Continuing our survey of some famous writers who refused to use their circumstances as an excuse not to write, today we consider another Russian. (We considered Alexander Solzhenitsyn last time.) Today, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Since he was born to a father who was a medical doctor and a mother who used the Bible to teach her four-year-old Fyodor to read and write, one would think that he had everything going for him materially and spiritually. However, he was a sickly child (and adult), and both of his parents died before he was twenty years old. Besides, they had sent him off to a military boarding school during his formative years, so he had limited influence from his parents.
Dostoyevsky hated the military school and his engineering studies. His foray into literary pursuits began with his translation of a novel by Balzac and some other materials, none of which proved successful. His own first novel was titled Poor Folk, and it was published (1846) only because someone showed the manuscript to critic Vissarion Balinsky, who liked it and put in a good word for it. If Balinsky said it was good, no editor would dare argue otherwise.
Dostoyevsky’s connection with Balinsky, however, led to trouble when Dostoyevsky and other “conspirators” were arrested in 1849 for reading Balinsky’s writings, which promoted socialism and were therefore banned by the czar. The czarist government of Russia feared that such writings would lead to revolution. Only twenty-seven years old at the time of his arrest, Dostoyevsky was imprisoned in the maximum-security Peter and Paul Fortress, where the only book he was allowed to have was a New Testament (not a bad book to have if you’re allowed to have only one book!). He slept on a filthy straw bed in a damp, dark, cold cell. With him were hardened criminals.
After months of deliberations by government officials, the accused were sentenced to death by firing squad. They were taken to the execution location in St. Petersburg, divided into three-man groups, and readied for execution. At the last moment, a commutation order arrived from the czar. Instead of being shot, Dostoyevsky was exiled and put to hard labor in a prison camp in Siberia. When he finished serving the sentence in 1854, he was forced to serve in the army.
After completing his military service, he was allowed to publish, but he was kept under police surveillance for the rest of his life. Yet, he used what he had seen and heard and experienced during his prison time to produce his most influential works: Notes from Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). He wrote 15 novels, 17 short stories, and 5 translations. His works themselves have been translated into more than 170 languages.
Dostoyevsky did it all in spite of unbelievable hindrances. What’s your excuse? What’s my excuse?