You know that moment when you walk into a Barnes and Noble or a library and see that one book you’ve wanted for the longest time, but you’ve forgotten it even exists? It’s like meeting an old friend you used to be close to, but haven’t seen in years. I had one of those recently. No, it wasn’t a hardcover illustrated edition of The Earthsea Series (still waiting for that birthday present from someone). It was a five-volume biography of Dostoyevsky.
Yes. Five volumes.
Believe it or not, they read like novels. (Click here to buy the fifth volume, by far the best)
Dostoyevsky is the one writer who inspires me most, even more than Tolkien or Lewis. What he did so well was use a popular genre (psychological thriller) to tell philosophically challenging stories. In the process, he radically changed some peoples’ lives for the better. What more could a writer hope for? Certainly, it’s what I hope my own writing will do.
So, to find out what made him tick, today I’ll be sharing my translation of an article in the wonderful Russian magazine Foma (i.e. “Doubting Thomas”):
8 Things You’ve Never Heard about Dostoyevsky’s Childhood
- Dostoyevsky was born and grew up in Moscow
Dostoyevsky is traditionally associated with St. Petersburg, the cultural capital of the Russian Empire. But he was born in Moscow and spent the first fifteen years of his life there. Most of his life was a constant stream of dramatic change, but his Moscow childhood was an island of stability. Later in life, Dostoyevsky would often return with his thoughts to that time. It was one of the few things that could calm his stormy personality. Every single one of his novels bears the stamp of his Moscow childhood.
More than that, Dostoyevsky always tried to be one of the “St. Petersburg élite,” but his tastes, language, and behavior were decidedly “Muscovite.” His unique political ideology, “pochvennichestvo,” has deep roots in the age-long traditions and rules of old Muscovy. Dostoyevsky himself loved Moscow and knew the city like the back of his hand. And it was a Moscow publication, The Russian Herald, that serialized his most important novels, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, and Brothers Karamazoff.
(Moscow in 1821)
- Dostoyevsky came from a priestly family
Dostoyevsky’s grandfather, great-grandfather, and other male relatives were in the priestly caste. His father, Mikhail Andreevich, studied in seminary. Though he didn’t graduate, he was a profoundly religious man.
Dostoyevsky’s family life was organized along strictly religious lines. Every day began with prayer, as did nearly every other important event. The family took the fasts seriously. Dostoyevsky’s younger brother, Andrei (a bit of a rake), remembers, “We always attended liturgy on Sundays and major feasts, and we never missed the services on the eve of those feasts.” This strict upbringing ensured that, no matter what the upheaval in his life, Feodor continued to experience everything through the prism of his Orthodox faith.
- Dostoyevsky saw suffering from a young age
The apartment where Dostoyevsky grew up was in an annex of the Mariinsky hospital for the poor, where Mikhail Dostoyevsky worked as a doctor. Tsar Paul I’s widow, Maria Feodorovna, built the hospital in 1803. It not only became one of the best free hospitals in Russia, but it was a vivid example of Christian co-suffering, mercy, non-acquisitiveness, as well as European Enlightenment values of humaneness and respect for human dignity.
(Dostoyevsky’s childhood home)
Though Dostoyevsky’s parents didn’t allow their children to fraternize with the patients, Feodor was a sensitive and observant child who could hardly avoid seeing the suffering of the sick. His home’s windows opened directly out into the courtyard of the hospital, and without a doubt his parents spoke about what went on inside. This was a world of intense suffering. People sought not merely medical aid, but emotional support in a meat-grinder world. We can only imagine how many people and how many fates Dostoyevsky encountered as a child.
The world of the Mariinsky hospital for the poor became a kind of “writers’ university.”
Everyone forgotten by fate, anyone who was miserable, sick, or poor found a place in Dostoyevsky’s heart. His kindness—it was completely beyond what was normal—was famous to all who were close to him.
This was written by Dostoyevsky’s friend A. E. Wrangel. Dostoyevsky’s truly democratic mindset, his soul’s willingness to help all people—these qualities were nurtured in his father’s hospital. It should come as no surprise that the first word in Dostoyevsky’s published work is “poor” (the novel Poor Folk).
- Dostoyevsky learned from childhood to help his neighbors
Dostoyevsky learned his first lesson in philanthropy in childhood. Andrei Dostoyevsky remembers their family’s daily summer walks:
We often walked by the guard who stood at the gates of the Alexandrov Institute in full military regalia (for some reason). It was our family’s constant duty to give this guard a penny as we walked by.
