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.
For the vast majority of families, the loss of a child is a fateful trial. This terrible tragedy, through which the Dostoevskys suffered twice in the 14 years of their marriage, only bound them closer. The first time the family encountered this enormous tragedy was during their first year of marriage when their daughter, Sonya, little Sonyechka, having lived only 3 months, suddenly died from a common cold. Anna Grigorievna did not describe much about her grief, because she, with her usual propensity not to think of herself, thought only of Fyodor Mikhailovich – “I was extremely frightened for my poor husband.” Fyodor Mikhailovich, by her recollection, “wept and cried like a woman over the cold body of his beloved daughter, and he covered her pale little face and hands with warm kisses. Such furious despondency I have never again seen.”
After a year, their second daughter, Lyubov, was born. Anna Grigorievna feared that her husband would never be able to love another child, but happily noticed that his joy at this fatherhood eclipsed all prior experience. In fact once in a letter to a critic Fyodor Mikhailovich insisted that a happy family life and the birth of children are three quarters of the happiness which a man can experience on earth.
His relationships with his children were altogether unique. He like no one else could, as Anna wrote, “enter into the world of childhood, understand a child, captivate a child with talk, and become in those moments, himself, a child.”
While abroad, Fyodor Mikhailovich wrote The Idiot, and started the novel The Demons (which he finished after returning to Russia). But living far from their home was a very difficult experience for the spouses, and in 1871 they returned to their native land.
Eight days after their return to St. Petersburg, into the family was born a son, Fyodor, and then in 1875 another son, Alyosha, named in honor of righteous Alexius, the man of God – a saint whom Fyodor very much venerated. That was the year that the journal, Fatherland Notes, published his fourth great novel, The Adolescent (Raw Youth).
But misfortune struck the family anew. Their son Alyosha inherited epilepsy from his father. His first seizure, which occurred when the boy was 3 years of age, turned out to be fatal… On this occasion the spouses literally changed places. The unfortunate Anna Grigorievna, a woman of unusual strength, nevertheless now was not able to cope with this grief. She lost interest in life, in the other children, which greatly alarmed her husband. He spoke to her urging her to submit to the will of God and continue living. Therefore, that year Dostoevsky made a visit to the (Holy Presentation) Optina Pustyn Monastery. Here he twice met with the Starets Ambrosius, who conveyed to Dostoevsky his blessing and also words which later the author placed on the lips of his hero, the Elder Zosima, in the Brothers Karamazov:
“Rachel is weeping for her children, and she could not be comforted, because they are no more. And so to you mothers, there is a boundary laid out on earth. So do not be comforted, you need not be comforted, do not find comfort but cry, only each time that you cry remember unswervingly that your little son is one among the angels of God – from there he gazes and sees you, and is gladdened by your tears, and he shows them to the Lord God. And so for a long time your mighty maternal lamentation will continue, but in the end it will be turned for you into quiet joy, and your bitter tears will be converted to tears of tranquil tenderness and of a warm absolution for the one saved.”
His last, and in the opinion of many critics his most powerful novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky wrote from the spring of 1878 until 1880. He dedicated it to his beloved wife, Anna Grigorievna.
“Aneka, you are my angel, my everything, my alpha and omega! And it is so good and how I love that you dream of me in sleep, and ‘awakening, you feel sad that I am not there.’ Be sad, my angel, feel sad in all your dealings about me, which means you love me. This is sweeter to me than honey. I will come and will kiss you.” “But how am I to survive this time without you and without the children. A funny joke, for it is all of 12 days!” These are lines from letters of Dostoevsky, written in the years 1875-1876, during days when he would be gone on business to St. Petersburg, but the family remained at the dacha at Staraya Russa. These lines need no commentary. His family had become for him a quiet haven, and, by his own recognition, he many times over literally fell in love anew with his wife.
Anna Grigorievna to the end of her life could not sincerely even understand what Dostoevsky himself saw in her: “All of my life it seemed to me some kind of an enigma that my good husband not only loved and respected me as other husbands love and respect their wives, but almost bowed down before me as if I were some sort of special being, specifically created just for him. And this was true not just at the first moments of marriage but for all the remaining years until his death. But the reality is that I am not distinguished by beauty, I possess neither talents nor unusual intellectual development, and my education was only to the gymnasium level. And in spite of this I was worthy of the deep adoration and almost worship of such a wise and talented man.”
Of course, she was not an ordinary person, just a ninny or simpleton, whom this genius loved for some reason or other. Fyodor Mikhailovich loved his stenographer; he felt in her not only a compassionate and good character, but an active, strong-willed, and exalted one. She had a rich interior spiritual world and the skill to be a genuine woman with the virtue to remain in the shadow of her husband, being at the same time, without exaggeration, his main inspiration.
And although Anna Grigorievna and Fyodor Mikhailovich really were not compatible personalities, as is now the current pleasant expression, she recognized that she could always be guided by him; and he, relying on her delicacy and concern, completely trusted her, which sometimes surprised Anna Grigorievna. “We little echoed each other, nor accommodated ourselves to each other, nor intertwined our soul – but I – in his inner being – and he in mine – my good husband and I in some fashion, we together felt ourselves a free spirit… This relationship from each side gave us both the possibility to live all the fourteen years of our married life in the greatest possible happiness that people on earth can have.”
