It’s the morning of December 22nd, 1849, in a square in the center of St. Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire.
A 28-year-old novelist and former soldier stands on a snow-covered street and shivers in his ragged prisoner attire. He shields his eyes as the morning sun glints off the bayonets of the soldiers who line the square and hold back a large crowd of onlookers. The guard gives the young writer a shove and he joins a procession of other prisoners who stumble forward through the biting cold...
The writer looks up ahead and sees a wooden platform in the center of the square, draped with black cloth. As he and the other prisoners climb its steps… the soldiers all around snap to attention. Then, an official from the Russian Civil Service, resplendent in his ornate dress uniform, inspects the line of prisoners. Then the official announces the punishment these men will receive for their crimes is death. The writer watches, terrified, as a firing squad moves into position.
The writer closes his eyes and waits for the end. But instead of the sound of bullets flying… he hears a roll of drums.
There’s confusion in the crowd, and on the platform, but the writer immediately recognizes the pattern of the drumming. From his time in the army, he knows it’s a signal for retreat. Hope surges through him as the soldiers in the firing squad lower their rifles and begin to back away. The prisoners murmur and look to one another in confusion.
Then another officer rides into the square at a gallop, shouting for the execution to be halted at once. The writer doesn’t yet fully understand what’s happening but he knows he is grateful to be alive.
The writer and the other prisoners were members of a literary group in St. Petersburg that was accused of fomenting socialist rebellion against the repressive regime of Russia’s ruler, the Tsar. In the spring of 1849, they were arrested for their alleged crimes. Afterward, they spent months awaiting their fate.
While they languished behind bars, the Tsar decided to spare the men’s lives. But he insisted that the prisoners not be told until the last possible moment. He wanted them to feel the terror of death. After this act of psychological torture, the Tsar hoped they would be all the more grateful for his mercy, and far less likely to ever oppose his rule again.
The one young writer - Fyodor Dostoevsky - certainly felt that terror. He will be scarred by the mock execution for the rest of his life. But in the wake of this trauma, he will also find inspiration going on to become one of the greatest novelists of all time, and many of his tales of crime and violence, of death and exile, will have their roots in the harrowing events that began that winter morning on December 22nd, 1849.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is December 22nd, 1849: The Mock Execution of Dostoevsky.
Act One: Exile
It’s early April 1851, sixteen months after the mock execution, in a hard labor prison camp near the city of Omsk in Siberia.
Sitting in the corner of his filthy barracks, Fyodor Dostoevsky tries to blot out the raucous laughter and hoarsely bellowed drinking songs of his fellow inmates. Instead, he concentrates on reading a tattered copy of the New Testament. It’s the only book allowed in the prison and it’s Fyodor’s most treasured possession. The words carry particular importance to him: he’s highly religious and it’s nearly Easter. But Fyodor’s fellow inmates aren’t marking the occasion with the solemnity the writer feels they should.
Once a year, every Easter, the prisoners are given a reprieve. They don’t have to work, and the authorities turn a blind eye to liquor and gambling in the barracks. Predictably, the prison descends into a state of violent, drunken disarray. And although Fyodor tries to find solace in the words of the Bible, when yet another fight breaks out in the barracks, he can’t bear it any longer. He climbs to his feet and rushes out into the prison yard for some peace and quiet.
Fyodor has been in this camp for more than a year. Following his mock execution in St. Petersburg, he and the other prisoners who were spared death were transported hundreds of miles East to hard labor camps in Siberia.
The work is backbreaking. The barracks are freezing in the winter, boiling hot in the summer, and filthy all year round.
But Fyodor has found his fellow prisoners even more challenging. Once upon a time, he thought that intellectuals such as himself would lead peasants in a revolutionary uprising against the autocratic rulers of Russia. But when he arrived in the prison, Fyodor found himself disgusted by the poorer inmates, with their loud and aggressive manners, their coarse language and stinking bodies, their shaved heads, and tattooed skin. And the feeling is mutual. The prisoners look on educated men like Fyodor with scorn and resentment and want nothing to do with him.
Leaving the raucous laughter of his barracks behind, Fyodor wanders through the prison yard. He distracts himself by counting the planks in the solid wooden fence, only stopping when he reaches a number equal to the count of days he’s been imprisoned. But as he counts, he notices another inmate walking toward him.
The inmate is a nobleman from Russian-occupied Poland. He’s around Fyodor’s age, imprisoned for plotting against the Tsarist domination of his homeland. He looks just as depressed as Fyodor. And as he passes, the nobleman hisses: “I hate these bandits!”.
