The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Book Review

To the Depths and Back

Macabre, morbid, and mordant.

Christopher Sandford

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky (detail), 1922, by František Foltýn (1891–1976); private collection; Album/Alamy Stock Photo.

Kevin Birmingham prefaces his account of the tortured progress of the writing of Crime and Punishment with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s terse summation of his novel’s plot: “There’s an evil spirit here.” It’s a statement Birmingham invites us to ponder throughout his masterly book. Can we be disturbed but not necessarily repulsed by the actions of a particularly heinous criminal? Might such a character actually engage our sympathies? In The Sinner and the Saint, Birmingham sets himself the task of revealing the soul of an author, shattered and nearly sunk by the cumulative blows of life, struggling to get close to a murderer’s mind—and he succeeds brilliantly.

Shortly after dawn on the morning of Saturday, December 22, 1849, the twenty-eight-year-old Dostoevsky stood on a black-draped scaffold erected on the drilling ground at Semyonovsky Square in his native St. Petersburg, and prepared to die at the hands of a firing squad. It was a cold, overcast, Russian winter day, with flakes of snow falling at the condemned man’s feet. Dostoevsky was bound to a stake between two other men, a biblical trinity he would have recognized, with nine more prisoners awaiting their turn in the wings. All of them had been convicted of what the presiding court called a “conspiracy of ideas” to undermine the tsarist regime. On the frozen ground behind the scaffold stood a row of carts laden with twelve empty coffins.

A black-robed priest mounted the scaffold and faced the first group of prisoners at the stake. He quoted Romans 6: “The wages of sin is death.” Yet by acknowledging their sins, the condemned could still hope to inherit eternal life. All three of the bound men silently kissed the priest’s cross when it was offered to them. It’s said that Dostoevsky remained calm, remarking to the man next to him on the scaffold that he had recently read Le dernier jour d’un condamné, Victor Hugo’s novel about a criminal facing the guillotine who believes that in the end Christ’s law will replace that of man. Perhaps it was one of those timeless moments, when eternity intrudes into the world and we catch a glimpse of what the life of man was meant to be and, by the grace of God, may yet be.

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