The Mock-execution of Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Mock execution of the Petrashevsky circle members

On 23 April 1849 thirty-five members of the Petrashevsky Circle were arrested by Tsarist police and taken to the St. Peter and Paul Fortress—a highly fortified St. Petersburg prison housing the most dangerous convicts. Among them was the 27 year old Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky who was accused of listening to stories criticizing the armed forces, owning an illegal printing press for the use of creating anti-government propaganda, contributing to a plot against the Tsar in collaboration with Speshnev’s secret society, and opening and reading aloud an outlawed letter from Belinsky to Gogol attacking the church and Tsarist regime under Nicholas I.

For eight months Dostoevsky lived imprisoned in the St. Peter and Paul Fortress in bleak conditions (Jay, “Dostoevsky and Autobiography—Prison”), and on 16 November 1849 he and 21 members of the Petrashevsky Circle and Speshnev’s secret society were condemned to death by firing squad. They were taken by carriage on 22 December 1849 to the Semyonov Square drill grounds—now called Pionerskaya Ploschad. There the men where they were made to kneel and kiss the cross. Their ranks were stripped from them and their swords were broken over their heads. In groups of three the men were taken into the square, tied to pillars, and blindfolded as preparations were made for the execution. Dostoevsky waited in the second group of three—along with poets Aleksey Nikolayevich Pleshcheyev and Sergey Fyodorovich Durov—when the execution was halted.

Unbeknownst to the men awaiting execution the Tsar Nicholas I had pardoned them the previous day. Preparations for the execution were allowed to go on, when at the last instant the drummer beat the refuse, signaling a reversal of the order. A messenger from the Tsar Nicholas I entered bearing a white flag, proclaiming “long live the Tsar” and reading out the Tsar’s pardon. This mock execution was not a show of mercy but rather a means that the Tsar employed to engender terror and gratitude in his subjects (Blitz, “The Mock Execution of Fyodor Dostoevsky”).

The men were not released, but sentenced to labor camps in Siberia. Dostoevsky served four years hard labour in a katorga prison camp in Omsk, Siberia, where he lived the duration of his sentence with his hands and feet shackled. He was released 14 February 1854. His sentence obliged him to complete obligatory military service at the end of his labor confinement, and in March of 1854 Dostoevsky moved to Semipalatinsk on the Mongolian front where he served with the Siberian Army Corps of the Seventh Line Battalion.

Dostoevsky wrote about this mock execution in a number of his letters and literary works. Fyodor wrote to his brother Mikhail Mikhailovich Dostoevsky shortly after, depicting the details of the execution and describing its impact on his perspective. The scene of his execution and the subject of justice and capitol punishment are themes in Dostoevsky’s 1869 work The Idiot, in which the protagonist Myshkin describes the scene of a hanging of a man of 27—the same age Dostoevsky was at the time of the mock execution—and considers the mental state of the criminal awaiting execution. The subject of his execution and the subsequent imprisonment also appear in Notes from the House of the Dead, a semi-autobiographical work based on Dostoevsky’s prison experience.


References and Further Reading

History.com Staff, “Fyodor Dostoevsky is sentenced to death”, History.com, 16 November 2009, 27 March 2017, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/fyodor-dostoevsky-is-sentenced-to-death

Blitz, Matt, “The Mock Execution of Fyodor Dostoevsky”, Today I Found Out, 25 February 2015, 27 March 2017, http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2015/02/execution-fyodor-dostoevsky/

Romney, Rebecca, “In Front of the Firing Squad: Dostoevsky”, Aldine by Rebecca Romney, 22 July 2012, 27 March 2017, https://rebeccaromney.com/2012/07/22/in-front-of-the-firing-squad-dostoevsky/

Sonechka, “Author Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Survived a Mock Execution This Date in 1849”, Daily KOS, 22 December 2007, 27 March 2017, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/12/22/425551/-

Knight, Crispus, “Dostoevsky’s Mock Execution and the Cruel and Unusual Nature of Capital Punishment”, History Buff, 15 January 2016, 27 March 2017, http://historybuff.com/dostoevskys-mock-execution-cruel-unusual-nature-capital-punishment-ZrYRD69RAmp9

Jay, Jennifer, “Dostoevsky and Autobiography—Prison”, Middlebury, 27 March 2017, http://community.middlebury.edu/~beyer/courses/previous/ru351/studentpapers/Autobiography.shtml

Beer, Daniel, “The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars”, 3 January 2017, 27 March 2017