Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (11 November 1821 – 9 February 1881), sometimes transliterated as Dostoyevsky, was a Russian novelist, short story writer, essayist, and journalist. Dostoevsky’s literary works explore human psychology in the troubled political, social, and spiritual atmospheres of 19th-century Russia, and engage with a variety of philosophical and religious themes. His most acclaimed novels include Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), Demons (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Dostoevsky’s body of works consists of 12 novels, four novellas, 16 short stories, and numerous other works. Many literary critics rate him as one of the greatest novelists in all of world literature, as multiple of his works are considered highly influential masterpieces. His 1864 novella Notes from Underground is considered to be one of the first works of existentialist literature. As such, he is also looked upon as a philosopher and theologian as well.
Born in Moscow in 1821, Dostoevsky was introduced to literature at an early age through fairy tales and legends, and through books by Russian and foreign authors. His mother died in 1837 when he was 15, and around the same time, he left school to enter the Nikolayev Military Engineering Institute. After graduating, he worked as an engineer and briefly enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, translating books to earn extra money. In the mid-1840s he wrote his first novel, Poor Folk, which gained him entry into Saint Petersburg’s literary circles. Arrested in 1849 for belonging to a literary group that discussed banned books critical of Tsarist Russia, he was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted at the last moment. He spent four years in a Siberian prison camp, followed by six years of compulsory military service in exile. In the following years, Dostoevsky worked as a journalist, publishing and editing several magazines of his own and later A Writer’s Diary, a collection of his writings. He began to travel around western Europe and developed a gambling addiction, which led to financial hardship. For a time, he had to beg for money, but he eventually became one of the most widely read and highly regarded Russian writers.
Dostoevsky was influenced by a wide variety of philosophers and authors including Pushkin, Gogol, Augustine, Shakespeare, Scott, Dickens, Balzac, Lermontov, Hugo, Poe, Plato, Cervantes, Herzen, Kant, Belinsky, Byron, Hegel, Schiller, Solovyov, Bakunin, Sand, Hoffmann, and Mickiewicz.
His writings were widely read both within and beyond his native Russia and influenced an equally great number of later writers including Russians such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Anton Chekhov, philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre, and the emergence of Existentialism and Freudianism. His books have been translated into more than 170 languages, and served as the basis for many films.
Dostoevsky’s parents were part of a noble family of Russian Orthodox Christians. The family traced its roots back to Danilo Irtishch, who was granted lands in the Pinsk region (for centuries part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, now in modern-day Belarus) in 1509 for his services under a local prince, his progeny then taking the name “Dostoevsky” based on a village there called Dostoïevo (from Polish: dostoinik – dignitary).
Dostoevsky’s immediate ancestors on his mother’s side were merchants; the male line on his father’s side were priests. Andriy Dostoevsky, the writer’s grandfather, was a priest in 1782–1820, signed in Ukrainian – “Andriy”. After him, his son Lev ruled in Viitovtsi (1820–1829). Another son, Mykhailo (the writer’s father), studied at the Podolsk seminary, which was then founded in Shargorod. From there, as one of the best students, he was sent to study at the Medical and Surgical Academy in Moscow (after training he became one of the best doctors at the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor). Before the war of 1812 he signed in Ukrainian – “Mykhailo” and only during the war, when he worked as a military doctor, he began to sign in Russian – “Mikhail”.
In 1809, the 20-year-old Mykhailo Dostoevsky enrolled in Moscow’s Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy. From there he was assigned to a Moscow hospital, where he served as military doctor, and in 1818, he was appointed a senior physician. In 1819 he married Maria Nechayeva. The following year, he took up a post at the Mariinsky Hospital for the poor. In 1828, when his two sons, Mikhail and Fyodor, were eight and seven respectively, he was promoted to collegiate assessor, a position which raised his legal status to that of the nobility and enabled him to acquire a small estate in Darovoye, a town about 150 km (100 miles) from Moscow, where the family usually spent the summers. Dostoevsky’s parents subsequently had six more children: Varvara (1822–1892), Andrei (1825–1897), Lyubov (born and died 1829), Vera (1829–1896), Nikolai (1831–1883) and Aleksandra (1835–1889).
