Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich
Russian novelist; b. Moscow, October 30, 1821; d. St. Petersburg, January 28, 1881.
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky is considered by many to be the greatest Christian novelist. Although he himself was no lover of Roman Catholicism, Dostoevsky’s work has influenced numerous Catholic literary artists, thinkers, activists, and theologians, including Romano GUARDINI (1885–1968), Georges BERNANOS (1888–1948), Henri de LUBAC (1896–1991), Dorothy DAY (1897–1980), Hans Urs von BALTHASAR (1905–1988), Thomas MERTON (1915–1968), Walker PERCY (1916–1990), and Shusaku ENDO (1923–1996).
Early Years. Dostoevsky was born in a hospital for the poor where his father, Mikhail Andreevich, descended from Lithuanian nobility, served as a doctor. Dr. Dostoevsky was very strict, but his mother, Maria Fyodorovna, was warm and tender, and from her especially Dostoevsky received a deeply religious formation. As a child, he accompanied her to churches and monasteries in Moscow and was first drawn to the Russian Orthodox liturgy. From her he learned Bible stories and the lives of Russian saints, so many of them marked by the Orthodox emphasis upon kenoticism (Frank 1976, p. 48)—the self-emptying modeled by Christ in his INCARNATION, death, and resurrection, sung by St. Paul in the Christological hymn in Philippians 2. Looking back on his childhood, Dostoevsky said, “I came from a pious Russian family. . . . In our family, we knew the Gospel almost from the cradle” (Frank 1976, p. 43).
Dostoevsky’s mother died when he was seventeen. Two years later, while Dostoevsky was away at school, his father was, in all likelihood, murdered by his own serfs. Upon hearing the news, Dostoevsky fell ill with his first epileptic attack. In 1843, he graduated from the St. Petersburg Academy of Military Engineering, but throughout his studies, he was far more interested in reading European literature, especially the novels of Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850) and Victor Hugo (1802–1885). In 1845, he published his first short novel, Poor Folk, an immediate success, and was hailed by the critic Vissarion Belinsky (1811–1848) as the great new hope for Russian fiction. (His second novel, The Double , was more phantasmagoric, and less well received.)
Dostoevsky’s association with the revolutionary Petrashevky Circle, which printed materials encouraging the serfs to rebel, led to arrest, imprisonment, and a mock execution on the Semonovsky Square in 1849. Anticipating death, Dostoevsky murmured to his companion, the atheist Nikolay Speshnev: “We shall be with Christ,” to which Speshnev replied, “a bit of dust” (Frank 1983, p. 58). At the last second, the czar halted the execution, and Dostoevsky was sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. Imprisoned for four years, he read the New Testament closely, marked passages, and found renewed spiritual sustenance. In 1854, he wrote a letter to N.D. Fonvizina (the woman who had given him his copy of the New Testament) in which he articulated his
“credo”: “To believe that there is nothing more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly and more perfect than Christ” (Frank 1983, p. 160). Dostoevsky later drew deeply on his prison experience in the fictional House of the Dead (1862).
After serving in the army on the Siberian border and marrying his first wife, the widow Maria Dmitrievna Isayeva, he returned to St. Petersburg in 1857 with more conservative views than when he had departed. His marriage was often strained, and Dostoevsky began to gamble. He traveled abroad with Appolinaria Suslova, who soon returned his passion with coldness. He returned to St. Petersburg to find Maria dying of tuberculosis. Upon her death in 1864, he wrote reflections in his notebook that, according to his biographer Joseph Frank, express his profound sense of “the fateful opposition between the law of Christ and the law of personality” (Frank 1986, p. 309).
Major Works. Despite formidable financial difficulties and familial sorrows—including the death of his brother Mikhail, also in 1864—Dostoevsky would write some of his greatest works in the years to follow, each of which explores the tension between the human assertion of autonomous will and the realities of human interdependence and divine grace. In 1866, he published Crime and Punishment, in which the would-be “superman” Raskolnikov murders two innocent women (including one who is pregnant), but eventually turns to Christ through the mediation of the prostitute Sonya. In one memorable scene, Sonya reads with utter conviction the story of Jesus’s raising of LAZARUS, as rendered in John, Dostoevsky’s favorite among the Gospels.
Dostoevsky’s situation was helped immeasurably by the assistance of Anna Snitkina, an expert stenographer to whom he first dictated his novels, but who soon became his loving spouse and manager of their family’s financial affairs. The couple had four children, only two of whom survived into adulthood. In 1868, while in Europe, the couple suffered the loss of their infant daughter, Sonya, an event that may have colored the dark ending of his novel of that year, The Idiot. Its hero, the boundlessly compassionate Prince Myshkin, has been interpreted by many (such as Guardini) as a Christ figure, but by others (such as Archbishop Rowan Williams) as a Christ manqué in his inability to embrace the demands of freedom, finitude, and decision.
