Two Centuries of Dostoevsky

Shortly after dawn on the Saturday morning of December 22, 1849, twenty-eight-year-old Fyodor Dostoevsky stood on a black-draped scaffold erected on the drilling ground at Semyonovsky Square in his native St. Petersburg and prepared to die before a firing squad. It was a cold, overcast Russian winter day, with flakes of snow falling at the condemned man’s feet. There are conflicting reports about how he approached his place of execution. Some observers claim that he walked with calm, measured steps; others that he was gripped by a “mystical terror” and seemed barely to fathom what was happening to him. Dostoevsky was bound to a stake between two other men, a biblical trinity he would surely have recognized, with nine more prisoners awaiting their turn. All twelve had been convicted of what the presiding court called a “conspiracy of ideas” to undermine the Tsarist regime. On the frozen ground behind the scaffold stood a row of carts laden with twelve empty coffins.

There was a steady drumroll, then a black-uniformed officer stepped forward onto the platform and began to read the death sentences. The words came out in gusty bursts in the frigid morning air. Dostoevsky and the other condemned men remained silent. They were not blindfolded and wore only their light summer clothes.

“After careful consideration, the Military Court has reached the conclusion that all of the accused are guilty as charged, whether to a greater or lesser degree, of plotting to overthrow the Fatherland’s existing laws and natural order, and are therefore sentenced to the ultimate penalty.”

There was a further delay as each of the twelve men was then addressed individually. By now a crowd of several hundred curious citizens had gathered in silent witness to the spectacle. The snow was beginning to fall harder.

“The former Engineer Lieutenant Dostoevsky,” the officer continued, “for participation in criminal plans, for the circulation of a private letter containing rash statements against the Orthodox Church and the highest authorities, and for the attempt to distribute subversive works with the aid of a lithograph—a sentence of death is pronounced.”

A black-robed priest then mounted the scaffold and faced the first trio of prisoners at the stake. He quoted Romans 6: “The wages of sin is death.” Yet by recognizing their sins, the condemned could still hope to inherit eternal life. All three of the bound men silently kissed the priest’s cross when it was offered to them.

There was another drumroll. No fewer than forty-eight soldiers, in three rows of sixteen, shufflingly took up position in front of the scaffold, their rifles cocked. Their commanding officer raised his sword as a signal for them to take aim. And at that precise moment, with the condemned men agonizingly suspended between life and death, a carriage turned the corner and raced onto the cobbled square, a uniformed official frantically waving a white cloth from the window. The firing squad held its position as a deep-chested man in military braid leapt down from the coach and ran to the presiding officer with a sealed envelope.

It contained a slip of paper bearing the news that the condemned men had been reprieved by gracious order of the Tsar. They would instead merely be sent into exile. It later emerged that the whole episode at Semyonovsky Square had been a piece of macabre theater. The mock execution was in fact part of the men’s punishment. One of the three individuals who had been tied to the stake that morning went permanently insane. One was never heard from again. The third one went on to write Crime and Punishment.

That ghoulish charade in the drill square was not quite the end of Dostoevsky’s ordeal, however, because he spent the next four years in exile with hard labor at a prison camp in Siberia. He later described the living conditions: “In summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors were rotten. Filth an inch thick.… We were packed like herrings in a barrel. There was no room to turn around. We behaved like pigs.”

It’s not necessary to descend into the briar patch of psychiatry to conclude that Dostoevsky’s intimate familiarity with the cycle of man’s suffering and grace was to become a principal source of his novels. They may seem to us to be a touch on the somber side as a result. A budding artist exposed to the spectacle of emaciated bodies and degradation doesn’t have the same instincts as one weaned on the products of Walt Disney. But then again, Dostoevsky’s aren’t the sorts of books that find any particular virtue in sharing the boredom and melancholy of the author’s own life. He recognizes the central truth that art should lift us out of the dreariness of the day-to-day, not rub our faces in it.