Fyodor Dostoevsky, born on 11 November [O.S. 30 October] 1821 in Moscow, was the second child of Dr. Mikhail Dostoevsky and Maria Dostoevskaya (born Nechayeva). He was raised in the family home in the grounds of the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor, which was in a lower class district on the edges of Moscow. Dostoevsky encountered the patients, who were at the lower end of the Russian social scale, when playing in the hospital gardens.
Dostoevsky was introduced to literature at an early age. From the age of three, he was read heroic sagas, fairy tales and legends by his nanny, Alena Frolovna, an especially influential figure in his upbringing and love for fictional stories. When he was four his mother used the Bible to teach him to read and write. His parents introduced him to a wide range of literature, including Russian writers Karamzin, Pushkin and Derzhavin; Gothic fiction such as the works from writer Ann Radcliffe; romantic works by Schiller and Goethe; heroic tales by Miguel de Cervantes and Walter Scott; and Homer’s epics. Dostoevsky was greatly influenced by the work of Nikolai Gogol. Although his father’s approach to education has been described as strict and harsh, Dostoevsky himself reports that his imagination was brought alive by nightly readings by his parents.
Some of his childhood experiences found their way into his writings. When a nine-year-old girl had been raped by a drunk, he was asked to fetch his father to attend to her. The incident haunted him, and the theme of the desire of a mature man for a young girl appears in The Devils, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and other writings. An incident involving a family servant, or serf, in the estate in Darovoye, is described in “The Peasant Marey”: when the young Dostoevsky imagines hearing a wolf in the forest, Marey, who is working nearby, comforts him.
Although Dostoevsky had a delicate physical constitution, his parents described him as hot-headed, stubborn, and cheeky. In 1833, Dostoevsky’s father, who was profoundly religious, sent him to a French boarding school and then to the Chermak boarding school. He was described as a pale, introverted dreamer and an over-excitable romantic. To pay the school fees, his father borrowed money and extended his private medical practice. Dostoevsky felt out of place among his aristocratic classmates at the Moscow school, and the experience was later reflected in some of his works, notably The Adolescent.
On 27 September 1837 Dostoevsky’s mother died of tuberculosis. The previous May, his parents had sent Dostoevsky and his brother Mikhail to St Petersburg to attend the free Nikolayev Military Engineering Institute, forcing the brothers to abandon their academic studies for military careers. Dostoevsky entered the academy in January 1838, but only with the help of family members. Mikhail was refused admission on health grounds and was sent to an academy in Tallinn, Estonia (then known as Reval).
Dostoevsky disliked the academy, primarily because of his lack of interest in science, mathematics and military engineering and his preference for drawing and architecture. As his friend Konstantin Trutovsky once said, “There was no student in the entire institution with less of a military bearing than F.M. Dostoevsky. He moved clumsily and jerkily; his uniform hung awkwardly on him; and his knapsack, shako and rifle all looked like some sort of fetter he had been forced to wear for a time and which lay heavily on him.” Dostoevsky’s character and interests made him an outsider among his 120 classmates: he showed bravery and a strong sense of justice, protected newcomers, aligned himself with teachers, criticised corruption among officers and helped poor farmers. Although he was solitary and inhabited his own literary world, he was respected by his classmates. His reclusiveness and interest in religion earned him the nickname “Monk Photius”.
Signs of Dostoevsky’s epilepsy may have first appeared on learning of the death of his father on 16 June 1839, although the reports of a seizure originated from accounts written by his daughter (later expanded by Sigmund Freud) which are now considered to be unreliable. His father’s official cause of death was an apoplectic stroke, but a neighbour, Pavel Khotiaintsev, accused the father’s serfs of murder. Had the serfs been found guilty and sent to Siberia, Khotiaintsev would have been in a position to buy the vacated land. The serfs were acquitted in a trial in Tula, but Dostoevsky’s brother Andrei perpetuated the story. After his father’s death, Dostoevsky continued his studies, passed his exams and obtained the rank of engineer cadet, entitling him to live away from the academy. He visited Mikhail in Reval, and frequently attended concerts, operas, plays and ballets. During this time, two of his friends introduced him to gambling.
