Fairytale of St Petersburg

8 September 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve been reading again this evening the story of Dostoevksy’s meeting with his second wife, Anna Snitkina – it’s one of those impossibly lovely stories of a meeting that cannot but bring a smile, and I like to imagine that the obvious work of fate, or the divine in bringing them together must have helped to sustain their relationship through the miseries that lay ahead for them.

Anna Snitkina was an intelligent, academic young woman, and had been studying at the first Pedagogical Institute for women in St Petersburg, until her father fell ill, and she was forced to train as a stenographer in order to support the family. She had read Humiliated and Insulted as a teenager and, she later claimed, fell a little in love with its semi-autobiographical narrator. She and her sister fought over each new issue of the Dostoevskys’ journal Time and she was avidly reading Crime and Punishment. (I cannot imagine the torment of having to wait for each new installment!)

Meanwhile, Dostoevksy found himself in the autumn of 1866  suffering from a terrible overload of work. He was short of cash, had made a rash promise to produce a novella within a month, in order to raise funds, and Crime and Punishment was still unfinished. His friend Milyukov persuaded him to hire a stenographer to help with the manual labour of typing up his work, so on 4 October 1866, Anna reported for duty. Dostoevsky was a wreck, he had no firm plans for the promised novel, the workload and worry had brought on epileptic attacks and he was very sceptical about whether a stenographer would be any use at all. Anna quickly got to work, the novella – The Gambler was completed on time, and although she’d only been hired to work on The Gambler, she stayed on to help him complete Crime and Punishment. Imagine – Anna was transported from being an enthusiastic reader to being in Dostoevsky’s flat taking dictaction of the closing chapters. Shortly afterwards they were married.

It was not to be an easy life for Anna, but she seems to have been a pretty determined and resourceful woman and life for Dostoevsky would certainly have been much harder without her around, if not impossible. We must surely owe her a huge debt for without her, I don’t think Dostoevsky would have been able to write his other novels. It is also clear from their letters and her memoires that they adored each other faithfully throughout their lives, through all the poverty and grief, and that they brought each other a great deal of much-needed happiness. I wonder if anyone has written her biography…

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