Crime of various sorts is clearly a theme, or an obsession, of the Dostoevsky canon. But what most elevates him from the mere period horror writer is his ability to tease out the moral complexities of each case, and even on occasion to identify with the offender, surely another direct consequence of his insights into his fellow inmates in Siberia. Of a bandit chief named Orlov, for instance, Dostoevsky wrote: “He was a criminal such as there are few, who had murdered old people and children in cold blood—a man of terrible strength of will and proud consciousness of his strength.” Far from having lost his humanity, however, Orlov was “a case of complete triumph over the flesh. It was evident that the man’s power of control was unlimited, that he despised every sort of torment, and was afraid of nothing in the world.”

In short, whatever one made of his other moral values, Orlov was a person of extraordinary self-possession, rather than merely a caricature of society’s preconceptions of evil, and Dostoevsky notes being “struck by his strange haughtiness. He looked down on everything with incredible disdain, though he made no effort to maintain his lofty attitude. It was somehow natural.”

So, yes, Dostoevsky still matters. His best books are a scathing examination of the human spirit under duress. They are also nasty, violent, ironic, racy, and at times mordantly funny. There may be no more polarizing author in the annals of literature. The philosopher Vladimir Solovyov based his theological concept of “Godmanhood” on novels such as Crime and Punishment, while Franz Kafka saw in them the key to understanding man’s lower behavior. Now more than ever, perhaps, given the debased times we live in, Dostoevsky is important precisely because he polishes the mundane and sometimes sordid lives of the commonplace into such compelling prose—into poetry, really, thanks to his narrative gifts and the translator’s art.

At his best, Dostoevsky combines a seemingly effortless reportage style with an undercurrent of gothic surrealism. It’s as though Agatha Christie were somehow to have come to collaborate with Jean-Paul Sartre. Or perhaps even that literary mélange might not quite match the Russian’s unique familiarity with man’s fallen nature. Once, in Siberia, after complaining about the prison food, Dostoevsky was given fifty lashes and was in hospital for a month. Shortly afterward, he began to experience violent seizures, and his fellow inmates would tie him to his bunk while he writhed in agony, the beginning of the recurrent epileptic fits that the writer found both exquisitely painful and morally uplifting. “God exists! God exists!” he sometimes shouted whilst in the throes of a convulsion. Dostoevsky later referred to the epilepsy as his “holy disease” and said of it: “In those moments, I experienced a joy that is unthinkable under ordinary circumstances, and of which most people have no comprehension. I felt that I was in complete harmony with myself and the whole world, and this feeling was so bright and strong that you would give up ten years for a few seconds of that ecstasy—yes, even your whole life.”

Not perhaps your standard modern novelist, then, whose characters are made mouthpieces for political opinions, or whose ceaseless social media posts are typified by their banality of expression, relentless self-promotion, and absence of inhibition. There are ruminations on the themes of guilt and redemption in Dostoevsky beyond the scope of almost any other chronicler of the human condition of the past two thousand years. As no less than Ernest Hemingway said: “In Dostoevsky there were things unbelievable and not to be believed, but some so true they changed you as you read them; frailty and madness, wickedness and saintliness, and the insanity of gambling were there to know as you knew the landscape and the roads in Turgenev.”

T.S. Eliot called 1879’s The Brothers Karamazov “the first and finest theological drama of its century, [and] the equal to anything Russian literature has produced.” That, one imagines, might have elicited a snort of contradiction from the author of 1877’s Anna Karenina, but the compliment is surely not far off the mark. For Dostoevsky, the novel was a kind of extended thought experiment, a way of testing an idea against reality. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov never consciously decides to kill the old woman; instead, the whole thing unfolds in a sort of ghastly dream state, as though the murderer were merely observing himself perform the act and dispassionately recording his sensations.

The final extension of this idea of the novel as a moral test is probably The Idiot, which Dostoevsky wrote and published in installments, with no idea in advance how the plot would develop, a sort of literary high-wire act only the most skillful of performers should undertake. Once again, the central theme is that the sinful state of mind is as much to be condemned as the sinful action. And yet Dostoevsky recognizes the possibility of redemption for the most lowly of characters. Might it even be possible to see the novel’s Prince Myshkin as a sort of Christ figure, a man who literally turns the other cheek, draws little children to him, and finds it in his heart to accept the morally sullied Nastasya Filippovna? It cannot be entirely coincidental that following his death Dostoevsky was found to have underlined the passage of his King James Bible dealing with the story of the sinful woman: “Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much; but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.”

Dostoevsky was born in Moscow on November 11, 1821, which places him a few years ahead of Tolstoy and a few years after the likes of Turgenev and Pushkin among the pantheon of nineteenth-century Russian literature. The second of eight children, the future author of The Possessed came from an impoverished clerical household. His father, Mykhail, was a profoundly religious, low-ranking army doctor who enjoyed a drink and died at the age of 49, possibly murdered by serfs working on his small plot of land; his mother Maria agonizingly succumbed to tuberculosis when her son was fifteen. The teenager was sent to a military academy as a consequence but seems not to have distinguished himself in uniform. As his friend and fellow cadet Konstantin Trutovsky was to admit, “There was no student in the entire institution with less of a military bearing than F.M. Dostoevsky. He moved clumsily and jerkily; his clothes hung awkwardly on him; and his knapsack, shako, and rifle all looked like some sort of fetter he had been forced to wear.”

Thin, short, and pale-complexioned even in the summer months, a future long-term martyr to epilepsy and other diseases, he was remembered for his lugubrious expression, intensity of speech, and the pungent cigarettes he rolled and smoked in industrial quantities. Vladimir Solovyov once said of Dostoevsky’s face that it reminded him of an Old Believer who had just emerged from years of solitary confinement, marked as it was by a “rare spiritual life.”

In 1843, Dostoevsky took a job as an apprentice engineer and lodged at the home of a family friend named Rizenkampf who later remembered him in alarming terms. “Thoughts were born in his head like the spray from a whirlpool… His brilliant natural gift for recitation threatened to burst the restraints of his artistic self-discipline. His hoarse voice would grow to a screaming pitch, he foamed at the mouth, he gesticulated, yelled, and spat.”

Dostoevsky’s first novel, Poor Folk, appeared to some acclaim in 1845. Soon he was turning out essays and stories in a sort of creative frenzy, none of them as successful as his debut. A love affair went awry, leading to an apparent suicide attempt. After suffering further mishaps, Dostoevsky found himself in a small utopian-socialist St. Petersburg literary circle, a tightly knit group which at least helped him to survive but in time led to the gruesome pantomime of Semyonovsky Square.

On his return from exile he married for the first time and was even more miserably unhappy as a result. His wife died in 1864, and in short order he took his secretary, twenty-five years his junior, as her successor. They had four children, three of whom survived to adulthood.

The other salient facts of Dostoevsky’s life are that he was a chronic, and appallingly inept, roulette addict—perhaps something about the essential masochism of gambling appealed to him—and he remained consumed to the bitter end by the thought that he had never established his reputation. Between the family tragedies and the money troubles and the epilepsy there was quite a lot of grief to cope with. He was an odd bird, and in the final analysis, it seems, probably a lonely one.

“He spoke little,” an observer wrote of Dostoevsky’s demeanor at the St. Petersburg salon he frequented in the latter part of his life, “but the expression on his pale, nervous face told everyone that he was giving careful thought to each single sentence.”

Dostoevsky’s biographer Geir Kjetsaa has remarked of his behavior on these occasions:

As a partner in conversation Dostoevsky could be sour-tempered and quite unpredictable. For the most part he sat alone and contented himself with watching the other guests mistrustfully out of the corner of his eye. Then suddenly he would become worked up over nothing. A single word that displeased him brought forth a flood of insults. “Why the devil are you sitting here talking about this? Why do we have to listen to such drivel?” The guests would stiffen with horror when he erupted in this manner. What if he were about to have an attack of epilepsy that would spoil the day?

Of course, pleasure in a book carries little guarantee where the author is concerned, and the likes of 1868’s The Idiot—the most personal of Dostoevsky’s major works—bear all the marks of having been written by a man who found difficulty in getting along with polite society. His redeeming quality remains in his relentless exploration, personal no less than literary, of the conflict between intellect and faith and between the source of evil and the redemptive power of Christianity. As Dostoevsky remarked in his Siberian exile: “I believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, brave, and perfect than Christ. With a jealous love, I say to myself, not only that his equal cannot be found, but that it does not exist. And more, if someone should bring me proof that Christ is outside the truth, then I should prefer to remain with Christ than with the truth.”

There surely lies the core of Dostoevsky’s enduring appeal. His best novels deal in what he called “broadness.” “Here the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart,” he says in The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky’s plots are full of scandals, conspiracies, affairs, suicides, and other crises. They’re as soaked in death as Stephen King’s are, perhaps unsurprisingly for an author whose near-execution remained the governing event of his life. Yet all the tales of man’s fallen nature and capacity for evil are united by Dostoevsky’s generosity: despite it all, he was a compassionate man whose cadences were those of a writer who devoutly believed in goodness.

Serious and deeply reserved—except when casually losing his money at roulette—the great author had few friends but loved at least three women deeply, and at the same time. He also had a profound love of Mother Russia, and he treated the few foreign characters in his books as ciphers: the Germans were stolid, the Italians noisy, and so on. Music moved him and he had a particular fondness for his near-contemporary Pyotr Tchaikovsky, which seems to have been one-sided. Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest in 1881: “I am reading The Karamazovs and am yearning to finish it soon. [Dostoevsky] is a writer of genius, but an antipathetic one. The more I read, the more he weighs down on me.”

As Tchaikovsky says, Dostoevsky’s plots deal in “ceaseless drama,” which would seem to make him even more pertinent to our age of constant existential crisis. A certain sky-is-falling hysteria dear to the hearts of our modern political rulers runs as a throughline to his books. The difference, of course, is that he leavens the rhetoric with generous helpings of self-depreciatory insight into both his characters and their creator.

Dostoevsky kept a diary almost all his life. All authors are, to some extent, self-obsessed, and the outcome can be lethal. The reader may have his or her own candidate when it comes to the most egregious of the many available examples of the modern trend toward the emotionally emetic memoir. In 1873, however, Dostoevsky published the first in a series of nonfiction commentaries and semifictional essays that were eventually bound into the two-volume Diary of a Writer. Unlike most such collections, this represented a genuine attempt by the author to connect with his readers, who in their turn provided material for fresh articles. In a piece entitled “The Environment,” Dostoevsky addressed the central theme of his life and career, the issue of crime and its consequences and of our collective responsibility for the actions of others.

If we consider that we ourselves are sometimes even worse than the criminal, we thereby also acknowledge that we are half to blame for his crime. If we were better, then he, too, would be better and would not now be standing here before us. … But to flee from our own pity and excuse everyone so as not to suffer ourselves—why, that’s too easy. Doing that, we slowly and surely come to the conclusion that there are no crimes at all, and the environment is to blame for everything. We eventually reach the point where we consider crime even a duty, a noble protest against our lot. “Since society is organized in such a vile fashion, one can only break out of it with a knife in hand.” So runs the doctrine of the environment, as opposed to Christianity, which, fully recognizing the pressure of the environment and having proclaimed mercy for the sinner, still places a moral duty on the individual to struggle with his circumstances and marks the point where the environment ends and duty begins.

These lines, or some suitably abridged version, should surely be etched in stone on the wall of every courthouse in the United States today.

Elsewhere, Dostoevsky recorded his central view of human nature—one not untainted by a degree of authorial vanity—when he wrote in his notebook:

I am proud that I was the first to describe a true representative of the Russian majority, the first to show the ugly and tragic side of his soul … I am the only one who has portrayed the tragedy of the underground, a tragedy that comes from suffering, from the recognition that there exists something better that cannot be reached, and not least from the conviction of these people that all human beings are alike so that it does not pay to get on an even keel.