On 12 August 1843 Dostoevsky took a job as a lieutenant engineer and lived with Adolph Totleben in an apartment owned by Dr. Rizenkampf, a friend of Mikhail. Rizenkampf characterised him as “no less good-natured and no less courteous than his brother, but when not in a good mood he often looked at everything through dark glasses, became vexed, forgot good manners, and sometimes was carried away to the point of abusiveness and loss of self-awareness”. Dostoevsky’s first completed literary work, a translation of Honoré de Balzac’s novel Eugénie Grandet, was published in June and July 1843 in the 6th and 7th volume of the journal Repertoire and Pantheon, followed by several other translations. None were successful, and his financial difficulties led him to write a novel.
Early career (1844–1849)
Dostoevsky completed his first novel, Poor Folk, in May 1845. His friend Dmitry Grigorovich, with whom he was sharing an apartment at the time, took the manuscript to the poet Nikolay Nekrasov, who in turn showed it to the renowned and influential literary critic Vissarion Belinsky. Belinsky described it as Russia’s first “social novel”. Poor Folk was released on 15 January 1846 in the St Petersburg Collection almanac and became a commercial success.
Dostoevsky felt that his military career would endanger his now flourishing literary career, so he wrote a letter asking to resign his post. Shortly thereafter, he wrote his second novel, The Double, which appeared in the journal Notes of the Fatherland on 30 January 1846, before being published in February. Around the same time, Dostoevsky discovered socialism through the writings of French thinkers Fourier, Cabet, Proudhon and Saint-Simon. Through his relationship with Belinsky he expanded his knowledge of the philosophy of socialism. He was attracted to its logic, its sense of justice and its preoccupation with the destitute and the disadvantaged. However, his relationship with Belinsky became increasingly strained as Belinsky’s atheism and dislike of religion clashed with Dostoevsky’s Russian Orthodox beliefs. Dostoevsky eventually parted with him and his associates.
After The Double received negative reviews, Dostoevsky’s health declined and he had more frequent seizures, but he continued writing. From 1846 to 1848 he released several short stories in the magazine Annals of the Fatherland, including “Mr. Prokharchin”, “The Landlady”, “A Weak Heart”, and “White Nights”. These stories were unsuccessful, leaving Dostoevsky once more in financial trouble, so he joined the utopian socialist Betekov circle, a tightly knit community which helped him to survive. When the circle dissolved, Dostoevsky befriended Apollon Maykov and his brother Valerian. In 1846, on the recommendation of the poet Aleksey Pleshcheyev, he joined the Petrashevsky Circle, founded by Mikhail Petrashevsky, who had proposed social reforms in Russia. Mikhail Bakunin once wrote to Alexander Herzen that the group was “the most innocent and harmless company” and its members were “systematic opponents of all revolutionary goals and means”. Dostoevsky used the circle’s library on Saturdays and Sundays and occasionally participated in their discussions on freedom from censorship and the abolition of serfdom.
In 1849, the first parts of Netochka Nezvanova, a novel Dostoevsky had been planning since 1846, were published in Annals of the Fatherland, but his banishment ended the project. Dostoevsky never attempted to complete it.
Siberian exile (1849–1854)
The members of the Petrashevsky Circle were denounced to Liprandi, an official at the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Dostoevsky was accused of reading works by Belinsky, including the banned Letter to Gogol, and of circulating copies of these and other works. Antonelli, the government agent who had reported the group, wrote in his statement that at least one of the papers criticised Russian politics and religion. Dostoevsky responded to these charges by declaring that he had read the essays only “as a literary monument, neither more nor less”; he spoke of “personality and human egoism” rather than of politics. Even so, he and his fellow “conspirators” were arrested on 23 April 1849 at the request of Count A. Orlov and Tsar Nicholas I, who feared a revolution like the Decembrist revolt of 1825 in Russia and the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe. The members were held in the well-defended Peter and Paul Fortress, which housed the most dangerous convicts.