The family’s generosity was such that others didn’t hesitate to answer in kind. When the Dostoyevsky’s summer house burned down, Feodor’s nanny Alena Frolova offered her own money—all 500 rubles of it, a not inconsiderable sum!—to help rebuild the house.
The Dostoyevsky family, despite this financial tragedy, still paid every peasant who suffered in the fire fifty rubles for their own repairs.
- Dostoyevsky was baptized in the hospital church
(The Mariinsky hospital)
The Mariinsky hospital for the poor had a small house church dedicated to the apostles Peter and Paul. In 1821, Feodor Dostoyevsky was baptized there. Together with his parents, he attended this church every Sunday, and the golden onion dome of the house church was clearly visible from their living room window. Interestingly, later in life Dostoyevsky only chose apartments from which a church was clearly visible.
- The first book that Dostoyevsky read by himself in childhood was a children’s Bible
According to Andrei Dostoyevsky, all the children learned how to read from a book called One Hundred Sacred Stories Chosen from the Old and New Testaments for the Benefit of Young People by Johann Hibner (a translation from German).
It had a few terrible lithographs of the creation of the world, Adam and Eve in paradise, the Flood, and other important stories from the Bible. I remember how even in the 1870’s, when speaking with my brother Feodor about our childhood, he remembered it with glee. He even told me that he managed to find the exact edition of the book we had in childhood, and that he treasured it as a relic.
The world of the Bible was eternally alive and actual for Feodor, and the Gospel especially throws its rays over all his creative output.
- Dostoyevsky’s best friend was his brother Mikhail
Mikhail was only a year older than Feodor, but it was more than their closeness in age that bound them together. They were both passionate readers, and both dreamed of becoming writers. They both ended up making their mark in the literary world. Mikhail wrote stories, stage plays, poems. He also translated from German and French. Some of his works were published in St. Petersburg and enjoyed critical acclaim. One of his plays had a successful run in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. His translations of Goethe and Schiller were reprinted multiple times.
Feodor and Mikhail together edited and published some of the most important literary journals of the time—Time (1861-1863) and Epoch (1864). Mikhail was also the recipient of a letter from Feodor in 1839, where the sixteen-year-old future genius formulated his artistic and moral credo:
Man is a mystery. We must unravel this mystery, and even if you spend your entire life unraveling it, don’t say that you have wasted your time. I’m studying this mystery now, for I want to become a man.
- Dostoyevsky wanted to wear mourning for Pushkin
Both Mikhail and Feodor Dostoyevsky idolized Pushkin. Despite their differing tastes in literature generally, they could both agree about Pushkin’s greatness. According to Andrei Dostoyevsky, Feodor knew nearly all Pushkin’s poetry by heart. This is remarkable, because Pushkin was still living, and professors didn’t assign his poetry to be memorized in schools.
Pushkin’s authority as a poet was not as great, at the time, as that of Zhukovsky, even among professors of literature. Our parents also thought his poetry inferior to that of Zhukovsky. This led to constant passionate protests on the part of both my brothers.
Neither Mikhail nor Feodor ever managed to meet Pushkin. They only arrived in Petersburg for the first time a few months after he was killed. The death of Pushkin affected both brothers deeply. Again, Andrei remembers, “My brothers nearly lost their minds when they found out about the death and all its particulars.”
In order to fully understand the full measure of their grief, we must remember that the Dostoyevsky family learned of Pushkin’s death during a family tragedy. Maria Feodorvna, their mother, died in the same year, at the same age, as Pushkin. Feodor did mention that if their mother had not died, he would have asked his father’s permission to wear mourning for Pushkin.
On their way to Petersburg, the Dostoyevsky brothers didn’t prepare for their entrance exams. Instead, they dreamed about “immediately visiting the place of the duel and finding a way into Pushkin’s apartment, just to see the place where he breathed his last.”
Pushkin remained an inspiration for the rest of Dostoyevsky’s life. Dostoyevsky constantly referred to his life and works. Every single work of Dostoyevsky is haunted by the ghost of Pushkin, whether in direct citation, a chosen image, or a concrete reference. Even in Poor Folk, Dostoyevsky’s heroes read Pushkin. And Dostoyevsky’s most famous speech came at the dedication of the Pushkin memorial at the end of his life.
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