Dostoevski Is Exiled to Siberia

Having gained widespread recognition as a literary figure by age twenty-five, Dostoevski was arrested for his participation in a political discussion group that threatened the existing regime. He was sentenced to four years of hard labor in Siberia, followed by an indefinite term of military service.

Summary of Event

Orphaned at the age of sixteen, Fyodor Dostoevski was trained, in accordance with his late father’s wishes, to be a military engineer. Upon his graduation from the Academy of Military Engineering in St. Petersburg in 1843, he became a sublieutenant in the army. More intrigued by literature than by engineering, he quickly resigned his commission to pursue a writing career. His first novel, Bednye lyudi (1846; Poor Folk, 1887), published when he was twenty-five, was immediately recognized by Russia’s leading literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky, Belinsky, Vissarion as the most promising new literary work recently produced in the country. He declared Dostoevski, whose future seemed assured, to be the new Nikolai Gogol. Dostoevski, Fyodor
[p]Dostoevski, Fyodor;exile of
Siberia;exiles in
[kw]Dostoevski Is Exiled to Siberia (Dec., 1849)
[kw]Is Exiled to Siberia, Dostoevski (Dec., 1849)
[kw]Siberia, Dostoevski Is Exiled to (Dec., 1849)
[kw]Exiled to Siberia, Dostoevski Is (Dec., 1849)
Dostoevski, Fyodor
[p]Dostoevski, Fyodor;exile of
Siberia;exiles in
[g]Russia;Dec., 1849: Dostoevski Is Exiled to Siberia[2690]
[c]Literature;Dec., 1849: Dostoevski Is Exiled to Siberia[2690]
[c]Government and politics;Dec., 1849: Dostoevski Is Exiled to Siberia[2690]
Dostoevski, Mikhail
Belinsky, Vissarion
Tolstoy, Leo

Dostoevski joined a discussion group, the Petrashevsky Circle, Petrashevsky Circle
Literature;Petrashevsky Circle that discussed utopian ideas and was critical of the serfdom under which most Russians lived. Because of his active connection with a group that the government considered dangerously subversive, he was arrested in 1849 and held without trial for eight months. On December 22, 1849, Dostoevski and several other prisoners were led into a courtyard of the prison where they had been confined and were informed that death sentences had been imposed upon them and would be carried out immediately. The “condemned” prisoners were forced to kiss the cross. They received the last rites of the Church and had ceremonial swords broken over their heads. They then donned the white shirts traditionally worn by the condemned.

The first group of three, which did not include Dostoevski, was marched into the courtyard and tied to stakes. Drums rolled, presaging the imminent firing of shots by the firing squad. At the last possible moment, however, an emissary from the czar arrived to announce that the death sentences, which the czar apparently had never intended to have carried out, had been commuted. This ersatz execution was considered to be a calculated part of the punishment of the condemned men. It was designed to strike fear in the hearts of anyone who might consider engaging in subversive activity.

Dostoevski was sentenced forthwith to be exiled and imprisoned in Siberia for four years at hard labor. This sentence was to be followed by an indefinite term of military service. The staged execution had brought Dostoevski seemingly to the brink of death. Almost two decades later, he captured and reproduced the emotions of one faced with that possibility in Idiot (1868; The Idiot, 1887), in which Prince Myshkin articulates with considerable authenticity the emotions of one facing death.

Dostoevski, as a result of his close encounter with death, gained a new appreciation for the sanctity of life. He became considerably more spiritual, disdaining materialism and valuing as never before freedom and honesty. During his years confined in Siberia, he had time to think deeply and came to grips with his inner self, developing psychological insights far deeper than those he had previously possessed. Such insights pervaded his writing as he moved increasingly from writing about social issues to focusing on the human psyche.

During his imprisonment, Dostoevski was exposed to an astounding variety of people of different types and dispositions, some incredibly cruel, others remarkably kind. Many of the prison guards were sadists who reveled in dealing cruelly and unfairly with those in their charge. For Dostoevski, who valued integrity above all other human characteristics, the outrageous unfairness of some of the prison guards was profoundly distressing. Siberia was not a plum assignment for anyone, so staffing its prisons was difficult. Essentially it was the dregs of humanity who kept the prisons there running. Among the prisoners were rapists and murderers, sometimes brutes who had murdered innocent, helpless children. Intermixed with this motley assemblage, however, were some, both guards and prisoners, who were kind and helpful, ethical people who could see beyond the squalor and degeneracy of their surroundings.

