Once Dostoyevsky’s Stenographer, Then His Wife
Andrew D. Kaufman on the First Meeting Between Anna Snitkina and the Russian Author
On the cold, clear morning of October 4, 1866, a slender 20-year-old stenography student in a black cotton dress left her mother’s apartment in Petersburg. A short distance away, she stopped by Gostiny Dvor, a huge arcade of shops on Nevsky Prospect, to buy some extra pencils and a leather portfolio, hoping to lend a more businesslike air to her youthful appearance. Half an hour later, arriving at a gray-bricked building on the corner of Malaya Meshchanskaya Ulitsa and Stolyarny Pereulok, she ascended the poorly lit staircase to the second floor and rang the doorbell to Apartment 13, where her prospective employer was expecting her. The student’s name was Anna Snitkina, and her employer-to-be was a 44-year-old former convict and enigmatic widower about town who also happened to be a novelist of some fame: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Anna looked at her watch and smiled to herself. It was a few minutes before 11:30, just as she had been instructed. A prudent young woman, she was not about to take any chances—not on the day she hoped to be hired for her first job.
Almost immediately, a thickset woman in a green checkered shawl opened the door. Having followed the serialized installments of Dostoyevsky’s newest work, Crime and Punishment, Anna wondered whether this very garment might be the prototype of the worsted shawl that played such an important role in the novel’s Marmeladov family. She did not dare ask, of course, and told the maid simply that she had been referred by her stenography instructor, Professor Olkhin, and that the master of the house was expecting her.
The maid, whose name was Fedosya, led Anna down the dark corridor into a dining room, its walls lined with a chest of drawers and two large trunks, all of them draped in intricately crocheted rugs. She asked the young guest to have a seat and said her master would come shortly.
Two minutes later, Dostoyevsky appeared. Without so much as a greeting, he commanded Anna to go to his study while he fetched tea. And then he was gone again.
Anna looked around as she entered the large, gloomy study. Its divan was draped in shabby brown fabric; nearby, a small round cloth-covered table was shared by a lamp and two or three photo albums. Two windows let in a few rays of sunlight.
“It was dim and hushed,” she later recalled, “and in the dimness and silence you felt a kind of depression.” It was the sort of study she would have expected to find in the home of someone of modest means, not a man rapidly becoming one of Russia’s most important authors. She scanned the room for clues about her potential employer—listening in vain for children’s voices, wondering whether the painting above the sofa, of a cadaverous woman wearing a black dress and cap, was a portrait of Dostoyevsky’s wife, who had died two years earlier. (It was, Anna would later learn.)
A few later, the enigmatic fellow she’d encountered earlier reappeared. Anna tried hard to project confidence; this was a moment she had been anticipating longer than she might have cared to admit.By the time Anna Snitkina arrived at his door, then, Dostoyevsky had established his reputation as one of Russia’s most promising writers.
The name Dostoyevsky had long been familiar in the Snitkin home. He was her father’s favorite writer; whenever the subject of modern literature arose, he would inevitably say, “Well now, what kind of writers do we have nowadays? In my time we had Pushkin, Gogol, Zhukovsky. And of the younger writers there was the novelist Dostoyevsky, the author of Poor Folk. That was a genuine talent.” The past tense was no mistake: “Unfortunately,” he continued, “the man got mixed up in politics, landed in Siberia, and vanished there without a trace.” Then, in 1859, to the delighted surprise of Anna’s father, Dostoyevsky had returned to the capital— after a four-year prison sentence in Siberia followed by five more years of mandatory military service—and resumed his writing with newfound vigor. Anna’s father was a devoted reader of Time, a journal founded by Dostoyevsky and his brother Mikhail, and before too long the whole Snitkin family was reading Dostoyevsky— though none of them with greater emotional investment than Anna.