The case was discussed for four months by an investigative commission headed by the Tsar, with Adjutant General Ivan Nabokov, senator Prince Pavel Gagarin, Prince Vasili Dolgorukov, General Yakov Rostovtsev and General Leonty Dubelt, head of the secret police. They sentenced the members of the circle to death by firing squad, and the prisoners were taken to Semyonov Place in St Petersburg on 23 December 1849 where they were split into three-man groups. Dostoevsky was the third in the second row; next to him stood Pleshcheyev and Durov. The execution was stayed when a cart delivered a letter from the Tsar commuting the sentence. Dostoevsky later alluded to his experience of what he believed to be the last moments of his life in his 1868-1869 novel, The Idiot, where the main character tells the harrowing story of an execution by guillotine that he recently witnessed in France.
Dostoevsky served four years of exile with hard labour at a katorga prison camp in Omsk, Siberia, followed by a term of compulsory military service. After a fourteen-day sleigh ride, the prisoners reached Tobolsk, a prisoner way station. Despite the circumstances, Dostoevsky consoled the other prisoners, such as the Petrashevist Ivan Yastrzhembsky, who was surprised by Dostoevsky’s kindness and eventually abandoned his decision to kill himself. In Tobolsk, the members received food and clothes from the Decembrist women, as well as several copies of the New Testament with a ten-ruble banknote inside each copy. Eleven days later, Dostoevsky reached Omsk together with just one other member of the Petrashevsky Circle, the poet Sergei Durov. Dostoevsky described his barracks:
In summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors were rotten. Filth on the floors an inch thick; one could slip and fall … We were packed like herrings in a barrel … There was no room to turn around. From dusk to dawn it was impossible not to behave like pigs … Fleas, lice, and black beetles by the bushel …
Classified as “one of the most dangerous convicts”, Dostoevsky had his hands and feet shackled until his release. He was only permitted to read his New Testament Bible. In addition to his seizures, he had haemorrhoids, lost weight and was “burned by some fever, trembling and feeling too hot or too cold every night”. The smell of the privy pervaded the entire building, and the small bathroom had to suffice for more than 200 people. Dostoevsky was occasionally sent to the military hospital, where he read newspapers and Dickens novels. He was respected by most of the other prisoners, and despised by some because of his supposedly xenophobic statements.
Release from prison and first marriage (1854–1866)
After his release on 14 February 1854, Dostoevsky asked Mikhail to help him financially and to send him books by Vico, Guizot, Ranke, Hegel and Kant. The House of the Dead, based on his experience in prison, was published in 1861 in the journal Vremya (“Time”) – it was the first published novel about Russian prisons. Before moving in mid-March to Semipalatinsk, where he was forced to serve in the Siberian Army Corps of the Seventh Line Battalion, Dostoevsky met geographer Pyotr Semyonov and ethnographer Shokan Walikhanuli. Around November 1854, he met Baron Alexander Egorovich Wrangel, an admirer of his books, who had attended the aborted execution. They both rented houses in the Cossack Garden outside Semipalatinsk. Wrangel remarked that Dostoevsky “looked morose. His sickly, pale face was covered with freckles, and his blond hair was cut short. He was a little over average height and looked at me intensely with his sharp, grey-blue eyes. It was as if he were trying to look into my soul and discover what kind of man I was.”
In Semipalatinsk, Dostoevsky tutored several schoolchildren and came into contact with upper-class families, including that of Lieutenant-Colonel Belikhov, who used to invite him to read passages from newspapers and magazines. During a visit to Belikhov, Dostoevsky met the family of Alexander Ivanovich Isaev and Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva and fell in love with the latter. Alexander Isaev took a new post in Kuznetsk, where he died in August 1855. Maria and her son then moved with Dostoevsky to Barnaul. In 1856 Dostoevsky sent a letter through Wrangel to General Eduard Totleben, apologising for his activity in several utopian circles. As a result, he obtained the right to publish books and to marry, although he remained under police surveillance for the rest of his life. Maria married Dostoevsky in Semipalatinsk on 7 February 1857, even though she had initially refused his marriage proposal, stating that they were not meant for each other and that his poor financial situation precluded marriage. Their family life was unhappy and she found it difficult to cope with his seizures. Describing their relationship, he wrote: “Because of her strange, suspicious and fantastic character, we were definitely not happy together, but we could not stop loving each other; and the more unhappy we were, the more attached to each other we became”. They mostly lived apart. In 1859 he was released from military service because of deteriorating health and was granted permission to return to European Russia, first to Tver, where he met his brother for the first time in ten years, and then to St Petersburg.
