A writer whose later work always had a religious core, he had found his way to faith the hard way.
In 1849, the 28-year-old Dostoevsky had been sentenced to death for his radical associations and activities in St. Petersburg. He was standing at the place of execution, in view of the firing squad, when his death sentence was commuted by the tsar. Days later, the hair shaven off one side of his head and wearing a convict’s black-and-white striped uniform, he was sent in chains to Siberia. On his way the wife of another convict managed to give him a copy of the New Testament along with a ten ruble note hidden in the cover. He kept the book with him for the rest of his life.
He spent the first four years “packed like a sardine” inside a vermin-infested prison barrack, a rotting building, stuffy in summer, freezing in winter, a world without any privacy or safety. He wasn’t permitted to write a single letter. Yet there was a certain blessing in his sojourn in the “lower depths,” a term often used by radical Russian intellectuals who contemplated the ordinary people — the narod — from a safe distance. Tolstoy might occasionally labor with his peasants and wear similar clothing, but at night he slept on silk sheets. Dostoevsky lived and slept among some of Russia’s poorest day and night for years. Among the “unfortunate ones,” as Russians often called those in prison, he rethought the foundations of his life.
A religious awakening occurred. He began to consider that the Gospel might be true and that the Church — the guardian of the Gospel — might be something more than a social institution whose main task was blessing the tsar and the activities of the state.
Finally allowed to engage in correspondence in 1854, he related to a friend how he had come to thirst for faith “as withered grass thirsts for water”:
“I’m a child of the age, a child of doubt and unbelief, and even, I’m certain, till the day they close the lid of my coffin. What terrible torment this thirst to believe has cost me and is still costing me, the stronger it becomes in my soul, the stronger are the arguments against it. And despite all this God sends me moments of great tranquility, moments during which I love and find I am loved by others. It was during such a moment that I formed within myself a symbol of faith [In Orthodoxy Christianity, the Creed is referred to as “the symbol of faith”] in which all is clear and sacred for me. The symbol [creed] is very simple, and here is what it is: to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous, and more perfect than Christ; and there not only isn’t, but I tell myself with a jealous love, there cannot be. More than that — if someone succeeded in proving to me that Christ was outside the truth, and if, indeed, the truth was outside Christ, I would sooner remain with Christ than with the truth.” [Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Andrew MacAndrew, edited by Joseph Frank and David Goldstein, Rutgers University Press, 1987; letter to N.D. Fonvizina, p. 68. One finds a similar passage in a notebook entry written in 1881, the year he died: “I believe in Christ not like a child. My faith came through the crucible of doubts.”]
It is in his Siberian years that the novels of his later life have their roots.
The rest of Jim Forest’s post is here, but it is full of spoilers of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, so I don’t recommend reading it until after you’ve read the novels.