As most are surely aware, the last year or two has seen a growing crackdown on free speech and free thought across the Internet, with our constitutionally-protected First Amendment rights being circumvented through the agency of monopolistic private sector corporations such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Although as yet our government has not gained the power to ban discordant views nor punish their advocates, anonymous tech company censors regularly take these steps, seemingly based upon entirely opaque and arbitrary standards which lack any power of appeal. No one really knows why some individuals are banned or “de-platformed” and others are not, and surely this looming uncertainty has imposed self-censorship upon hundreds of individuals for every publicized victim who receives an exemplary punishment.
In the summer of 1865, just after he began writing Crime and Punishment, the greatest novelist of all time hit rock bottom. Recently widowed and bedeviled by epilepsy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (November 11, 1821–February 9, 1881) had cornered himself into an impossible situation. After his elder brother died, Dostoyevsky, already deeply in debt on account of his gambling addiction, had taken upon himself the debts of his brother’s magazine. Creditors soon came knocking on his door, threatening to send him to debtors’ prison. (A decade earlier, he had narrowly escaped the death penalty for reading banned books and was instead exiled, sentenced to four years at a Siberian labor camp — so the prospect of being imprisoned was unbearably terrifying to him.) In a fit of despair, he agreed to sell the rights to an edition of his collected works to his publisher, a man named Fyodor Stellovsky, for the sum of his debt — 3,000 rubles, or around $80,000 in today’s money. As part of the deal, he would also have to produce a new novel of at least 175 pages by November 13 of the following year. If he failed to meet the deadline, he would lose all rights to his work, which would be transferred to Stellovsky for perpetuity.