"The true prophet of the 19th century was not Karl Marx, but Dostoevsky," Albert Camus once said. Today, 200 years after his birth, we pay tribute to the work and influence of the Russian writer who, even today, contributes to continuing rethinking the brightest and darkest corners of human existence.

Jorge Luis Borges, when he wrote the prologue to The Demons (1872), one of the most important novels by the writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, said: "Like the discovery of love, like the discovery of the sea, the discovery of Dostoyevsky marks a memorable date in our lives". The Russian author, together with Aleksandr Pushkin, Lev Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and Anton Chekhov, marked a before and after not only in the history of Russian literature, but also in the history of world literature.

Works such as Crime and Punishment (1866), The Gambler (1866), The Idiot (1868/1869), The Brothers Karamazov (1879/1880), and so many others, explored and shed light (to show also the shadows) on the human condition and consciousness. And he did so in an intimate and personal way, in which he combined - in his literary narratives - philosophical, psychological, ethical and religious perspectives. His books provoked a kind of Dostoievskimania, which positioned him as one of the representatives of the all-Russian literary golden century.

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fyodor Dostoevsky

Early years

The son of a very strict landowning doctor and an overprotective mother, he was the second of seven siblings, whose early years were spent in Moscow, where he was born on November 11, 1821. His father's mistreatment and harassment of his peasant employees awakened in young Fyodor an awareness of class differences. After his mother's untimely death, the widower fell into a deep depression and abandoned himself to alcoholism. But he sent his son to the St. Petersburg Engineering School in 1838. However, Fyodor knew that his passion was literature and the world of ideas. During his boarding school, news came that his father had died, reportedly in a revolt with his employees.

In 1843, with an engineering degree in hand, he decided to remain in St. Petersburg, but to develop his true literary vocation. He began as a translator of Honoré de Balzac's Eugénie Grandet. The experience encouraged him to take the next step: the writing of his first novel, Pobres gentes (1846). With this epistolary piece, and at the age of 24, he achieved the recognition of readers and critics. However, his later books - The Double (1846), White Nights (1848), and Niétochka Nezvánova (1849) - did not achieve the same success. During these years, his first symptoms and attacks of epilepsy appeared, which accompanied him for the rest of his life.

During that time, he began to frequent the so-called Petrashevski Circle, formed by a group of liberal intellectuals, who opposed the tyrannical tsarist governments. This earned him the arrest for conspiring against Tsar Nicholas I. When he thought he would be executed, he was informed that his sentence was resolved to four years of forced labor in Siberia, an experience he recorded in the novel Memories of the House of the Dead (1862). With this publication, Dostoevsky once again shone and regained his literary celebrity.

Sculpture of Dostoevsky, at the entrance of the Russian State Library (Moscow).
Sculpture of Dostoevsky, at the entrance of the Russian State Library (Moscow).

The revelation in Siberia

The feeling of having been so close to death, and the coexistence with thieves and murderers during those four years of imprisonment made the author rethink and rethink many of his convictions. In a letter to one of his brothers he said: "I cannot believe all the time I lost. From now on I will change my life, I will be born in a new form. I will be born again and I will get better". Siberia, for Dostoevsky, was a real awakening and he took advantage of that moment to get much closer to the nooks and crannies of the human condition that obsessed him so much.

In 1854 he had been liberated, but he was forced to stay six more years to serve the Russian army. There he met his first wife, Maria, whom he married and returned to the city of St. Petersburg. However, with no money and in very poor health, he traveled around Europe in search of better opportunities. In Paris he met another woman, Polina, with whom he began a turbulent romance and, to entertain her, he came up with the idea of making easy money by gambling. Over time, this activity turned into a gambling addiction that he was never able to overcome.

He continued to travel some more, spending the last of his coins and winning only debts on his bets. With nothing left, he returned to Russia, while Maria was suffering from the final stage of tuberculosis she contracted in Siberia. At that time, Dostoevsky wrote Memoirs of the Underground (1864) and, soon after, he was widowed. In that novel, he abandoned the abstract ideals of the heroes that other writers composed, to write about the darkness of the human soul that he lived day by day, and how difficult and cruel the modern world he lived in could be. It received a lukewarm repercussion and all kinds of criticism.

Meanwhile, Dostoevsky's inner change went further: he clung to Christianity and began to move away from the socialist ideas he had defended years before. His criticism can be read in many of his texts, such as the novel prologued by Borges, The Demons, and Diary of a Writer: a set of notes he wrote until his last days, in which he expressed many of his political and cultural opinions. The author based this change on the understanding that Russia was essentially Christian-Orthodox, peasant, and with a very undeveloped bourgeoisie.

Therefore, liberalism, anarchism, and socialism - inheritances from the West - would not apply well in his land. Believing it to be spiritual salvation, he continued to write to reflect on the future of humanity and social injustices: the two issues that most concerned him. And so came new short stories, essays, and novels that definitively established him as one of the great writers of his century, among them: Crime and Punishment (1866), The Gambler (1867); The Idiot (1868); The Brothers Karamazov (1880).

Detail of one of the most famous portraits of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1872), by Vasily Perov.
Detail of one of the most famous portraits of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1872), by Vasily Perov (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow).

His masterpieces

With these books, Dostoevsky explored his philosophical, psychological, and religious ideas, which often came from the newspapers he read. And it is that different arguments that he worked to write his novels, for example, were current issues that circulated in Russian newspapers. He took ideas from there and then, with his mastery and talent, he combined those current events with the most transcendent and eternal of his spiritual thought.

In his famous novel, Crime and Punishment, guilt, morality, delirium, justice, forgiveness and evil are the great themes that run through the story of Raskolnikov, his main character, making him a universal phenomenon. "Crime and Punishment, as a novel, is more intelligent than Dostoevsky. Because it is that kind of book that, throughout history, has been read in different ways, as is always the case with great books. And this one admits many nuances.

Some read it as a criticism of the young anarchists who had a rebelliousness that, for the author, was sterile. So he created the character of Raskolnikov to mock this type of anarchists," Mexican writer Juan Villoro once said. And he added: "In Russian, 'raskol' means 'rebel'. So Raskolnikov would be something like 'the rebel'. Already in his name, he has a mockery. For Dostoevsky, he is a man without ethics: someone who considers that, since God does not exist, everything is permitted."

However, and concerning the different ways of reading, the French existentialists of the 20th century - with Sartre at the head - had their understanding. "For them, Dostoevsky's story has to do with a challenge of individual choice. Existentialists say that the ethics of modern man consists in considering that, even if God does not exist, not everything is permitted. That is to say, to live according to an inner court and not according to a divine or external court," Villoro pointed out. However, beyond the enormous recognition for his novel Crime and Punishment -and other texts-, some say that his great novel was, above all, the last one he wrote before his death: The Brothers Karamazov.

According to Dostoevsky himself, this would be the first part of a second, which he would call The Boys (or The Children). In these, as a literary project, he had proposed to finish saying everything; he was looking for that way -as some of his characters also try to do- of expressing everything so that, after that, there would be nothing more to add. He even said: "I will write this novel and die". But that first one, finished work in itself, was the last one he published during his lifetime in 1880, a year before his death.

Book: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Book: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The end does not justify the means and beauty will save the world

"The true prophet of the 19th century was not Karl Marx, but Dostoevsky," Albert Camus once said. The sentence of this French writer refers to what the Russian author foresaw regarding the future of Russia -knowing that the tsarist regime was beginning to totter-, if radical and nihilistic revolutionary groups -as they called them- took power. As some experts on his work, such as Nelly Prigorian, say, "the author did not try to make a critique of ideologies per se but of the systems of power that weave their networks in the function of power itself. Nothing goes in those systems and everything goes. There are no limits and the fin justifies the means, even if the means are human lives. That is why Dostoevsky opposes that nihilism which is not a mere negation of values in general, but negation about the man."

After the murder of an agronomy student in Moscow for questioning the ideas of the extremist revolutionary Sergey Nechaev, the Russian author posed the same dichotomy: the end does not justify the means and the revolution cannot lead to a new autocracy. Perhaps he anticipated certain moments that occurred after the October Revolution and so many other examples of universal history. That is why Camus pointed to the author as a true prophet and an anticipator of the totalitarian states of the twentieth century.

With his second marriage, he had four children and, although only two of them reached adulthood, he managed to have some emotional stability with his last wife: Anna Dostoyevsky, who worked as a stenographer when the author wrote The Gambler to pay several of his debts. But pressure from creditors, his gambling addiction, and worsening epilepsy weakened the writer's fragile health. Aged 59, and due to his poorly treated illness, Fyodor Dostoevsky died at his home in St. Petersburg on February 9, 1881.

"Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty, he could not go on living, because there would be nothing else to do in the world. The whole secret is here, the whole story is here," said Dostoyevsky. And from his novel, The Idiot comes his famous phrase: "Beauty will save the world". But what is this beauty? It is a quote that is often confused with the ideal of Western and contemporary beauty. However, the Russian author refers to that beauty linked to simplicity and innocence, and to transmuted suffering as the only possible way of redemption, which manifests the divine in the human. And that transcendental change must take place in this world and one's flesh, and not in the afterlife as proposed by the Catholic religion.

Two hundred years after his birth, Fyodor Dostoevsky continues in the hearts of different generations of readers, thanks to the permanent and new editions that continue to reread and reinterpret his works. The enormous Dostoevsky influence, even today, contributes to continuing rethinking from different perspectives the brightest and darkest corners of human existence.

Source: Ministry of Culture of Argentina