Time Off in Siberia

Tsarist Prisoners in Siberia

I have a particular love for Russian prison literature. For the third time, I am reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead. By no means is it anywhere near the greatest of Dostoyevsky’s novels, but the subject has always fascinated me.

After the October Revolution, and especially during Josef Stalin’s reign, the literature of the GULAGs became a standard literary genre. I love Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s massive The GULAG Archipelago as well as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The First Circle. Also well worth reading is Varlam Shalamov’s grim Kolyma Tales.

It is a common misconception that Dostoyevsky’s book is not a novel but just a thinly fictionalized account of his own four years in Omsk. At the time he wrote it, he was trying to reestablish his literary reputation after four years in prison and subsequent time with the Siberian Army Corps of the Seventh Line Battalion in Semipalatinsk. He was worried that if he wrote a book that was less than uplifting, he would once again be regarded as a political prisoner and suffer excessive censorship.

While it is anything but pollyanna-ish, The House of the Dead provided a rare look at the Tsar’s prison colonies on the other side of the Ural Mountains.

An Impassioned Plea for Freedom

Gulag Prisoners in Siberia

Gulag Prisoners in Siberia

Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky could hardly believe his eyes. He had spent four years in a Siberian prison camp and six years in the Russian military in Siberia. His first published works after returning to St. Petersburg were comedies: Uncle’s Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo. Now he wrote two short pieces for publication about his experience in the camp. The first was approved by the Tsarist censors; the second, rejected—because it was thought that Dostoyevsky was saying that life in the Gulags was actually quite appealing.

That could not be allowed to stand. Dostoyevsky immediately penned a supplement to that piece, which included the following:

What is bread? They [the convicts] eat bread to live, but they have no life! The genuine, the real, the most important is lacking, and the convict knows he will never have it; or he will have it, if you like, but when? … It’s as if the promise is made only as a joke.

Try an experiment and build a palace. Fit it out with marble, pictures, gold, birds of paradise, hanging gardens, all sorts of things…. And step inside. Well, it may be that you would never wish to leave. Perhaps, in actual fact, you would never leave. Everything is there! “Let well enough alone!” But suddenly—a trifle! Your castle is surrounded by walls, and you are told: “Everything is yours! Enjoy yourself! Only, don’t take a step outside!” And believe me, in that instant you will wish to quit your paradise and step over the wall. Even more! All this luxury, all this plenitude, will only sharpen your suffering. You will even feel insulted as a result of all this luxury…. Yes, only one thing is missing: a bit of liberty! a bit of liberty and a bit of freedom!

This impassioned plea is perhaps the germ of Dostoyevsky’s great works which were to follow: Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov.

The Incident in Semenovsky Square

A Christmas Present from Tsar Nicholas I

A Christmas Present from Tsar Nicholas I

On the mrning of December 22, 1849, a number of prisoners were taken in closed carriages from their prison cells to St. Petersburg’s Semenovsky Square where there was a firing squad waiting for them. They were dressed in long white peasant blouses and nightcaps. Asked to bare their heads to receive their sentences: In every case, the verdict was “The Field Criminal Court has condemned all to death sentence before a firing squad, and on December 19 His Majesty the Emperor personally wrote, ‘Confirmed.’” As the first three were tied to stakes, the prisoners found out that Tsar Nicholas I had commuted all their sentences to prison terms in Siberia.

The most prominent of the prisoners was a young writer named Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, who described what he felt twenty years later in the words of the main character of The Idiot, Prince Myshkin:

It seemed to him that, in those five minutes, he was going to lead such a great number of lives that there was no place to think of the last moment. So that he divided up the time that still remained for him to live:two minutes to say good-bye to his companions; two minutes for inward meditation one last time; and the remainder to look around him one final time. He remembered perfectly having fulfilled those dispositions just as he had calculated. He was going to die at twenty-seven [Dostoyevsky has just turned twenty-eight in 1849], full of health and vigor. He recalled that, at the moment of saying good-bye, he asked one of his companions a rather indifferent question, and he took a keen interest in the reply. After saying good-bye, he began the period of two minutes reserved for inward meditation. He knew in advance what he would think about: he wished to focus his intention firmly, and as clearly and rapidly as possible, on what was going to happen: right now, he was existing and living; in three minutes, something would occur; someone or something, but who, where? He thought to resolve these uncertainties during these two final minutes. Nearby rose a church whose golden cupola sparkled under a brilliant sun. He recalled having looked at that cupola and the rays it reflected with a terrible obstinacy; he could not take his eyes away; those rays seemed to him to be that new nature that was to be his own, and he imagined that in three minutes he would become part of them…. His uncertainty and his repulsion before the unknown, which was going to overtake him immediately, was terrible.

After spending four years at the forced labor camp of Omsk in Siberia, Dostoyevsky was released and—for the second part of his sentence—inducted into the army and made to serve as a private in the Siberian Army Corps of the Seventh Line Battalion. For a period of almost ten years, he was forbidden to publish any of his writings.

Before he was sentenced for belonging to the Petrashevsky Circle of suspected dissidents, Dostoyevsky had written a number of works which are not often read today. I read most of them and liked them, but they were nothing compared to novels like Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), The Devils (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) that were to follow his return to civilian life.

Could it be that the intensity of those masterpieces owed something to Dostoyevsky’s sufferings in Siberia?