A Brief Biography
He was 25 and had already captured the hearts of Russia with his novel Poor
quickly went to his head. He drank immoderately and partied wildly. He carelessly
criticized the Czarist regime. You did not to that in Czarist Russia. He was arrested in
St. Petersburg and sentenced to death by the firing squad along with several other
dissidents. It was a cold December morning. Dressed in a white execution gown, he was led
to the wall of the prison courtyard with the others. Blindfolded, he waited for the last
sound he would hear, the crack of a pistol echoing off the prison walls. Instead he heard
fast paced footsteps; then the announcement that the Czar had commuted his sentence to ten
years of hard labor. So intense was that moment that he suffered an epileptic seizure,
something he would live with the rest of his life.
In that Siberian prison Fyodor
Dostoevsky was allowed only a New Testament to read. There he discovered something more
wonderful, more true than his socialistic ideals. He met Christ, and his heart was
changed. Upon leaving prison he wrote to a friend who had helped him grow in Christ,
"To believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic,
more reasonable, more manly and more perfect than Christ. And not only is there nothing
but I tell myself with jealous love that there can be nothing. Besides, if anyone proved
to me that Christ was outside the truth and it really was so that the truth was outside
Christ, then I would prefer to remain with Christ, than with the truth."
returned to civilian life. He wrote feverishly and produced his prison memories,
of the Dead, and then Crime and Punishment, followed by many other major works. Yet his
church attendance was sporadic, and he never grew as a Christian. He neglected Bible study
and the fellowship of other believers. No Christian took him under his wing to disciple
him. He began to drink. He gambled. Excessive drinking and compulsive gambling unraveled
his life so that he died penniless and wasted. He felt prison with his flame lit for
Christ and died with nothing more than smoldering embers. The tragedy of Fyodor Dostoevsky
is not so much what he became but what he could have become for Christ. In the words of
the poet, "of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have
J. Stowell, Fan The Flame, Moody, 1986, p. 24.
A Lengthy Biography
Thirty young men, dressed in shrouds (and thus, nearly naked), were led to the
scaffold. The morning was bitter, the temperature below freezing, as they were compelled
to stand for half an hour while the burial service was slowly read. Facing them stood the
soldiers with their muskets. A pile of coffins was stacked suggestively in a corner of the
yard. At the last moment, with the muskets actually at the shoulders of the guards, a
white flag was waved, and it was announced that the czar had commuted the sentence to ten
years' exile in Siberia. Several of the prisoners lost their reason under the strain;
several others died shortly afterward. Fyodor Dostoyevski passed courageously through the
ordeal, but it affected his nerves; he never recalled the experience without a shudder,
and he referred to it with horror in several of his books.
On Christmas Eve, 1849, he commenced the dreadful journey to Omsk and remained in
Siberia "like a man buried alive, nailed down in his coffin." On his arrival in
that desolate region, two women slipped a New Testament into his hand and, taking
advantage of a moment when the officer's back was turned, whispered to him to search it
carefully at his leisure. Between the pages he found twenty-five rubles. The money was a
comfort to him; but the New Testament itself proved to be infinitely more.
His daughter, Aimee, tells us in her book Fyodor Dostoyevski: A Study (1921) that
during his exile the little new Testament was his only solace. "He studied the
precious volume from cover to cover, pondered every word; learned much of it by heart; and
never forgot it. All his works are saturated with it, and it is this which gives them
their power. "Many of his admirers have said to me that it was a strange chance that
ordained that my father should have only the gospels to read during the most important and
formative years of his life. But was it a chance? Is there such a thing as chance in our
lives? The work of Jesus is not finished; in each generation he chooses his disciples,
beckons to them to follow Him, and gives them the same power over the human heart that He
gave to the poor fishermen of Galilee."
Aimee Dostoyevski believed it was by that divine hand that the Testament was presented
to her father that day. "Throughout his life," she adds, "he would never be
without his old prison Testament, the faithful friend that had consoled him in the darkest
hours of his life. He always took it with him on his travels and kept it in a drawer in
his writing-table, within reach of his hand. He consulted it in the important moments of
In Siberia, Dostoyevski discovered the beauty of the parable of the prodigal son.
