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Dostoevsky's narrow escape from death row

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881) was arrested in Russia at age 27 for his membership in a literary society that the Russian Tsar Nicholas I felt was dangerous to the tsar's authority. He was sentenced to death, and on the day of his planned execution in St. Petersburg, he was brought to a public square to be shot alongside other inmates, shivering in the cold of a Russian December as he contemplated his final moments on Earth.

All of a sudden, an announcement was made that he and other the inmates would be pardoned. The tsar had designed the event to cast himself as a kind and merciful ruler in the public eye. Instead, Dostoevsky was sentenced to four years in a Siberian work camp.

Mere hours later, unsure of what the future would hold for his life and career, Dostoevsky nevertheless wrote an ecstatic letter to his brother Mikhail, filled with hope and gratitude for life. The full letter was originally published in Dostoevsky Letters (Vol. 1, 1832–1859) by Ardis Publishers in 1988. Excerpts are below:

Brother! I’m not despondent and I haven’t lost heart. Life is everywhere, life is in us ourselves, not outside. There will be people by my side, and to be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart — that’s what life is all about, that’s its task. I have come to recognize that. The idea has entered my flesh and blood… The head that created, lived the higher life of art, that recognized and grew accustomed to the higher demands of the spirit, that head has already been cut from my shoulders… But there remain in me a heart and the same flesh and blood that can also love, and suffer, and pity, and remember, and that’s life, too!
I haven’t lost heart, remember that hope has not abandoned me… After all I was at death’s door today, I lived with that thought for three-quarters of an hour, I faced the last moment, and now I’m alive again!
If anyone remembers me with malice, and if I quarreled with anyone, if I made a bad impression on anyone — tell them to forget about that if you manage to see them. There is no bile or spite in my soul, I would like to so love and embrace at least someone out of the past at this moment.
When I look back at the past and think how much time was spent in vain, how much of it was lost in delusions, in errors, in idleness, in the inability to live; how I failed to value it, how many times I sinned against my heart and spirit — then my heart contracts in pain. Life is a gift, life is happiness, each moment could have been an eternity of happiness. Si jeunesse savait [If youth knew]!
Now, changing my life, I’m being regenerated into a new form. Brother! I swear to you that I won’t lose hope and will preserve my heart and spirit in purity. I’ll be reborn for the better. That’s my entire hope, my entire consolation. Life in the casemate has already sufficiently killed off in me the needs of the flesh that were not completely pure; before that I took little care of myself. Now deprivations no longer bother me in the slightest, and therefore don’t be afraid that material hardship will kill me.
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