The world almost never had Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov. In 1849 the famous Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, 27 years old, was sentenced to death.
As a young man Dostoevsky hated the institution of serfdom. He joined political organizations that stood for its abolishment, eventually participating in a radical group called Speshnev’s secret revolutionary society. This, unfortunately, brought him to the attention of Tsar Nikolai I.
Dostoevsky and the other members were arrested and placed into solitary confinement for six months. Then they were brought out for the firing squad.
Their sentences were read. They were dressed in special clothes for the execution. A cross was passed around to be kissed. The first group of three men were tied to stakes in front of the firing squad. Dostoevsky was in the second group of three.
The soldiers took aim. And then a rider came into the square and produced a pardon for the lot of them. Instead they were sentenced to four years hard labor in Siberia.
On that very day Dostoevsky wrote in a letter to his brother:
I did not whimper, complain and lose courage. Life, life is everywhere, life is inside us… There will be people beside me, and to be a man among people is to remain a man forever… that is life, that is the task of life…
The mock execution had a profound effect on Dostoevsky. It was an epiphany of life for him, a concept central to both Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. (Others didn’t take the event so constructively: apparently two went permanently insane after the event.)
The question is: had Dostoevsky simply been sentenced to hard labor in the first place, would these books have turned out even close to the way they did?