Nigel Cox

If you happen to wander into the spielbank aka the casino,   in the lovely old German city of Weisbaden, you will come across a bust of the great Russian  writer,  Fyodor Dostoyevsky   In his later life he was an inveterate gambler and roamed Europe from one casino city to the next. Always trying to keep one step ahead of his debtors. However his earlier days  in Russia and Kazakhstan the young Fyodor was given  enough drama and heartache to last any man a lifetime, and helped forge his imagination and talents for his intriguing, often dark and  absorbing books.

The events leading up to his exile in the snowy wastes of Kazakhstan and Siberia began, when, as a young man of 24 he was imprisoned and sentenced to death for being part of an illegal group of intellectuals who were deemed to be enemies of the Tsar, Nicholas the First.  After sitting in prison for a month he was taken out with the other group members and told to wait for his turn in front of the firing squad.  Three  of his comrades were tied to posts and stood waiting to be shot. Fyodor looked on, knowing that it  would be his turn  next. The sheer terror he was feeling caused him later to develop epilepsy.  After what seemed like an age, a messenger appeared with a reprieve from the Tsar. His sentence had been commuted to imprisonment and exile 3000 kilometres away in Omsk, Siberia. It was the beginning of a journey that would impact him and his writing for the rest of his life

After completing five  years imprisonment in Siberia (the whole time spent in chains) he was transferred to the small old town of Semipalatinsk, now called Semey, in modern day Kazakhstan. It is situated close to the Chinese border.   He later recounted his grim experiences  in Siberia in the ” House of the Dead”. Arriving in Semey  with the river Irtysh flowing majestically by and the tangy smell of pine forests intoxicating his senses, his spirits were immediately lifted.  He later said he was never  happier  “with the clean air around me and freedom in my heart.”  He now became a soldier in  a punishment corps battalion but his was infinitely better than awful years had endured in prison.

He enjoyed the company of his fellow soldiers but soon left the barracks and rented a small cottage in the Russian part of the town. He was looked after by a Russian woman and her teenage daughters which must have been  very pleasant after the riqours of a hard labour prison sentence. Around this time, he made friends with Baron Alexander Wrangel who was a few years younger than him and an admirer of his writing skills.  His first novel, “Poor Folk” had been published before his imprisonment.  He also became friends with an alcoholic customs officer who introduced him to his wife.  immediately fell deeply in love with her.

Her name was Maria Dimtrievna Isayev.  She was 27, slim, pretty, blonde and had a particularly lovely mouth.  He was totally smitten from their first meeting. However, his association with her  would cause him to feel more pain than all of the Tsar’s punishments put together.  For she was also incredibly capricious and her constant changes of mind initially drove him to the edge of madness.

Around this time he also met Cholkan Valikhanov an aristocratic Kazakh writer, historian and explorer.  They became close friends and exchanged tales of their past and the dreams of their future. With his friend Baron Wrangel, Dostoyevsky  now lived an idyllic  life after the hardships of the Siberian jail.    The two them now lived together and created a beautiful garden Dostoyevsky  glorying in the colours and fragrances of the flowers.  Together they took long rides through the surrounding pine forests to Lake Kolyvan, which was described by the famous traveller  Humboldt, as the most beautiful lake in the world.

He now had relative freedom, friends and he was in love with a beautiful woman. But there was constant shadow over his new happiness. Maria Dimitrievna,  was married and he never knew if his love for her was reciprocated.  He started to become more and more jealous of her especially as she was never especially affectionate towards him.   Then, due to his drinking her husband lost his job in Semey and was sent to a small town called Kuznetsk  in the middle of the Siberian wilderness.  Dostoyevsky  was bereft. He broke down and sobbed like a child when they said goodbye.  He than sank into a long, deep depression.  He wrote, “I’m so unhappy, so unhappy! I am tortured, killed! My soul quakes!”

Things got worse. Her husband died due to his excessive drinking. Dostoyevky  thought he could now make her his wife but she told him she had met a young teacher who she was also considering marrying.  With the help of his friend Baron Wrangel,  Dostoyevsky obtained an army commission which he hoped would help him woo Maria. This it did and she agreed to marry him.  But Dostoyevsky was now emotionally drained and his passion  for her had begun to wane.

They were soon married but on their honeymoon disaster struck. Since the mock executionDostoyevsky had suffered epileptic seizures and on the honeymoon was struck by one which terrified Maria.  She immediately regretted marrying him and from then on their lives together were not particularly happy.

Yet  she died a few years later of tuberculosis he said loved her and it was great tragedy for him.

Their lives together became a sordid mixture of jealous bickering and screaming arguments interspersed with Dostoyevsky’s epileptic fits.   Due to his epilepsy D was discharged from the military.  They stayed in S for a further 18 months until he was informed his exile was over.  They left for Russia as soon as possible. As they crossed the border between Asia and Europe  just  below the Ural mountains the couple stopped to drink a toast of farewell to Central Asia with a glass of orange liqueur.  they then continued their journey into  the arms of Mother Russia.

Sadly, their lives back in Russia continued to get worse. His fits became stronger and their jealous  arguments continued.  After a few years she developed severe tuberculosis and died shortly after.  But, through all the arguing and fighting he had continued to love. He said her  death was the greatest tragedy of his life. He paid a tribute to her with the character of Katerina Ivanova Marmeladava in his most famous book, Crime and Punishment.

He later said that prison and his exile in KZ had fed his imagination for the rest  of his life.  It gave him lots to fall back on. The mock execution inspired the fascinating book “The Idiot.”

Apart from the bust in Germany, the is another statue of him outside his old home in modern Semey. He sits serenely with his friend Cholkan Valikhanov. The two looking contemplatively into their remarkable futures. Dostoyevsky  died in St Petersberg aged 60. Valikhanov died aged 29 also of tuberculosis like Fyodor’s beloved wife. Despite their arguments he always maintained he never stopped  loving her.


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