On this day in 1849 Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky and fellow members of the Petrashevsky Circle were sentenced to death for “dangerous” political speech. The Circle, composed of intellectuals and writers, shared radical ideas about government and religion. Gogol’s Letter, a written statement denouncing Ukrainian playwright Nikolai Gogol’s loyalty to the church, was passed around the group and eventually word of its anti-monarchical content reached Tsar Nicholas I. Dostoevsky and fellow Petrashevsky Circle members were rounded up to be shot; at the last second, the Tsar commuted their sentences and sent them all to serve hard labour terms in Siberia. Dostoevsky describes the experience of the “mock execution” in The Idiot: “The uncertainty and feeling of aversion for the new thing which was going to overtake him immediately, was terrible”.
The extreme treatment of Dostoevsky and his fellow intellectuals reflected the political uncertainty and fear felt by many in European monarchy at the time. A wave of revolutions rocked Europe in 1848 as citizens grew tired of corrupt monarchical rule; although no general uprising took place in Russia that year, decades of tension followed, reflected in anarchist literature and the works of Tolstoy and others. Although the era of Tsars would end in 1917, the groundwork for revolution had been laid many decades before.