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 3 of a 4-part series about Dostoevsky’s wife, Anna Grigorievna. For Part 1, please click here; part 2 can be found here.
Dostoevsky said about his first marriage to Maria Isaeva, “She loved me without limit, and I loved her also without measure, but she and I did not live happily…” And in reality, his first marriage, which lasted 7 years, almost from the very beginning was unhappy. Both he and his wife had very strange personalities; and in essence they did not live together. So how was it that Anna Grigorievna turned out to be successful in making Dostoevsky happy?
Indeed after the death of her husband, in a conversation with Leo Tolstoy, Anna Grigorievna said (speaking actually about her husband and not herself), “Nowhere is the true character of a person revealed, as it is in daily life in his family.” So it was that there, in the family, in daily existence that she made known her good and wise heart…
After a serene and quiet home life Snitkina, now Dostoevskaya, entered into a house where she was forced to live under the same roof with Paul, the troubled, disorderly and spoiled stepson of Fyodor Mikhailovich. This 21-year-old young man constantly complained to his step father about his new in-law, and when left alone with her, tried to wound the young woman painfully. He reproached her for her inability to maintain the household, for the anxiety that she conveyed to his ailing stepfather, and he always demanded money for his own upkeep.
“This stepson of mine,” admitted Fyodor Mikhailovich, “is a good and honorable boy, but unfortunately, has an unusual character. He promised himself since childhood to do nothing, even though he has no personal fortune and at the same time has the most ludicrous understanding of life.”
And the other Dostoevsky relatives maintained a haughty and domineering attitude toward her. She quickly noticed that as soon as Fyodor Mikhailovich received an advance for a book, it would start – Emilia Fyodorovna, the wife of his brother Mikhail, appeared, or his younger unemployed brother Nikolai appeared, or Paul suddenly had an emergency need – for instance the need to purchase a new coat to replace the old one which had gone out of style. Once in the middle of winter Dostoevsky had returned home without his coat, having given it as security for the 50 rubles that Emilia needed – without delay… or the Chinese vase which had been given by friends, or the fur coat, or the silver service; all of which had to be pawned. So it was that Anna Grigorievna came to face the necessity of living in debt and living very modestly. And she accepted this necessity calmly and bravely.
One additional heavy burden for her was Dostoevsky’s epilepsy. Anna Grigorievna knew about it from the very first days of their acquaintance. But she hoped that his health would improve with a happy change of life. She witnessed his first seizure when the couple was visiting her family:
“Fyodor Mikhailovich was extremely animated and was discussing something interesting with my sister. Suddenly he interrupted his conversation in the middle of a word, sat up from the divan and began to lean to his side. I gazed at his altered face with amazement. And suddenly there rang out a terrible, inhuman cry, or more truthfully a howl, and Fyodor Mikhailovich began to lean forward…Subsequently it has happened to me tens of times to hear that “inhuman” howl, so common to an epileptic at the beginning of a seizure. And that howl always overwhelmed and frightened me…But it was then that I for the first time saw the terrible illness from which Fyodor Mikhailovich suffered. Hearing his cries and groans which did not stop for hours, his completely distorted face, his madly unmoving eyes, not understanding his disconnected speech, I almost became convinced that my dear, beloved husband had lost his mind, and what terror that idea brought me!”
She had hoped that after his marriage his seizures would become less frequent. But they continued…
She had hoped that there would be time – at least during the honeymoon – for them to be alone together, to talk, to enjoy the company of each other. But all of her free time was taken up by guests with their constant visits, by the relatives of Dostoevsky to whom she was obliged to offer refreshments and amusement, because Fyodor Mikhailovich was himself constantly occupied.
The young spouse lamented her prior quiet home life, where there had been no place for anxiety, sadness or conflict. She lamented that short period of time between the engagement and the wedding when she and Dostoevsky had spent an evening together expecting the fulfillment of their happiness… but happiness did not come in a hurry.
“Why did he, the greater reader of the human heart, not see how difficult it was for me to live?” she asked herself. She was tortured by her thoughts: he had fallen out of love for her, he had seen how much she was his inferior in spiritual and intellectual development (which of course was far from the truth). Anna Grigorievna thought about a divorce, reasoning that if she had ceased to be of interest to her beloved husband, and she could not be satisfied with meekly remaining with him – she would have to go away.”
