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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: It's not always boring

by Philip Martin | February 21, 2021 at 8:38 a.m.

Fyodor Dostoevsky was a curious young man in a dangerous time to be curious.

His association with Petraschevsky and his bunch was casual and expedient; he wanted to read the banned books they'd collected. He was interested in what the French writers had to say about the working class. Maybe because his own upbringing wasn't as comfortable as he let others believe.

His father was of nominal noble birth and a doctor, but a poor one who had learned his trade as an army surgeon, who housed his family of eight in three small rooms at the Mariinsky Hospital in Moscow. Who had allegedly been murdered by the serfs whose daughters he'd abused. (They'd torn him off his horse, beat him, crushed his testicles and poured vodka down his throat until he drowned.)

Dostoevsky wasn't a wide-eyed radical, like some of his new friends. He lived in a world of ideas, not of practice. He thought serfdom should be abolished, but that wasn't a subversive idea. Even Tsar Nicholas had expressed support for the idea.

Insulated from the pragmatic world of cause and consequences by intellect and literary irony, Fyodor D. could not take anything as seriously as a dull ideologue might. Sure, he was familiar with ideas the literary critic Berlinsky and others were doggedly chasing down--God and Jesus were necessary fictions that represented mankind's alienation from its highest values. God was dead, so it was time for mankind to assume the prerogatives of the divine: every man a god.

Dostoevsky could not believe that, no matter how well they debated. He would stick with Christ even if Christ was outside of Truth. He would choose Christ over Truth every time. He was prepared to reconcile his Christianity with the apparent lunacy of God.

Yet he had acted; he had regrets. He should not have taken the loan of 500 rubles from Mikolay Speshnev, a sum he feared he'd never be able to repay. Which was what Speshnev wanted; he preferred having Dostoevsky in his debt. Dostoevsky was a good man with a pen, someone to have in house if you are going to publish pamphlets and propaganda.

Dostoevsky should not have signed the pledge to fight for the abolition of serfdom Speshnev circulated. But something about the man--his Mephistopheles--was irresistible. He should not have publicly read or distributed the banned open letter Berlinsky had written to Nikolai Gogol in which he accused the writer of being a traitor to the common good for preaching allegiance to the tsar, God's agent on earth, and submission to the Orthodox Church.

Dostoevsky was sympathetic to Gogol. He didn't even like Berlinsky anymore; Berlinsky had praised his first novel, calling Dostoevsky a genius and the next Gogol, but had panned his second one (published only 15 days after the first).

Now Berlinsky was on his way to becoming an atheist. Part of the reason Dostoevsky had become involved with the radical left was to show them a Christian could be as compassionate and engaged with social reform as godless progressives.

Dostoevsky was no danger to the tsar or the Church. He was no revolutionary. It was all talk. It was ideas.

But Nicholas I had spies everywhere. And the secret police were not especially sensitive to the subtle debates intellectuals were having among themselves. A revolution was a revolution, be it of the mind or the proletariat.

So early on the morning of April 23, 1849, scarcely an hour after he'd returned from a meeting of the circle, Dostoevsky was awakened by a saber rattling lightly outside his door. Two policemen entered his room.

All over Moscow this was happening. They rounded up 33 radicals that morning; within a few days 100 "leftists" were sitting in cells in the Peter and Paul Fortress in Saint Petersburg. Dostoevsky and the others waited eight months for a trial. Some did not make it; a couple went mad, others attempted suicide. Dostoevsky kept busy, writing one novel ("A Little Hero") and outlining several others.

"I am not despondent," he wrote his brother Mikhail from prison, "it is, of course, boring and loathsome, but what can one do! And besides, it's not always boring ..."

Dostoevsky defended himself at his trial, arguing his interest in the contraband was strictly literary. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.

On Dec. 22, 1849, along with a handful of other inmates, he was taken to the snowy Semyonovsky parade ground, a public square in Saint Petersburg, to be executed by firing squad. The sentences were read and the condemned brought onto a black draped scaffold where they were allowed to kiss the cross.

They knelt and sabers were ritualistically broken over their heads, signifying their exclusion from society. Then three men were brought to the stakes where the sentence was to be carried out. Dostoevsky, in the second group, stood by watching. He was 28 years old.

The firing squad aimed and fired.

At the last moment, an announcement was made. Nicholas I was commuting the sentences. It was all a stunt. Dostoevsky would serve four years in a Siberian labor camp, and four more as a soldier patrolling the Mongolian frontier.

It would be 1859 before Dostoevsky was allowed back into Russia (and then was banned from living in Moscow or Saint Petersburg). But his post-prison work--"Crime and Punishment," "The Brothers Karamazov," "Notes From a Dead House"--dwarfs what he'd done as a young man. ("Poor Folk," that first novel, isn't nearly so good as Berlinsky claimed.)

He was a crazy gambler, he had affairs, and his politics calcified into reactionarism. He couldn't imagine a Russia with a constitution or a republican form of government; moral rot, not economic necessity, was the root of most crime; Russia should be a Christian utopia where a benevolent tsar ruled the faithful and "if everyone were actively Christian, not a single social question would come up ..."

And his reputation has dwindled over recent decades; he's fallen out of fashion.

But on a bizarrely snowy day in the midst of a pandemic, with the hot water finally restored after three days, I find myself thinking of the exultant letter Dostoevsky wrote to Mikhail in the hours after his mock execution:

"As I look back upon the past and think how much time has been spent to no avail, how much of it was lost in delusions, in mistakes, in idleness, in not knowing how to live; what little store I set upon it, how many times I sinned against my heart and spirit--for this my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, every moment could have been an age of happiness. Si jeunesse savait! [If only youth knew!]"



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