Fyodor Dostoevsky: Hope in Siberia
By D.K. Ariyam


Unlike the rest of the free world, school is not a democracy. In school, students are given few options when it comes to their learning. You are given something to read, to divide, to make, to study, and there is little of any say in the matter. This, of course, is for the better—for choice at that age can be a dangerous thing. So as a consequence of my disenfranchised youth, I was given an introduction to a Russian author named Fyodor Dostoevsky. This author wrote a book called Crime and Punishment. At the time, I didn't much care for the author, or the book. My reasons on the matter were strictly empirical. In fact, it was a formula derived by me that measured a book's depreciating worth as a function of the number of its pages: small books were highly regarded, and larger volumes were met with contempt and scorn.

Yet after completing High School, and after college, I did away with the "formula", and was able to read and appreciate literature for its own sake.  But it wasn’t until I become more attuned to Christianity, that I learned to appreciate the works of Dostoevsky from a different sphere. Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Christian, and his discovery of Christ and the message of Christ’s salvation, is a recurring theme throughout his works.
            To those unfamiliar with the works of  Fyodor Dostoevsky, I would begin an introduction by reassuring you that I still cannot pronounce his name correctly. It doesn’t seem to roll off the English tongue without entangling itself first in a few syllables. But, taking that aside, one thing to note is that Dostoevsky’s novels often contain characters of a severe and pathetic kind. These same characters commit illicit crimes, live under the most extreme circumstances, and have yet an underlining base of humanness that anchors them to reality. It is this human element retained in his novels that tend to elicit two particular feelings on the reader: one, a feeling of compassion, and the other, a feeling of conviction.

Compassion is evoked almost as a reflex to the motives and thoughts of the criminal—made transparent through the writing. We can rationalize and somewhat comprehend through a sort of logical deduction, why and how, and through what desperate circumstance, what unfortunate background, might a person be moved to commit such a heinous crime. The criminal is then thought of as intrinsically good, and the crime as the true and unpardonable evil. 

But then, as a sense of conviction enters our soul, we soon evince the enormity of logically deducing evil. The conviction becomes personal; we can trace the thoughts leading to a crime, and then trace its own feasibility in our own hearts. The initial assertion that the criminal is intrinsically good is recanted and expanded: the criminal is evil, the crime is evil, and we also are intrinsically evil.

But all is not doom and gloom, even in the world of Dostoevsky’s novels. Towards the pinnacle of almost all of Dostoevsky’s works, at the height of desperation, lies a character that makes complete amends to an evil past. Such amends are made through the only source of true unqualified forgiveness: a turn towards Christ, and the following of Christianity. A desperate character finds the solace of hope through the gospel.  And although the world may continue to ostracize a sinner for past crimes,—crimes the world may see as unforgivable,—Christ is forgiving, and through him, even the vilest of criminals can be made whole.

These repeated Christian occurrences in his novels, as well as the horrific calamities that fill his pages, are in fact ripped corners of Dostoevsky’s own life. Dostoevsky was born in one of the poorest neighborhoods in all of Russia. His mother died when he was young and his father was a violent alcoholic, prone to frequent unprovoked abuse. His father was later murdered by his own serfs (retaliatory for years of harsh treatment). Dostoevsky was then left with no one close, except his brother.

As Dostoevsky grew older, he established a modest literary career for himself in Russia. But, early success was short-lived, for soon after, he was arrested for his affiliation with radical political group. He was then thrown into prison and sentenced to death. Bereft of freedom and life, when the time came for Dostoevsky’s sentence to be fulfilled, he was led, blindfolded, to a shooting squad commissioned to enact his death sentence. However, although the shots did fire, the whole engagement was actually a mock-execution; mock-executions were an alternative to capital punishment, and used as a form of mental torture—often leading its victims to insanity rather than penance.

After this mock-execution, Dostoevsky was sentenced to a hard labor camp in Siberia for several years. Siberia was Dostoevsky’s darkest hour. Ripped of everything he worked for in life, at the curtain of his death sentence, and now in frigid Siberia, destitute, starving, and suffering, it was here that Dostoevsky would discover Christ. Christ soon becomes a fixture in his life and a source of strength that enabled him to go on and produce works like Crime and Punishment, and The Brother’s Karamazov.

The life of  Fyodor Dostoevsky was an intense life, filled with pain and suffering. Yet through all the tumult of personal experience, he left behind encouragement and hope through his own biography, as well as through the works he authored. Both, his life and his works, present to the world a glimpse of Christianity and the gift of salvation. For firstly, we are all sinners: worthy of the death penalty, and intrinsically wicked by nature. But even in such a desperate state, there is a recurring message, reminding us of a key promise of Christ: even in a Siberia, where darkness seems impenetrable, and crimes seem unpardonable, there is always hope and forgiveness through Christ, our savior, our salvation.