These days it is fashionable to treat Fyodor Dostoevsky as a kind of floating brain who spent all day at his desk pondering grand philosophical dilemmas, but in many ways his ideas were a direct by-product of a life filled with political and romantic intrigues. Perhaps the most intense of these was his affair with Polina Suslova, a brief, fiery relationship that would later inspire Martin Scorsese’s short film “Life Lessons.”
Having been arrested for advocating the emancipation of the serfs in 1849, Dostoevsky found himself living cheek by jowl with them in Siberia. Ten years later, he returned to St. Petersburg more convinced than ever that the country’s social unrest was a result of the intelligentsia being alienated from the common people. It must have seemed an extraordinary stroke of luck when he encountered Polina, the daughter of a freed serf who was now mixing among the student radicals. She was the living embodiment of Dostoevsky’s ideals, and she also happened to be beautiful.
Estranged from his wife, who was dying of consumption, Dostoevsky began an affair with Polina. The lovers soon made a plan to spend the summer traveling in Europe together. Polina left for Paris and, a month or two later, Dostoevsky followed. But he had kept her waiting too long: by the time he arrived, Polina had fallen for a Spanish medical student named Salvador.
Polina was the living embodiment of Dostoevsky’s ideals, and she also happened to be beautiful.
Polina’s diaries reveal an undignified exchange, with Dostoevsky weeping and clutching at her knees. Eventually, she agreed to go traveling with him to Italy, as friends rather than lovers. Still, Dostoevsky saw a glimmer of hope when Polina was ghosted by Salvador. Both unlucky in love, the two trudged around Paris together. Looking up at the chapel of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, behind the Panthéon, Polina confessed to him that she had fantasies of assassinating the czar.
This was exactly what Dostoevsky most feared. Whereas he had once been arrested for criticizing the government, Polina’s generation was not content with mere talk. Dostoevsky desired her very much, but the pursuit was also a symbolic one: the students thought they were ushering in a socialist Utopia, but Dostoevsky knew that their Nihilism could only end in bloodshed. If he could bring Polina around to his own way of thinking, perhaps there was hope for her whole generation.
They traveled first to Baden-Baden, where Dostoevsky lost most of his money at roulette and took the opportunity to thumb his nose at his longtime literary frenemy, Ivan Turgenev. In the evening, the lovers sat together in Polina’s room, talking on the bed. They had tea brought in around 10 o’clock, and she asked him to sit close to her, and held his hand. Dostoevsky told her that he felt good, sitting with her like this. She apologized for her behavior in Paris. He told her he’d like to kiss her foot; she recoiled. They kept talking after that, but the atmosphere had curdled.
The relationship never quite recovered after that night. Dostoevsky trailed after her, from Geneva to Turin to Rome, growing increasingly exasperated. Taking the boat for the last leg of their journey, they bickered over politics, but without much enthusiasm. Polina stayed in Europe, a hotbed of socialists and exiles, and Dostoevsky went back to Russia to tend to his dying wife, his head swimming with the ideas that would animate the first of his great mature novels, Crime and Punishment.
Alex Christofi’s Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life is out now from Bloomsbury