A good trick, with his name, is to say ‘toy’ in the middle: Dos-toy-ev-ski.
He was born 1821 and grew up on the outskirts of Moscow. His family were comfortably off – his father was a successful doctor, though he happened to work at a charitable hospital that provided medical services for the very poor. The family had a house in the hospital complex, so the young Dostoevsky was from the very beginning powerfully exposed to experiences from which other children of his background were usually carefully sheltered. Like almost everyone in Tsarist Russia his parents were devout Orthodox Christians – and Dostoevsky’s own religious faith got deeper and stronger all his life.
At the age of 12 he was sent away to school first in Moscow and later in the capital, St Petersburg – he got a good education, though as a child of the tiny professional middle-class he felt out of place among his more aristocratic classmates. While he was away at school his father died – possibly murdered by his own serfs.
After graduating Dostoevsky worked as an engineer for a while. He started gambling and losing money (something that was to plague him all his life). In his late twenties he became friends with a group of radical writers and intellectuals. He wasn’t deeply involved but when the government decided to crack down on dissent, Dostoevsky was rounded up too and sentenced to be shot by a firing squad. At the last moment – when the soldiers were ready to fire – the message of a reprieve arrived. He was sent instead to Siberia for four years of forced labour in horrific conditions.
It was only after his return from Siberia that Dostoevsky established himself as a writer. Starting in middle age he produced a series of major books.
1864 – Notes from Underground
1866 – Crime and Punishment
1869 – The Idiot
1872 – Demons
1880 – Brothers Karamazov
They are dark, violent and tragic – and usually very long and complicated. He wrote them to preach five important lessons to the world.
(The discussion of Dostoevsky’s ideas involves revealing the plots of some of his novels. It’s not something that would have worried him because his books are written to be read more than once. But if it bothers you, this is the place to break off.)
1. The value of suffering
His first big book – Notes from Underground – is an extended rant against life and the world delivered by a retired civil servant. He is deeply unreasonable, inconsistent and furious with everyone (including himself); he’s always getting into rows, he goes to a reunion of some former colleagues and tells them all how much he always hated them; he wants to puncture everyone’s illusions and make them as unhappy as he is. He seems like a grotesque character to build a book around. But he’s doing something important. He’s insisting – with a peculiar kind of intensity – on a very strange fact about the human condition: we want happiness but we have a special talent for making ourselves miserable – “Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering: that is a fact,” he asserts.
In the novel, Dostoevsky is taking aim at philosophies of progress and improvement – which were highly popular in his age (as they continue to be in ours). He is attacking our habit of telling ourselves that if only this or that thing were different, we could leave suffering behind. If we got that great job, changed the government, could afford that great house, invented a machine to fly us faster around the world, could get together with (or get divorced from) a particular person, then all would go well. This, Dostoevsky argues, is a delusion. Suffering will always pursue us. Schemes for improving the world always contain a flaw: they won’t eliminate suffering, they will only change the things that cause us pain. Life can only ever be a process of changing the focus of pain, never removing pain itself. There will always be something to agonise us. Stop people starving, says Dostoevsky – with calculated wickedness – and you’ll soon find there’s a new range of agonies: they’ll start to suffer from boredom, greed or intense melancholy that they haven’t been invited to the right party.
In this spirit, Notes from Underground launches an attack on all ideologies of technical or social progress which aspire to the elimination of suffering. They won’t succeed because as soon as they solve one problem, they’ll direct our nature to become unhappy in new ways. Dostoevsky is fascinated by the secret ways we actually don’t want what we theoretically seek: he discusses the pleasure a lot of people get from feelings of superiority (and for whom, consequently, an egalitarian society would be a nightmare); or the disavowed (but real) thrill we get from hearing about violent crimes on the news – in which case we’d actually feel thwarted in a truly peaceful world. Notes from Underground is a dark, awkwardly insightful, counterpoint to well-intentioned modern liberalism.
It doesn’t really show that social improvement is meaningless. But it does remind us that we’ll always carry our very complex and difficult selves with us and that progress will never be as clear and clean as we might like to imagine.
2. We don’t know ourselves
In Crime and Punishment, we meet an impoverished intellectual, Rodion Raskolnikov. Though he’s a currently nobody, he’s fascinated by power and ruthlessness. He thinks of himself as a version of Napoleon: “leaders of men, such as Napoleon, were all without exception criminals, they broke the ancient laws of their people to make new ones that suited them better, and they never feared bloodshed.”
Raskolnikov is also desperate for money and so, with his philosophy of aristocratic superiority in mind, he decides to murder an old woman who is a small time pawn broker and money lender and steal her cash. He’s tormented by the mad injustice of the fact that this horrible, mean old character has drawers full of roubles while he – who is clever, energetic and profound – is starving. (He doesn’t spend much time thinking about options like taking a job as a waiter.) He breaks into her apartment and bludgeons her to death; and – surprised in the act by the woman’s pregnant half-sister – kills her too.
But it turns out he’s nothing like the cold-blooded, rational hero of his imagination. He is tormented by guilt and horror at what he has done. Eventually he turns himself over to the police in order to face the proper punishment for his crime.
We’re (probably) never going to do what Raskolnikov did. But we often share a troubling tendency with him: we think we know ourselves better than we actually do. Raskolnikov thinks he’s ruthless; actually he’s rather tender hearted. He thinks he won’t feel guilt; but he’s overwhelmed by remorse.
