To celebrating the bicentenary of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (who fell on November 11) we have to think about the death – or the execution that almost took place. On December 22, 1849, in St. Petersburg, Dostoyevsky was forced to appear before a firing squad in a public square. He was about to be executed. The work order has been read. Dostoyevsky had been sentenced to death for his anti-authoritarian and anti-government activities. He was found guilty of distributing books criticizing the Tsarist regime. He was also found guilty of owning an illegal printing press and of criticizing the Tsar’s army. He was then 28 years old. The firing squad was ready when it was announced that the Tsar had commuted the death penalty to hard labor in a Siberian prison camp. Dostoevsky wrote about this life-changing incident for his brother: “Today, December 22, we were taken to the Semionov training ground. There the death sentence was read to all of us, we were told to kiss the cross, our swords were broken on our heads and our last toilet was done (white shirts). Then three were tied to the pillar for execution. I was the sixth … At last the retreat sounded and those who were attached to the pillar were led back, and it was announced to us that His Imperial Majesty had granted us life … I was today under the influence of death during the three-quarters of an hour; I lived it with this idea; I was at the last moment and now I am living again. It was a mock event or, in Baudrillardian terms, a mock public execution. The prisoners had already been pardoned the day before. The Tsar wanted to sow terror in the hearts of the prisoners and the population in general. The event touched Dostoyevsky as a real execution would. He believed he was about to die, then he was given a chance to live. He endured the prison camp in Siberia for four years.
Dostoyevsky’s life had not been easy until he was accused of being a revolutionary liberal, imprisoned and sham. His life is marked by personal troubles: he suffers from epileptic seizures and he had a difficult childhood in a hospital for underprivileged classes where his father is a doctor. He had witnessed illness and death in hospital and often drew on his experiences to write stories of unprecedented psychological depth and philosophical insight. At the hospital, he observed how his father looked after the disenfranchised classes in Tsarist Russia. As a child, he had witnessed the case of a nine-year-old girl who had been abused by a drunken old man. His father had to take care of the child. This kind of first-hand knowledge informed many of his novels. The poor, the devils, crime and punishment and The Karamazov brothers all have their sources in Dostoevsky’s real life experiences. He even used his epilepsy as the material for his novel. The idiot. The disease – an epileptic seizure that causes uncontrollable ecstasy – has a mysterious, cryptogenic origin, and has been named after our author as Dostoevsky’s syndrome. The epilepsy impaired his ability to work and the seizures became debilitating during his imprisonment. He would experience immense euphoria and extreme fatigue after a seizure. Due to Dostoevsky’s intimate knowledge of the human condition in all its miserable forms, Nietzsche called Dostoevsky “the only psychologist” who could teach Nietzsche anything.
After his release from prison after four years, Dostoyevsky had to complete six years of compulsory military service. During these years he became a compulsive gambler. This habit added to his financial difficulties. He turned this experience into a short novel, titled The player. At one point in his life he had to hire a stenographer so that he could finish a novel in a month to pay off his debts. He eventually married his stenographer and fled with her to Western Europe to escape his creditors. The couple went through many hardships but stayed together until Dostoevsky’s death. Anna Dostoyevskaya took it upon herself to keep her husband out of poverty and helped him become the first author in Russia to have his own publishing house and bookstore. This made him the “first self-published author” in Russia.
He is widely known to be a pioneer of the Idea Novel because his characters spend their lives exploring their ideas. In Crime and Punishment, for example, he explored the idea of moral responsibility and whether certain individuals were above the law. The protagonist, Raskolnikov explores this hypothesis by killing a pawnshop. He imagines himself to be above the law as Napoleon had been. Finally, he confesses his crime and is exiled to Siberia to serve his sentence. Most of the stories are inspired by Dostoevsky’s own experiences. The inspiration for this novel would have been a man both poet and killer: Pierre François Lacenaire. Dostoyevsky created a character who kills to test a hypothesis. Thus, he changed the stereotypical image of the criminal character. The stories take a philosophical turn by the writer and are adopted by readers around the world. He wrote fifteen novels and seventeen short novels which have been translated into 170 languages of the world.
Dostoyevsky explored the conflict between Orthodox Christianity and worldly rationality in his monumental novels. His novels inspired Mikhail Bakhtin’s work to create new theories to explain the fictional world that Dostoyevsky had created. Dostoyevsky’s characters discuss their ideas and actions with other characters. This characteristic feature made Bakhtin think of dialogism. For Bakhtin, Dostoyevsky’s novels were marked by polyphony, a multitude of characters acting as the proponents of different philosophical positions without any finality being accessible to them. This “non-finalization”, in Mikhail Bakhtin’s theorization, is what makes Dostoevsky’s romantic world more discursive than ideological: “Dostoevsky always represents a person on the threshold of a final decision, at a moment of crisis, at a turning for their soul. This is the reason why Dostoyevsky is considered a philosopher, novelist, psychologist and explorer of the human psyche whose works will be read for centuries. No wonder he is called the novelist of novelists.
The author teaches literature and critical theory at the University of Lahore. He can be contacted at [email protected]