October 22, 2017
The Death and Wife of DostoevskyOn 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, all of these "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. Snow fell as the first three were hooded and tied to their posts, each one with a cart and coffin behind. Being in the second group of three, Dostoevsky watched and hoped: "Imagine that I am turned back to life," he remembered thinking later, "imagine how endless it will seem. A whole eternity! And this eternity will belong to me!" This soon changed to resignation, "a profound indifference" about life, and a wish that the end would come more 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 sealed letter announcing the Czar's mercy was read out. The prisoners were then led away to their real sentences, four years in Siberia and indefinite military service in Dostoevsky's case, the asylum for the prisoner who had lost his mind.
The experience profoundly affected Dostoevsky, and in multiple ways. 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 -- this is life's goal and meaning." Not only were his outlook, his politics, his writing and his health affected (it was in the Siberian prison camp that Dostoevsky had his first epileptic fit), but even his love life. In Dostoevsky: Reminiscences, Anna Dostoevsky tells the story of being hired by Dostoevsky in 1866 to take the dictation of his new novel, The Gambler -- she a twenty-two-year-old stenographer on her first job, the author 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.
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