The Stenographer Who Saved Dostoyevsky’s Career

by Andrew D. Kaufman

This is the first of a three-part blog series, in which scholar and author Andrew D. Kaufman introduces readers to his celebrated new book, The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky, published by Riverhead. You can read a review of the book published in The New York Times here. To learn more about the book or to order a copy, please visit this site.

On the cold, clear morning of October 4, 1866, a slender twenty-year-old stenography student in a black cotton dress left her mother’s apartment in Petersburg. A short distance away, she stopped by Gostiny Dvor, a huge arcade of shops on Nevsky Prospect, to buy some extra pencils and a leather portfolio, hoping to lend a more businesslike air to her youthful appearance. Half an hour later, arriving at a graybricked building on the corner of Malaya Meshchanskaya Ulitsa and Stolyarny Pereulok, she ascended the poorly lit staircase to the second floor and rang the doorbell to Apartment 13, where her prospective employer was expecting her. The student’s name was Anna Snitkina, and her employer-to-be was a forty-four-year-old former convict and enigmatic widower about town who also happened to be a novelist of some fame: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Anna looked at her watch and smiled to herself. It was a few minutes before eleven thirty, just as she had been instructed. A prudent young woman, she was not about to take any chances—not on the day she hoped to be hired for her first job.

Almost immediately, a thickset woman in a green checkered shawl opened the door. Having followed the serialized installments of Dostoyevsky’s newest work, Crime and Punishment, Anna wondered whether this very garment might be the prototype of the worsted shawl that played such an important role in the novel’s Marmeladov family. She did not dare ask, of course, and told the maid simply that she had been referred by her stenography instructor, Professor Olkhin, and that the master of the house was expecting her.

The maid, whose name was Fedosya, led Anna down the dark corridor into a dining room, its walls lined with a chest of drawers and two large trunks, all of them draped in intricately crocheted rugs. She asked the young guest to have a seat and said her master would come shortly. Two minutes later, Dostoyevsky appeared. Without so much as a greeting, he commanded Anna to go to his study while he fetched tea. And then he was gone again.

Anna looked around as she entered the large, gloomy study. Its divan was draped in shabby brown fabric; nearby, a small round cloth-covered table was shared by a lamp and two or three photo albums. Two windows let in a few rays of sunlight. “It was dim and hushed,” she later recalled, “and in the dimness and silence you felt a kind of depression.” It was the sort of study she would have expected to find in the home of someone of modest means, not a man rapidly becoming one of Russia’s most important authors. She scanned the room for clues about her potential employer—listening in vain for children’s voices, wondering whether the painting above the sofa, of a cadaverous woman wearing a black dress and cap, was a portrait of Dostoyevsky’s wife, who had died two years earlier. (It was, Anna would later learn.)

A few minutes later, the enigmatic fellow she’d encountered earlier reappeared. Anna tried hard to project confidence; this was a moment she had been anticipating longer than she might have cared to admit.

Thus begins my book, The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky, a new portrait of the courageous woman, Anna Snitkina, who saved Dostoyevsky’s life, and became a pioneer in Russian literary history.   

Outside of Slavic scholarly circles, the story of their turbulent and fascinating marriage is unfamiliar to most. Even among many scholars, the complexity of their relationship and extent of Anna’s extraordinary accomplishments are only vaguely understood. To name just a few: She was the first solo female publisher in Russian history, founded one of Russia’s first successful book distribution businesses, and created the F. M. Dostoyevsky Memorial Museum, the first of its kind in Russia. Anna produced one of the most extensive bibliographies ever created of works written by and about Dostoyevsky. After the writer’s death, she published seven editions of Dostoyevsky’s Complete Collected Works, an enterprise that became so well-known and respected that it attracted the attention of Leo Tolstoy’s wife, who approached Anna for advice on how she could set up a similar operation for her husband. Anna’s venture was a commercial success, as well, netting five million dollars in today’s money. Anna lent her personal and financial support to charities, libraries, schools, and museums. She founded and funded one of the first provincial parish schools for peasant children that had graduated a thousand peasant girls who might otherwise never have had access to a good education. Anna was the author of Reminiscences, a memoir about her life with the writer that, when it appeared seven years after her death, was immediately recognized as an important literary event and still remains a bedrock of Dostoyevsky studies.

Despite her important role in Russian literary history, there has been no other book written about Anna in English, and only two books I’m aware of in Russian. This glaring lacuna speaks volumes about the implicit biases we often have about the spouses of great (Russian) writers. Previous accounts have recognized Snitkina’s arrival as a dramatic shift in the novelist’s life but failed to acknowledge her agency or the complicated social and cultural background from which she emerged. Readers might come away from such books with the impression that Snitkina was put on this earth for the sole purpose of rescuing a great man from his self-destructive tendencies and bringing glory to his name through the publication of his work. Her own character and complexity, the decisions she made and risks she undertook—these remain peripheral to many biographical works, which present Anna Snitkina in terms of what she meant to Dostoyevsky rather than what their relationship meant to her.

