How was Dostoevsky seen in his own time?

Two hundred years after he was born Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time. But how was he seen in his own time?

Well, Turgenev and Nekrasov once called Dostoevsky a pimple on the face of Russian literature! 

It all started with Poor Folk

Dostoevsky became famous overnight with his debut novella Poor Folk (1846), a title that would prove to be prophetic for his own life.

The secret of this success lied in Dostoevsky’s ability to sense that a new literary and social era was beginning, and he cleverly played into that. As any Russian writer does, he took a few bits from his predecessors: the title he borrowed from Karamzin’s Poor Liza, he applied Pushkin’s compassion for his characters to his and he used similar protagonists as Gogol did in his Petersburg stories. And so Dostoevsky wrote the first Russian novel in the sentimental naturalistic genre.

The novel was praised by everyone, including Nekrasov and Turgenev, and Dostoevsky was hailed as Russia’s next big writer. Understandably the sudden success went to his head a bit, he was still quite young after all. Dostoevsky had a strong need for love and acceptance, combined with a tendency to think highly of himself. When he met a pretty admirer at a fancy ball in 1846, Dostoevsky apparently couldn’t handle his emotions and fainted, which caused Nekrasov and Turgenev to make fun of him. 

Even so, this pimple was destined to become the face of Russian Literature.

Siberia and literary comeback

In spite of this flying start Dostoevsky struggled for some years after the publication of Poor Folk to find his place in the phenomenal world of Russian literature. His second novella The Double was criticised for being too ‘Gogolian’. In 1849 his literary career was ruthlessly interrupted when he got arrested for ‘conspiring against the regime’ and was sentenced to four grim years of forced labour in Siberia.

After this ordeal he picked up his writing career in 1859 with two comedies: Uncle’s Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo. Neither were very successful. His real comeback came in 1862 with The House of the Dead, a semi autobiographical novel about the prison life in Siberia.

Crime and Punishment

In 1866 Russia was in the grip of Crime and Punishment, published in instalments in the literary magazine The Russian Messenger, in which at the same time Tolstoy’s War and Peace* was published. Now Dostoevsky had finally reached the literary top, although he had to share it with Tolstoy and Turgenev. 

He was so much in debt most of the time that he had to write to make money. To make matters worse, he would ask for advances for future work from his publishers and was faced with impossible deadlines in return. He was envious of his competitors, and imagined them living a life of luxury and only writing when they felt like it. His work did not exactly suffer from it though, and he wrote masterpiece after masterpiece: The Idiot, Demons, The Brothers Karamazov.

A Writer’s Diary

Between 1873 and 1881 Dostoevsky wrote more personal essays for his A Writer’s Diary, which was published in various magazines. Through the Diary, which was very popular, the public got to know the person Dostoevsky better and it gained him a new following, especially among young people. He wrote about articles that he had read in the newspapers, the political situation, religion, literature and his personal life. It was a prelude to The Brothers Karamazov, in which all his ideas and views on religion and politics came together.

The Pushkin Speech

By the time Dostoevsky finished writing The Brothers Karamazov, he had reached a prophetic status in Russia. In his famous Pushkin speech in 1881 (a time when the country was struggling with terrorist attacks) Dostoevsky provided the answers that the people wanted to hear: the Russian people themselves held the key, and it was to be the Russian people who would lead Europe into the light, and not the other way around. It was a roaring success, and the success lit up the final months of his life.

Outsider

Dostoevsky always remained a bit of an outsider, and he never really fitted in the literary circles of his time. Because of his sensitive nature he was easily offended, although he regularly offended others himself. But it was precisely his own psychological struggles and hypersensitivity that gave him the ability to depict the inner turmoil of his characters so brilliantly.

With Turgenev and Tolstoy 

Dostoevsky admired Turgenev’s writing style and a lot of his work, but accused him of being too Western. He was also unable to forget the pimple incident, and he once had to ask Turgenev for a loan* after he had lost all his money at the roulette table. In Demons he took revenge on Turgenev and parodied him mercilessly. He did, however, pay Turgenev a compliment in his Pushkin speech, praising Turgenev’s protagonist Liza from Home of the Gentry.