“I had placed too much hope of happiness on my union with Fyodor Mikhailovich, and how bitter it was to me if this golden dream would not be realized!”
Once there occurred another in a chain of misunderstandings, and Anna Grigorievna could not bear it. She began to cry and could not be calmed. It was in this condition that Fyodor Mikhailovich found her. Finally, all her hidden doubts came to light. The spouses made a decision to get away. At first they went to Moscow and then they went abroad. That was in the spring of 1867. They returned to Russia only four years later.
TO SAVE THE MARRIAGE
Although Anna always emphasized that she had been a complete child, after her marriage she unusually quickly became accustomed to taking upon herself the concerns of the family “treasury”. Her primary aim was to guarantee her husband peace and the ability to occupy himself only with literary creativity. He worked primarily at night. Writing was for Fyodor Mikhailovich not only a vocation but also his only source of income, not having a personal fortune or estate, as for instance Leo Tolstoy or Ivan Goncharov had. Fyodor Dostoevsky had to write all of his works (except the first novel) hastily, pressed in time by a commission, without which he could not survive.
Intelligent and energetic, Anna Grigorievna took upon herself the dealings with creditors, the analysis of length vouchers; protecting her husband from all of these concerns. And she took a risk – she pawned her considerable dowry in order to go abroad to “save our happiness.” She was certain that only “continuous spiritual communication with my husband will be able to create the strong and harmonious family of which we dreamed.”
Incidentally, it was precisely her efforts which helped to uncover the fictitiousness of many of Dostoevsky’s supposed debts. In spite of his great life experience, he was a man very trusting, honorable and conscientious but ill disposed to real life. He believed everyone who came to him for money. After the death of his brother, Mikhail, who had owned a tobacco factory, there began to appear before Fyodor Mikhailovich people demanding the return of money which was owed to them by his brother. Among them were many scoundrels who decided to profit from the simplicity of the famous author. He did not demand from anyone confirmation or notes, he believed everyone. Anna Grigorievna took all of that upon herself. One can only imagine how much wisdom, patience and work was required to fulfill that task. In her memoirs, Anna admitted, “A bitter feeling rises up in me when I remember how my personal life was spoiled by the debts of others… All of my life at the time was darkened by constant concerns about where and for how much to pawn a certain thing, how to do it so that Fyodor Mikhailovich did not learn about the visit of a creditor or the pawning of a certain object. My youth was taken away, my health suffered and my nerves were frayed by this.”
She wisely guarded him from her own emotions: when she wanted to scream, she went to another room. She tried never to complain – not about her health, which was fairly poor, nor about her anxieties, but she always encouraged him. Believing that flexibility was a necessary condition for a happy marriage, fortunately she possessed this rare quality in full measure… even when he left to go play roulette and returned having lost all they had to live on…
Roulette was a dreadful misfortune. The great writer was addicted to it. He dreamed of winning in order that he could remove his family from bondage to debt. This fantasy possessed him entirely. Alone he was not able to find sufficient strength to free himself from its claws… ff it had not been for Anna Grigorievna’s unprecedented support and love for her husband and her absence of self pity.
“I was sickened to the depth of my soul to see how Fyodor Mikhailovich himself suffered,” she wrote. “He returned from playing roulette pale, haggard, barely able to walk, asked me for more money – he entrusted me with all the money – left and in a half hour returned all the more distraught, for more money. This continued until he had lost everything that we had.” But what about Anna himself? She understood that the problem was not a weak will, but this was a true illness, an addiction, an all-consuming passion. She never reproached him, did not quarrel with him and to his requests for more money for gaming, she did not oppose him. Dostoevsky on his knees asked her for forgiveness, wept, promised to give up his pernicious passion… only to return anew to it. Anna Grigorievna in these moments did not remain expressively silent; but she tried to convince her husband that all would get better, that she was happy, and would distract him with a walk or by reading the newspaper. And Dostoevsky calmed down…
When, in 1871, Fyodor Mikhailovich wrote that he had given up roulette, his wife did not believe it. But he really never returned to the game: “Now everything is yours, entirely yours, all yours. Up until now half belonged to that accursed fantasy.”
Part 4 is available 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.