Dostoevsky in Paris, 1863
“A Little Hero” (Dostoevsky’s only work completed in prison) appeared in a journal, but “Uncle’s Dream” and “The Village of Stepanchikovo” were not published until 1860. Notes from the House of the Dead was released in Russky Mir (Russian World) in September 1860. “The Insulted and the Injured” was published in the new Vremya magazine,[d] which had been created with the help of funds from his brother’s cigarette factory.
Dostoevsky travelled to western Europe for the first time on 7 June 1862, visiting Cologne, Berlin, Dresden, Wiesbaden, Belgium, and Paris. In London, he met Herzen and visited the Crystal Palace. He travelled with Nikolay Strakhov through Switzerland and several North Italian cities, including Turin, Livorno, and Florence. He recorded his impressions of those trips in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, in which he criticised capitalism, social modernisation, materialism, Catholicism and Protestantism.
From August to October 1863, Dostoevsky made another trip to western Europe. He met his second love, Polina Suslova, in Paris and lost nearly all his money gambling in Wiesbaden and Baden-Baden. In 1864 his wife Maria and his brother Mikhail died, and Dostoevsky became the lone parent of his stepson Pasha and the sole supporter of his brother’s family. The failure of Epoch, the magazine he had founded with Mikhail after the suppression of Vremya, worsened his financial situation, although the continued help of his relatives and friends averted bankruptcy.
Second marriage and honeymoon (1866–1871)
The first two parts of Crime and Punishment were published in January and February 1866 in the periodical The Russian Messenger, attracting at least 500 new subscribers to the magazine.
Dostoevsky returned to Saint Petersburg in mid-September and promised his editor, Fyodor Stellovsky, that he would complete The Gambler, a short novel focused on gambling addiction, by November, although he had not yet begun writing it. One of Dostoevsky’s friends, Milyukov, advised him to hire a secretary. Dostoevsky contacted stenographer Pavel Olkhin from Saint Petersburg, who recommended his pupil, the twenty-year-old Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. Her shorthand helped Dostoevsky to complete The Gambler on 30 October, after 26 days’ work. She remarked that Dostoevsky was of average height but always tried to carry himself erect. “He had light brown, slightly reddish hair, he used some hair conditioner, and he combed his hair in a diligent way … his eyes, they were different: one was dark brown; in the other, the pupil was so big that you could not see its color, [this was caused by an injury]. The strangeness of his eyes gave Dostoyevsky some mysterious appearance. His face was pale, and it looked unhealthy.”
On 15 February 1867 Dostoevsky married Snitkina in Trinity Cathedral, Saint Petersburg. The 7,000 rubles he had earned from Crime and Punishment did not cover their debts, forcing Anna to sell her valuables. On 14 April 1867, they began a delayed honeymoon in Germany with the money gained from the sale. They stayed in Berlin and visited the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, where he sought inspiration for his writing. They continued their trip through Germany, visiting Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Heidelberg and Karlsruhe. They spent five weeks in Baden-Baden, where Dostoevsky had a quarrel with Turgenev and again lost much money at the roulette table. The couple travelled on to Geneva.
Memorial plaque to Dostoevsky in Baden-Baden
In September 1867, Dostoevsky began work on The Idiot, and after a prolonged planning process that bore little resemblance to the published novel, he eventually managed to write the first 100 pages in only 23 days; the serialisation began in The Russian Messenger in January 1868.
Their first child, Sofya, had been conceived in Baden-Baden, and was born in Geneva on 5 March 1868. The baby died of pneumonia three months later, and Anna recalled how Dostoevsky “wept and sobbed like a woman in despair”. The couple moved from Geneva to Vevey and then to Milan, before continuing to Florence. The Idiot was completed there in January 1869, the final part appearing in The Russian Messenger in February 1869. Anna gave birth to their second daughter, Lyubov, on 26 September 1869 in Dresden. In April 1871, Dostoevsky made a final visit to a gambling hall in Wiesbaden. Anna claimed that he stopped gambling after the birth of their second daughter, but this is a subject of debate.
