Dostoyevsky’s Mock Execution

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In 1849, a group of pollical radicals were taken out of their jail to be executed. They were lined up in front of the firing squad. Right before the guns were fired, a courier galloped up with an imperial decree, commuting the death sentence to a term in prison camp.

The whole thing was orchestrated, but the radicals fell for it. One, says Gary Morson, “had his hair turn white; a second went mad and never recovered his sanity; a third, whose two-hundredth birthday we celebrate in 2021, went on to write Crime and Punishment.”

The third one, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, didn’t escape the ordeal without effect. If memory serves, biographers believe he developed a nervous disorder as a result. But more importantly, it changed his outlook. In the words of Morson:

His naive, hopeful romanticism disappeared. His religious faith deepened. The sadism of both prisoners and guards taught him that the sunny view of human nature presumed by utilitarianism, liberalism, and socialism were preposterous. Real human beings differed fundamentally from what these philosophies presumed.

This is all a launching pad for a great reflection on Dostoyevsky’s concept of freedom, which offers a collateral view on why Socialism is so dangerous. I highly recommend it.

In The Possessed (1871), Dostoevsky predicts with astonishing accuracy what totalitarianism would be in practice. In Karamazov he asks whether the socialist idea is good even in theory. The revolutionaries in The Possessed are despicable, but the Inquisitor, on the contrary, is entirely selfless. He knows that he will go to hell for corrupting Jesus’s teaching, but he is willing to do so out of love for humanity. In short, he betrays Christ for Christian reasons! Indeed, he outdoes Christ, who gave his earthly life, by sacrificing his eternal life.

I have pulled Karamazov off my shelf and have started to re-read that chapter.