In 1872, Dostoevsky completed Demons, a prescient exploration of radical political ideology and the destructive consequences of NIHILISM. One censored chapter, titled “At Tikhon’s” (usually included as an appendix to the novel), presents a remarkable dialogue between Stavrogin, the atheist leader of the revolutionary gang, and his confessor, Fr. Tikhon.
In 1873, as editor of the journal The Citizen, Dostoevsky began writing a column that, in 1876, he transformed into his own widely read, monthly publication, A Writer’s Diary. As a whole, A Writer’s Diary comprises a wide variety of genres, from fiction to polemical essays on current events. In some of its installments, Dostoevsky gives vent to his most fiercely Slavophilic, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic views. Here Dostoevsky stands in contrast to his ecumenically minded, younger friend Vladimir Soloviev (1853–1900), whose 1878 “Lectures on Godmanhood” Dostoevsky attended and admired. Soloviev was committed to the eventual reunion of the Western and Eastern Churches, and helped arrange for a copy of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna—a picture that Dostoevsky deeply loved—to be hung in Dostoevsky’s study (Frank 2002, p. 463).
The Brothers Karamazov. In 1878, Dostoevsky and Anna suffered a second great loss when their three-year-old son, Alexey, died of the epilepsy he had inherited from his father. Wracked by guilt and grief, accompanied by Soloviev, Dostoevsky visited the Optina Pustyn Monastery to seek consolation from its revered elder, Fr. Ambrose. The words Dostoevsky heard are reflected in those of the elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov (1880), his final and greatest novel; Soloviev helped to inspire the novel’s hero, Alyosha. Of this novel, the Catholic convert Malcolm Muggeridge (1903–1990) mused, “Supposing one were asked to name a book calculated to give an unbeliever today a clear notion of what Christianity is about, could one hope to do much better than The Brothers Karamazov?” (Muggeridge 1988, p. 3).
The novel presents the sons of the debauched Fyodor Karamazov: Mitya, the passionate soldier; Ivan, the rebellious, detached intellectual; Alyosha, the saintly “monk in the world” (Dostoevsky  2011, p. 247); and Smerdyakov, illegitimate and embittered. In the words of Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov, especially in the chapters “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor,” Dostoevsky believed that he had made the strongest case for atheism to date. But Dostoevsky responds to Ivan’s challenge not with logical argument but “an artistic picture” (Frank 2002, p. 457), a dialogical narrative of Ivan’s own guilt-ridden conscience, and of the grace-imbued words and deeds of Zosima, Dmitri and his beloved Grushenka, and Alyosha. The novel takes its epigraph from Christ’s words: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (Jn 12:24). The Christological pattern of self-emptying descent and joyful ascent lends the novel its “incarnational realism,” attuned to two concomitant spiritual realities: that Christ’s death and resurrection is redemptively Page 236 | Top of Articleefficacious “for all” (Dostoevsky  2011, p. 213), even as each person remains responsible “to all, for all” (p. 146) and embodies that responsibility in the hard, prosaic work of active love.
In one of his final letters to Anna—written in June 1880, when he was in Moscow to deliver a speech in honor of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837)—he relates to his wife the response of his audience, who had been reading The Brothers Karamazov as it appeared serially in the Russian Messenger: “As I walked across the hall during intermission, a host of people, youths, graybeards and ladies, rushed toward me exclaiming, ‘You’re our prophet. We’ve become better people since we read The Karamazovs’” (Frank 1987, p. 504).
The Catholic Response. Dostoevsky has proven prophetic to numerous Catholics, many of whom would attest that his work has “made them better people.” In Part III of The Drama of Atheist Humanism, Henri de Lubac calls Dostoevsky “The Prophet” who offers the most potent rebuttal to modern atheism. In his study of hell and hope in the light of God’s desire “that all men be saved” (1 Tm 2:4), Hans Urs von Balthasar cites The Brothers Karamazov as exemplary. Romano Guardini wrote a study of Dostoevsky’s work in German, not yet translated into English, but partially available as essays on The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov that appeared in the 1950s in the groundbreaking journal Cross-Currents.