Part of our life’s journey is to engage in the tricky task of disentangling ourselves from what we think we’re like – in order to discover our true nature. Raskolnikov is especially fascinating because of the direction this self-discovery takes. His striking realisation is that he’s actually a much nicer person than he takes himself to be.
Whereas so many novelists delight in showing the sickly reality beneath a glamorous or enticing facade, Dostoevsky is embarked on a more curious but rewarding mission: he wants to reveal that beneath the so-called monster, there is very often a far more interesting tender-hearted character lurking: a nice but deluded, intelligent but frightened and panicked person.
3. Nice people do some terrible things
Sticking for the moment with Crime and Punishment, it’s very significant the way Dostoevsky gets us to like his murderous hero. Raskolnikov is clearly an attractive person. At the very start we’re told –
“By the way, Raskolnikov is handsome, above the average in height, slim, well-built, with lovely dark eyes and dark brown hair.”
Dostoevsky is lessening the imaginative distance between ‘us’ who live mainly law abiding and more of less manageable lives and ‘them’ – the ones who do terrible things and wreak havoc with their lives and those of others. That person, he is saying, is more like you than you might initially want to think – and therefore more accessible to sympathy.
The idea that you can be a good person, do something very bad and still deserve some compassion sounds very slight and obvious – until one has need of this kind of forgiveness in one’s own life (you may have to be over 30). This is where Dostoevsky wants to enter our inner conversation with ourselves – and tell us all about his character Raskolnikov – a serious, thoughtful, good-looking man who did worse then we have and still can be compassionately understood, as we can and must all be. This is Dostoevsky’s Christianity at work: no one is outside the circle of God’s love and understanding.
4. We must learn to appreciate the beauty of life
Dostoevsky’s next great book, The Idiot, takes off from his near-death experience before the firing squad. In the novel, he recounts what it was like. Three minutes before his expected death he is able to see life clearly for the first time. He notices the gilded spire of a nearby church, and how it glitters in the sun. He’d never before realised how entrancing a glint of sunlight could be. He is filled with an immense, deep love of the world. You might see a beggar and think how you would love to change places with them so as to be able to continue to breathe the air and feel the wind – merely to exist seems (at that moment of final revelation) infinitely precious. And then the revised order comes and it is not over at all.
What would it be like to go through one’s whole life in such a state of gratitude and generosity? You wouldn’t share any of the normal attitudes. You’d love everyone equally, you’d be enchanted by the simplest things, you’d never feel angry or frightened. You would seem to other people to be a kind of idiot. Hence the title of the book.
It’s an extreme version of a very interesting step. We’re continually surrounded by things which could delight us, if only we saw them the right way, if only we could learn to appreciate them. Dostoevsky was desperate to communicate the value of existence before death would overtake him – and us.
5. Idealism has its limits
In Dostoyevsky’s final great work – Brothers Karamazov, which came out when he was nearly sixty – one of the central characters tells a long story-within-a-story. It’s called The Grand Inquisitor and imagines that the greatest event looked forward to by Christian theology – the second coming of Christ – has in fact already happened. Jesus did come back, several hundred years ago and turned up in Spain, during the highest period of power of the Catholic Church – the organisation established, in theory at least, entirely in devotion to him. Christ is back to fulfil his teachings of forgiveness and universal love. But something odd happens. The most powerful religious leader – the Grand Inquisitor – has him arrested and imprisoned.
In the middle of the night, the Grand Inquisitor visits Christ in his cell and explains that he cannot allow him to do his work on Earth, because he is a threat to the stability of society.
Christ, he says, is too ambitious – too pure, too perfect. Humanity can’t live up to the impossible goals he sets us. The fact is, people haven’t been able to live according to his teachings and Jesus should admit he failed and that his ideas of redemption were essentially misguided.
The Grand Inquisitor is not really a monster. In fact, Dostoevsky portrays him as quite an admirable figure in the story. He is a guide to a crucial idea for Dostoevsky, that human beings cannot live in purity, cannot ever be truly good, cannot live up to Christ’s message – and that this is something we should reconcile ourselves to with grace rather than fury or self-hatred.
We have to accept a great deal of unreasonableness, folly, greed, selfishness and shortsightedness as ineradicable parts of the human condition and plan accordingly. And it’s not just a pessimistic thesis about politics or religion that we’re being introduced to. The primary relevance of this thesis is as a commentary on our own lives: we won’t sort them out, we won’t stop being being a bit mad and wayward. And we shouldn’t torment ourselves with the dream that we could – if only we tried hard enough – become the ideal beings that idealistic philosophies like Christianity like to sketch all too readily.
Dostoyevsky died in 1881. He had a very hard life, but he succeeded in conveying an idea which perhaps he understood more clearly than anyone: in a world that’s very keen on upbeat stories, we will always run up against our limitations as deeply flawed and profoundly muddled creatures. Dostoyevsky’s attitude – bleak but compassionate, tragic but kind – is needed more than ever in our naive and sentimental age that so fervently clings to the idea – which this great Russian loathed – that science can save us all and that we may yet be made perfect through technology. Dostoyevsky guides us to a more humane truth: that – as the great sages have always known – life is and ever will be suffering, and yet that there is great redemption available in articulating this message in great and complex works of art.