December 22, 1849, Saint Petersburg: Fyodor Dostoevsky was tied, blindfolded, and led out with several other prisoners to the Semyonov Square in Saint Petersburg, where their last rites were read. The firing squad raised their guns and took aim.
But at the last moment a messenger arrived with a message from the Tsar Nicolas I—the prisoners had been granted a reprieve. It is believed that the Tsar never intended to have these prisoners shot. His regime used the methods of mock executions and last second reprieves to teach the political dissidents a lesson, and foster in them the feelings of fear, terror, and gratitude.
In his novel The Idiot (1869), Dostoevsky has shed light on the thoughts that may have been uppermost in his mind when he stood before the firing squad:
But better if I tell you of another man I met last year…this man was led out along with others on to a scaffold and had his sentence of death by shooting read out to him, for political offenses…he was dying at 27, healthy and strong…he says that nothing was more terrible at that moment than the nagging thought: “What if I didn’t have to die!…I would turn every minute into an age, nothing would be wasted, every minute would be accounted for.
Tsarist Russia had sentenced Dostoevsky to be executed by a firing squad because of his involvement in a circle that was intellectually critical of the Tsar’s rule.
In 1846, after the publication of his first book Poor Folk, Dostoevsky joined a circle of friends who had literary and political interests. The circle met regularly to read banned literature, and discuss social reforms in Russia and opposition to the policies of Tsar Nicolas I. Dostoevsky used to advocate freedom from censorship and the abolition of serfdom.
On April 23, 1849, the activities of the circle came to an end when 35 of its members (including Dostoevsky) were arrested, and locked up in St. Peter and Paul Fortress Prison which in those days used to house the most dangerous convicts.
After four months of investigation the commission headed by the Tsar reached the verdict that the members of the circle were guilty of treasonous acts like distributing letters with “abusive remarks about the Orthodox Church and Government” and conspiring to publish “anti-Government propaganda.” For this crime they were sentenced to death by a firing squad. The execution was to be carried out at the Semyonov Square in St Petersburg on December 22, 1849.
The reprieve from the Tsar did not bring immediate freedom to Dostoevsky and his friends. They were sent to work in the prison-camp in Siberia where they spent four years doing hard labor. In The House of the Dead (1861), Dostoevsky has described his prison experience.
In 1854 he was finally released on the condition that he would serve in the Siberia Regiment for a few years, which he did. He served as a soldier on the Mongolian border.
The experience with the firing squad and the years of incarceration did not stop Dostoevsky from writing. He went on writing and was eventually able to gain immense literary credibility. Dostoevsky published Crime and Punishment in 1866 to immediate success. His The Brothers Karamazov, published in 1880, is regarded as a masterpiece of Western literature.
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