Siberia was the far country. It was there that he was the prodigal among the husks and the
swine. His companions were the lowest of the low and the vilest of the vile.
"Imagine," he said, "an old crazy wooden building that should long ago
have been broken up as useless. In the summer it is unbearable hot, in the winter
unbearable cold. All the boards are rotten. On the ground filth lies an inch thick: every
instant one is in danger of slipping. The small windows are so frozen over that even by
day one can scarcely read: The ice on the panes is three inches thick. We are packed like
herrings in a barrel. The atmosphere is intolerable: the prisoners stink like pigs: there
are vermin by the bushel: we sleep upon bare boards."
In the midst of this disgusting and degrading scene was Dostoyevski. At first glance he
was by no means an attractive figure. He was small and slender, round-shouldered and
thick- necked. He was clothed in convict-motley, one pant leg black, the other gray; the
colors of his coat likewise divided; his head half-shaved and bent forward in deep
thought. His face was half the face of a Russian peasant and half the face of a dejected
criminal. He was shy, taciturn, rather ugly and extremely awkward. He had a flattened
nose; small, piercing eyes under eyelashes that trembled with nervousness; and a long,
thick, untidy beard with fair hair. The stamp of his epilepsy was distinctly upon him. You
could see all this at a glance, and the glance was not alluring. But Nekrassov, the poet,
gives us a different picture, the scene as the convicts saw it. In this picture
Dostoyevski appeared almost sublime. He moved among his fellow prisoners with his New
Testament in his hand, telling them its stories and reading to them its words of comfort
and grace. He seemed to them a kind of prophet, gently rebuking their blasphemies and
excesses, and speaking to them of poetry, of science, of God and of the love of Christ. It
was his way of pointing the prodigal to the path that leads to the Father's heart and the
For this was the treasure he found in that New Testament. This was the beauty of the
story of the prodigal son. It revealed the way to the Father. "One sees the truth
more clearly when one is unhappy," he wrote from Siberia. "And yet God gives me
moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such
moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is
extremely simply: here it is. I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more
sympathetic, more rational, more manly and more perfect than the Saviour: I say to myself
with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no
On his bended knees, Dostoyevski blessed God for sending him into the Siberian steppes.
For it was amidst those stern and awful solitudes that he, a homesick and penitent
prodigal, found the road that leads to the Father's house. The parable that had opened to
him a paradise in the midst of perdition was in his thoughts through all the years that
After his return from Siberia, he found life anything but easy. Through voluntarily
taking over the debts of his dead brother, his finances had become involved. Moreover, he
had fallen into the clutches of an unscrupulous publisher, for whom he had contracted to
write a novel on the understanding that, if it was not finished by a certain date, all the
author's copyrights would fall into the publisher's hands. As the date approached, the
impossibility of the task became evident, and ruin stared him in the face. Somebody
advised him to get a stenographer, but no stenographer could be found. There was, it is
true, a girl of nineteen who knew shorthand, but lady stenographers were unknown then. And
the girl doubted if her people would consent to her taking the appointment.
Dostoyevski's fame, however, removed the parents' scruples, and she set to work. On her
way to the novelist's house, she told her daughter afterward, she tried to imagine what
their first session would be like. We shall work for an hour, she thought, and them we
shall talk of literature.
But Dostoyevski had been seized by an epileptic fit the night before. He was
absentminded, nervous and peremptory. He seemed quite unconscious of the charms of his
young stenographer and treated her as a kind of Remington typewriter. He dictated the
first chapter of his novel in a harsh voice, complained she did not write fast enough,
made her read aloud what he had dictated, scolded her and declared she had not understood
him. She was crushed and left the house determined never to return. But she thought better
of it during the night and the next morning resumed her post.