He never met Tolstoy (1828-1910) in person, and although Tolstoy was more a Slavophile like Dostoevsky, he mostly disagreed with his views. In his Writer’s Diary he once wrote a whole rant about how stupid Tolstoy’s Levin from Anna Karenina was, because he disagreed with the political views that Tolstoy had given Levin. Tolstoy never openly responded, but did express genuine sorrow when he learned of Dostoevsky’s death.

The role of the writer in 19th century Russia cannot be underestimated. The three giants influenced the public opinion each in their own way; it was even expected of them. Dostoevsky gave the Russian people a sense of pride and hope for the future.

*******

*Dostoevsky and his second wife Anna devoured War and Peace, but Dostoevsky hid the part in which Lise dies in childbirth, because Anna was pregnant at that time. She was quite upset with her husband for losing it! I wonder how he explained her sudden absence and Andrey being suddenly a marriage prospect for Natasha;-)

** He had asked Turgenev for 100 thalers, and Turgenev sent him 50. By the time Dostoevsky paid Turgenev back the value of the thaler had dropped so much that it was practically worth nothing.

********

Russian Literature timeline:

1792 Poor Liza, Karamzin

1830 The Belkin Stories, Pushkin

1832 Eugene Onegin, Pushkin

1842 Dead Souls, Gogol

1842 Petersburg Stories, Gogol

1852 Childhood, Tolstoy

1846-1852 A Sportsman’s Sketches, Turgenev

1859 Oblomov, Goncharov

1862 Fathers and Sons, Turgenev

1866 Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky

1867 The Gambler, Dostoevsky

1869 The Idiot, Dostoevsky

1865-1869 War and Peace, Tolstoy  

1872 Demons, Dostoevsky

1877 Anna Karenina, Tolstoy  

1879-1880 The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky

*******

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

Books read: Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi and Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky.

45 thoughts on “How was Dostoevsky seen in his own time?

  1. Fantastic and fascinating look at Dostoevsky and his work, Elisabeth! I definitely learned some things I didn’t know. And what an encounter that would have been if Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had ever met!

    Liked by 7 people

  2. Such a fascinating summary and really important to see FD’s work in the context of the times in which he was working, rather than just an isolated figure writing long books!

    Liked by 7 people

  3. Well done, Elisabeth! My husband is working his way through the one-volume abridgement of Frank’s biography and I reviewed Christofi’s book on my blog. You have summarized an incredibly complicated life in a very accessible way. Dank je wel!

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Dank je, Julie! I try to keep it short and accessible on my blog and I’m happy to hear that I succeeded. I just read your Christofi post, and I do see what you mean with the general tone of it. And I agree with you on Crime and punishment versus The Brothers Karamazov! I’m also reading the abridged version of Frank’s biography, it’s pretty good, and very thorough for a abridged version;-)

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Thank you, Liz, I’m glad that you liked it! We do tend to see writers like that, don’t we? Especially the older ones, often influenced by some romantic painting of the writer at his desk with his quill 😉

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Thank you so much, Roger, I’m glad that you enjoyed my post. I’m reading the abridged version of Frank’s biography, not the 5 volume version, although it doesn’t feel very abridged;-)
    Take care!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I have very much enjoyed your highly interesting summary about Dostoevsky’s works and his life, Elisabeth, and was especially impressed by this sentence, which was so important for the Russian people:” the Russian people themselves held the key, and it was to be the Russian people who would lead Europe into the light”.
    Many thanks:)

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Loved your post, Elisabeth! Very fascinating! I didn’t know that Dostoevsky’s and Tolstoy’s books were serialized in the same magazine at the same time! Sad to know that Dostoevsky criticized Tolstoy’s work. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊

    Liked by 4 people

  9. #KaramazovReadalong is going extremely well. Today is Day 24 – it has gone so fast. And yesterday’s chapter was an emotional roller-coaster. Frances has joined the readalong and we discuss it every evening via phone. She read The Brothers Karamazov several years ago and is now experiencing the book in a different way. Perhaps we need to revisit books at different times in our lives. Thank you to Liz for organizing this event!! And thank you, Elisabeth for providing context that offers added understanding and enjoyment.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Thanks, Vishy. I think Dostoevsky did enjoy reading Tolstoy, he and his wife Anna devoured War and Peace, but he did not agree completely with Tolstoy’s ideologies. But yes, those were the days; imagine waiting for the monthly magazine with the latest War and Peace and Crime and Punishment instalments! I’d be waiting for the mailman way out in the street! 😉🙃

