The Stenographer Who Married Dostoyevsky — and Saved Him From Ruin

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By Jennifer Wilson

A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky
By Andrew D. Kaufman

In the spring of 1880, in the midst of what felt like a political tipping point, a new monument dedicated to the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was unveiled in Moscow. Alexander II’s Great Reforms of the 1860s — including the emancipation of the serfs — had not satisfied the appetites of radicals for change. Most alarming to moderate Russians were the women who had begun joining the ranks of the self-described Nihilists. They smoked cigarettes, cut their hair short, preferred Feuerbach to romance novels and spurned marriage in favor of careers in science and medicine (or, occasionally, terrorism).

Everyone could sense that Russia was on a collision course with itself, and few feared the potential outcome more than Fyodor Dostoyevsky. At the unveiling ceremony, he delivered a fiery speech, calling on Russians to regard new theories of social progress coming from the West as spiritually alien. He praised Tatyana, the heroine of “Eugene Onegin,” Pushkin’s 1833 novel in verse, for embodying a uniquely Russian spirit of self-sacrifice. A married woman who rejects the advances of her erstwhile lover, Tatyana was proof to Dostoyevsky that, as Andrew D. Kaufman puts it in “The Gambler Wife,” a true “Russian woman would always refuse to build her happiness on the unhappiness of others.”

A biography of the writer’s second spouse, Anna Dostoyevskaya, Kaufman’s book suggests that her husband’s readers would have heard his speech and recalled his own characters, like Sonya in “Crime and Punishment,” “who follows the repentant Raskolnikov to a Siberian prison camp.” Yet Kaufman, a specialist in Slavic literature at the University of Virginia, is principally concerned with what this philosophy would mean for a woman who was not fictional. In the early years of her marriage, Anna was called on to practice superhuman levels of selflessness and forgiveness. She lived at the mercy of her husband’s gambling addiction, teetering on financial ruin for years — at one point having to pawn her own underwear. Dostoyevsky did little to shield her from his domineering family, who tried to control his purse strings. When Anna wanted to go on a honeymoon to Germany, his stepson from his first marriage reproached her: “I don’t allow any European trips.”

Kaufman recounts Anna’s agony in scenes as gut-wrenching as any we might encounter in her husband’s novels, and even Dostoyevsky’s most ardent fans will find themselves asking if the relationship, despite making it possible for him to finish some of his most celebrated works, was worth it. Anna was unprepared for this fate, having grown up in a stately home in St. Petersburg, in a family, she later wrote, “without quarrels, dramas or catastrophes.” Her father, a civil servant, was a great admirer of Dostoyevsky, and spoke at length about the promising young author of “Poor Folk” (1846). “Unfortunately,” he told his daughter, “the man got mixed up in politics, landed in Siberia and vanished there without a trace.”

In his youth, Dostoyevsky had joined the Petrashevsky Circle — a relatively tame underground organization of progressive men interested in French utopian socialism. When it was uncovered, Dostoyevsky was sentenced to four years of hard labor in Siberia, followed by five of mandatory military service. By the time he returned to the Russian capital, he was spiritually and politically transformed. His experience in Siberia “convinced him that the radical intelligentsia not only failed to understand the Russian people but were in many cases ruthless egoists posing as social crusaders,” Kaufman writes. Yet it was precisely the radical spirit of the age that brought his future wife into his orbit.

Anna, an “emancipated girl of the Sixties,” Kaufman writes, was eager to forge her own path rather than rely on a husband. Like many women of her generation and political persuasion, she decided to study science. (Initially she went to school for zoology, but dropped out after fainting at the sight of a cat cadaver.) She then enrolled in a stenography course whose instructor, Kaufman notes, “emphasized that stenography was more than a profession; it was also a way for young people to develop the essential life skills of patience and perseverance.”

It would need to be. In October 1866, when Anna arrived at the Dostoyevsky home for an interview, the writer was facing an impossible deadline and had written nothing save for some notes for a “story of a wanton Russian gambler lost in a European resort town called Roulettenburg.” The situation was so dire that a friend of Dostoyevsky’s suggested gathering a group to ghostwrite the story for him.

Dostoyevsky decided to hire a stenographer to speed up the process, but Anna almost did not last. After her first day, she later recalled, “I didn’t like him; he made me feel depressed.” It’s unclear what attracted Dostoyevsky to Anna: her eventual intense devotion and ability to weather his moods, or the fact that she was more than 24 years his junior — probably both. After their swift completion of “The Gambler,” the final installment of “Crime and Punishment” was due. He decided to propose.

A sizable portion of Kaufman’s biography is devoted to the couple’s “honeymoon,” a three-month trip to Germany — Anna ultimately got her way, despite the stepson’s objections — that ended up lasting four years. Dostoyevsky’s gambling habit had become so acute that they could not return to Russia without fear that he would be arrested at the border and sent to debtors’ prison. Daily trips to the pawnbroker took their toll, and the two composed light verse mocking their unhappiness, including this one by Anna: “Your last money / you blew at roulette, / and now you don’t have / a three-kopeck piece, you numbskull.”

What finally put a stop to Dostoyevsky’s addiction was a particularly ruinous night of gambling in Wiesbaden, where he became so distraught that he ran through the streets looking for a priest and to his horror wound up in front of a synagogue — proof, he believed, that gambling was the work of “some dark force.” (Dostoyevsky was ferociously antisemitic, as Kaufman, refreshingly, makes no attempt to downplay.)

The final third of the book is devoted to Anna’s second act: as Dostoyevsky’s principal publisher. Realizing that setting up an imprint was the only way to avoid predatory agreements like the one that brought her and her husband together in the first place, Anna began printing his work — previously released in serialization — as stand-alone books. According to Kaufman, Anna was the first solo woman publisher in Russia. Sofya Tolstaya, the wife of Leo Tolstoy, sought her advice when she decided to set up a similar operation. It was against this less pressured financial backdrop that Dostoyevsky was able to compose his magnum opus, “The Brothers Karamazov” (1880), in the year before his death.

Dostoyevsky has since faced condemnation for his virulent antisemitism and Christian nationalism. Now, with this new biography, and the extent of his misogyny on full view, readers will likely have more to say about his treatment of women as well. Anna balked at criticism of her husband, believing that, as Kaufman paraphrases it from a letter she wrote, Dostoyevsky “was to literature what the physicist Röntgen, who discovered the X-ray, was to the human body — the inventor of a wholly new means of peering inside the human soul.” To judge his novels against his politics, she felt, would be tantamount to reading a radiology report with Röntgen’s social opinions in mind.

Kaufman is sympathetic to both his subjects. He does not want to judge Anna for her choices, especially because women then had so few. (Russian women would not be able to secure divorces easily until the Bolshevik Revolution.) He affirms that being the partner of a great Russian writer would have been meaningful to her in multiple ways, including as a patriot. Perhaps we should regard Anna’s life itself as an X-ray, a high-energy beam that illuminates a stark truth: that for a woman marriage — then and even now — is always a bit of a gamble.

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