Fyodor Dostoevsky: Under the Gun

From a letter to his brother. Dostoevsky had been arrested in 1849 for associating with a circle of liberals. After ten years of prison and serving as a soldier, he returned to St. Petersburg, later publishing The House of the Dead, a novel based on his experiences in prison; in The Idiot a character is subjected to a mock execution: for “at least a quarter of an hour, he passed in the undoubted conviction that in several minutes he suddenly would die.” Dostoevsky died at the age of fifty-nine in 1881.

Brother, my precious friend! All is settled! I am sentenced to four years’ hard labor in the fortress (of Orenburg, I believe), and after that to serve as a private. Today, the twenty-second of December, we were taken to the Semyonov drill ground. 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. Then followed the present sentences. Palm alone has been pardoned, and returns with his old rank to the army.

I was just told, dear brother, that today or tomorrow we are to be sent off. I asked to see you. But I was told that this was impossible; I may only write you this letter: make haste and give me a reply as soon as you can.

I am afraid that you may somehow have got to know of our death sentence. From the windows of the prison van, when we were taken to the Semyonov drill ground, I saw a multitude of people; perhaps the news reached you, and you suffered for me. Now you will be easier on my account.

Brother! I have not become downhearted or low-spirited. Life is everywhere life, life in ourselves, not in what is outside us. There will be people near me, and to be a man among people and remain a man forever, not to be downhearted nor to fall in whatever misfortunes may befall me—this is life; this is the task of life. I have realized this. This idea has entered into my flesh and into my blood.

Yes, it’s true! The head which was creating, living with the highest life of art, which had realized and grown used to the highest needs of the spirit, that head has already been cut off from my shoulders. There remain the memory and the images created but not yet incarnated by me. They will lacerate me, it is true! But there remains in me my heart and the same flesh and blood which can also love, and suffer, and desire, and remember, and this, after all, is life. We see the sun! Now, goodbye, brother! Don’t grieve for me!

Kiss your wife and children. Remind them of me continually; see that they do not forget me. Perhaps we shall yet meet some time! Brother, take care of yourself and of your family; live quietly and carefully. Think of the future of your children.

Live positively. 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!

And maybe we shall meet again some time, brother! Take care of yourself, go on living, for the love of God, until we meet. Perhaps some time we shall embrace each other and recall our youth, our golden time that was, our youth and our hopes, which at this very instant I am tearing out from my heart with my blood, to bury them.

Can it indeed be that I shall never take a pen into my hands? I think that after the four years there may be a possibility. I shall send you everything that I may write, if I write anything, my God! How many imaginations, lived through by me, created by me anew, will perish, will be extinguished in my brain or will be spilled as poison in my blood! Yes, if I am not allowed to write, I shall perish. Better fifteen years of prison with a pen in my hands!

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