But as the nobleman moves on, Fyodor has a jolting realization. He doesn’t want to be like the Polish aristocrat. He doesn’t want to hate his fellow inmates or his fellow Russians. So, Fyodor heads back to his barracks with a new determination. He wants to understand the other prisoners and find the humanity they share beneath that coarse and frightening exterior.
Eight years later, in July 1859, Fyodor Dostoevsky sits in a horse-drawn carriage as it rattles along a narrow track. He peers out through the cloud of dust kicked up by the horses. Up ahead, he can just make out a monument, a stone column rising beside the road. Fyodor immediately recognizes it as the border between Asia and Europe. Fyodor bangs on the roof of the carriage and calls for the coachman to stop. Then he climbs out and breathes in the free air.
Fyodor was released from the prison camp in February 1854. But his punishment was just beginning. He wasn’t allowed to return to St. Petersburg or his writing career. Instead, he was forced to join the Russian Army and remain in exile in the East. As he wrote to a friend, “In the overcoat of a soldier, I'm just as much of a prisoner as before.”
But he was convinced that his years in prison had made him a better writer, with a better understanding of the human mind. During his exile, he wrote a series of short stories and novellas, somehow finding the time and energy among his duties in the military and the lingering ill health from his time in the prison camp.
All the while, he was saving up money and lobbying for permission to end his exile. It took years, but finally, Fyodor’s wish was granted. He was released from the army and allowed to cross the Ural Mountains and back into Western Russia.
Now, at last, he’s here, on a high road beside a monument that marks the meeting point of East and West. Fyodor crosses himself and gives thanks to God for delivering him to this Promised Land. Then he takes out a flask of wild-orange brandy from his pocket and, sharing it with his guide and coachman, raises a toast to the end of his exile.
Five months later, in December 1859, Fyodor will arrive at St. Petersburg. After all his struggles, he will find himself back in the city with high hopes of relaunching his career. But fifteen years have passed since he burst onto the scene as a young writer. Fyodor will have to start again from scratch, this time beset by financial problems, ill health, and a deepening addiction that will threaten everything he has fought so hard to achieve.
Act Two: Crime and Punishment
It’s August 1865, sixteen years after Fyodor Dostoevsky was nearly executed by firing squad, and the writer is in the city of Wiesbaden, in western Germany.
Descending one morning from his hotel room, Fyodor enters the dining room for breakfast. He takes a seat, but at first, the waiters ignore him. Fyodor is puzzled, and annoyed. When he finally manages to secure a waiter’s attention, he’s told that the restaurant will no longer serve him.
Outraged, Fyodor demands to see the hotel manager. And soon, a stout German manager appears and informs him that because the Russian has not paid his bills on time, he doesn’t deserve to eat. From now on, the hotel will only provide him with tea.
Fyodor is humiliated. He’s only been in Wiesbaden for a few days, but he’s already broke, and everyone knows it.
It’s no secret where the money has gone. Since his return from exile, Fyodor has become addicted to gambling. He’s published two books, including a novel about his time in the prison camp called The House of the Dead. But the books have not been as successful as Fyodor hoped. Lately, he’s been forced to live on the edge of poverty, heavily in debt. He came here to Germany in part to escape his creditors, but as soon as he arrived in Wiesbaden, he made his way straight to the city’s roulette tables. And now, once again, Fyodor is left scrambling for money.
A few hungry days later, Fyodor is out on a stroll among Wiesbaden’s linden trees when he encounters another Russian. She’s an aristocratic artist who listens as Fyodor explains his troubles. To his delight, she tells him that she may have a solution. Her distant relative is the editor of The Russian Messenger, a distinguished literary journal based in Moscow. She urges Fyodor to write to him.
A few days later, Fyodor does. In his letter, he pitches a new story he’s been working on, a novella inspired in part by the men he met in the Siberian prison camp many years ago. It’s about a young man who murders a repulsive old moneylender and is then so tormented by guilt that he eventually confesses. Fyodor hopes to finish the story in a few weeks, just in time to be ready for serialization in the editor’s magazine. The title of the story will be Crime and Punishment.
Almost a year later, in the summer of 1866, Fyodor Dostoevsky lets himself through a gate at a country estate outside Moscow that his sister has rented for the summer.
