Dostoevsky: Theology from the frontier of experience

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Stephan Lipke, SJ

 Stephan Lipke, SJ / Theology / 1 August 2021


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Perhaps few experienced the restless 19th century as intensely as Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821-81). His was a very strong experience of an era, his life full of personal misfortune. The artistic expression of what he lived through affected others as deeply as himself.

When his debut epistolary novel Poor Folk (1846) was enthusiastically received by critics, the young mining engineer seemed destined to become a successful writer. However, his career was abruptly cut short in 1849 when he was imprisoned and sentenced to death for high treason because of his participation in a reading group. He was pardoned in December 1849, literally at the last minute, and his sentence commuted to imprisonment.[1] He himself, in his novel The Idiot (1868), tells the story of a man known to Prince Myshkin: “This man one day, along with others, had been led to the scaffold and had already been read the sentence of death by firing squad for political offenses. Another judgment was read to him twenty minutes later. It commuted his sentence. However, during those twenty minutes, or at least a quarter of an hour, the man had lived with the absolute certainty that he would die within a few minutes.”[2]

In his Notes from the House of the Dead, Dostoevsky describes the next five years of imprisonment in the fortress of Omsk, years which marked him deeply. It is not, however, a true autobiography, but rather a fictional account with an autobiographical background. Another five years of exile in Siberia followed, during which he married the widow Maria Isaeva. Only in 1859, after a final exercise of grace granted by the reforming emperor Alexander II, the couple returned to European Russia.

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