If Dostoevski completed his formal education when he received his degree in military engineering, his real education occurred during his years of exile, particularly during his four years of imprisonment. During the period from 1850 to 1854, he had ample time to reflect. He used this time to think deeply about both society and human psychology. He found himself confined in the middle of the most comprehensive laboratory on the human condition that one could easily envision.

Fyodor Dostoevski.

(Library of Congress)

Dostoevski spent ten years in exile. Upon his return to Russia in 1859, he worked on organizing his thoughts about his exile and imprisonment. He began work on a new novel, Zapiski iz myortvogo doma (1861-1862, Buried Alive: Or, Ten Years of Penal Servitude in Siberia, 1881, better known as The House of the Dead) an account of his years of exile. Leo Tolstoy Tolstoy, Leo considered this novel Dostoevski’s best, although most critics assign that classification to his final novel, Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880, The Brothers Karamazov, Brothers Karamazov, The (Dostoevski) 1912).

During his confinement, Dostoevski developed a renewed appreciation for the goodness of common people and a concomitant disdain for the often overbearing incivility of intellectuals toward those whom they considered their social inferiors. He was distressed that many such intellectuals attempted to impose their political ideas upon the common people, for whom such ideas often proved both inappropriate and detrimental.

Despite his skepticism about religion, during his exile in Siberia Dostoevski was drawn increasingly toward the Russian Orthodox religion, more because it was the faith of the common people than because of any deep belief in its tenets. In his letters, he expressed his thirst for a faith, but his religious views were tempered by cynicism.

Another important event occurred for Dostoevski while he was in prison: He suffered his first attack of epilepsy, a condition with which he lived for the rest of his life. During his seizures, he experienced the full range of the human condition. Immediately preceding a seizure, he was suddenly in total concord with everything about him, drifting in a timeless universe. Immediately following this ecstatic state, however, the bottom would fall out of his world, plunging him into an unimaginable hell. This condition gave Dostoevski material that he subsequently used in some of his novels and short stories, most notably The Idiot, Idiot, The (Dostoevski) in which his protagonist, Prince Myshkin, suffers precisely the devastating swings of sentience that Dostoevski experienced in his frequent epileptic episodes.


One might speculate as to whether Dostoevski would have developed into the writer he became had it not been for his decade of exile. He distinguished himself as a literary force before his arrest and imprisonment, demonstrating that he had the potential to become an outstanding writer. Following his confinement, however, Dostoevski developed a focus on the psychology of common people that his earlier work did not possess. Penetrating psychological portrayals distinguished his writing, particularly in such novels as Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, Crime and Punishment (Dostoevski) 1886) and Besy (1871-1872; The Possessed, 1913; also known as The Devils).

Upon his return to Russia, Dostoevski with his brother, Mikhail, Dostoevski, Mikhail edited two journals that had a broad influence, Vreyma (1861-1863; time) and Epokha (1864-1865; epoch). Both journals were critical of the status quo in Russia, and both reflected Dostoevski’s concern for the common people and his cynicism toward czarist Russia.

Further Reading

  • Bloom, Harold, ed. Fyodor Dostoevsky. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. One in a series of Bloom Biocritiques, designed for literature students seeking an overview of prominent authors. This collection of essays includes an analyses of Dostoevski’s work and a brief biography.
  • Carter, Stephen. The Political and Social Thought of F. M. Dostoevski. New York: Garland, 1991. Carter discusses the revolutionary ideas that resulted in Dostoevski’s imprisonment and exile to Siberia.
  • Frank, Joseph. Dostoevski: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976. This volume of Frank’s multivolume study of Dostoevski provides valuable information about the political expressions and activities that led to Dostevski’s imprisonment and exile.
  • _______. Dostoevski: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Frank focuses directly on the years of Dostoevski’s imprisonment in Siberia and on the subsequent years in which he was forced to enter military service. A thorough and indispensable source.
  • _______. Dostoevski: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. Frank deals with the years immediately following Dostoevski’s regaining his freedom after four years of imprisonment and several years of compulsory military service.
  • _______. Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • _______. Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. The final two volumes in Frank’s five-volume study of Dostoevski’s life and career. Because Frank specializes in intellectual history, his study subordinates the melodramatic personal struggles that have dominated most biographies. Instead, he stresses the social and cultural context in which his subject lived and wrote, taking particular care to analyze the great contemporaneous issues in which Dostoevski participated. Indispensable.
  • Leatherbarrow, W. J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevski. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Particularly relevant is Leatherbarrow’s penetrating introduction to this collection of essays about Dostoevski and his life.

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