The Russian Genius: Fyodor Dostoevsky

All of us readers approach a book with an expectation. Some of us pick up a book in order to open our mind up to learning new things, others might want an interconnected novel full of twists and turns that culminates into a spectacular crescendo and there’s also the reader who hopes for moments of profound feeling whilst reading.

There have been millions upon millions of novelists throughout the history of humankind but there are only a tiny handful who can undoubtedly be called literary geniuses: those authors who have influenced generations of men and women, authors who have swayed, motivated and helped shape the world and those who live on it. Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of them.

No matter your opinion on Russia or Russian politics, there is no denying that the great Russian - Fyodor Dostoevsky - was one of the world’s greatest ever writers. His novels are masterpieces to this day and if you are interested in psychology, Dostoevsky is the writer for you.

Psychologist Jordan Peterson described reading Dostoevsky as ‘transformative’ whilst the eminent scientist Albert Einstein wrote “so great is the worth of Dostoevsky that to have produced him is by itself sufficient justification for the existence of the Russian people in the world and he will bear witness for his country men at the last judgement of the nations.” Dostoevsky is so often compared to his contemporary Leo Tolstoy, but to compare the two of them is wrong – they are different writers. 

Dostoevsky explores human psychology in the spiritual, social and political atmosphere of 19thcentury Russia. His novels engage with a variety of religious and philosophical themes as well as suicide, poverty and human manipulation. His works have inspired countless writers including Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemmingway to name just a few. 

First Novel and joining Saint Petersburg’s literary circles

Dostoevsky had his first novel – Poor Folk - published when he was in his mid-20s. Poor Folk showcases the life of poor people in 19thcentury Russia and explores their relationships with the rich. The novel was a success and received positive reviews from his contemporaries, some called Pork Folk a major socialist work whilst other critics detected satire and parody. Nonetheless, the success of Poor Folk opened the path for a young Dostoevsky to Saint Petersburg’s literary circles. 

In 1846, Dostoevsky joined the Petrashevsky Circle – a group organised by Mikhail Petrashevsky – a Russian revolutionary. Unfortunately for all the members of the circle, the group was reported to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Dostoevsky and his compatriots were accused of conspiring against Tsarist Russia and were sentenced to death by firing squad. At the last moment, the sentence was stayed, and Dostoevsky was instead sentenced to four years of hard labour in Siberia.

The Siberian landscape is well documented, and although it provides a good atmospheric setting to movies such as Captain America: Civil War and for online slot games such as PlayFrank’s Siberian Storm, for Dostoevsky it was quite different as he wrote: “in summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold.” After four years Dostoevsky was released and seven years later in 1861 Dostoevsky published a novel based on his experiences in prison, The House of the Dead

The Book that inspired philosophers

In 1864, Dostoevsky published Notes from Underground, a novel considered to be one of the first works of existential literature. Notes from Underground has and continues to inspire to this day with many philosophers, novelists and even film makers crediting the novel to have inspired their own work. Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho derived inspiration from Notes from Underground. The novel centres around the narrator – the ‘underground man’ and challenges rational egoism and Nihilism - which according to Dostoevsky, leads ultimately to doom and despair.

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment was my first experience of Dostoevsky and I have been hooked to him ever since. If you are looking for a new book to read and you can’t make your mind up, I suggest Crime and Punishment. 

Dostoevsky sets up a character in Crime and Punishment – Raskolnikov - that has every reasonable reason to commit murder – philosophically, practically and ethically. Raskolnikov does commit murder but post and pre-murder Raskolnikov are not the same people. Dostoevsky does a perfect job of describing Raskolnikov’s universe of chaos, suffering and terror after he has committed the murder. Crime and Punishment was a philosophical pre-cursor to the Russian revolution. 

Moving away from Russia and gambling debts

Following the success of Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky and his new wife, Snitkina began traveling in Europe starting in Germany before ending up in Italy. Unfortunately, the money that Dostoevsky had earned from Crime and Punishment was not enough to cover debts and his new wife had to sell her valuables. After traveling through Germany, the couple ended up in Florence which is where his novel ‘The idiot’ was completed in 1869. Before this, Dostoevsky had lost a lot of money at the Roulette table, much to the despair of himself and his wife. 

The Idiot, Demons and The Brothers Karamazov

Along with Crime and Punishment and The House of the Dead, Dostoevsky’s most famous and critically acclaimed novels are: The Idiot, Demons and The Brothers Karamazov. The Idiot centres around the character Prince Myshkin, who Dostoevsky creates as the personification of Jesus. His goodness and purity juxtapose with the other characters in the novel which precipitates disaster and ends up with the impression that in a world concerned only with money, power, status and sexual conquest, the only place for a saint is a mental hospital. Myshkin is called an idiot because of his differences. 

Demons is a political satire and tragedy story written by Dostoevsky and published in 1873. The novel was largely based on the murder of Ivan Ivanov who was killed by his fellow communist revolutionaries. The novel is a metaphor for the catastrophic consequences of political and moral nihilism. Dostoevsky was also able to use his own experiences of being a member of a radical organisation (Petrashevsky Circle). Indeed, it is thought that one of the principle characters in the book (Stavrogin) was inspired by a former member of the Petrashevsky Circle, the aristocrat Nikolay Speshnev.

The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s longest work and regarded by many as his masterpiece. Published in 1880, The Brothers Karamazov was the final novel the author would publish. Russian’s especially regard The Brothers Karamazov as Dostoevsky’s magnum opus. We won’t reveal too much here other than to say you should read this book.

Learning from Fyodor Dostoevsky

Reading any book is akin to having a conversation with the author and having a conversation with Dostoevsky is unlike anything else. Many people think that time traveling is a phenomenon which has not been invented yet, but in truth it was invented when the first novel was written. 

I learnt from Dostoevsky many things that I will not even attempt to put into writing. As you will know if you are a fan of his, Dostoevsky novels are not short of tragedy, suffering and apparent despair. But Dostoevsky tells us that human beings can tolerate tragedy – they can even triumph over it, if they are guided by truth. Dostoevsky’s novels are more real than real, they get inside your head and really make you think.

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