Little by little, Dostoyevski became conscious that his Remington machine was not only
a charming young girl but also an ardent admirer of his genius. He confided his troubles
to her, and she pitied him. In her girlish dream, she had pictured him petted and
pampered; instead, he was a sick man -- weary, badly fed, badly lodged, badly served --
hunted down by merciless creditors and exploited by selfish relatives. She conceived the
idea of protecting Dostoyevski, of sharing the heavy burden he had taken on his shoulders
and of comforting him in his sorrows. She was not in love with this man, who was more than
twenty-five years her senior, but she understood his beautiful soul and reverenced his
genius. She determined to save Dostoyevski from his publishers. Begging him to prolong the
hours of dictation, she then spent the night copying out what she had taken down in the
day and worked with such good will that, to the chagrin of the avaricious publisher, the
novel was ready on the appointed day. And, shortly afterward, Dostoyevski married her. And
then, fifteen years afterward, Dostoyevski was dying (the funeral was on the anniversary
of the wedding). "He made us come into the room," his daughter recalled,
"and, taking our little hands in his, he begged my mother to read the parable of the
prodigal son. He listened with his eyes closed, absorbed in his thoughts. 'My children,'
he said in his feeble voice, 'never forget what you have just heard. Have absolute faith
in God and never despair of His pardon. I love you dearly, but my love is nothing compared
with the love of God. Even if you should be so unhappy as to commit some dreadful crime,
never despair of God. You are His children; humble yourselves before Him, as before your
father; implore His pardon, and He will rejoice over your repentance, as the father
rejoiced over that of the prodigal son.'"
A few minutes later, Dostoyevski passed triumphantly away. "I have been
present," said Aimee Dostoyevski, "at many deathbeds, but none was so radiant as
that of my father. He saw without fear the end approaching."
Russia, which has witnessed so many tragic and dramatic happenings, never was a funeral
like that of Fyodor Dostoyevski. Forty thousand men followed the coffin to the grave.
"When I heard of Dostoyevski's death," said Tolstoy, "I felt that I had
lost a kinsman, the closest and the dearest, and the one of whom I had most need."
Clearly, we have here a man among men; a man who stirred the hearts of thousands; a man
who, through his books, still speaks to multitudes. What is the secret of his deep and
widespread influence? It is rooted in the story of the prodigal son.
Take up any of his books, and you will catch fitful glimpses of the battered volume in
which he learned of the Father's love for His most wayward children. Near the close of The
Possessed, Stepan Trofimovitch is taken ill, and Sofya Matveyevna sits by his couch,
reading. What is she reading? Two striking passages from the New Testament. And in Crime
and Punishment there occurs a particularly poignant scene. It describes Raskolnikoff, the
conscience- stricken and self-tormented murderer, creeping at dead of night to the squalid
waterside hovel in which Sonia lives. Sonia was part of the city's flotsam and jetsam. The
relationship between these two was one of sympathy. Each had sinned terribly, and each had
sinned for the sake of others rather than for self. On a rickety little table in Sonia's
room stands a tallow candle fixed in an improved candlestick of twisted metal. In the
course of earnest conversation, Sonia glances at a book lying on a chest of drawers.
Raskolnikoff takes it down. It is a New Testament. He hands it to Sonia and begs her to
read it to him. "Sonia opens the book: her hands tremble: the works stick in her
throat. Twice she tries without being able to utter a syllable." At length she
succeeds. And then --. "She closes the book: she seems afraid to raise her eyes on
Raskolnikoff: her feverish trembling continues. The dying piece of candle dimly lights up
this low-ceilinged room in which and assassin and a harlot have just read the Book of
Books." This is in the middle of the story. On the last page, when Raskolnikoff and
Sonia have both been purified by suffering, Raskolnikoff is still cherishing in his prison
cell the New Testament which, at his earnest request, Sonia has brought him. There is
Raskolnikoff -- most prodigal of prodigal sons -- and there is Sonia -- most prodigal of
prodigal daughters -- bending together over the living page that points all prodigals to
the Father's house.
The candle in Sonia's wretched room burned lower and lower, and at last sputtered out.
But the candle that, in a Siberian prison, illumined Dostoyevski's soul, grew taller and
taller the longer it burned.
--Adapted from The Prodigal, by F.W. Boreham (Epworth
Press, 1941). quoted in "Prodigals and Those Who Love Them," Ruth Bell Graham,
1991, Focus on the Family Publishing, pp. 117-126.