As a fledgling writer, Dostoevski was drawn to humanitarian idealism. Opposing the absolutist rule of Czar Nicholas I, he attended meetings of a revolutionary group called the Petrashevsky Circle, but more out of curiosity than from true revolutionary zeal. In 1849 he and others were arrested at a meeting; he was imprisoned for eight months, tried, and sent to Siberia. But before this sentence was announced, Dostoevski was among the members of the Petrashevsky who were tied to posts and told they were about to be executed until a pardon arrived from the czar at the last moment. This experience had a traumatic affect on Dostoevski, aggravating the epilepsy with which he was already afflicted.
In December, 1949, Dostoevski was sent to a prison in Siberia. After spending four years there, he spent another four years in the Russian army in the Far East. From these experiences later came one of his most impressive works, Memoirs from the House of the Dead (1861). Ironically, the experiences also brought about his conversion to conservatism and gave him respect for Russia’s authoritarian system. This change was effected by Dostoevski’s admiration for the simple Russian peasants he met in prison, their stoic suffering despite injustice, and their deep religious faith in God and the czar.
Dostoevski returned to St. Petersburg in 1859 with a new philosophical and political outlook. Two years later he began to express his conservative views in Time, a political journal that he edited with his brother. It advocated a democratic and Christian nationalism and faith in the peasants. After having trouble with censors who suppressed the publication of some issues for alleged subversive material, the Dostoevski brothers were forced to reissue their journal in 1864 as The Epoch. Financial difficulties and the deaths of Dostoevski’s wife and brother eventually forced Dostoevski to abandon this journal. Later, however, he published An Author’s Diary (1876- 1877, 1880-1881), with a similar outlook. He was also forced to go abroad, but mostly because of his gambling debts.
In his novels, Dostoevski based his conservative views on humanism and the need to support the poor and oppressed. In Insulted and Injured (1862) he sided with those who were kept down by life circumstances and by the insensitivity of fellow man. In Crime and Punishment (1866) he showed understanding for a young woman who was forced into prostitution in order to help her family. In The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880) he again spoke for an innocent Russian against the accusations and conviction brought on by the authorities. For such stances he was often criticized in some quarters and by authorities, but he persisted in championing the oppressed.
At about four o’clock one morning in April, 1849, the twenty-seven-year-old Fyodor Dostoevski was awakened in his room and arrested by the czar’s secret police. One of thirty-four members of the Petrashevsky circle to be arrested that night, Dostoevski was convicted of holding atheistic and antigovernment socialistic beliefs. After eight harrowing months in confinement, during which time many of his comrades died or went insane, he was led out to be publicly executed in late December. Waiting twenty minutes to be shot, Dostoevski was saved from death by a reprieve from the czar, granted much earlier but delayed for dramatic effect. This mock execution became the defining moment in Dostoevski’s life, and the motif of the condemned person awaiting death reappears often in his works.
Instead of being executed, Dostoevski served eight years in penal servitude in Siberia, where for four years he worked in isolation, constantly shackled. His political and religious views changed dramatically at this time to embrace a form of mystical Christianity and conservative nationalism. Zapiski iz myortvogo doma (1861-1862; Buried Alive: Or, Ten Years of Penal Servitude in Siberia , 1881;...
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