From Death Row to Literary Immortality: The Life of Fyodor Dostoevsky

December 22, 1849, Semyonov Place in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Fyodor Dostoevsky, just twenty-eight years old, stands with five other men facing a firing squad, awaiting execution for the death sentence issued by the Tsar of Russia. But then, just as the firing squad prepares to begin, a messenger arrives. He delivers a reprieve from the Tsar – no execution.

Later that day, an elated Fyodor writes his brother,

“There the sentence of death was read to all of us, we were told to kiss the cross, our swords were broken over our heads, and our last toilet was made (white shirts). Then three were tied to the pillar for execution. I was the sixth. Three at a time were called out; consequently, I was in the second batch and no more than a minute was left me to live.

I remembered you, brother, and all yours; during the last minute you, you alone, were in my mind, only then I realized how I love you, dear brother mine! I also managed to embrace Pleshcheyev and Durov, who stood close to me, and to say goodbye to them. Finally the retreat was sounded and those tied to the pillar were led back, and it was announced to us that His Imperial Majesty granted us our lives…

There has never yet been working in me such a healthy abundance of spiritual life as now. But will my body endure? I do not know. I am going away sick, I suffer from scrofula. But never mind! Brother, I have already gone through so much in life that now hardly anything can frighten me. Let come what may!”

It would later come out that the death sentence was a hoax by the Tsar to instill a deep sense of fear and humility in Fyodor and the other prisoners for their roles in a group that advocated for political and social reforms in Russia and for their distribution of banned literature. The trauma was certainly a goal accomplished, as the harrowing experience would stay with Fyodor for life.

The Tsar commuted Fyodor’s sentence to four years of hard labor in a prison camp in Siberia, where conditions were absolutely brutal. The prisoners were housed in overcrowded, filthy barracks and subjected to relentless physical labor. Food was scarce and of poor quality, and the guards often mistreated the prisoners. Disease was rampant, and many inmates succumbed to illness and malnutrition. Fyodor himself suffered from severe health issues, including epileptic seizures, which plagued him throughout his life. Fyodor described the camp as,

“In summer, intolerable closeness; in winter, unendurable cold. All the floors were rotten. Filth on the floors an inch thick; one could slip and fall…We were packed like herrings in a barrel…There was no room to turn around…Fleas, lice, and black beetles by the bushel.”

After his release in 1854, Fyodor served five years of compulsory military service in the Siberian town of Semipalatinsk.

After the end of his military service in 1859, Fyodor settled in St. Petersburg with a woman he met in Siberia and was now his wife. Here, he resumed a life of writing with renewed vigor, building on the success that had come early in his life with his debut novel, “Poor Folks,” published in 1845 when he was in his mid-20s.

These latter years of his career brought Fyodor into the realm of one of the world’s writing greats. His works, unsurprisingly, delve into psychological depth and philosophical exploration of complex themes such as faith, doubt, free will, and the nature of evil. His characters often grapple with intense moral dilemmas and existential crises. Though one can say this was the result of his near execution and harsh years after, Fyodor had already begun exploring these topics in his early life years. “To study the meaning of man and of life — I am making significant progress here. I have faith in myself. Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man,” he wrote in a letter in 1839.

Of all his works, “The Brothers Karamazov,” published in 1880, is considered Fyodor’s magnum opus. Amongst the many wisdoms that come out of this story is the following: “A man who lies to himself, and believes his own lies, becomes unable to recognize truth, either in himself or in anyone else, and he ends up losing respect for himself and for others. When he has no respect for anyone, he can no longer love, and in him, he yields to his impulses, indulges in the lowest form of pleasure, and behaves in the end like an animal in satisfying his vices. And it all comes from lying — to others and to yourself.”

Fyodor wrote many other great novels including, “Crime and Punishment” (1866) and “The Idiot” (1869). He passed away on February 9, 1881, at the age of 59.


Click here to read a snapshot biography of another writer, Mark Twain.