    Liked by 2 people

  11. It’s wonderful to follow along with the #KaramazovReadalong and to see the quotes that are chosen each day. Very interesting that Frances now experiences it in a different way. I’m also enjoying getting into Dostoevsky again ☺️😊

    Liked by 3 people

  12. That’s funny. Levin was one of my favorite characters, but I do understand how Dostoevsky would disagree. Overly romantic version of revolutionary ideas. “Demons” is outstanding. I love Russian novels and film but like to tease others that they are often characterized by fainting, brain fever, and mud, lots of mud, often frozen. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  13. At school, when it was a mandatory literature to read, it didn’t feel exciting at all. I suppose, at certain age we can appreciate Dostoevsky and his novels. We had to read them all, when we were 13-15 and that somehow didn’t work then. I’ve read all Russian authors in original and still can recite lots of poems by heart. While being a Latvian, put anything Russian during soviet times in a bad light, I still always adored the high tops which were reached by Russian poets, writers, visual artists and dancers, ballet, I mean.
    There’s big difference when you read something for yourself, and when it’s pushed on you. It is interesting to read your reviews since it’s not always the same what I had to study.
    Great post!

    Liked by 3 people

  14. I could relate to what you were saying.

    At the end of one my posts about reading

    “My Early Reading”

    I made the following comment:

    “Whenever (and this comment pertains mainly to classics) you are restricted to encountering good books only as school assignments, when that’s the only place where you encounter them, the game is lost. If you think that classic books are those that you are required to analyze and write essay exam questions on, and nothing more, you will probably not enjoy them in later life. My counsel to all readers, especially young ones, is read whatever you want to read, as much as you can. Seek a level where you have a genuine interest and read at that level. An interest in the best books will often follow.”

    Of course, I read Dostoevsky when I was ready for him: as a young adult, not in college, choosing works which I could get engrossed in.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Hello Inese! I think that 13-15 is a bit too young to appreciate Dostoevsky&co. And I agree that forced reading takes the fun out of reading. After my exams, which involved 4 languages and 50 books or so, I didn’t read much for about a year. And not to mention a whole forced culture, as in your case! Did you read any Latvian literature in school?

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Great to see your blog is still of such a high standard, Elisabeth – a real joy. I’ve been on something of a Tolstoy binge recently with The Cossacks, The Forged Coupon, A Confession, and Hadji Murat. I plan on revisiting Dostoevsky next. Thanks for the great post!

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Difficult to choose a favourite, but ‘A Confession’ in particular resonated with me, and led to a deeper exploration of Tolstoy himself and Christianity. I stopped off at a secondhand bookshop today and found some gems: Tolstoy’s ‘Childhood, Boyhood, Youth’; Turgenev’s ‘Sketches From a Hunter’s Album’, ‘Smoke’, and ‘Literary Reminisces and Autobiographical Fragments’, Gorky’s ‘My Childhood’, and Solzhenitsyn’s ‘August 1914’ and ‘The First Circle’. As well as a book on Tolstoy ‘The Making of a Novelist’.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Oooooh! That does sound really good!!! The sign of a good bookshop 😀 I live Turgenev’s ‘Sketches’, and Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth’ is very sweet. Those literary reminisces also sound interesting and so does the book on Tolstoy. I was in Amsterdam a few weeks ago and there I went to the Russian bookshop. I found a secondhand copy of Turgenev’s letters and a copy of Karamzin’s ‘Letters from a Russian Traveler’. I could have bought much more, but started worrying about not having enough space in my suitcase. By the way, from the Tolstoy works that you read, Hadji Murad is my favourite 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Really interesting post – I think perhaps one of the most underrated essays by Dostoevsky was Winter Notes on Summer Impressions – it really helps to see the foundations of the ideas he goes on to investigate in the longer novels!

    Liked by 2 people

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