Wives and punishment

Alex Christofi explains why the life of Dostoevsky can’t be told without the three women who were his great loves

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Why don’t we love the people who are good for us? Dostoevsky is known for pondering some of humanity’s greatest questions on politics, religion and the meaning of life, but it took him his whole life to answer that one. How do you find love? And how do you know it’s not just infatuation?

The artistically inclined are prone to falling for the narrative convenience of a single, predestined love

Dostoevsky was born into the family of a military doctor and spent his young life playing in the hospital grounds. His parents had a loving but volatile relationship. His father was prone to angry outbursts and a little too fond of drink. His mother was kind and doted on him, but she sadly died when the young Dostoevsky was just 15. The boy was sent off to the military engineering academy in St Petersburg, hundreds of miles away, and he was not long into his studies when the news came back that his father, too, had died. Some said it was the drink, others that he had been murdered by local peasants, outraged by the doctor’s drunken, violent and lascivious behaviour.

Alone in St Petersburg and desperate to be a writer, Dostoevsky abandoned military engineering for books. His first novel, Poor Folk, made him a literary sensation overnight, but the influential literary circle that raised him up quickly grew tired of him. One day at a party, a female admirer approached to tell Dostoevsky how much she liked his writing and Dostoevsky fainted on the spot. He never lived it down.

He fell in with a new group of writers. Some of them were radical and some of them were even plotting violent revolution. When a police agent infiltrated their gatherings, Dostoevsky was arrested for sedition along with the others and subjected to mock execution, before being sent to hard labour in Siberia. So it’s fair to say that his love life did not have a happy opening act.

Having served four years of hard labour, Dostoevsky was enlisted as a private in the army, scrubbing floors and standing guard for hours in front of government buildings. He was posted to Semipalatinsk, a cultural wasteland with only one piano among its 10,000 inhabitants. He met his first love, Maria, at a small gathering, which she was attending with her husband Isaev. He was struck by her wounded dignity, her kindness, her slim profile and slight pallor – she was like a character from one of the Romantic novels he loved to read. He offered himself as a tutor to her son, Pasha, taking every opportunity to get to know Maria better, but just as their friendship was blossoming into real intimacy, Isaev was posted to a new job hundreds of miles away in Kuznetsk.

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Maria sent a distraught letter to Dostoevsky soon after, informing him her alcoholic husband had died. It was a strange echo of his parents – his mother’s name had been Maria – only this time Maria might be saved. He wrote her frantic letters, coming up with schemes to escape army duty and visit her, obsessed with her image and convinced that it was his destiny to save her. She was alone in a strange country, with no income and a child to support. He had read this book before and knew what the hero must do. As soon as he was promoted, he rushed to Kuznetsk to propose. She agreed, and they were married soon afterwards, with the district police chief and an erstwhile love rival as witnesses.

They would not make each other happy. Dostoevsky had an epileptic fit on their wedding night, and the romance never really recovered. Her passion now turned to irascibility. After almost 10 years of exile, he finally received permission to return to St Petersburg, but by that time the relationship was mired in arguments and jealousy. And to make matters worse, Maria was now dying of consumption.

Now that he was finally allowed to resume his literary career, Dostoevsky started a journal with his brother, Mikhail. It quickly became popular among student activists, and one of the students Dostoevsky met was a beautiful, fiery young woman called Polina who was caught up in the radical politics of her day. Enthralled by her confidence and impetuousness, Dostoevsky followed Polina to Europe, but in the few weeks it took him to organise his trip, she had already lost interest and taken up with a Spanish medical student named Salvador. He convinced her to travel to Italy with him as planned, hoping to win back her affections, but the atmosphere curdled one night as they sat holding hands on Polina’s hotel bed, when he sheepishly suggested he’d like to kiss her foot. As they took in the sights, from Baden-Baden to Geneva to Turin to Rome, it became increasingly clear that Polina enjoyed attention more than intimacy. And so Dostoevsky abandoned his pursuit to travel back to Russia and attend to his dying wife.

The two years that followed were some of the most turbulent in Dostoevsky’s life. His wife and brother died, the journal folded, his epilepsy worsened, and he lost what little money he had at the roulette table. He took on a large loan from a publisher to service some of his debts, but it came with the condition that he had to write a new novel within a year. He spent the first 11 months of it finishing Crime and Punishment. He now had to write a full-length novel in the space of a single month, or he would lose copyright to all of his other work, according to the terms of the loan. Knowing that he couldn’t do it alone, he decided to hire a stenographer, Anna Snitkina, to help him. Though young and unassuming, she was also hard working, reliable, sympathetic and surprisingly steely. She worked day and night helping Dostoevsky to marshal his notes into a presentable draft, and along the way he told her everything he’d been through over the years. They completed and delivered the new manuscript together on the day it was due, with just two hours to spare. And a week later he proposed.

In researching my book Dostoevsky in Love, I became fascinated by the way Dostoevsky’s ideas about love evolved as he grew older. He started off believing so much in the idea of Maria that the very real difficulties they had in getting on with each other were almost an afterthought. He treated that first marriage as if it was already written somewhere that they had to be together, and it reminds me of something one of his characters says in the story White Nights: “You talk as though you were reading it out of a book.” A first love like this holds over you the possibility of taking away your mirror; you are scared to lose the object of your love, yes, but more scared that if they leave, you will lose sight of yourself. The fact that such a relationship has never come before raises the horrifying possibility that it might never come again, that this might be the one true love spoken of so often in art. So the artistically inclined are prone to falling for the narrative convenience of a single, predestined love, and to chasing
it in terror.

Dostoevsky didn’t have an image of Anna in his head before he met her, and she wasn’t like the heroines he had read about in books. Indeed, the many qualities that made her a good partner didn’t announce themselves on their first meeting (though to be candid, it didn’t help that he kept forgetting her name). But they stood by one another through the years they would spend in Europe together, on the run from Dostoevsky’s creditors, through the grief of losing two of their four children, and the illness that attended his later years. It wouldn’t be possible to tell Dostoevsky’s story without also telling the story of Anna, the great love of his life. It was only death that could part them, and even that would only be temporary. His last words were: “Remember, Anna, I always loved you passionately and was never unfaithful to you, even in my thoughts.” Their bodies now lie side by side in the monastery of Alexander Nevsky, one of the holiest sites in Russia.

Dostoevsky In Love: An Intimate Life by Alex Christofi is published by Bloomsbury

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