The work of Dostoyevsky was well-known among educated readers like Grigory Ivanovich Snitkin, who subscribed to Time and the other “thick journals,” as they were known. Published weekly or biweekly, these compendia of literary, philosophical, and journalistic material were 19th-century Russia’s equivalent of The New Yorker, Newsweek, and Scientific American all rolled into one. They included news, book reviews, cultural and literary criticism, scientific articles, and, of course, fiction; in fact, nearly every Russian novelist of the time debuted in these journals. Dostoyevsky’s own first original published work, Poor Folk, appeared when he was 24, in 1846—the year Anna Snitkina was born.
An epistolary novel, Poor Folk traced the love affair between an impoverished 47-year-old copy clerk and his distant relative, a poor orphan girl. Readers recognized the novel as an original and moving take on the social Christianity and sentimental philanthropism that were characteristic of literature of the time. “A new Gogol has arisen!” exclaimed Vissarion Belinsky, the era’s most influential literary critic, after reading it. “Do you yourself understand what you have written?” he asked the starstruck writer when they met in person—a day Dostoyevsky would long remember. Belinsky’s endorsement gained Dostoyevsky immediate entrée into elite literary circles, and the novel was a great success with the reading public as well.
Yet Dostoyevsky’s first taste of celebrity did not last. His next novel, The Double, about a minor civil servant lost in the Petersburg bureaucracy, was published just months after Poor Folk; it was a critical and commercial failure, as were the short stories that followed. “I really puffed him up, in considering Dostoyevsky a genius!” Belinsky told a critic after reading Dostoyevsky’s new work. “I, the leading critic, behaved like an ass to the nth degree.” The critic was especially nonplussed by the fantastic elements in The Double, whose hero loses touch with reality and strikes up a bizarre relationship with his doppelgänger. Such topics, Belinsky said, “can have a place only in madhouses, but not in literature, being the business of doctors, not poets.”
On April 23, 1849, at the age of 27, Dostoyevsky was arrested for his participation in a revolutionary society known as the Petrashevsky Circle, which led to his disappearance from the literary scene for nearly a decade. After his return, he had resurrected his career with The Insulted and Injured (1861), a sentimental melodrama filled with colorful characters and dramatic cliffhangers at the end of each chapter—elements that made him enormously popular among readers, if distasteful to critics. He returned to critical favor with his next work, Notes from the House of the Dead (1860–63), a semi-fictionalized account of Dostoyevsky’s experiences in the Siberian labor camp. A blend of memoir, social exposé, and cultural criticism, Notes from the House of the Dead took up several of his familiar themes, such the plight of the downtrodden man, the cruelty of officialdom, and the supreme value of Christian compassion. But it also explored ideas that would become central to Dostoyevsky’s art and thought in the years to come: the personality’s need for inner freedom at any cost, the psychological complexity of the criminal mind—a topic the writer would return to in Crime and Punishment—and the spiritual depth of the Russian people.
By the time Anna Snitkina arrived at his door, then, Dostoyevsky had established his reputation as one of Russia’s most promising writers. But he was not yet considered one of its greatest. He had exhibited flashes of genius, to be sure, but they were lost on critics like Belinsky, who tended to read Dostoyevsky through a narrowly utilitarian lens, overlooking the psychological acuity that undergirded his social commentary. It was this combination—social realism informed by profound psychological insight—that would make Dostoyevsky not only unique among his Russian contemporaries—“a realist in the higher sense,” as he called himself—but vital to the history of Russian literature.
To Anna Snitkina, however, Dostoyevsky was simply an author who fascinated and moved her. As soon as each issue of Time arrived at their home, Anna’s father would be the first to read it. Then, just as he dozed off in his wingchair, magazine still in hand, 15-year-old Anna would sneak up to disengage it from his fingers, and then run out into the garden to lose herself in Dostoyevsky’s latest novel—at least until Masha, claiming the elder sister’s prerogative, sneaked up and snatched it away for herself.
Dostoyevsky’s compassion for society’s outcasts resonated with Anna’s instincts, and her heart ached for the downtrodden souls he brought to life on the page. “I was quite a daydreamer,” she said, “and the heroes of novels were always real people to me.” She “hated” the predatory serf owner in The Insulted and Injured, who tries to pressure his son into a financially advantageous marriage, and she “despised” his naïve but lovable son almost as much for lacking the courage to stand up to his father and breaking off his relationship with the girl he loves. She shed tears over Notes from the House of the Dead, admitting later that “my heart was full of sympathy and pity for Dostoyevsky, who had to endure a horrible life in prison at hard labor.”
