Dostoievski’s genius responded to man’s depravity and darkest demons

Posted in Historical articles, History, Literature on Wednesday, 8 February 2012

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This edited article about Russian literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 632 published on 23 February 1974.

Dostoyevsky's reprieve, picture, image, illustration

A last-minute reprieve saved Dostoievski from the firing squad, by Ralph Bruce

A line of posts stuck up out of the winter snow. To each was secured a blindfolded man. Before them stood a firing squad in heavy, winter uniforms. It made a bleak enough picture, but one that was not uncommon in 19th century Russia.

The officer in charge of the firing squad raised his sword.

“Firing squad, attention!” he ordered. “Take aim!”

Fearing that he was only seconds from death, 28-year-old Fyodor Dostoievski, one of the blindfolded victims, muttered a prayer, still only half-believing that this could be happening to him. He was a writer, not a revolutionary. True, he was one of a circle of young men who liked to meet in secret and set the world to rights. But talk was one thing, and action was something else. Neither Dostoievski nor any of his friends had really wanted a revolution.

But that had not stopped the authorities from arresting them on a charge of plotting against the State and promptly sentencing them to death.

“Stop! Orders from the Tsar!” cried an orderly as he ran towards the firing squad, waving a sheet of paper. Reluctantly, the officer-in-charge ordered his men to lower their rifles, and read the message. Finally he turned to his trembling prisoners.

“You are lucky! His Majesty has chosen to be merciful to you treacherous scum,” he said. “It’s not death for you this time. It’s Siberia instead.”

Siberia! Even in this moment of relief, Dostoievski felt a chill of foreboding. The Siberian penal settlements of the distant north-east were places that Russians spoke about in hushed voices. It was to those icy wastes that political trouble makers were sent, and it was well known that few of them ever came back. Those who survived the experience spoke of sufferings so appalling that, in comparison, death before a firing squad was infinitely preferable.

Not that Dostoievski had any choice. While St Petersburg was celebrating Christmas, the young writer was driven off through the falling snow with chains upon his ankles and wrists. He was not to see civilisation again for four long years.

Political unrest in France had made the Russian authorities very sensitive to the danger of revolutions. But for this it seems unlikely that Dostoievski’s harmless political activities would have been dealt with so ruthlessly.

Of a good family, he had held a commission as an engineer-officer for three years before abandoning the army in favour of a literary career. His first novel, “Poor People,” had been widely acclaimed, and within four years he had established himself as the most promising young writer in Russia.

There was no railway to carry Dostoievski and his fellow prisoners to their new life in Siberia. They were packed into closed sleighs, and for eighteen days they headed for the Urals, the grim mountain range that traditionally forms a dividing line between Europe and Asia. On these freezing slopes, the prison sleighs paused for a week. Then they went on again, until finally they drew up at a township of ramshackle huts, isolated in a world of snow. This, they were told by their grim guards, was the prison camp of Omsk. Here, those who died were lucky.

Incredibly, Dostoievski survived. He was not physically strong, had a history of nervous disorders and liked nothing better than to be left in complete solitude. Yet, he lived through the endless winters in rotting wooden huts in which even the inside walls were covered with ice. He remained undefeated by brutal guards who flogged and branded men for trivial breaches of discipline. Chained, herded with scores of other men, he even adjusted himself to never being alone.

Finally, after four years, Dostoievski was freed. At first, he was sent to a regiment as a private soldier. But although he was still stationed in Siberia, life for him was a thousand times better than it had been in prison. He found friends who could keep him supplied with books, and he even married. But most important of all, he was able to write again.

Dostoievski had always written of the poor and oppressed. Now, with his prison experiences burnt into his mind, he had the subject of a book ready made. He called it “Memoirs of the House of the Dead” and it was to be an immediate success.

Even when they had completed their sentences, political prisoners were not allowed to return to their old homes and usually lived out their lives in Siberia. Dostoievski wrote to all his influential friends in an effort to secure permission to return to St Petersburg. He even petitioned the Tsar and finally ten years after his arrest, he found himself back in the Russian capital. Now, he thought, life could begin again.

Dostoievski’s brother, Michael, had done well in the tobacco business and is even remembered today as the man who first hit upon the idea of offering free gifts with cigarettes. But with the return of Fyodor, he decided to go into the publishing business and took over control of a literary magazine.

For a time the brothers did quite well. Always a fast writer, Fyodor produced novel after novel which, although well received, still showed only occasional flashes of their author’s growing interest in the theme of good and evil that he was to use with such good effect in the years to come.

Michael Dostoievski died in 1864, and Fyodor found himself with heavy debts, a failing magazine, and the responsibility of providing for his brother’s widow and family. On top of this, Fyodor’s wife died, and what money he received from his books was lost on his new passion: gambling at roulette.

It was a situation that would have daunted a much more stable man than Dostoievski who, in addition to his other troubles, was suffering from epileptic fits. Badgered on all sides by creditors, and exploited by a firm of ruthless publishers, Dostoievski chose the only course open to him: he began to write at desperate speed.

His creditors sat back and waited. They could have sent the unfortunate author to prison for debt, but they realised that if they kept him working they might at least get a little money from time to time. So Dostoievski wrote night and day, and as soon as he earned a few roubles they were snatched either by tradesmen or by some member of his greedy and unsympathetic family. One might imagine that in these circumstances, the first book Dostoievski turned out in his race against time would have been an unremarkable “pot boiler.” In fact, it was one of the world’s greatest masterpieces of fiction, “Crime and Punishment.”

In 1867, it was clear that his money affairs were getting worse instead of better, but luckily Dostoievski decided to marry again. His second wife, Anna, was young, tough and sensible. She could see that only ruin awaited her husband in Russia, so she took him abroad and for four years they wandered around Europe. Much of the time Dostoievski spent gambling in casinos, but under Anna’s influence he still wrote.

“The Gambler,” “The Idiot” and “The Demons” poured from his pen. The flow ended with “The Brothers Karamazov” in which Dostoievski showed how deeply he understood the workings of the human mind.

He was now at the height of his powers, and when he returned to Russia in 1871 he was acknowledged as one of the finest masters of the novel.

As though to make up for his early sufferings, the rest of Dostoievski’s life was remarkably happy. With his literary fame assured, and Anna constantly at his side, he became a kind of national legend. Scores of admirers were constantly calling at his home, and hundreds of Russians wrote to him, asking for advice on many subjects, as though his experiences had given him a special wisdom. Undoubtedly they had.

When he died, in 1881, he was holding the Bible he had kept with him through his years in the prison camp at Omsk. Thirty thousand people followed his coffin to its final resting place. The genius who had himself been little influenced by other writers, had left an indelible impression not only on Russian literature, but also on writers throughout the world.

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