January 01, 2022

The Gambler Wife

The Gambler Wife
Original illustration of Anna Snitkina. Haley Bader

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 emancipated “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. After reversing the novelist’s freefall and helping him conquer his gambling addiction, Anna went on to found her own publishing house, making her the first solo female publisher in Russian history. In this scene from Chapter 12, “The Publisher,” Anna saves the manuscript of Dostoyevsky’s unpublished novel, The Adolescent, and gives us a glimpse of the moxie that made her a successful entrepreneur.

The manuscript was far from perfect, but it would have to do, since Nekrasov was expecting it any day now. On September 15, the family of five left for Petersburg, where the author was to deliver the last installments of The Adolescent and collect the remainder of his advance, which had by now become necessary to them. The weather was warm and glorious on that late‑summer day, as the gentry‑style caravan escorted the Dostoyevskys to the steamboat dock on Lake Ilmen, amid the bright tinkle of carriage bells and children’s delighted screams. The lake itself was the color of turquoise and smooth as glass, reminding Anna of the Swiss lakes from her travels nearly a decade earlier. Arriving in Novgorod at three in the afternoon, they unloaded the luggage from the steamboat, and the family was then transported to the train station.

Cover of book
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Later that evening, when it was time to depart, Anna went to fetch what she thought was her husband’s travel trunk from storage, but, on a second look, she noticed that it wasn’t his. She glanced around. There was no other black trunk in the vicinity. She grew concerned. Of all the trunks that might be lost, this one was the most unfortunate: inside it was not just her husband’s overcoat and underwear, but the manuscript for The Adolescent. Worse, the trunk contained the notebooks for the novel, without which Dostoyevsky would be helpless. Two months of intensive labor would be lost, and he would have to reconstruct his work from scratch.

Anna blamed herself, both as his wife and his business manager, for such carelessness. As she stood leaning against a counter in the baggage room, tears streaming down her cheeks, a thought flashed through her mind. Without telling her husband, she immediately hired a cab to rush her back to the dock. It was eight in the evening now, and they were racing through the shadier part of town, where she saw people creeping out of tiny streets in between large, gray warehouses. Tramps ran after them, shouting. The frightened cabbie urged the horse on so hard that it broke into a gallop. Upon reaching the dock, Anna jumped out of the carriage, stormed up the ramp to the steamship office, and banged her fists on a dark window.

“Guard, open up — open up right away!” she shouted. “Open up, grandpa, this minute! A big black travel trunk was left here, and I’ve come to get it!”

“It’s here,” a sleepy voice replied.

She asked the guard to carry the trunk to the cab, promising to tip him.

He didn’t respond. She called to the cabbie to help, but he also refused, afraid his rig might be stolen.

And so, without a moment’s hesitation, Anna ordered the guard to open the door, which he did, and “I grabbed the trunk by its handle and dragged it, stopping at every step. To make matters worse, the ramp was a long one. But I managed to lug it to the cab.” At which point the cabbie jumped out and hoisted the hundred‑forty‑pound trunk in between the seat and the coach box, and Anna climbed on top of it and sat down, “re‑ solved not to give it up even if hoodlums should attack.” Amazed, the cabbie struck his horse and started down the street, as figures emerged and started shouting at them from behind.

As they approached the railroad station, Anna caught sight of her visibly distraught husband. She told him the whole story — what they’d almost lost, what she had done to save them.

“My God!” he exclaimed. “Only think what danger you put yourself into! After all, when those rogues who followed you saw that the cabbie was driving a woman, they might have attacked you, robbed you, maimed you, killed you!” His response spoke volumes about their roles within the family: “Just think what would have happened to us, to me and the children,” he moaned, warning her fecklessly: “Oh, Anya, Anya! Your rashness will lead you to no good!”

In this, he was, of course, mistaken. It was Anna’s rashness that rescued his manuscript, averting disaster for his career and their entire family, just as her extraordinary daring, her tenacity and determination, had saved them many times before. Whether out of lingering chauvinism or a dogged need to view his wife primarily as amanuensis rather than manager, the writer seemed incapable of shaking his idealized image of Anna as “simple and angelic,” as he’d recently described her in a letter. He needed to see her as someone requiring his protection and guidance, despite all the evidence to the contrary. But there’s no sign that Anna minded this; she knew who she was and what she needed to do. All that mattered to her, on this late‑summer evening, was that The Adolescent had been saved.

Old Russian town
Novgorod waterfront, circa 1880.

Excerpted from The Gambler Wife: A True Story of Love, Risk, and the Woman Who Saved Dostoyevsky, by Andrew D. Kaufman (Riverhead Books). Reprinted with permission.

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See Also

Dostoyevsky the Gambler

Dostoyevsky the Gambler

In September 1863, Fyodor Dostoyevsky was desperate for money. The result was one of his finest works, the novel The Gambler. It would change the writer's fate in many ways.
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Fyodor Mikhailovich

Dostoyevsky is treasured the world over for his psychological novels, many written under hurried deadlines. We look at his life and art, and talk to his relatives.
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Fyodor Dostoevsky

The tormented and, often, tragic life of Russia's great 19th century author of masterpieces such as The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment.

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