Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fyodor Dostoevsky; drawing by David Levine

The story of Dostoevsky’s extraordinary second marriage during which he wrote his greatest novels is a novel in itself. He was forty-five and a widower; his first marriage and his love affairs had been disastrous; he was bankrupt; he had assumed the heavy debts of his dead brother and responsibility for the family, also for the predatory and offensive son of his own first wife by a previous husband. Dostoevsky was ill and drowning in a sea of promissory notes, and had had to stop writing Crime and Punishment because he had been trapped by a publishing rascal into another novel. A penalty clause had been put into the contract which would bind his earnings to the man for nine years if he failed to deliver the book within four weeks. He was exhausted and ill, and he had no clear story in his head beyond his experiences as a ruined gambler tormented by a neurotic young mistress.

In his plight he was persuaded to call in a girl stenographer—a new career for women in the 1860s—and a plain, awed girl of twenty arrived. He stared at her with embarrassment and in silence for two days and then suddenly found he could dictate. The novel was The Gambler, it was finished within two days of the deadline, and, as the girl had sharply foreseen, the publisher had disappeared into the country in order to dodge delivery and close the trap. Dostoevsky was forced to go round from one police station to another in St. Petersburg before he found an officer willing to give him a receipt for the manuscript. In the meantime the novelist had fallen in love with the stenographer—to whom he had nothing but his calamities to offer—and was astounded to find she had fallen in love with him.

Such young daydreamers as this Anna seemed to be do not usually last the course, but Anna did. The fact is that her obscure family and especially her father and herself were old admirers of Dostoevsky’s work: he was a hero before she met him. She was no intellectual; her one pride was that she was the prize pupil of the stenography school. It is interesting that her mother came of stolid Swedish Lutheran stock and her father, who was a reading man, from the Ukraine: a uniting of efficiency and imagination.

Anna inherited her mother’s independence and her matter-of-fact temperament, and under the influence of the feminism of the Sixties (and in the manner of the Nihilists whom she defended, though she disapproved of their rude manners and their affectation of sloppy clothes) she believed a girl should earn her living. If she was literal-minded and frankly said she did not understand Dostoevsky’s ideas, even when he tried to put them simply to her, she revered his work and gave him total devotion and family happiness for the fourteen years left to him. She saw at once that he had to have peace of mind for his work and that she must behave with total self-abnegation, even at the cost of her own feelings; yet if she might appear to him as one of his “meek” characters, she was far from that.

It was soon evident to her that the immediate enemies of her marriage were the leechlike family and especially the arrogant stepson. They saw Anna as a frivolous young intruder who would take the bread out of their mouths. When she fought back they sneered and told her that the family—and not she—had the first claim on her husband’s time and money. The course of the battle is set out in the Reminiscences which after Dostoevsky’s death she tried to put together from the daily shorthand notes she made about every detail of their life together.

As Helen Muchnic says in her introduction to the present revised edition—the first appeared in 1925 edited by Leonid Grossman—it is a plain, straightforward, honest, and moving account of a happy if reckless marriage, a record tritely and exactly domestic. The tone is neither boastful nor fulsome. She says little or nothing about his work, and is unique in offering no theories about his genius. Dostoevsky appears as the childlike, toiling, anxious, and affectionate father who has to be protected from the world and whose inner tumults—his gambling for example—are understood without being censured. She is perhaps a little proud of his ludicrous jealousy. The brave, simple young adorer has written the only really intimate portrait of him that we have.

There is something more than his portrait and the joys and great sorrows and struggles of a marriage, the misery of the loss of two children. She evokes, without trying, what everyday Russian life in shabby districts was like, without dramatizing it as the Russian realists do: the gray exposure to lies, meanness, trickery, cheating, and stealing, the dangers of the streets at night where violence and robbery were taken for granted, the rule of the pawnshop, the cult of begging, the flooding in of hungry hangers-on in every family, the fights with the landlords, the clumsy difficulties of getting about from one district to another, the damp, unhealthy climate of Petersburg which killed off the weak, the collusion of police with thieves. Her book makes one understand why Dostoevsky’s novels are choked with people whose lives are hanging out on their tongues and whose only role seems to be to drag in others, living by custom at one another’s expense. In his own flat the relatives swarmed in to borrow and be fed and to shout and cry in each others’ faces by divine right. There is no privacy in Dostoevsky’s novels and Anna had to fight for that above all, so that he could work.


And then, during the dragged-out and drunken jollities of their wedding Anna had to face the shock of his epilepsy. He seems not to have told her of it. Suddenly he fell roaring to the floor and at once the family ran away, noses in the air, and left the “silly girl” to deal with his fits as best she could. After this experience, she guarded her tongue and became the constant watcher for the rest of her life. She saw that the first step must be to free him from his family and that the only way to do this was to get him out of Russia. The relations came round whining, threatening, and defying her at once. They waylaid him to get his money from him and he was too weak to stand out against them. Her master stroke was to use the money of her own small dowry: even the stepson saw that they could not touch that—and for the four years during which she and her husband were traveling in Europe the family were defeated and the marriage became unshakable.

Despite the dislike of Europe which was—and is still—a religion among Russians and in Dostoevsky’s writings particularly, both he and Anna were deeply happy. She was, of course, seeing an entrancing new world for the first time. Dostoevsky was a tireless walker, a firm visitor of art galleries. Anna walked, listened, and marveled; but also noted down the prices in shops and was overcome when she saw her genius fussing about new under-clothes for her at the draper’s or choosing hats. From Dresden they went to Wiesbaden and Baden-Baden.But she noticed he was not writing. She had not transcribed The Gambler for nothing. She saw the gambler’s passion stir when their money began to go. She was sensible enough not to try to stop this obsession from bursting out when it did, though it soon brought them to the pawnshop and to desperate letters to her mother and his friends. She listened to his mad hopes and remorseful sobs: she gave in when he begged again. She even writes:

All of Fyodor Mikhailovich’s rationalizations about the possibilities of winning at roulette by using his gambling system were entirely correct. His success might have been complete—but only on condition that this system was applied by some coolheaded Englishman or German and not by such a nervous and impulsive person as my husband, who went to the uttermost limits in everything.

