Dostoyevsky Danced with Death
As a Result, Became a Great Writer.

Years ago, many years ago, while in college, I read Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  I wish that I had retaken that class today; I would have grasped a great deal more than I did a half century ago.  Nonetheless, I do recall a single sentence that intrigued me.  "The darker the night, the brighter the stars."   


On seeing more clearly

As haunting as that sentence was for me a half century ago, its meaning has come alive for me at the other end of my life.  I was having breakfast with Dave Wood, which we do every several months.  These breakfasts last for hours, and we discuss things that are important to us and should be to others. 

I had gotten to the restaurant several minutes prior to Dave's arrival.  When he came up to the table, he greeted me with a welcoming question, "How are you doing?"  Unfortunately, I am aware of a bad habit of responding to any questioner relating everything in detail.  The first time that I noticed this behavior was with Mike Schmitt.  He asked me essentially the same welcoming question the first time we met over dinner.  I responded to his question nearly nonstop during our dinner.  Since then, I have realized this verbose verbal behavior is replicated so often that I must intentionally bridle my mouth.

A part of my explanation for being so wound up relates to having danced with death...twice.  I am more alive and wired than I have ever been.  However, my month in Myanmar (Burma) was the second factor that adds to my verboseness.  Several days after returning to the States, I had a routine cardiovascular checkup with Dr. Marchand.  He examined my heart and everything was fine.  However, I asked him why I was so wired and wound-up.  He replied, "You have seen the light."  And I had seen the light in Myanmar especially.  My two dances and my trip to Myanmar radically changed me. 

When Dave asked me, I went on and on about my quest to return to Myanmar, interview Aung San Suu Kyi, and see several of my friends in Myanmar...especially Ti Ti.  After a much longer than necessary response from me, I intentionally inquired about what was happening in his life.  Interesting, it was what we talked about a couple months ago.

I was critical then, and delighted now, as he talked about the changes in his life.  He too had changed.  I told him that he looked different than the last time I had seen him.  He explained the changes and how he was going to address the changes.  All was well.  I was truly happy for him...until he added a small caveat. 

Politely, I exploded.  I was so bold that I blatantly told him that he was making a big mistake.  I went back to my doing the dances and the reality that we need to live now and not wait awhile before coming alive.  I rattled off two dozen names of people who had done the dance.  I recited for him poems that I had memorized in high school of poets that had done the dance like Alan Seeger and John Donne

I was very concerned about Dave getting my message.  While he didn't put up a truce flag, he did say we would meet again in a couple weeks.  I heard that comment as he needed to process our discussion.

However, in a closing comment, Dave said, "Dostoyevsky danced with death."  He told me about the firing squad experience.  I jotted Dostoyevsky's name down and next to it firing squad.  The last thing that I said to Dave was thanks and that I would research Dostoyevsky and the firing squad as soon as I got home, which I did.   


Another dancer

At the beginning of the essay, I mentioned this sentence from Crime and Punishment, "The darker the night, the brighter the stars."  I didn't fully grasp what he meant; I do now because of Dave's haunting comment.  The following is a brief history of one of the world's greatest authors and more importantly why it haunts me.

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was born on November 11, 1821 in a poorer area of Moscow.  His father was a military doctor stationed at the Mariinsky Hospital for the Poor.  Dostoyevsky learned about poverty at an early age due to living in the midst of it.  His parents were educated and wanted him to follow in their footsteps.  They read to him all the time.  He went to school at a military academy where he wasn't really interested in math and science.  However, he was interested in social reforms and working with the less fortunate.  He spent some time in the military but finally resigned due in part to his love of writing even though he wasn't successful in his early attempts.

So, Dostoyevsky clearly followed his father's questioning of many of the czar's attitude to the less affluent Russians than he as the czar.  He started to attend a group called the Petrashevsky Circle.  This group was made up of writers, social activists, and what was called utopian socialists.  Czar Nicholas I didn't like people like those in the Petrashevsky Circle and had thirty-five of them arrested on April 23, 1849.  The group was jailed at St. Peter and Paul Fortress Prison in St. Petersburg.  Finally, on November 16, 1849, 167-years ago to the day, Dostoyevsky and the group were sentenced to death.  A month later, on December 22, the group was marched into Semyonov Square in St. Petersburg where they were blindfolded before going before the firing squad.  Dostoyevsky was in the sound group.  He heard the firing squad fire and his group was lead to be killed. 



There he stood moments before death...waiting for the volley of fire.  It came.  But, he didn't feel the bullets enter his body.  Why?  Czar Nickolas I had the firing squad use blanks.  It was his sadistic means to teaching the prisoners of the Petrashevsky Circle and anyone else what was in store for dissenters of his rule.  While Dostoyevsky didn't bite the bullet, he and the group were sent to a Siberian gulag for about five years of imprisonment.  Then they were forced to serve in the Siberia Regiment after their release from prison. 

Dostoyevsky danced with dance several times because of Czar Nickolas I.  It may seem a non-sequitur that dancing with death caused him to come alive.  Nonetheless, merely look at how doing the dance made him into a great writer.  Remember this simple sentence that Dostoyevsky wrote in Crime and Punishment, "The darker the night, the brighter the stars."    

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