Dorothy Day often quoted The Brothers Karamazov from memory, especially Zosima’s description of active love as “a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams” (Dostoevsky  2011, p. 55). In the May 1973 issue of the Catholic Worker, she wrote, “I do not think I could have carried on with a loving heart all these years without Dostoevsky’s understanding of poverty, suffering, and drunkenness” (Zwick and Zwick 2000). Day was a close friend of Helene Iswolsky, who was committed to ecumenical unity between Catholicism and Orthodoxy, pointed frequently to Dostoevsky in her books, and wrote the entry on Dostoevsky in an earlier edition of this encyclopedia. Day’s fellow Laetare medalist, social activist, and actor Martin Sheen, was given The Brothers Karamazov during a difficult time by his friend, director Terrence Malick: “That book had a very profound effect on my spiritual life, and that was like the final door that I had to go through” to complete the “journey home” to the Catholic faith (Kupfer 2003). The French novelist Georges Bernanos imagined “redo-[ing] . . . from the Catholic point of view all of Dostoevsky’s work” (Sonnenfeld 1982, p. 71). American novelist (and Laetare medalist) Walker Percy acknowledged that “the last couple of pages of The Moviegoer [his first novel, published in 1961] is a kind of re-enactment of the last two pages of The Brothers Karamazov” (Samway 1997, p. 267). In two letters to his fellow Catholic poet Czeslaw Milosz, Merton quotes Fr. Zosima. On September 12, 1959, he wrote: “The answer—the only answer I know—is that of Staretz Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov—to be responsible to everybody, to take upon oneself all guilt—but I don’t know what that means. It is romantic, and I believe it is true” (Faggen 1997, p. 55); on November 9, 1960, Merton wrote: “I have certainly not come to the monastery to feel myself isolated from sin, but to bear all sins along with my own and to be, as Dostoevsky’s Zossima says, responsible to everyone for everything. It is not exactly charming, and it is sometimes like being in hell” (Faggen 1997, p. 98).
In the concluding section of his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” Pope JOHN PAUL II quotes Dostoevsky’s oft-cited words (drawn from The Idiot): “Beauty will save the world” (section 16). Another affinity between the Slavic pope and novelist is noted by James P. Scanlan, who argues that the “irrational” dimension of Dostoevsky’s faith has been overstated, that “Dostoevsky’s position on faith and reason in matters of religious belief is in some ways similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church he so despised”—as articulated, for example, in John Paul II’s 1998 encyclical Fides et ratio (Scanlan 2002, p. 56). In his 2007 encyclical Spe salvi, Pope BENEDICT XVI draws on Dostoevsky to stress a point about eschatological hope: “Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov” (section 44).
Dostoevsky wrote many other works, among them Notes from Underground (1864), The Gambler (1866), The Eternal Husband (1870), and The Adolescent (1874). His funeral in St. Petersburg was attended by 30,000 people. His grave at the Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery continues to draw many visitors. His novelistic response to the challenges of modernity remains as timely as ever.
SEE ALSO FIDES ET RATIO; LITERATURE AND CATHOLICISM ; SPE SALVI.
The definitive collection of Dostoevsky’s works is Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, edited by G.M. Fridlender et al., 30 vols. (Leningrad 1972–1990). His major works are easily available in English translation. Joseph Frank’s five-volume Dostoevsky is an indispensable source of both literary analysis and biographical information.
Benedict XVI, Spe salvi, On Christian Hope (Encyclical, Page 237 | Top of ArticleNovember 30, 2007), Vatican Web site, available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20071130_spe-salvi_en.html (accessed September 16, 2010).
Denis Dirscherl, Dostoevsky and the Catholic Church (Chicago 1986).
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), edited by Susan McReynolds, translated by Constance Garnett, revised by Ralph E. Matlaw and Susan McReynolds (New York 2011).
Robert Faggen, ed., Striving towards Being: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz (New York 1997).
Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821–1849 (Princeton, N.J. 1976).
Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850–1859 (Princeton, N.J. 1983).
Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860–1865 (Princeton, N.J. 1986).
Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865–1871 (Princeton, N.J. 1995).
Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871–1881 (Princeton, N.J. 2002).
Joseph Frank, ed., with David Goldstein, Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoevsky (New Brunswick, N.J. 1987).
John Paul II, Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists (April 4, 1999), Vatican Web site, available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_23041999_artists_en.html (accessed September 16, 2010).
David Kupfer, “Martin Sheen Interview,” Progressive (July 2003), available from http://www.progressive.org/mag_intvsheen (accessed September 16, 2010).
Malcolm Muggeridge, “Foreword,” The Gospel in Dostoevsky (Ulster Park, N.Y. 1988), 1–3.
George Pattison and Diane Oenning Thompson, eds. Dostoyevsky and the Christian Tradition (Cambridge, U.K. 2001).
Patrick Samway, Walker Percy: A Life (New York 1997).
James P. Scanlan, Dostoevsky the Thinker (Ithaca, N.Y. 2002).
Albert Sonnenfeld, Crossroads: Essays on the Catholic Novelists (York, S.C. 1982).
Mark Zwick and Louise Zwick, “Dorothy Day and the Light from the East: Eastern Christianity, Fathers of the Desert, Dostoevsky” Houston Catholic Worker 20, no. 3, (May–June 2000), available from http://www.cjd.org/paper/roots/reast.html (accessed September 16, 2010).
Paul J. Contino
Professor of Great Books
Pepperdine University (2011)