"Our Lord Christ spoke of this anguish and dread" - Dostoevsky's Descent into the House of the Dead

22 December 1849 in St Petersburg, sentenced to death by Tsar Nicolas I for high treason, the "new Gogol", 28 years old Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky, author of the novels "Poor Folk" and "The Double", is put before a firing squad.

"You may place a soldier before a cannon’s mouth in battle, and fire upon him—and he will still hope. But read to that same soldier his death-sentence, and he will either go mad or burst into tears. Who dares to say that any man can suffer this without going mad? No, no! it is an abuse, a shame, it is unnecessary—why should such a thing exist? Doubtless there may be men who have been sentenced, who have suffered this mental anguish for a while and then have been reprieved; perhaps such men may have been able to relate their feelings afterwards. Our Lord Christ spoke of this anguish and dread. No! no! no! No man should be treated so, no man, no man!” (Dostoevsky, "The Idiot")

A sketch of the parade ground of the Semionovsky Regiment at the moment of the execution of the death sentence on 22 December 1849

There is a story that young Fedya saw a horse clubbed to death by a drunken peasant in one of the villages close to the estate of Darovoye where he used to spent several summers. The boy broke away from his father, ran to the tortured creature lying close to death in the mud, enfolded the neck of the horse in his scrawny arms and cried, quite like a German philosopher 60 years later, who was about to lose his mind in Turin. Fedya’s father, back then in 1832, was rather dismissive of his son’s existential grief, dragged him away, unaware that he just had witnessed a scene that would go down in world literature as one of the most gripping moments in the fictional biography of one of the most unusual heroes, or rather anti-heroes, of an outstanding novel. Of course, he was far from suspecting that he himself would be clubbed to death by the peasants of the Darovoye estate a couple of years later and inspire another primal scene in the novels his son would write. When the latter heard the news of his father’s demise, he was struck down by an epileptic seizure for the first time in his life. Out of guilt over the repressed wish for his hated father’s death, as Freud himself interpreted the beginning of the condition that would haunt Dostoevsky for the rest of his life. And he hated his father and not only for forcing him into a military career. He dreamed of the dying horse when he travelled to Petersburg to join the Nikolayev Military Engineering Institute, a year after his mother had died of tuberculosis, just as his first wife would and many of the key characters of his novels. Young Dostoevsky became a miserable engineer and a worse cadet, left the army never the less after being promoted to lieutenant and decided to become a writer. Fedya wrote a few social-romantic novels, a bit lachrymose, quite in the popular Western fashion and was celebrated by the contemporary star critic Vissarion Belinsky as the “new Gogol” for his debut “Poor Folk”, an epistolary novel about the relationship of rich and poor. Alexander Herzen thought it a major socialist work. Unfortunately, the Third Section of the Imperial Chancellery, the Tsar’s secret police, thought the same. Ex-Lieutenant Dostoevsky was under observation just as he began to gain literary fame.

Vasily Fiodorovitch Timm: "The Decembrist Revolt" (1853)

Naturally, the aspiring writer was a member of a reader circle. In Dostoevsky’s case it was a congregation of the brainy, socialist types the Third Section loved so well, self-styled successors of the Decembrists, a group of officers, “aristocratic revolutionaries” as Lenin put it later, who refused to take an oath on Tsar Nicholas and his reactionary regime. Their revolt was put down in December 1825, the ring leaders were hanged, the rest went to Siberia, about 600 men and their families who followed them into the punishment camps and exile. Ever since, the Third Section was on the alert and especially suspicious of the types that made up the Petrashevsky Circle. Named after its founder Mikhail Petrashevsky, they were something of a socio-Christian group, read progressive texts, often censored literature and journals, in short, "the most innocent and harmless company", as the professional anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, certainly not a member, wrote to Herzen. It was, however, enough to get them arrested. All of them. One of their members was a mole and betrayed the Petrashevskys, Dostoevsky and his brother Mikhail among them, to the Third Section in April 1849. Detained in Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress like dangerous criminals, the brothers Dostoevsky and 14 other Petrashevskys were tried for high treason by a military court. Main charge against Dostoevsky: Having read Belinsky’s “Letter to Gogol” that criticised autocracy, serfdom and Orthodox religion aloud to others. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad like the others of the Petrashevsky Circle. On the day when the judgement was to be executed, they were driven to the parade ground of the Semionovsky Regiment, Dostoevsky was assigned to be in the second batch and had to watch Petrashevsky and two others in the first. They were tied to poles, got a sack over their heads, heard the orders “Ready!” and “Aim!” shouted by the captain of the firing squad and then everything stopped. The Tsar’s pardon had arrived, literally in the last second, the timing was orchestrated by Nicholas himself. In his own handwriting, Tsar Nicholas had commuted Dostoevsky’s death sentence into 4 years of hard labour in a katorga, a prison camp in Siberia, and 5 years of serving as a line soldier in a Siberian regiment, little better than the katorga itself. And off he went, 28 years old Fedya, celebrated author of social-romantic novels and member of a socio-Christian reading circle, to the House of the Dead.

An image of Dostoevsky probably from the late 1850s

“The testimony of Dostoevski is relevant to this problem — Dostoevski, the only psychologist, incidentally, from whom I had something to learn; he ranks among the most beautiful strokes of fortune in my life, even more than my discovery of Stendhal. This profound human being, who was ten times right in his low estimate of the superficial Germans, lived for a long time among the convicts in Siberia — hardened criminals for whom there was no way back to society — and found them very different from what he himself had expected: they were carved out of just about the best, hardest, and most valuable wood that grows anywhere on Russian soil.”, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in his “Twilight of Idols” after reading Dostoevsky’s testimony of his time in Siberia. The autobiography “House of the Dead” was written in 1862, four years before his first major novel, “Crime and Punishment”, was published. He was released in 1859, arrived in Petersburg in 1860, penniless, still under police surveillance, with the keyed up, tubercular wife he had married in Semipalatinsk, together with her parasitic kin obviously, and "Because of her strange, suspicious and fantastic character, we were definitely not happy together, but we could not stop loving each other; and the more unhappy we were, the more attached to each other we became", Dostoevsky mentioned later. His life continued to be novel-like, self-imposed, more often than not, but it was as if he had gone through a crucible back there in Siberia, and young Fedya returned from death as the author of some of the greatest literary works in human history.
Read more about Dostoevsky on: