Russian autocrat + Russian novelist = ?

The story begins with a vain, preening, autocratic ruler of Russia willing to manipulate the forces of law and order to strike out against even the slightest traces of disloyalty. For him no charade of justice is too cruel or too absurd if it helps prevent dissension.

Just such a sinister farce took place on this very day, December 22, 162 years ago (Wait, you didn’t think I was talking about the present!). In St. Petersburg’s Semenovsky Square, Fyodor Dostoevsky and fellow members of the Petrashevsky circle were brought in front of a firing squad on orders of Tsar Nicholas I, told they were to be executed and then given a staged last second reprieve.

Not to encourage these cruel, autocratic tendencies in Russian rulers but this excessive punishment ended up having a monumental impact on Russian literature through the course of Dostoevsky’s later novels. Even that specific day and the short but terrifying moments when he stood in the second line of prisoners to be shot ended up being given a literary shape in The Idiot, when Prince Myshkin tells a story of witnessing an execution that clearly draws on what was almost Dostoevsky’s own.

In Joseph Frank’s unequaled five-volume study of Dostoevsky’s work he devoted a full chapter to the day and its significance, quoting what he considers a neglected account of Dostoevsky’s behavior by one of his fellow prisoners:

“Dostoevsky was quite excited, he recalled Le Dernier Jour d’un condamné of Victor Hugo, and, going up to Spenshev [a fellow prisoner], said: ‘Nous serons avec le Christ’ [We shall be with Christ]. ‘Un peu de poussière’ [A bit of dust] – the latter answered with a twisted smile.”

(The twisted smile is a nice touch, proving that at least in Dostoevsky’s life people acted like the characters in Dostoevsky novels.)

Whether the similar judicial travesties coming out of today’s Russia will help create any literary geniuses is open to question, but on the subject of the autocratic Russian tradition the London Review of Books takes apart the perception that the Putin regime controls Russian society with a Soviet-style strictness. In a review of Guardian correspondent Luke Harding’s book Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia, Stephen Holmes says that the idea that Putin has re-established a vertical power structure is a “fiction,” and characterizes the current Russian political situation as something more closely resembling white-collar gang wars.

Thank you to Today in Literature for the historical reminder

Photos – 1) Félix Vallotton, Woodcut of Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1895, 2) The execution scene in Semenovsky Square

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Categories: Literary History


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4 Comments on “Russian autocrat + Russian novelist = ?”

  1. 23/12/2011 at 4:22 am #

    Interesting post. I love Dostoyevsky….just picked up the new Melville House copy of The Eternal Husband.

  2. 23/12/2011 at 10:14 pm #

    Thanks Kris, I read The Eternal Husband a long time ago and remember being very aggravated by it, but then jealousy was never my strong point.

  3. 28/12/2011 at 4:42 pm #

    There’s an 8 part Russian television mini-series on Dostoevsky that’s well worth checking out. I just reviewed it on my film blog if you are interested (

  4. 28/12/2011 at 11:29 pm #

    Sounds interesting but I couldn’t find the review and the website you listed is a blank, for sale domain

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