Dostoevsky & the Czar

December 22: On this day in 1849 twenty-eight-year-old Fyodor Dostoevsky was, at the last moment, granted pardon from a mock-execution orchestrated by Czar Nicholas I. Dostoevsky had been arrested eight months earlier for belonging to an underground group of political revolutionaries—"champions of communism and new ideas," as the authorities put it. Imprisoned in the Peter-Paul Fortress (run by a General Nabokov, relative of Vladimir), most in the group expected to receive a few months exile or some such wrist-slap for their idealistic talk. Instead they fell victim to a macabre drama staged personally by the Czar as a way of instilling loyalty, gratitude, and fear in his wayward subjects.

 

The group was awakened without notice and transported to the execution site in fetters and shrouds. A priest in burial vestments met them, an officer read the charges and death sentences, a cross and confession were offered, a drum-roll began to play as the first three condemned were hooded and tied to their posts, each one with a cart and coffin behind. Being in the second group of three, Dostoevsky watched, hoping for the miracle of a reprieve, and then wanting only for the end to come quickly. And then, with rifles already raised and sighted, the charade did end: someone rushed in waving a white cloth, a carriage rolled into the courtyard, a letter from the Czar announced mercy. The prisoners were then led away to their real sentences—four years in Siberia and indefinite military service in Dostoevsky's case.

 

The experience profoundly affected Dostoevsky. A letter written later the same day to his brother talks of being "reborn for the better," of pledging himself "to be a man among men, to be a man always, not to allow oneself to be broken, to fall." His life was affected in more tangible ways also. In Dostoevsky: Reminiscences, Anna Dostoevsky tells the story of being hired by the author in 1866—she a twenty-two-year-old stenographer on her first job, he forty-eight and already famous for Crime and Punishment. On the first day she found him so stern and sour that she was tempted to quit; on day two, over tea and pears, he told the tale of his mock-execution in such a way that "I could feel the gooseflesh crawling along my skin"; a month later she accepted his proposal of marriage.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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