After hearing news that the socialist revolutionary group “People’s Vengeance” had murdered one of its own members, Ivan Ivanov, on 21 November 1869, Dostoevsky began writing Demons. In 1871, Dostoevsky and Anna travelled by train to Berlin. During the trip, he burnt several manuscripts, including those of The Idiot, because he was concerned about potential problems with customs. The family arrived in Saint Petersburg on 8 July, marking the end of a honeymoon (originally planned for three months) that had lasted over four years.
Back in Russia (1871–1875)
Back in Russia in July 1871, the family was again in financial trouble and had to sell their remaining possessions. Their son Fyodor was born on 16 July, and they moved to an apartment near the Institute of Technology soon after. They hoped to cancel their large debts by selling their rental house in Peski, but difficulties with the tenant resulted in a relatively low selling price, and disputes with their creditors continued. Anna proposed that they raise money on her husband’s copyrights and negotiate with the creditors to pay off their debts in installments.
Dostoevsky revived his friendships with Maykov and Strakhov and made new acquaintances, including church politician Terty Filipov and the brothers Vsevolod and Vladimir Solovyov. Konstantin Pobedonostsev, future Imperial High Commissioner of the Most Holy Synod, influenced Dostoevsky’s political progression to conservatism. Around early 1872 the family spent several months in Staraya Russa, a town known for its mineral spa. Dostoevsky’s work was delayed when Anna’s sister Maria Svatkovskaya died on 1 May 1872, from either typhus or malaria, and Anna developed an abscess on her throat.
The family returned to St Petersburg in September. Demons was finished on 26 November and released in January 1873 by the “Dostoevsky Publishing Company”, which was founded by Dostoevsky and his wife. Although they accepted only cash payments and the bookshop was in their own apartment, the business was successful, and they sold around 3,000 copies of Demons. Anna managed the finances. Dostoevsky proposed that they establish a new periodical, which would be called A Writer’s Diary and would include a collection of essays, but funds were lacking, and the Diary was published in Vladimir Meshchersky’s The Citizen, beginning on 1 January, in return for a salary of 3,000 rubles per year. In the summer of 1873, Anna returned to Staraya Russa with the children, while Dostoevsky stayed in St Petersburg to continue with his Diary.
In March 1874, Dostoevsky left The Citizen because of the stressful work and interference from the Russian bureaucracy. In his fifteen months with The Citizen, he had been taken to court twice: on 11 June 1873 for citing the words of Prince Meshchersky without permission, and again on 23 March 1874. Dostoevsky offered to sell a new novel he had not yet begun to write to The Russian Messenger, but the magazine refused. Nikolay Nekrasov suggested that he publish A Writer’s Diary in Notes of the Fatherland; he would receive 250 rubles for each printer’s sheet – 100 more than the text’s publication in The Russian Messenger would have earned. Dostoevsky accepted. As his health began to decline, he consulted several doctors in St Petersburg and was advised to take a cure outside Russia. Around July, he reached Ems and consulted a physician, who diagnosed him with acute catarrh. During his stay he began The Adolescent. He returned to Saint Petersburg in late July.
Anna proposed that they spend the winter in Staraya Russa to allow Dostoevsky to rest, although doctors had suggested a second visit to Ems because his health had previously improved there. On 10 August 1875 his son Alexey was born in Staraya Russa, and in mid-September the family returned to Saint Petersburg. Dostoevsky finished The Adolescent at the end of 1875, although passages of it had been serialised in Notes of the Fatherland since January. The Adolescent chronicles the life of Arkady Dolgoruky, the illegitimate child of the landowner Versilov and a peasant mother. It deals primarily with the relationship between father and son, which became a frequent theme in Dostoevsky’s subsequent works.
Last years (1876–1881)
In early 1876, Dostoevsky continued work on his Diary. The book includes numerous essays and a few short stories about society, religion, politics and ethics. The collection sold more than twice as many copies as his previous books. Dostoevsky received more letters from readers than ever before, and people of all ages and occupations visited him. With assistance from Anna’s brother, the family bought a dacha in Staraya Russa. In the summer of 1876, Dostoevsky began experiencing shortness of breath again. He visited Ems for the third time and was told that he might live for another 15 years if he moved to a healthier climate. When he returned to Russia, Tsar Alexander II ordered Dostoevsky to visit his palace to present the Diary to him, and he asked him to educate his sons, Sergey and Paul. This visit further increased Dosteyevsky’s circle of acquaintances. He was a frequent guest in several salons in Saint Petersburg and met many famous people, including Countess Sophia Tolstaya, Yakov Polonsky, Sergei Witte, Alexey Suvorin, Anton Rubinstein and Ilya Repin.
Dostoevsky’s health declined further, and in March 1877 he had four epileptic seizures. Rather than returning to Ems, he visited Maly Prikol, a manor near Kursk. While returning to St Petersburg to finalise his Diary, he visited Darovoye, where he had spent much of his childhood. In December he attended Nekrasov’s funeral and gave a speech. He was appointed an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, from which he received an honorary certificate in February 1879. He declined an invitation to an international congress on copyright in Paris after his son Alyosha had a severe epileptic seizure and died on 16 May. The family later moved to the apartment where Dostoevsky had written his first works. Around this time, he was elected to the board of directors of the Slavic Benevolent Society in Saint Petersburg. That summer, he was elected to the honorary committee of the Association Littéraire et Artistique Internationale, whose members included Victor Hugo, Ivan Turgenev, Paul Heyse, Alfred Tennyson, Anthony Trollope, Henry Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Leo Tolstoy. Dostoevsky made his fourth and final visit to Ems in early August 1879. He was diagnosed with early-stage pulmonary emphysema, which his doctor believed could be successfully managed, but not cured.
On 3 February 1880 Dostoevsky was elected vice-president of the Slavic Benevolent Society, and he was invited to speak at the unveiling of the Pushkin memorial in Moscow. On 8 June he delivered his speech, giving an impressive performance that had a significant emotional impact on his audience. His speech was met with thunderous applause, and even his long-time rival Turgenev embraced him. Konstantin Staniukovich praised the speech in his essay “The Pushkin Anniversary and Dostoevsky’s Speech” in The Business, writing that “the language of Dostoevsky’s [Pushkin Speech] really looks like a sermon. He speaks with the tone of a prophet. He makes a sermon like a pastor; it is very deep, sincere, and we understand that he wants to impress the emotions of his listeners.” The speech was criticised later by liberal political scientist Alexander Gradovsky, who thought that Dostoevsky idolised “the people”, and by conservative thinker Konstantin Leontiev, who, in his essay “On Universal Love”, compared the speech to French utopian socialism. The attacks led to a further deterioration in his health.
On 6 February [O.S. 25 January] 1881, while searching for members of the terrorist organisation Narodnaya Volya (“The People’s Will”) who would soon assassinate Tsar Alexander II, the Tsar’s secret police executed a search warrant in the apartment of one of Dostoevsky’s neighbours. On the following day, Dostoevsky suffered a pulmonary haemorrhage. Anna denied that the search had caused it, saying that the haemorrhage had occurred after her husband had been looking for a dropped pen holder. After another haemorrhage, Anna called the doctors, who gave a poor prognosis. A third haemorrhage followed shortly afterwards. While seeing his children before dying, Dostoevsky requested that the parable of the Prodigal Son be read to his children. The profound meaning of this request is pointed out by Frank:
It was this parable of transgression, repentance, and forgiveness that he wished to leave as a last heritage to his children, and it may well be seen as his own ultimate understanding of the meaning of his life and the message of his work.
Among Dostoevsky’s last words was his quotation of Matthew 3:14–15: “But John forbad him, saying, I have a need to be baptised of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness”, and he finished with “Hear now—permit it. Do not restrain me!” When he died, his body was placed on a table, following Russian custom. He was interred in the Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Convent, near his favourite poets, Nikolay Karamzin and Vasily Zhukovsky. It is unclear how many attended his funeral. According to one reporter, more than 100,000 mourners were present, while others describe attendance between 40,000 and 50,000. His tombstone is inscribed with lines from the New Testament:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it dies, it bringeth forth much fruit. — John 12:24