On May 5, 1849, the outstanding Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky was arrested for his counter-revolutionary activities as a member of the Petrashevsky Circle and sentenced to death, the conviction later commuted by the court to four years of penalty labor in Siberia. No other case had been so heavily publicized in the history of the 19th century, since almost all of the persons involved were well-known scholars or acclaimed writers.
The Petrashevsky circle was a Russian literary discussion group, attended by officials, officers, and progressive-minded intelligentsia in St. Petersburg, opened in the early 1840s. It was organized by Mikhail Petrashevsky, a follower of Charles Fourier, the anti-capitalist, French utopian philosopher who proposed a romantic solution to social problems. Very non-uniform in their views, all of the circle members strongly opposed the monarchy and serfdom.
The circle gathered on meetings every Friday. Originally intended to provide self-education and introduce the members to the theories of French socialists, these meetings had eventually become the platform for discussion of the existing flaws of the Russian political system. Petrashevsky himself was the bearer of the most aggressive viewpoint, calling for the abolition of serfdom, the reformation of the courts, and the freedom of press. Sometimes there was even talk of a coup d’etat. The milder wing of the group saw socialism as a movement to bring the social order and the basic human needs to the common denominator. They believed the superior power of art to be the force, capable of restoring the perfect order on Earth. Many Russian writers, like Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Goncharov, though not members of the Circle, still fancied these ideas.
Dostoevsky joined the Petrashevsky Circle in the spring of 1847. Never an advocate of the radical approach, he still felt the acute need for change. Dostoevsky was the first one to recite the letter of the famous Russian pro-Western literary critic Vissarion Belinsky to Nikolay Gogol, where he condemned serfdom, the Orthodox Church, and the government system on the whole. This letter had later become the top and the gravest charge in the trial.
Following the surveillance, organized after the members of the circle by the Ministry of the Interior, on May 5, 1849, 123 people were arrested. While the investigation was in progress, all of the suspects were kept in the Peter and Paul Fortress for eight months, until the order came to sentence all the members but one to capital punishment.
However, after taking all of the mitigating circumstances, the court, with the Emperor’s consent, commuted the capital punishment to banishment to a penal colony, prisoner companies, and combat troops.
Irrespective of this mitigation, the convicts still had to experience, in the words of Dostoevsky, “Ten horrible, infinitely frightening minutes of encroaching death, “ as the authorities decided to perform a mock execution ceremony. On December 22, 1849, a 28-year-old Dostoevsky was taken out to face his death with the other members of the Petrashevsky circle. After the preparatory ceremony had been completed, it was suddenly declared that by the order of Emperor Nicholas that the death sentence was commuted.
While in prison, Dostoevsky managed to preserve his dignity and humanity, and never stopped writing. His world view, however, was shattered. He realized the utopia of his revolutionary ideas, while his earlier idealization of the ‘simple peasant’ was challenged. In prison, Dostoevsky witnessed the mutual abuse of the guards and prisoners, and a deep grasp-less resentment of the aristocracy by the peasantry, who he always deemed spiritually superior to the intelligentsia. Now he understood that he had misunderstood human nature altogether.
The struggle to retain his faith both in God and in the goodness of man lasted for the rest of his life.