Born in Moscow in 1821, Dostoevsky was introduced to literature at an early age through fairy tales and legends, and through books by Russian and foreign authors. His mother died in 1837 when he was 15, and around the same time, he left school to enter the Nikolayev Military Engineering Institute. After graduating, he worked as an engineer and briefly enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, translating books to earn extra money. In the mid-1840s he wrote his first novel, Poor Folk, which gained him entry into St. Petersburg's literary circles. Arrested in 1849 for belonging to a literary group that discussed banned books critical of "Tsarist Russia", he was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted at the last moment. He spent four years in a Siberian prison camp, followed by six years of compulsory military service in exile.
Dostoevsky's parents were part of a multi-ethnic and multi-denominational noble family, its branches including Russian Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics and Eastern Catholics. The family traced its roots back to a Tatar, Aslan Chelebi-Murza, who in 1389 defected from the Golden Horde and joined the forces of Dmitry Donskoy, the first prince of Muscovy to openly challenge the Mongol authority in the region, and whose descendent, Daniil Irtych, was ennobled and given lands in the Pinsk region (for centuries part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, now in modern-day Belarus) in 1509 for his services under a local prince, his progeny then taking the name "Dostoevsky" based on a village there called Dostoïevo.
Dostoevsky's immediate ancestors on his mother's side were merchants; the male line on his father's side were priests. His father, Mikhail, was expected to join the clergy but instead ran away from home and broke with the family permanently.
In 1809, the 20-year-old Mikhail Dostoevsky enrolled in Moscow's Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy. From there he was assigned to a Moscow hospital, where he served as military doctor, and in 1818, he was appointed a senior physician. In 1819 he married Maria Nechayeva. The following year, he took up a post at the Mariinsky Hospital for the poor. After the birth of his first two sons, Mikhail and Fyodor, he was promoted to collegiate assessor, a position which raised his legal status to that of the nobility and enabled him to acquire a small estate in Darovoye, a town about 150 km (100 miles) from Moscow, where the family usually spent the summers. Dostoevsky's parents subsequently had six more children: Varvara (1822–1892), Andrei (1825–1897), Lyubov (born and died 1829), Vera (1829–1896), Nikolai (1831–1883) and Aleksandra (1835–1889).