Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4

The Academy of Military Engineers

The death of Marya Feodorovna snapped the strongest emotional thread tying the young Dostoevsky to Moscow; but the inner conflict between his desire to leave and the bleakness of the prospect ahead may account for the mysterious illness that struck him down just before his departure for the Academy of Military Engineers. Without any apparent cause, he lost his voice and seemed to have contracted some throat or chest ailment whose diagnosis was uncertain. The impending trip to St. Petersburg had to be postponed until finally Dr. Dostoevsky was advised to begin the journey and trust to the revivifying effects of travel. Andrey remarks that his brother's voice, after that time, always retained a curious throaty quality that never appeared quite normal.

The advice was sound, and Feodor's illness passed away once the gates of Moscow were left behind. And no wonder! What Russian youth would not have felt a surge of strength and excitement at the prospect of going to St. Petersburg for the first time? For all young Russians, the journey was from past to present, from the city of monasteries and religious processions to that of severe government buildings and monstrous military parades, the journey to the spot where Peter the Great had broken “a window through to Europe.” It was also, for Mikhail and Feodor, the journey from boyhood to manhood, the end of the protected family world they had known and the beginning of the insecurities of independence.

Years later, Dostoevsky wrote of this journey in The Diary of a Writer, evoking the state of mind in which both boys approached this new era in their lives. The brothers had their heads stuffed full of the mathematics that were necessary for their entrance examination into the academy, but both were secretly harboring literary ambitions. “We dreamt only of poetry and poets. My brother wrote verses, at least three poems a day even on the road, and I spent all my time composing in my head a novel of Venetian life.” 1 The two young men planned immediately to visit the site of the duel in which Pushkin had been killed four months earlier and then “to see the room in which his soul expired.” 2 Both were

1DW (January 1876), 184.

2 Ibid., 185.

-38-

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