Dostoevsky & the Czar

December 22: Onthis day in 1849 twenty-eight-year-old Fyodor Dostoevsky was, at the lastmoment, granted pardon from a mock-execution orchestrated by Czar Nicholas I.Dostoevsky had been arrested eight months earlier for belonging to anunderground group of political revolutionaries—”champions of communism andnew ideas,” as the authorities put it. Imprisoned in the Peter-PaulFortress (run by a General Nabokov, relative of Vladimir), most in the groupexpected to receive a few months exile or some such wrist-slap for theiridealistic talk. Instead they fell victim to a macabre drama staged personallyby the Czar as a way of instilling loyalty, gratitude, and fear in his waywardsubjects.

The group was awakened without notice and transported to theexecution site in fetters and shrouds. A priest in burial vestments met them,an officer read the charges and death sentences, a cross and confession wereoffered, a drum-roll began to play as the first three condemned were hooded andtied to their posts, each one with a cart and coffin behind. Being in thesecond group of three, Dostoevsky watched, hoping for the miracle of areprieve, and then wanting only for the end to come quickly. And then, withrifles already raised and sighted, the charade did end: someone rushed inwaving a white cloth, a carriage rolled into the courtyard, a letter from theCzar announced mercy. The prisoners were then led away to their realsentences—four years in Siberia and indefinite military service in Dostoevsky’scase.

The experience profoundly affected Dostoevsky. A letterwritten later the same day to his brother talks of being “reborn for thebetter,” of pledging himself “to be a man among men, to be a manalways, not to allow oneself to be broken, to fall.” His life was affectedin more tangible ways also. In Dostoevsky:Reminiscences, Anna Dostoevsky tells the story of being hired by the authorin 1866—she a twenty-two-year-old stenographer on her first job, he forty-eightand already famous for Crime andPunishment. On the first day she found him so stern and sour that she wastempted to quit; on day two, over tea and pears, he told the tale of hismock-execution in such a way that “I could feel the gooseflesh crawlingalong my skin”; a month later she accepted his proposal of marriage.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at