As a young man in St Petersburg, Fyodor Dostoevsky fell in with a radical liberal group known as the Petrashevsky circle, says Rowan Williams in Radio 4’s Dostoevsky and the Russian Soul. In 1849 its members were accused of conspiring to overthrow the government and sentenced to death. On 22 December, the 27-year-old Dostoevsky found himself awaiting execution by firing squad alongside his comrades.
At the last minute, the tsar’s messenger arrived on horseback to reduce the men’s death sentences to penal servitude. “It’s a brilliant and cruel piece of political theatre.” Dostoevsky would never forget “the 10 terrible minutes of anticipation of death”. He describes the ordeal in detail in his novel The Idiot, where he writes: “What if I didn’t have to die! I would turn every minute into an age, nothing would be wasted, every minute would be accounted for.”
He was sent to a Siberian prison camp for four years of hard labour. At first he was “horrified” by the “incredibly brutal and brutalised people” he met there. But he grew to see the peasant convicts as fellow Christians, in whom brutality and gentleness existed together. In one account he writes: “The former hatred and anger in my heart was vanished.” Dostoevsky’s time in Siberia helps to explain the moral complexity of many of his characters.
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