It’s evening, just after dinner. As Fyodor makes his way along a path through some plush gardens, he can hear the sound of his sister playing piano. The music drifts out of the windows of the brightly lit house behind him. Overhead, swifts or swallows wheel through the evening air, the birds swooping and diving, almost dancing to the music. But Fyodor doesn’t linger in the garden to admire them. Instead, he hurries away down the path toward the nearby guest house where he is staying. He has work to do.
The first parts of Crime and Punishment were serialized in the January and February editions of The Russian Messenger, to immediate and overwhelming acclaim. But as the public clamored to hear the rest of the thrilling story, Fyodor realized he had a problem.
The book was nowhere near finished.
Back in 1865, when he first pitched the idea, Fyodor promised the editor of The Russian Messenger that he only needed a few weeks. But almost a year later, the book is still unfinished. As he was writing, Fyodor realized that the story was far bigger than he’d initially thought. So, he did away with the short novella manuscript he had written and started over. This time, he had something far more ambitious in mind: an epic six-part novel, one which would allow him the time and space to delve deeply into the psychology of his murderous main character.
So retiring to his room, Fyodor gets to work. His desk is covered in a chaotic mess of notebooks and handwritten pages. But he struggles to find inspiration this evening. And he’s growing anxious. Tomorrow, he must return to Moscow for his monthly meeting with the editor at The Russian Messenger. These meetings are frustrating for Fyodor – there are always demands for corrections, rewrites, and clarifications.
But night by night, sentence by sentence, Crime and Punishment is coming together. Fyodor works at the manuscript relentlessly, all through the summer and into the fall. And finally, in December of 1866, the conclusion to the dark and thrilling novel is published to near-universal praise. But Crime and Punishment is just the beginning of an extraordinary creative time for Fyodor Dostoevsky; a period when his gifts as a writer will reach their zenith and he will finally be recognized as one of the greatest novelists of all time.
Act Three: The Idiot
It’s August 1867, almost eighteen years after Fyodor Dostoevsky’s terrifying mock execution in St. Petersburg.
Now 45 years old, the Russian novelist strides impatiently through the halls of a museum in the city of Basel, Switzerland with a young woman trailing in his wake.
Fyodor is here in Europe on his honeymoon. He’s recently married, but his young wife, Anna, hasn’t changed his habits. Fyodor is still addicted to gambling and, despite the success of Crime and Punishment, he remains deeply in debt. On their honeymoon in Europe, he and Anna have moved from town to town, always on the run from the novelist’s creditors.
They only have a day in Basel and Fyodor doesn’t want to waste it. For once though, it’s not the roulette table he’s seeking out. Instead, Fyodor’s looking for a painting.
Suddenly, he comes to a stop. Slowly, Fyodor crosses the gallery, drawn in by the painting he's come here to see. It’s a work from 1522 by the German master Hans Holbein which depicts Jesus Christ in his tomb. But what’s shocking about the painting is how grotesquely realistic it is. Christ’s body isn’t shown as beautiful and divine; it’s depicted as tortured, decaying, and very human.
Fyodor wants a closer look. Spotting a chair in the corner of the room, he drags it, screeching over the floor, to the painting. Then he climbs up and leans in, utterly absorbed. Holbein may have lived three centuries before Fyodor, but the Russian novelist identifies him as a kindred spirit, an artist as fascinated as he is by the collision of ideas represented by Christ.
The next day, Fyodor and his wife leave Basel, bound for Geneva, but Hans Holbein’s brilliant painting stays with Fyodor and becomes part of the inspiration for his next great work of literature.
The Idiot, as it will be titled, tells the story of an almost divinely good man who struggles when confronted with the conflicts and passions that characterize most of human life. The clash between the human and the divine is a direct response to Hans Holbein’s painting of Christ.
But the artwork isn’t the only source of inspiration for Fyodor’s new novel. At the heart of this intensely personal work are the writer’s own trials and tribulations, chiefly the mock execution he endured in 1849.
In this new book, Fyodor’s main character obsesses over the story of a man who was spared death at the last moment, a theme the author returns to again and again in the novel. The main character will be unable to forget the near-death experience he describes, just as Fyodor himself could never leave those events behind or forget what they taught him.
As he wrote to his brother soon after the mock execution: “Life is a gift, life is happiness, each minute could be an eternity of bliss.” So despite his many troubles, Fyodor Dostoevsky did not waste that gift. He remains, to day, one of the finest novelists ever to live - an achievement that may never have happened without the cruel charade of an execution that almost took place in St. Petersburg on this day, December 22nd, 1849.
Next onHistory Daily. December 23rd, 1783. American General George Washington resigns his military commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.