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.