This gruff, nervous man in front of her, however, seemed a far cry from the dashing, noble-minded author she had read and dreamed so much about. Dostoyevsky’s chestnut-colored hair was pomaded and smooth, but his face was pale and sickly against his worn blue cotton frock coat. He seemed distracted and agitated, asking Anna every few minutes to remind him of her name. His eyes troubled her, too. The left was dark brown, while the right had a pupil so dilated you couldn’t even see the iris—the result, she would later discover, of an accident many years ago, when he fell against a sharp object during an epileptic seizure.
“How long have you been studying stenography?” he asked.
“Just half a year,” Anna replied, holding tight to what she hoped was a professional demeanor.
“And does your teacher have many pupils?”
“More than 150 were registered for the course at the beginning, but only about 25 are left now.”
“Ah, and why so few?”
“I suppose many of them found stenography simple enough to learn,” Anna said uncertainly, “but hard to keep up beyond a few days, and so they dropped out.”
“That’s always the way it is in our country, isn’t it,” he said, “with every new undertaking? We start things off at a fever pitch, only to cool off fast and drop them altogether. Your colleagues see you have to work, and . . . who wants to work these days?” He offered her a cigarette.Dostoyevsky was testing her, as he often did when meeting strangers. To him everything was a test: love, relationships, life itself.
Dostoyevsky was testing her, as he often did when meeting strangers. To him everything was a test: love, relationships, life itself. He was especially keen to determine whether this Anna Snitkina was like the many progressive young women who had been cropping up throughout Russia in the 1860s, in the wake of Tsar Alexander II’s Great Reforms—a series of sweeping political, social, and economic changes introduced after Russia’s humiliating defeat during the recent Crimean War.
Anna did, in fact, proudly consider herself an emancipated “girl of the 60s,” as the young Russian feminists of her generation often called themselves. “I felt I was setting out on a new road, that I would be earning money by my own labor, that I could become independent,” she wrote later, recalling what the prospect of working for Dostoyevsky meant to her. “And the idea of independence for me, as a girl of the 60s, was a very precious idea”— as it was for the vast majority of educated young women.
Taking advantage of the new spirit of openness, socially conscious Russians had begun to express their pent-up desire for thoroughgoing change within the traditional authoritarian family structure. They pushed for women to be given the opportunity to play a more central role in the rebuilding of Russian society after the war. An unprecedented number of books and articles on the family and the role of women in Russia appeared in these years, giving birth to a debate that in time came to be known as the “woman question.”
Dostoyevsky was no enemy of this new Russian feminist movement. Indeed, he was one of the few major writers of the time who openly championed the broadening of women’s intellectual horizons. “Educated women need a wider thoroughfare,” he wrote in the early 1860s, echoing one of the feminists’ main tenets, “one which is not cluttered up with needles, threads, chain stitches, and sewing.” In the pages of Time—in one of the same issues where Anna had been reading The Insulted and Injured—Dostoyevsky defended the feminists against conservative critics who dismissed their supporters as “emancipators.” In his view, female emancipation was a matter of “Christian love of mankind, of the education of oneself in the name of mutual love—of the love that a woman also has the right to demand herself.” Such relations between the sexes, he argued, are perfectly healthy and desirable, and will be inevitable when the level of society itself is elevated. And his sensitivity to the plight of Russian women was evident in Dostoyevsky’s fiction, which featured a panoply of female characters who are enslaved by parents, husbands, guardians, or benefactors, or mired in an abject poverty they cannot escape except by marriage, prostitution, or some form of pathological relationship to a man.
