Saturday, March 14, 2015


During one of the darkest times of his life Fyodor Dostoevsky crossed paths with one of those bizarre examples of legend that seem so characteristic of Russia.

After the death of Ivan the Terrible in 1584 his youngest son Dmitry, heir to the throne, moved to the city of Uglich with his mother. On May 15, 1591 Dmitry, then eight years old, was found with his throat cut in an Uglich courtyard.

Boris Godunov took power as the new tsar, and he was widely assumed to have been behind the assassination. Incensed over the murder, the Uglichites rose up as a mob and killed two government officials. They had been summoned to revolt by the ringing of the tocsin by the Uglich bell.

Godunov ordered two hundred of the townspeople executed. Furthermore, the offending bell was given twelve lashes. It had an ear removed, was emasculated and sent into exile. As the Wikipedia article has it, "ему отрезали язык и ухо и сослали в Сибирь (they cut off its tongue and an ear and exiled it to Siberia)."

The bell was supposedly never to be rung again, but somehow, after it arrived in Tobolsk, it managed to get its clapper back (exactly when?). The Uglich Bell went back to ringing once more and enjoyed a place of honor in the city of Tobolsk.

On January 9, 1850, Dostoevsky arrived in Tobolsk as part of a penal convoy, on his way to the prison in Omsk, where he would serve four years under horrendous conditions. One of the first sights he saw in Tobolsk "was the town's most ancient and notorious exile, the famous Uglich bell, located just off the main road along which they were proceeding" (Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky. The Years of Ordeal: 1850-1859, p.70-71).

With his dark and wicked sense of humor, Dostoevsky may have appreciated his encounter with the mythical bell who survived castration to ring another day, and yet another, and many more. But it is doubtful that at that particular juncture in the writer's life he was much in the mood for laughter.

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