As a young man, Fyodor Dostoevsky became involved with a circle of writers and intellectuals who would gather to discuss art, literature, and philosophy. They also spent a lot of time parsing the finer points of utopian socialism. Known as the Petrashevsky Circle, the group met in the home of Mikhail Petrashevsky, a prominent intellectual figure in the Tsarist Russian Empire. In the spring of 1849, some thirty-five members of the group were arrested on the direct order of Tsar Nicholas I. Dostoevsky was accused of owning a printing press, conspiring to produce anti-government propaganda, possessing banned books, and listening to seditious speeches.

Dostoevsky as a young man and political idealist.

After a much discussed trial, the members of the Petrashevsky Circle were convicted of crimes against the crown and sentenced to death by firing squad. On December 23rd, 1849, they were led out into the courtyard of Semyonov Place in St Petersburg. The first three men were tied to pillars in the square and blindfolded. Dostoevsky was in the second group of three, so once these men were shot, his turn would be up.  The Russian literary giant had minutes left to live. But as soon as the order had been given to fire, a second order came through to halt the executions. A messenger had arrived from the Tsar himself to commute the death sentences. The men were instead sentenced to hard labor; Dostoevsky spent four years in a Siberian work camp. 

The message that saved them had been prepared well beforehand, intended by the Tsar to be read at the last possible second before they were shot. Dostoevsky was just twenty-eight years old at the time and this near execution would haunt him for the rest of his life. Read here for a more in depth summary of the Petrashevsky Circle mock execution.

A sketch of the Mock Execution of the Petrashevsky Circle

This incident left such an impression on Dostoevsky that he wrote about it twenty years later in his 1869 novel, The Idiot. Prince Myshkin, early in the novel, relates a story he heard from a man who had been sentenced to death for political crimes only to receive a last second reprieve, exactly as Dostoevsky had.

“This man had once been led to a scaffold, along with others, and a sentence of death by firing squad was read out to him, for a political crime. After about twenty minutes a pardon was read out to him, and he was given a lesser degree of punishment; nevertheless, for the space between the two sentences, for twenty minutes or a quarter of an hour at the least, he lived under the certain conviction that in a few minutes he would suddenly die...… he remembered everything with extraordinary clarity and used to say he would never forget anything about those minutes..."

The question we must ask ourselves: Does forcing someone to live under the threat of imminent death constitute cruel and unusual punishment?

In 1972, a death penalty case was brought before the Supreme Court that challenged the very constitutionality of capital punishment. In Furman V. Georgia, the court ruled 5-4 for the plaintiff, finding in this particular case that the death penalty was indeed unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The Court decision forced the states to immediately review their laws and procedures for administering capital punishment. A moratorium lasting for four years prohibited executions in all fifty states.

The justices were split on the reasoning behind this ruling with the majority opinion (three justices) arguing that it was the current application of the death penalty that was at fault, not the concept of executing prisoners altogether. The current application was found to be either too arbitrarily applied or unreasonably subject to racial bias, rendering its current enforcement unconstitutional. Once the states updated their laws, they could proceed with executing prisoners.

William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, on the other hand, disagreed with this position, arguing that capital punishment represented a cruel and unusual practice by its very nature and should be prohibited under the constitution. Dostoevsky would probably agree.

William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall

In Dostoevsky's eyes, the special cruelty of the death penalty was that it acts as a double punishment. The anguish of impending death inflicted on the condemned man while he awaits his execution, and then the execution itself. This certainty of death, in Dostoevsky’s opinion, was so debilitating that it could drive a person insane.

Dostoevsky wrote in The Idiot:

"To kill for killing is an immeasurably greater punishment than the crime itself. To be killed by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than to be killed by robbers. A man killed by robbers, stabbed at night, in the forest or however certainly still hopes he’ll be saved till the very last minute. There have been examples when a man’s throat has already been cut, and he still hopes, or pleads. But here all this last hope, which makes it ten times easier to die, is taken away for certain; here there’s the sentence, and the whole torment lies in the certainty that there’s no escape, and there’s no greater torment in the world than that. Take a soldier, put him right in front of a cannon during a battle and shoot at him, and he’ll still keep hoping, read that same soldier a sentence for certain, and he’ll lose his mind or start weeping."

As he points out in another of his great novels, Crime and Punishment, the most powerful rehabilitative punishment inflicted on the protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, for his murderous crime, which finally succeeds in propelling him on a path to partial redemption, comes not from any legal judgement, but from the guilty suffering felt in his soul: “The man who has a conscience suffers whilst acknowledging his sin. That is his punishment.” 

All quotes taken from the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation.