We used to believe that Dostoevsky had always been the beacon of Russian literature. How else could it be? He’s always belonged to the pantheon of great Russian writers: Tolstoy, Gogol, and Chekhov. Well, not everything is as it seems. Great recognition only came to Dostoyevsky and his books after a delay of a hundred years. However, the beginning of his literary career was quick and very promising.
When his novel Poor People was published in the literary magazine in 1846, it was “a mind-blowing success.” The author wrote in his diary that “loud” fame fell upon him, and everyone in Russia was suddenly interested in his work.
The thing is that when he wrote that, “everyone” was probably a pretty narrow definition. The same people attended literary salons in the 19th century, talking to one another over and over… So, there were not that many people expressing interest yet: probably only a few dozen.
Do you know how many copies of that literary magazine were in circulation in the middle of the 19th century? It ranged from 600 (as a minimum) to 6000 copies (as a maximum). In 1840, 470,200 people lived in St. Petersburg and 349,100 people in Moscow. The national literacy rate was about 8%. So not “everyone” was interested in Dostoevsky. Instead, they were most likely enjoying gypsy dancing, sexual games after arduous labor, and soldiers’ songs. Also, back then (as, indeed, now), people lived in their own informational bubbles and believed in two things: a) this is my reality; b) this is how the world works.
Dostoevsky’s real breakthrough came when he wrote a novel based on his time in prison. Residents of large cities saw terrible, endless columns of convicts transported to Siberia on foot. They saw them weekly, but they didn’t have any information about what was happening in the prisons.
Interest in Notes from a Dead House arose because Dostoevsky visited hell (a forced-labor prison camp, where he’d been almost executed but survived thanks to a letter from the Tsar commuting the sentence) and returned from it alive.
By the way, Notes from a Dead House was self-published by the author himself. By that time, Dostoevsky and his brother had published their own literary magazine called “Vremya” (running for almost two years), the circulation of which reached 4000 copies. In the end, the publication was closed because of censorship, and their next attempt to open a new magazine failed miserably: it didn’t last even a year.
The magazine brought only losses for Dostoevsky and his family. But he lived by literary work, and his daily expenses were high. First, it was necessary to provide for his wife and children (there were four of them in the beginning, then two died). Second, Dostoevsky suffered from attacks of epilepsy as well as tuberculosis, the primary disease of the 19th century. His problems with health required regular treatments in German and Italian resorts: there were no other ways to alleviate his suffering. Finally, Dostoevsky was addicted to gambling and could quickly lose not only all his earnings to the casino but also his house, wife, pants, and future unwritten works.
To improve his financial affairs, he was forced to sign contracts with different literary magazines, where his novels were published in installments over a year or so. If you have ever been bothered by the chaos (or randomness) in Dostoevsky’s plots, don’t be too surprised. He usually handed over the manuscript chapter by chapter. It means he wrote the beginning from chapter one and sent it straight to the publisher: he didn’t know what would happen next. He had to come up with the plot on the go…
It reminds me of blogging 🙂
Do you think his works were immediately taken to print? Mm, nope. Dostoevsky first coordinated the topic with the editor and then never had any creative freedom. Initially, he dreamed of writing about a “strong personality,” but magazines constantly rejected this idea. Similarly, the publishers didn’t like the idea of the novel about the drunks of St. Petersburg.
Dostoevsky desperately needed the money, all the time (who doesn’t?). What could he do? He tried again and again. One of the publishers became interested in the new novel only when Dostoevsky offered him a proposal about the “psychological version of a crime.” It blew the publisher’s mind because it was so raw and fresh for the 19th century. Dostoevsky was happy! He started to work immediately because he simply could not afford to write something that would not sell.
So, if the publisher had not given Dostoevsky an advance of 300 rubles for the novel “Crime and Punishment,” we would never have heard about Rodion Raskolnikov.
I can’t imagine that. Can you?
As you can see, Dostoyevsky wrote books just as many authors do now. Not for pure pleasure, but because a magazine or a publisher ordered him or paid for his novels. After publishing Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky was widely known in the literary circles of Russian intelligence.
Even his funeral gathered a relatively significant number of famous people, but – again! – not as many as the burial of the blessed Matronushka Barefoot (on the photo below). It’s a funny thing; nobody remembers her now, but 25,000 people attended her funeral.
She was known for not wearing any shoes during the last 33 years of her life, even in the fierce cold (just imagine those frosty northern winters!). She also went barefoot to Jerusalem 4 times.
The real fame reached Dostoevsky after his novels had been translated into German and later published in other languages worldwide. Only when respected foreign authors started talking about the fact that Dostoyevsky was a genius did his compatriots start agreeing (but not before!). What attracted foreigners to the work of Dostoevsky?
– The theme of unhappy life in the big city.
– The psychology of crime and people who had just moved to the city from villages and small towns.
– The relationships of love and hate between landowners and peasants.
As we all know, the second half of the 19th century was an era of rapid urbanization. But in a class-based society, the poor never had any opportunity to break into the wealthy classes, except perhaps by crime, shameless lies, or exploitation of their neighbors. The readers in their cozy living rooms had no idea what was happening in the back of tenement houses or the dark corners of the local pubs. But they wanted to read and look into that scary world because an educated person of that era was ashamed to enjoy their happiness when terrifying outrages were happening right behind the corner.
The second half of the 19th century was also a time of a genuine religious revival. People tried to define for themselves: what are my values? What do I believe in? What is good and evil – for me personally and for society? That’s why the theme of religion in the novels of Dostoevsky touched the hearts of the Russian people.
Dostoevsky’s novels can be compared to the photographs of the famous journalist Jacob Riis, who in 1890 showed an astonished public how “the other half of New York” lived. He was the first to use a flash for reportage photography to light up the city’s most dangerous corners.
Let’s get back to Russian literature. In the first half of the 20th century, Dostoevsky was rarely remembered in the USSR. The reason was his rejection of the revolutionary movement and a clear bias towards Christianity, which was alien to the Soviet regime. As we already know from history, everything changed after Stalin’s death. Finally, Dostoevsky received his recognition with a special place in all high school, college, and university textbooks.
Now you are going to ask me: how can I become a literary genius? Tricky question, folks… I don’t know, but as we see, it doesn’t mean you have to be a resounding commercial success from day one.
It can happen after your death, but will you care?
I mean, would you care right NOW?
I’m sure Dostoevsky didn’t…