During the mid-nineteenth century, Russia was a part of Europe but felt very separate from it. During that time, Russian middle and upper classes, women were proud of having more rights than they would have in other European countries. The right to an education was particularly important and a strong feminist movement grew up. Women were encouraged to educate themselves and become self-supporting. Surprisingly enough, one of the most liberating career paths for women was learning stenography. This was the path chosen by Anna Grigoryeva Dostoevskaya, a woman who was destined to play an important role in Russian literature.
Anna was born in 1848 in St. Petersburg. Her family encouraged her to be independent and read widely. She graduated with high honors from high school and decided to become a stenographer, one of the few careers in which a woman could earn a living. It was a stroke of luck when one of her teachers recommended her for a job with Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was already one of her favorite authors. He had published several articles and two novels during the 1840s, but his career had been interrupted when he was sentenced to five years of exile in Siberia.
At the time Dostoyevsky met Anna, he was struggling to rebuild his career. His first wife had died, leaving him with a stepson to raise, his reputation as a writer had faded, and he was struggling to fulfill his contract to complete a novel called The Gambler. He called upon a friend to help him find a stenographer and luckily the friend recommended Anna, who had been one of his students.
Eventually, with Anna’s patient help, Dostoyevsky completed his novel and was able to fulfill his contract. During the weeks they worked together, he also fell in love with his faithful helper and proposed to her despite the twenty-year difference in their ages. During the years before meeting Anna, Dostoyevsky had drifted into a life of gambling, which led to debts that interfered with his writing career. No one could have predicted that a 19-year-old stenographer would save him from his gambling addiction and his precarious life, but that is what happened.
With the help of Anna’s mother, who agreed to pawn the girl’s dowry and give the money to the newly- weds, Fyodor and Anna were able to leave Russia and spend four years in other European countries. Anna’s example of hard work and willing sacrifice inspired Dostoyevsky to continue writing despite the pull of the ever-tempting gambling casinos. Anna tried hard to understand his addiction and even spent a secret day at the casino alone so that she could better understand how the insidious promise of quick riches could tempt almost anyone to continue playing.
Throughout the early years of their marriage, Anna helped her husband continue his writing. She understood his need to gamble and helped him through the difficult years until they were able to move back to St. Petersburg and pay off their debts. During the rest of Dostoyevsky’s life, Anna managed his writing career, even starting a publishing company to sell his books. When he died in 1881, Anna was only 35 years old, but she dedicated the rest of her life to preserving his books and his memory.
For many years, Anna’s role in Dostoyevsky’s life has been downplayed in accounts of his life, but a recent biography has now presented a more balanced view of her importance. The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky by Andrew Kaufman (Riverhead Books 2021) offers a fresh view of the creative partnership between these two remarkable people.