Again, there would seem to be something universal about a reflection intended for its writer’s eyes only. Many of the articles in The Diary and the posthumously published notebooks are permeated with Dostoevsky’s true despair of the human condition, tempered only by his faith in the redemptive power of faith. Like Tolstoy, he elevated the simple, God-fearing peasant above the most mentally sophisticated materialist. A reader once enquired of Dostoevsky in his later years if in light of his own struggles he had perhaps become an agnostic. “No, I am a deist, a philosophical deist!” he immediately replied. “People have simply failed to understand me. … I merely wished to show that one cannot live without Christianity.”

In June 1880, the elite of Russia’s intellectual life gathered in Moscow for the unveiling of a monument to Alexander Pushkin. It was the city’s first such celebration of culture, rather than of arms or politics, and the statue itself had been erected on public initiative and with public funds. The proceedings lasted three days and included speeches, banquets, a church service, literary and musical presentations, and an overall atmosphere that seems to have been midway between a reverent national commemoration and a protracted vodka binge.

Dostoevsky was the featured speaker, and his remarks, interpolating his own thoughts with those of an imaginary party, as if they were arguing, went some way to elevating him to the status of a latter-day prophet.

“It is true that our land is poor,” Dostoevsky observed,

But through it Jesus Christ once wandered, blessing as He went. Why, then, should we not be able to bear His last words within us? The vast majority go only so far as to play the liberal, with a tinge of socialism. What happens if a man has not begun to be disturbed, while another man has already come up against a bolted door and violently beaten his head against it? The same fate awaits all men in their turn unless they walk in the saving road of humble communion with the people.

“The solution of the question has already been whispered in accordance with the faith and justice of the people,” Dostoevsky continued. “It is to humble yourself, proud man, and first of all break down your pride. Humble yourself, idle man, and first of all labor on your native land. That is the solution according to the wisdom and justice of the people. Truth is not outside thee, but in thyself. If thou conquer and subdue thyself, then thou wilt be free, and thou wilt begin a great work and make others free.”

By the end of the speech, Russia had become a symbol of the realization of Dostoevsky’s vision of universal brotherhood.

“Oh, the nations of Europe know how dear they are to us,” he concluded,

And in time I believe that we—not we, of course, but our children to come—will all without exception understand that to be a true Russian does indeed mean to aspire finally to reconcile the contradictions of Europe, to find resolution of European yearning in our pan-human and all-uniting Russian soul, to include within our soul by brotherly love all our brethren. At last it may be that Russia pronounces the final Word of the great general harmony, of the final brotherly communion of all nations in accordance with the law of the gospel of Christ!

Clearly this was some way removed from the standard remarks expected at a statue unveiling, and there seems to have been an outbreak of something like rock concert-like pandemonium as a result. As even the Russian state prosecutor Anatoly Koni, not known for his flights of rhetorical fancy, later told Dostoevsky’s daughter: “As we sat listening to your father we were completely transported. It was as though the walls in the auditorium had been replaced by a gigantic bonfire. If your father had pointed at this bonfire and said, ‘Let us now rush into the flames and die in order to save Russia!’ we would all have followed him as one, happy and content to be able to die for the Fatherland.”

Dostoevsky himself modestly recalled: “When at the end of my speech I called for the universal reconciliation of human beings, the public grew completely hysterical. People sobbed and wept and threw their arms around one another, solemnly promising to become better, and not hate, but love one another. The curtain-calls lasted for half an hour.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky died eight months later, on February 9, 1881, at home in St. Petersburg. He suffered grievously in the final twenty-four hours of his life. His last recorded words were to ask for his wife to read from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, at the passage in which Jesus comes to John to be baptized with the remark, “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.” After that, Dostoevsky added simply, “Permit it. Do not restrain me.”

Reprinted from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Christopher Sandford

Christopher Sandford has published acclaimed biographies of Kurt Cobain, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Imran Khan, Harold Macmillan, John F. Kennedy, Steve McQueen, and Roman Polanski. He is also the author of Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. He has worked as a film and music writer and reviewer for over 20 years, and frequently contributes to newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Rolling Stone has called him “the pre-eminent author in his field today.”

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