In Front of the Firing Squad: Dostoevsky

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?


8 Comments Add yours

  1. vanbraman says:

    Rebecca, you asked a very interesting question. I have been thinking about this throughout the afternoon. I believe that this event had a very large impact, but there were also many other events in his life that contributed to his writing style.
    I believe that his style is based on the accumulation of both the physical and emotional hardships he endured in his life.

    1. I’m inclined to agree with you. It’s a rather impossible question to answer, as it gets into an alternate history that is obviously just speculation, but it is still fun to speculate. I feel that any major event in his life (and by major, I mean impactful and lasting) would have affected his writing, though not necessarily down to his style.

  2. sean langan says:

    Just came across this page as looking up Dostoevsky and firing squad on google. His letter written on the day of his reprieve makes sense to me. When you’re certain life is about to end, life suddenly burns as bright as the….well, I don’t want to fall into cliche on a literary site. But just to say, as someone who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, faced a firing squad and spent three months in captivity contemplating death – such intense experiences produce a profound insight where the entire universe opens up and suddenly makes sense. I’ve never felt life’s exquisite fragility quite so deeply as in those moments I experienced. Unfotunately, one cannot hold onto such insights for long and they soon fade into memory. Perhaps it’s because they’re so bright they leave a scorched earth rather than an impression. And while I’m certain they influenced Dostoevsky’s views and sensibility, adding a depth and awareness of some universal force at play – they certainly wouldn’t have affected his style. I suspect, though, they might have contributed to his destructive behaviour and gambling. Most people who’ve experienced such blinding intensity tend to self-destruct to some extent afterwards. Perhaps because they miss the burning light
    Anyway – I should stop now. But not before adding that I have, sadly, never got round to reading Dostoevsky.

    1. Try Crime and Punishment or Notes from Underground. The Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite books of all time!

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