To be the wife of Fyodor Dostoevsky (part 2)

By Valeriya Mikhailova (translated by Thomas E. Herman)

The original Russian version of this article was first published in Thomas: an Orthodox Journal for Doubters (foma.ru), in Оctober 2016. It is re-published here in the form of Mr. Herman’s English translation with the permission of the author and of the editors of Thomas.

This is part 2 of a 4-part series about Dostoevsky’s wife, Anna Grigorievna. For Part 1, please click here.

GOOD AND UNHAPPY

image2The first impression from his meeting with Anna Grigorievna was actually not the most pleasant. She could not believe her good fortune that Professor Olkhin had suggested her to work with the famous Dostoevsky – the very same famous writer who was so admired in her home. The night before their first meeting she didn’t sleep but kept repeating, for fear of forgetting, the names of the heroes of his novels. She was certain that the author would quiz her about these. So with a pounding heart she hurried to his apartment on Cabinetmaker lane fearing that she might be even a minute late, but there…

There she was met by a sickly appearing man exhausted from life; a morose, dissipated, grouchy fellow who could not even remember her name. He dictated too quickly several lines and then snarled that she did not keep up, saying that nothing was going to come from this venture.

But at the same time Dostoevsky endeared himself to Anna Grigorievna with his sincerity, openness and credulity. During this, their first meeting, he related to her the most incredible episode of his life – one which he later described in detail in his novel, The Idiot. He related to her the moment when he – the 28-year-old Dostoevsky – because of his connection to the political coterie of followers of Mikhail Butashevich Petrashevsky (called the Petrashevtsy) – was sentenced to be shot and in fact was taken to the place of execution at the Semyonovsky parade ground in St. Petersburg.

“I remember”, he said, “how I stood on the Semyonovsky parade ground with my condemned comrades, saw the preparations, and knew that there were only five minutes left for me to live. But those minutes seemed to me to be years, decades, and it somehow seemed to me I had long to live. We had already been given to wear “death shirts” and divided into groups of three. I was the eightth person, in the third group to be shot. The first three were tied to the execution pillars. In two or three minutes both of the first two groups would be shot, and then would come our turn! How much I wanted to live, O my Lord God! How precious life seemed, how many good, how many decent things would I be able to do! I remembered all my past life, how I had not used it very well, how I wanted to experience life anew and to live long, long… Suddenly, there was heard the all clear signal and I was heartened. My comrades were untied from the pillars, led back and a new sentence was read: they sentenced me to four years of hard labor. I cannot remember any happier day!   I walked around my prison cell in the Alekseevsky crescent [of the Peter-Paul Fortress] and just sang, sang loudly, so happy was I to have life given back to me!”

Leaving the author after their first meeting, Snitkina took away a sad impression. It was a heaviness, not disappointment or only compassion. “For the first time in my life,” she wrote later, “I saw an intelligent, good man, but unhappy and abandoned by everyone…”

But that moroseness, aloofness, discontent which were on his surface did not hide from her the sensitive heart at the depth of his personality. Later Dostoevsky would write to his wife, “You see me usually, Anya, as morose, somber and capricious, but this is only the exterior which I have long had – having been broken down and corrupted by fate. But believe me, please believe me, on the inside there is something else.” And she not only believed but was surprised that other people could only see gloominess in her husband when he “is good, magnanimous, generous, delicate and compassionate, like no one else.”

26 DAYS

dostoevskij5

Dostoevsky, 1860s

The future spouses faced 26 days of combined work to compete the novel, The Gambler. In this novel Fyodor Mikhailovich described his own passion for roulette gaming and his unhealthy but real attraction to the writer Apollinaria Suslova – that infernal woman, as the writer himself called her. But the passion for gambling which Fyodor Mikhailovich could not conquer for many years, disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, due to the unusual patience and extraordinary wisdom of his young wife.

So it happened – Anna Grigorievna Snitkina took down in shorthand the novel, went home and frequently during most of the night transcribed the stenotype into ordinary language, and brought this back to the home of Fyodor Mikhailovich. Slowly he began to believe that it would work out. And on October 30, 1866 the manuscript was ready!

Then the author arrived with the prepared novel for the editor, and it turned out that Stellovskiiy … had left for the provinces and it was unknown when he would return. His servant refused to accept the manuscript in Stellovsky’s absence. The manager of the editorial office also refused to accept the manuscript. This was base villainy on the part of Stellovsky. But such meanness was not unexpected. With her usual energy Anna Grigorievna applied herself to the problem.   She asked her mother to consult with an attorney who said to take the work of Dostoevsky to a notary, to verify its date of completion. But Fyodor Mikhailovich arrived late at the notary. But he nevertheless was able to verify his work at the neighborhood administration with the notary’s receipt. He had been saved from bankruptcy!

As it turned out, Stellovsky, with whose name was associated not just with one scandal and not just one villainy but many in the lives of other writers and musicians, ended his days sadly; he died in a psychiatric hospital, at the age of only 50 years.

And so, The Gambler being completed, a heavy stone was removed from his shoulders, but Dostoevsky understood that he could not part with his young helper… So he suggested after a short interval to continue their efforts together on Crime and Punishment. Anna Grigorievna was also noticing a change in herself; all her thoughts were about Dostoevsky. Her former interests, friends, and diversions paled in luster. She very much wanted to be at his side.

Their recognition and avowal of love occurred in an unusual manner. Fyodor Mikhailovich began with a discussion of the subject for a novel he had thought of in which an older man, a worldly wise artist, fell in love with a young woman… “Consider for a minute yourself in her place,” he said with a quivering voice – “Imagine that this artist is me, and I acknowledged to you that I love you and asked you to be my wife. Tell me, how would you answer?” – “I would answer that I love you and I will love you all my life!”

On February 15, 1867 Anna Grigorievna Snitkina and Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky were married. She was 20 years old and he 45 years old. “God gave her to me,” the author not infrequently afterward would say about his second wife.

In truth, for her that first year turned out to be a year of both happiness and of a difficult deliverance from illusion. She entered into the home of a famous writer and well known interpreter of the human heart, Dostoevsky, whom she had so greatly admired; for a time excessively, calling him her idol. But the realities of life pulled her back to terra firma from that ephemeral paradise.

To go on to Part 3, click here.


Valeriya Posashko Mikhailova was born in 1985 in Minsk.  She studied journalism at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow.  A writer and journalist, she also is an accomplished triathlete and parishioner of the Orthodox church of the All Merciful Savior in central Moscow.  In addition to Dostoevsky her favorite authors are Gilbert Chesterton and Henryk Sienkiewicz.

Thomas E. Herman is a retired pediatric radiologist from St. Louis Children’s Hospital.  He is a member of the friends of Ukrainian radiology, and has lectured in Russian and Ukrainian on radiological topics, primarily in Ukraine.

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