To be sure, Anna encouraged the impression that she was but a minor player in Dostoyevsky’s career. In Reminiscences she takes pains to cast herself in a supporting role to Dostoyevsky, partly in order to avoid violating Russian expectations about how a writer’s widow should present herself—as little more than an ambassador. In her effort to downplay her significance, Anna made herself appear more traditional, more passive, and less complex than she was. The Gambler Wife is an attempt to offer a fuller portrait that draws on Anna’s letters, secret diary, little-known archival materials, and the recollections of others to capture her intelligence, complexity, and agency.

This story occurred against the backdrop of one of Russia’s most tumultuous eras, the period that led directly to the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was a time of deep social and political unrest, marked by the growing rift between liberals, who wanted to do away with the autocracy and rebuild Russia along Western democratic principles, and conservatives, who sought to uphold the tsarist regime and preserve the patriarchy that had existed in Russia for centuries. The division was only sharpened by the Great Reforms that Alexander II implemented in the early 1860s— an important slate of structural changes that frightened many conservatives but left liberals restless for more. The mid–nineteenth century also saw the introduction of capitalism into a society that for centuries had been fundamentally feudal and agrarian— a development vehemently opposed by progressives and traditionalists alike. And alongside Alexander’s reforms came the rise of the “woman question”— the debate over what the path to fulfillment for women might look like in this rapidly changing society. First raised by feminists and liberals in the 1850s, the issue caught fire in the 1860s, burning until it was eventually subsumed into the burgeoning revolutionary movement. Anna Snitkina’s story represents one woman’s effort to find her own answer to the “woman question,” while navigating a unique path through the competing ideologies of her time

Two volatile personalities, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anna Snitkina met at a moment when their lives were profoundly unresolved, when their potential might just as easily have been extinguished as unlocked. Dostoyevsky was a reckless risk-​­taker, a creative genius, a mercurial writer who veered between inaction and bouts of frenzied productivity rather than consistent, steady work. When Anna arrived, he was on the brink of penury and battling a self-​­defeating depression so strong that it nearly scuttled his career. In fact, he’d hired her because he was desperately trying to finish a novella called The Gambler with a looming deadline. A recommendation from her stenography teacher, Professor Pavel Olkhin, led to the 20-year-old Anna Snitkina being hired to lend a hand. Had Dostoyevsky failed to meet the urgent deadline, he would have lost the copyrights to and income from everything he would write for the next nine years. Thanks to Anna’s assistance, he averted financial and professional ruin.

Anna, for her part, was personally and professionally ambitious; like the man she married, she was also a kind of gambler—but, as it turned out, a far shrewder and more strategic one than he. As a teenager she’d fallen in love with Dostoyevsky’s visionary and humane prose; Notes from the House of the Dead and The Insulted and Injured were among her two favorite works. The job she took with Dostoyevsky was also her path to financial independence, which was important to this proud, self-described emancipated “girl of the sixties,” as Russian feminists often referred to themselves. What’s more, Anna’s father had died several months earlier and she needed to support herself. Had she never met Dostoyevsky, she would likely have led the simple but professionally secure life of a stenographer, like hundreds of other young women in Russia at the time. With her strong character and intense personality, however, it’s doubtful whether such a life could ever have satisfied her.

Their union was as complex as it was deeply imperfect. It left room for Dostoyevsky’s narcissism and abusive tendencies to persist unchecked, in ways that should create discomfort in any modern observer. But through a singular combination of patience, judgment, and an almost daredevil-​level tolerance of risk, Anna managed to sustain a successful relationship with him when other women in his life had failed or stopped trying. With her persistence, her resourcefulness, and her ability to absorb both personal mistreatment and professional whiplash in service of Dostoyevsky’s career, Anna fostered the stability that allowed him to produce the land‑mark works of his later career, including The Idiot (1868–69), The Possessed (1871–72), and The Brothers Karamazov (1879–80). Through her example of active love, she also inspired the artistic vision of these late masterpieces.

In the process, through her steadiness, judgment, and ambition, she created for herself the opportunity to found an almost unprecedented and successful publishing business venture of her own, followed by many other professional accomplishments. “You are the rarest of women,” Dostoyevsky told his wife a few years before his death. “You yourself don’t suspect your own capabilities.” Well aware of how different his own life and career would have been had they never met, Dostoyevsky bestowed upon her the highest possible honor by dedicating to her his last and greatest book, The Brothers Karamazov. And he would often tell his wife: “You are the only woman who ever understood me.” At long last, I’m thrilled that readers will now have the opportunity to understand her.

To continue Part 2, click here!

To learn more about The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky by Andrew D. Kaufman. To order a copy, please visit this site.

Andrew D. Kaufman is an associate professor, General Faculty, lecturer in Slavic Languages and Literatures, and assistant director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Virginia. A PhD in Slavic languages and literatures from Stanford University, Kaufman is the author of Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times and Understanding Tolstoy. His work has been featured on Today, NPR, and PBS, in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and he has served as a Russian literature expert for Oprah’s Book Club. Kaufman is the creator of Books Behind Bars, introducing incarcerated youth to the writings of Dostoyevsky and other Russian authors.

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