FINALIST FOR THE PEN JACQUELINE BOGRAD WELD AWARD FOR BIOGRAPHY
“Feminism, history, literature, politics—this tale has all of that, and a heroine worthy of her own turn in the spotlight.” —Therese Anne Fowler, bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
A revelatory new portrait of the courageous woman who saved Dostoyevsky’s life—and became a pioneer in Russian literary history
In the fall of 1866, a twenty-year-old stenographer named Anna Snitkina applied for a position with a writer she idolized: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. A self-described “girl of the sixties,” Snitkina had come of age during Russia’s first feminist movement, and Dostoyevsky—a notorious radical turned acclaimed novelist—had impressed the young woman with his enlightened and visionary fiction. Yet in person she found the writer “terribly unhappy, broken, tormented,” weakened by epilepsy, and yoked to a ruinous gambling addiction. Alarmed by his condition, Anna became his trusted first reader and confidante, then his wife, and finally his business manager—launching one of literature’s most turbulent and fascinating marriages.
The Gambler Wife offers a fresh and captivating portrait of Anna Dostoyevskaya, who reversed the novelist’s freefall and cleared the way for two of the most notable careers in Russian letters—her husband’s and her own. Drawing on diaries, letters, and other little-known archival sources, Andrew Kaufman reveals how Anna protected her family from creditors, demanding in-laws, and her greatest romantic rival, through years of penury and exile. We watch as she navigates the writer’s self-destructive binges in the casinos of Europe—even hazarding an audacious turn at roulette herself—until his addiction is conquered. And, finally, we watch as Anna frees her husband from predatory contracts by founding her own publishing house, making Anna the first solo female publisher in Russian history.
The result is a story that challenges ideas of empowerment, sacrifice, and female agency in nineteenth-century Russia—and a welcome new appraisal of an indomitable woman whose legacy has been nearly lost to literary history.
Russian literature scholar Kaufman (Understanding Tolstoy) offers a sympathetic reading of Anna Snitkina (1846–1918), the young stenographer who became Fyodor Dostoyevsky's second and final wife, in this fascinating biography. Kaufman relies heavily on Snitkina's memoir, Reminiscences, as well as letters and diaries to paint a portrait of a both beleaguered and determined young woman. Being married to Dostoyevsky, a traumatized, emotionally volatile gambling addict given to epileptic attacks and tortured by nightmares was no easy task, Kaufman shows, but Snitkina was able to guide him in directions that allowed him to fulfill his commitments and write The Brothers Karamazov, among other career-defining works. While Kaufman highlights just how important Snitkina was to Dostoyevsky's success as a novelist, to his stability, and to preserving his legacy after he died in 1881, he also emphasizes Snitkina's own business acumen in starting a publishing company to produce her husband's work, in paying off his debts, and in selling and promoting his novels. With colorful details (Snitkina had "an uncanny ability to read people clearly, to know what to say and when to remain silent"), Kaufman successfully corrects biographical accounts that have "erased" Snitkina's flair. Highly readable, this page-turning narrative will appeal to Dostoyevsky fans and literature-lovers in general.