For all his sympathies with of feminism, however, Dostoyevsky was put off by the brashness of many radical feminists. The “New Woman,” as they called themselves, reminded him of much that he found wrong about the “new a country he felt had lost touch with the values of decency, modesty, and, above all, morality. He resented this brave new world, heavily influenced by the West, which valued the “debauch of acquisition, cynicism, and materialism” and, most pointedly, free love. A lonely widower who had been rejected romantically by more than one progressive young woman, he also had personal reasons to be turned off by this brand of feminism.
What intrigued Dostoyevsky about Anna Snitkina was that she seemed different from the more radical feminists of the era: she appeared self-possessed, not rash or impetuous. As she politely declined his cigarette, the novelist was struck by the young woman’s “serious, almost stern behavior,” and was glad to have met such a “serious and efficient young girl.”
Anna would not have known it from Dostoyevsky’s gruff demeanor, but he’d taken a liking to this prospective employee. It helped, certainly, that she did not crop her hair, wear spectacles, or smoke—three archetypal anti-bourgeois habits of the “New Woman.” With her blend of feminine modesty and professional tact, she made an excellent first impression.
“I was glad when Olkhin suggested a female stenographer, rather than a man,” Dostoyevsky told Anna, “and do you know why?”
“No, I don’t,” she responded.
“Why, because a man would likely start drinking, while you—you won’t fall into any drinking habits, I hope?”
Wanting to burst out laughing, Anna restrained herself. “I most certainly will not fall into any drinking habits,” she said with perfect seriousness, “you may be sure of that.”
“Well, then, we’ll see how it works out,” Dostoyevsky muttered vaguely. “We’ll give it a try.”
“Sure, why don’t we try it,” she said. Then, in case Dostoyevsky harbored any lingering doubts about her, she added: “But if it turns out to be inconvenient for you to work with me, you can tell me straight out. Please be assured I won’t hold it against you if the job doesn’t come to anything.”
To test her skills as a stenographer, the writer picked up a copy of The Russian Messenger, where Crime and Punishment had been coming out in installments that year, and started reading from it—extremely quickly—expecting her to take dictation. Though Anna had been trained in shorthand, she was unable to keep up, and asked him politely if he could dictate at the speed of normal conversation. Annoyed by the interruption, Dostoyevsky leaned over to check her work. He chastised her for omitting a period and writing a hard sign unclearly, and then proceeded to grumble about women’s lack of fitness for work. (In Russian orthography a hard sign (ъ) makes the preceding letter hard, whereas a soft sign (ь) makes the preceding letter soft. There is a very subtle distinction between the two, so writing one unclearly could cause it to be confused with the other.) Shocked and insulted, Anna nevertheless made every effort not to show it. Nothing was more important to her than succeeding professionally and becoming independent. She was not about to jeopardize that.
After a few more minutes, Dostoyevsky told Anna he needed to take a break, but he asked her to return that evening so he could begin dictating his novel to her. Anna was relieved to know he was serious about hiring her, yet her feelings were mixed. “I left Dostoyevsky’s apartment in a very low mood,” she wrote many years later in her memoir, Reminiscences. “I didn’t like him; he made me feel depressed.” In an unpublished draft, she went even further: “Never had a person before or since made such a difficult, depressing impression on me than Fyodor Mikhailovich did at our first meeting. I saw in front of me a terribly unhappy, broken, tormented man. He had the look of a person who today or yesterday had lost someone close to his heart, a person struck by some terrible misfortune.”
The prospect of working for Dostoyevsky—a volatile genius, apparently also a reflexive misogynist—made Anna contemplate what price she was willing to pay for financial independence. “Earning one’s own way, when they start saying such unpleasant things, can also sometimes be a bitter experience,” she wrote in her diary, recalling her employer’s rude remarks, “and this from one of the best people. What would it be like with less developed people? No, it’s better to get married, maybe, if it means not having to subject yourself to such unpleasantries.” That was the path chosen by the young women of her mother’s generation—and even by her older sister, Masha, who had recently married a distinguished young professor. Anna was starting to understand the appeal of that choice, but she was not yet ready to give up her dream.
From The Gambler Wife by Andrew D. Kaufman, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Andrew D. Kaufman.