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Fyodor Dostoevsky: the problems in Russian society through the lens of the expanding impact of civil liberties being granted in
 

A MOMENT OF FAITH

Published: July 9, 2014 (Issue # 1819)



  • An 1872 portrait of Dostoevsky, years after the defining day on Semenovsky Square.
    Photo: Dmitry Rezhkov / Wikimedia Commons

Fyodor Dostoevsky is a monumental figure not only in Russia, a country that reveres writers, but in global literature as well. Born in Moscow in 1821 he arrived in St. Petersburg in 1837, after the death of his mother, and two years before the death of his father.

While the life of Dostoevsky could fill up volumes, much of the writer’s influence can be traced to the moment he thought he was going to die.

Dostoevsky was a rising figure in Russian literature in the 1840s. He had already published his first novel, “Poor Folk,” in 1846 and “The Double” that same year. It was around this time Dostoevsky started attending meetings of the Petrashevsky circle, a discussion group founded by Mikhail Petrashevsky that gathered to discuss the problems in Russian society through the lens of the expanding impact of civil liberties being granted in European countries.

While Dostoevsky was an infrequent visitor to the group, he was fervently against the institution of serfdom. Over time however, Dostoevsky distanced himself from the Petrashevsky group, considering them to be too apolitical. Regardless of his minimal contributions to the group’s discussions, he and numerous others were arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress in April 1849.

A Commission of Inquiry was tasked with investigating the alleged revolutionary activities of the Petrashevsky circle but they found little to charge them with in their report submitted to Nicholas I. 28 in all were accused of some crimes and the fate of the accused, including Dostoevsky, was given to a Military-Civil court to further prosecute under military law. On Nov. 16, 1849, Dostoevsky and 14 others were sentenced to death.

In all, the charges against Dostoevsky that nearly resulted in his execution are a reflection of the unbending nature of the autocracy: reading aloud literary critic Vissarion Belinsky’s 1847 letter to Nikolai Gogol criticizing the writer for considering Russia’s social problems a result of the people’s moral failures, and failing to denounce a subversive work by another writer were two of the charges. Prosecutors also added another, stating that Dostoevsky had “taken part in deliberations about printing and distributing works against the government by means of a home lithograph.”

The Tsar was asked to show mercy on the prisoners because of their youth and lack of criminal intentions. Since Nicholas I enjoyed his position as the all-powerful yet merciful ruler, he agreed, reducing the sentences of the men charged. However, the Tsar wanted a point to be made and decided that rather than tell the men they had been granted leniency, they had to go through the terrifying ordeal of being prepared for execution before, at the last minute, being saved.

On Dec. 22, 1849, the condemned were led to Semenovsky Square and given the benediction by an Orthodox priest, offering a cross to be kissed that even Petrashevsky, a noted atheist, kissed. Three men, not including Dostoevsky, although he was in the group expected to quickly follow the first, were then tied to stakes and hoods placed over their heads as riflemen took aim.

Suddenly, a military drumroll, recognized as the call to retreat by Dostoevsky, who graduated as an engineer and second lieutenant from the Army Engineering College of St. Petersburg, signaled the end of the mock execution. An aide of the Tsar read a message conveying their pardon and new sentences, and the condemned began their new lives as prisoners. One of the men tied to the posts went insane and would eventually die a mental invalid.

Dostoevsky served four years hard labor in Siberia before being forcibly enlisted into the army as a private in the infantry. While he became devoutly religious during his time in exile, it is the moment in Semenovsky Square that is pointed to by literary critics as the turning point in not only his life but also his writing.

As Joseph Frank writes in his biography, “It is from this moment that the primarily secular perspective from which Dostoevsky had previously viewed human life sinks into the background; and what comes forward to replace or absorb it are the ultimate and agonizing ‘cursed questions’ that have always plagued mankind — the questions whose answers can be given, if at all, only by religious faith.”

The St. Petersburg Times, 10.07.2014

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