to St Petersburg, he wrote Hotes from the Home of the Dead (1861), a vivid recounting of his prison sojourn. His life was marred by personal tragedy in the following years, with the deaths of his wife and beloved brother in 1864 plunging him into grief. Addicted to gambling, he was also always in debt.

The ultimate St Petersburg novel and a classic of literature is his Crime and Punishment (1866), which depicts in great detail the squalor of anti-hero Raskolnikov’s surroundings. As well as being a tale of frustrated individuality and redemption, it also acknowledged the ‘other side’ of the regal, pretty capital that was now becoming industrialised, gritty and spawning shifty, unsavoury characters.
In his later works, The Idiot, The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov, his emerging criticism of the revolutionary movement as morally bankrupt was expressed, as was his belief that only by following Christ’s ideal could humanity be saved. His writing also reflected a compassionate understanding of man’s strengths, weaknesses and motivations.

While for many his writing is merely gloomy (he apparently had a light, happy side that is rarely made mention of), he remains one of history’s most insightful writers. His depiction of St Petersburg also captured the city’s essence and shaped audiences’ impressions of it the world over.

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