But she adds shrewdly:

In addition to coolheadedness and perseverance, the roulette player must have substantial means in order to be able to hold out through unfavorable turns of the wheel.

He came home in despair after one more ruinous evening, saying that just as he was winning he caught sight precisely of one of those coolheaded Englishmen at the table—this is much better reported in the shorthand notes, of the 1925 edition—and at once lost his nerve and everything he had won. (One sees how visual his disturbed mind was: calamity was a person.) Anna was proud of keeping her own domestic head and of not uttering a word of reproach. The passion did at last burn out and suddenly he began to write.

The return to Russia had its traditional risks that have lasted until today. Knowing that his manuscripts and papers would be taken from him at the frontier and that, as a one-time political prisoner and still under surveillance, he might not get them back, he decided to burn his drafts of The Idiot and his notebooks. Anna argued him out of that; her mother had come to stay with them and they got her to smuggle his notebooks in.


Back in Russia Anna took one more bold step. She knew that he was incapable of dealing with money and with publishers, and when The Devils was written she decided to get his work printed, published, and distributed herself. She knew nothing of the trade. She was ignorant of the Balzacian nature of Russian commerce, and that it depended on the promissory note and on dealing in discounted bills. She had the housewife’s suspicion of a practice so mystical but soon mastered it.

The bookseller Kozhanchikov came to us with an offer to buy 300 copies on a four-month promissory note. He asked for the regular discount of 30 percent…. What troubled us was that he would be taking them on notes…. I had no idea what a commercial note was at that time and therefore suggested to my husband that he should chat for a while with the buyer while I would drive over to the printer…. He assured me that Kozhanchikov’s notes were good and that he would be willing to accept them in payment of our printing debt.

She was amused when buyers came in and did not know the title of the book:

Sometimes they called it “the Evil One,” sometimes they would say “I came for the devils,” and sometimes “Let me have a dozen demons.”

She took over the business of dealing with people who, at several removes, had taken up his own promissory notes: a crowd of widows, landladies, retired officers, and frauds arrived, threatening attachment and prison. Put him in prison and he will earn nothing, she said. That brought them to compromise, and after thirteen years of embittering struggle she paid off the debts which Dostoevsky had taken over from his dead brother and their own: 20,000 rubles. Her only bitterness is that burden. When she looked at the easy lives of Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Goncharov, all of whom had money, she was indignant when critics complained of Dostoevsky’s repetitive and clumsy style:

How many times did it happen in the last fourteen years of his life that two or three chapters [of a novel] had already been published in the journal, the fourth was in the process of being set up in type, the fifth was in the mail on its way to the Russian Messenger, and the rest had not yet been written down and existed only in his head.

And, as we know from his notebooks, only in a confused and speculative state.

Their holidays in the country were as perilous as their life in St. Petersburg. In a country of wooden buildings disastrous fires swept through villages and towns. The Dostoevskys scrambled into the streets with their belongings and then scrambled back when the fire stopped short of their dwelling. The carting about of luggage by road, steamer, or ferry was a nightmare. Landing at Novgorod from Lake Ilmen one night they lost the suitcase containing the manuscript of A Raw Youth, for which they were frantic to collect the money next day. Anna guessed it might have been stolen at the docks, a neighborhood noted for armed thieves and hoodlums, and herself drove there with a scared driver who was afraid a dock gang would seize his cab. They ran off when they saw Anna, who had found the case. It took courage for a woman to go into these slummy neighborhoods at night. It is characteristic of their life that she left Dostoevsky standing with the children while she herself went off on the search.

The present edition of the Reminiscences, revised by the Soviet scholars S. V. Belov and V. A. Tunimanov, was published in 1971 and was based on over thirty notebooks of rough drafts, in confused chronological order. Anna rewrote, duplicated, and had not arrived at a definitive text. There were 800 pages of manuscript and it is now at last in order. Certain things from the shorthand notes in the Leonid Grossman edition have been smoothed away or have vanished: the direct explosive account of the famous quarrel with Turgenev about Smoke which Dostoevsky gave when he returned from his row has gone, perhaps because it has been described by other hands or because Anna had come to idealize the past. The only faults she allows her husband are the irritability natural to writers, and his absurd and violent fits of jealousy or terror when he saw her speaking to other men. In a giddy moment she once provoked his jealousy by faking an anonymous letter: he nearly strangled her.

Her shocked refutation of Strakhov’s attack on her husband after his death, in which he insinuated that Dostoevsky had seduced a child in a bath house, is printed in full. In an early version of The Devils, Stavrogin is said to have done this; and the publisher made Dostoevsky cut it out. But, Anna said, she had learned enough about the artistic imagination to understand that an artist does not need to be a criminal in order to describe a crime. She defends him, too, against the common charge that he was a nasty, suspicious whisperer of malicious things when he was in company: he came into crowded rooms and flopped down “not in arrogant silence,” she says, but because his incurable emphysema left him struggling for breath. The marriage succeeded, she wrote, because neither of them tried to meddle with the other’s “soul.” “In this way my good husband and I both of us felt free in spirit.” And as Helen Muchnic adds in her feeling introduction to this book, Anna did not pry. He was her idol, Anna said. Perhaps because, unlike the idols of a young girl’s dreams, she saw an idol who worked like a demented slave and was helpless without her.

This Issue

October 30, 1975