Renowned Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky was sentenced to death on 16th November, 1849.
The event proved a precursor to one of the most well known stories of Dostoevsky’s life. Several weeks later, on 22nd December, Dostoevsky and several other prisoners were led out to Semyonovsky Square, where their were last rites were read. As the firing squad raised their guns and took aim, a last minute message was delivered – the victims had been granted a reprieve.
It’s generally argued that the reprieve had actually been granted much earlier, and that the mock execution was part of the reduced punishment given to the prisoners. Either way, Dostoevsky wouldn’t have known this, and instead spent several minutes convinced he was about to die. The event had a profound influence on his life and his writing.
Probably his most well known novel, ‘Crime and Punishment’ seems profoundly influenced by the experience. The protagonist, Raskolnikov, commits a vicious double murder at the start of the story. Throughout the remainder he is driven sick with fear and paranoia, imagining his fate but never facing it. This idea of suspension and psychological torture before the moment of punishment surely coming from Dostoevsky’s own experience.
His sentence reduced to exile and hard labour, Dostoevsky was sent to a Siberian prison camp for four years. Following his 1849 release he became a soldier on the Mongolian frontier. Shortly after getting married, Dostoevsky returned to Russia in 1859.
Dostoevsky had already written two novels, ‘Poor People’ and ‘The Double’, before his 1849 arrest. He drew the attention of the strict Tsarist government when he became involved with the Petrashevsky Circle, a group of intellectuals who had an interest in the ideas of utopian socialism practiced by Charles Fourier. When the group turned to creating illegal propaganda and fermenting revolution, they were all swiftly arrested in April 1849.
Following his long ordeal at the hands of the authorities, a new approach became apparent in Dostoevsky’s writings. The romance tinged idealism of his first two novels was replaced with a determination to portray the reality of the human spirit, and the differences between individuals. An effect of this last point was that Dostoevsky’s works were either banned or heavily censored during the Stalinist period – one of Russia’s greatest writers erased because his ideas conflicted with communist ideology and placed personal freedom above society.
His first novel following his imprisonment, ‘House of the Dead’, describes the conditions in a Russian labour camp. Serving as a harrowing account of prison life, it depicts brutally sadistic prison guards and vile, remorseless criminals who have committed some of the worst crimes imaginable. At the same time, despite the horrendous situation on display, the reader is introduced to decent people who rise above the degradation that surrounds them.
For the rest of his life Dostoevsky opposed Russia’s radical intelligentsia, seeing something dangerous in the ideas they advocated. Their materialist and utilitarian approach, combined with their deterministic view of human nature, was completely objectionable to Dostoevsky. One of his most famous works, ‘Notes From Underground’, was a direct attack on these deterministic ideas, while Dostoevsky along with his brother also edited two influential journals which served as important counterpoints to the ideas of the radicals. Just as he would become virtually invisible in the Stalinist era, so in his own time Dostoevsky often found his works in a murky area where they offended both the biggest advocates for change, and the reactionary elements in society.
Undoubtedly, the writer’s path to this unusual position was significantly shaped by the death sentence he received on 16th November, 1849.
Letters of Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoevsky to His Family and Friends
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky