Once again Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac starts my day with a fascinating item. So many parts of this capture me, but mostly what Dostoyevsky went on to write:
It was on this day in 1849 that 28-year-old Fyodor Dostoyevsky was sentenced to death for plotting against the Russian state. The evidence: He’d been part of a group of young intellectuals who got together and discussed utopian socialist ideas and read books that had been specifically banned by the Imperial Court of Czar Nicholas. In addition, they disagreed with the political system of absolute monarchy in Russia, and they also thought that the economic system that upheld Russian serfdom was a bad one.
The Revolutions of 1848, which swept through France, Germany, Austria, and other parts of Europe during the previous year, had made the czar nervous. So he rounded up progressive thinkers and put them in prison. Dostoyevsky, already a famous writer, was a member of the Petrashevsky Circle, one of the groups that met to discuss radical liberal ideas. In the spring, he and other members of the circle were put in jail, and on this day 161 years ago he was condemned to death.
The following month, Dostoyevsky was taken out to face the firing squad. It was the middle of winter, December 22nd, a few days before Christmas, and he and his fellow condemned were taken to a public square. He wrote that day: “There the sentence of death was read out to us, we were all made to kiss the cross, a sword was broken over our heads, and we were told to put on our white execution shirts. Then three of us were tied to the posts to be executed. I was the sixth, and therefore in the second group of those to be executed. […] Then the retreat was sounded on the drums, those tied to the posts were taken back, and an order from His Imperial Majesty was read to us granting us our lives. Afterwards our sentences were read out to us.”
His death sentence was commuted to eight years of hard labor in a Siberian work camp, though in the end served only four years. He lived in crowded, filthy barracks, and told his brother that he felt like he was “shut up in a coffin” during that time. He wrote about his prison experiences in The House of the Dead (1862).
The story of Dostoyevsky’s last-minute reprieve was a story that American writer Raymond Carver loved to retell, said Carver’s friend Tobias Wolff. Wolff said, “I always had the sense he was talking about himself, too. … He had been there himself … had come very close to suffering not only physical death but also moral and spiritual annihilation.” Raymond Carver even wrote a screenplay, along with Tess Gallagher, about the life of Dostoyevsky, and his screenplay centered on the moment when Dostoyevsky was pardoned in front of the firing squad and granted his life.
Dostoyevsky lived for more than three decades after the day he appeared in front of his executioners, writing novels like Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), The Possessed (1872),and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).
In The House of the Dead (1862)he wrote,”The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”