It did not fall to Anna Grigorievna’s lot to have an ideal existence – fortunately she was naturally indifferent to fine attire, and grew accustomed to living in constrained circumstances and in constant debt. The great author was also not an ideal husband. For instance he was extremely jealous and could make a scene before his wife and fly off the handle. Anna Grigorievna wisely avoided situations which could anger her husband, and tried to avert the consequences of his hot temper. In times, when he worked as an editor, he could become angry with the insolence of some authors who demanded that he not change even a punctuation mark of their works, and would write a sharp letter to them. But the next morning having cooled down, he very much regretted this, and was ashamed of his quick temper. It happened that Anna Grigorievna on such occasions would not mail the letter until the next morning. When it “turned out” that the harsh letter not not been able to be sent, Fyodor Mikhailovich was always very happy and wrote a new, toned down letter.
Anna did not reproach her husband for his impracticality and gullibility. She was well aware that he could not refuse anyone help. In fact if he did not have any change, he would bring a beggar home and give them money there. “Then those visitors began to come on their own, and having learned the name of my husband thanks to the nameplate on the door, began to ask for Fyodor Mikhailovich. But of course it was I who came out and greeted them. They would tell me about their misfortunes and I gave them 30 or 40 kopeks. Although we are not rich people, we are able to offer such help,” she related.
Their religious beliefs did not prevent the spouses, for some reason, perhaps out of curiosity, from going once to some sort of fortune-teller, who incidentally predicted the death of their son, Alyosha. Nevertheless the Gospel and Christianity were constant accompaniments of their lives.
Anna Grigorievna remembered that when putting the children to bed, Fyodor Mikhailovich would pray together with them, praying the Our Father, Hail Virgin Mother of God and his beloved prayer: “I place all my hope in You, O Mother of God, guard me under your mantle.”
In 1880 Anna Grigorievna took upon herself the independent publication of his works, establishing an enterprise, “The Book Market of F.M. Dostoevsky – exclusively for non-residents.” And she was successful. The financial situation of the family was corrected and they were able to pay off their debts.
But Fyodor Mikhailovich was not to live much longer. In 1880 his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, came out. In the words of his spouse, this was the last happy occasion of his long suffering life. On the night of January 26, 1881 blood hemorrhaged from his throat; he had suffered from emphysema since his days in the hard labor camp. During the day the hemorrhage recurred, but Fyodor Mikhailovich calmed his wife and distracted the children, so that they would not be frightened. By the time he was able to be examined by a physician, the hemorrhage was so heavy that Dostoevsky lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, he asked his wife to call for a priest to receive confession and communion. He spent a great deal of time in confession, and the next morning, after his confession, he said to his wife:
“Anya, you know I have not slept for 3 hours, but have been thinking a great deal, and only now recognize clearly, that today I will die.” He asked that she give him the Gospel, which had been given to him on his path to exile by the wives of the Decembrists, and opened it at random to the following (Matt 3:14-15): “And John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by You, and You come to me?’ But Jesus said to him in answer, ‘Do not be restrained because it is fitting for us to fulfill all truthfulness.'”
“Do you hear,” he said to his wife, “Do not be restrained – this means I will die.”
Anna Grigorievna remembered, “I could not restrain myself from tears. Fyodor Mikhailovich began to calm me, saying kind and consoling words, thanking me for the happy life which he had lived with me. He entrusted the children to me, and said that he believed in me and trusted I would always love and protect them. Then he said words to me which husbands rarely can say to their wife after fourteen years of married life: “Remember, Anya, I have always loved you passionately and have never been unfaithful to you ever, even in my thoughts!”
For the remainder of her life, Anna Grigorievna Dostoevskaya dedicated herself to the re-publication of the books of her husband. She wrote her memoirs with the sole goal of shedding light on the true character of the writer, which had already become distorted by descriptions of his contemporaries. She was at his death only 34 years of age, but there would be no discussion of a second marriage. “Whom could I marry after Dostoevsky?” she joked. “Perhaps only Tolstoy.” But in seriousness she wrote, “I gave myself entirely to Fyodor Mikhailovich when I was 20 years old. Now I am past 70 years old and I still belong completely and only to him in every thought and action.”
All her later life Anna Grigorievna spent gathering anything which related to Dostoevsky. In 1899 she turned over to the depository in the Historical Museum 1000 proprietary materials for the foundation of a special museum. She published, in 1906, The Bibliographic Handbook of the Works and Artistic Writings of F. M. Dostoevsky in Relation to his Life and Activities. She also opened in Staraya Rusa, where their dacha was located where they frequently lived, a Church Parish School (named after her husband) for children from poor peasant families, with a dormitory. The last year of her life, already seriously ill, she was left to starve in war torn Crimea. Anna Grigorievna died in Yalta June 22, 1918. A half century later her remains were transferred to the Aleksandr Nevskaya Lavra in St. Petersburg where Fyodor Mikhailovich was buried.
Perhaps some may be astounded by the complete selflessness and admiration with which Anna related to her husband. He filled up her life without any room remaining. But who knows, could it have been any other way? Could some less selfless person have survived that burden of trials which accompanied Fyodor Mikhailovich? So it should not be surprising that alongside this greater author, in truth there turned to be a great woman.
“Many Russian writers would feel better, if they would have had wives such as Dostoevsky had,” said Leo Tolstoy after a meeting with her. How did it all turn out for her? If someone asked Anna Grigorievna to tell the recipe for a happy marriage with a greater writer, her own words would have served as an answer: “It is necessary to manage cautiously and with feeling so as not to break up. There is nothing in life more valuable than love. It follows therefore to forgive more, to search for the fault in yourself and to smooth out your own rough edges.”
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.