How Dostoevsky’s Exile in Siberia Led to Four of the Greatest Novels in Literature
Kevin Birmingham Guests on the Book Dreams Podcast
“When Dostoyevsky was 28, he was arrested in the pre-dawn hours by the Czar’s political police. … [Nine months later] the men were brought out into a square in the middle of St. Petersburg in December. Three men were tied to stakes; there were hoods pulled over their heads. A firing squad came out to aim their rifles. Dostoyevsky was next in line to be executed.”
Thus begins our Book Dreams interview this week with Kevin Birmingham, author of The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece. Co-hosts Eve Yohalem and Julie Sternberg discuss with Kevin the many extraordinary twists and turns of Dostoevsky’s life that helped shape the writing of Crime and Punishment and other novels. Dostoevsky endured ten years of exile in Siberia, four of them in a Siberian labor camp among murderers, and he battled a gambling addiction that repeatedly brought him to the brink of ruin.
Kevin explains how these experiences and more contributed to “[t]wo decades of hardship, contemplation, and experimentation [that] brought [Dostoevsky] to a spectacular period of creativity in which he wrote four of the greatest novels in Russian literature—in all literature.” Kevin also recounts the story of Pierre-François Lacenaire, the real-life criminal who became the model for Raskolnikov, the murderer depicted in Crime and Punishment.
From the episode:
Kevin Birmingham: Dostoyevsky spent about nine years in Siberia, and it was in Siberia that his life completely changed and that his writing completely changed. One of the things that happened is that he was very eager to hear the stories of the criminals surrounding him, particularly the murderers surrounding him, and why these people did what they did; and so he studied effectively murder as a human act.
He studied the peasants as people. He studied people from around the empire who were imprisoned with him. And when he came back to European Russia in 1860, he burst back onto the literary scene and started his career from scratch, and virtually everything that we read from Dostoyevsky was written after his time in Siberia, because it became so much more complex and so much deeper.
Julie Sternberg: One of the convicts who was present when Dostoyevsky was sentenced to hard labor in Siberia—instead of being tied to a post, blindfolded, and shot by a firing squad—one of those fellow convicts, hearing the news said, “Better to be shot than sent to Siberia.”
Kevin Birmingham:Yeah. Right.
Kevin Birmingham is the author of The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece, which was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, which won the PEN New England Award and The Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. Kevin has been named a Public Scholar by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and he received his PhD in English from Harvard. His writing has appeared in Harpers, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Book Dreams is a podcast for everyone who loves books and misses English class. Co-hosted by Julie Sternberg and Eve Yohalem, Book Dreams releases new episodes every Thursday. Each episode explores book-related topics you can’t stop thinking about—whether you know it yet or not.