Crime, Responsibility and Morality: The Impact of Siberian Exile on Fyodor Dostoevsky
Daniel Beer is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Renovating Russia: The Human Sciences and the Fate of Liberal Modernity, 1880-1930. His ground-breaking study of Siberian exile under the tsars, The House of the Dead, won the 2017 Cundill History Prize and was praised by the judges for both its universality and its humanity. In the course of writing the book, Daniel gained unprecedented access to hitherto unseen sources and turned his vast body of material into a gripping and haunting read, reminiscent of a tragic Russian novel. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Daniel describes how Siberian exile was the great writer Fyodor Dostoevsky’s foundational experience as an author and thinker.
On the morning of 22 December 1849, a few dozen students, officers and writers filed out of their cells in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg. Convicted of membership in a subversive discussion group, the Petrashevtsy, as they were known, were taken in sealed carriages through streets still cloaked in darkness to the central Semyonovsky Square and led onto a platform draped in a black cloth. Witnessed by regiments drawn from the city, the ensuing spectacle was intended to underline the price of disloyalty to the crown.
An official ordered the men to stand in line and remove their hats, pausing before each one to read out the list of his imputed crimes and the sentence to be passed. Over the full half hour it took him to perform his duties, one sentence echoed and re-echoed like the tolling of a funeral bell: 'The Field Criminal Court has sentenced you to death by shooting.' The horror dawned on the men that they were about to die.
Each was handed a long white peasant blouse and a nightcap to don. The first three prisoners were seized by the arm, led off the platform and tied to posts that stood in the ground below. The firing squad walked to within four metres of the condemned men and raised its rifles. Surveying the drama from the scaffold in the next group of three prisoners, consumed by 'mystic terror', stood the 28-year-old writer and author of Poor Folk (1846), Fyodor Dostoevsky.
But the shots never rang out. At the very last moment, an aide-de-camp galloped onto the square to deliver a pardon from Tsar Nicholas I. The Petrashevtsy learned that the tsar had graciously spared their lives; their fate was not to die at the hands of a firing squad but to join the ranks of common criminals in penal forts across Siberia. The theatrical director of the entire grisly pageant was none other than Nicholas himself. The mock execution served to underscore in the most brutal terms that the convicts owed their lives to his mercy.
A few days later, Dostoevsky set out to begin an eight-year sentence of penal labour in a prison fort in Omsk, Western Siberia. The notes he scrawled in captivity would form the basis of one of the most influential books to be published in Russia across the whole of the nineteenth century. Notes from the House of the Dead (1861-1862) caused a sensation both as a work of literature and as a glimpse into a horrifying world of which most educated Russian were wholly ignorant. Written from the perspective of a fictional narrator named Goryanchikov - a literary device to ease the book past the censor – the work was clearly autobiographical. It produced, one contemporary reviewer wrote, 'a striking impression. The author was seen as a new Dante who had made the descent into hell, one more terrible in that it existed not in the poet’s imagination but in reality.' Leo Tolstoy declared of Notes from the House of the Dead, 'I know of no better book in all modern literature, and that includes Pushkin.'
The Omsk penal fort was typical of penal settlements across Siberia in the nineteenth century: 'a large courtyard, two hundred metres long and a hundred and fifty metres wide, completely enclosed all round by a high stockade.' Inside were the barracks where the convicts lived. Dostoevsky remembered how their cramped conditions forced convicts into a squalid intimacy that was as punishing as the prison regime itself:
'Imagine an old, dilapidated, wooden construction, which should have been torn down long ago, and which was no longer fit for purpose. In summer, it was unbearably stuffy; in winter, unendurably cold. All the floors were rotting through and were covered in an inch-thick layer of filth…. We were packed in like herrings in a barrel…. All the convicts stank like pigs…. There were fleas, lice, and cockroaches by the bushel.'
The barracks were presided over by the loathsome Major Krivtsov, a drunken sadist who would order men flogged for absurd infractions such as sleeping on their right side (Christ had, he insisted, always slept on his left side.)
The filth and brutality of the penal fort and the grinding monotony of the forced labour was punctuated only by the convicts’ drinking, gambling and fighting. Dostoevsky’s narrator Goryanchikov sees in this irrational and self-destructive behaviour a brief assertion of the convict’s personality, a minor act of defiance against the baseness of captivity: 'One convict or another can have lived quietly for several years… when suddenly for no apparent reason whatever – as if the devil had got into him – he starts to behave waywardly, to go on binges, get mixed up in brawls… The cause of this sudden outburst… is nothing more than an anguished, convulsive … desire to declare himself and his humiliated personality.' This compulsion to express individual autonomy, even if through acts of irrational self-destruction, would echo through many of Dostoevsky’s later works, from Notes from Underground (1864) to Demons (1871).
Dostoevsky was released early from the prison fort in February 1854, his sentence commuted to service in the ranks of a Siberian regiment. His four years of penal labour had given him ample opportunity to observe the common people at close quarters. 'If I did not discover Russia,' he wrote to his brother, Mikhail, a week after his release, 'then I did at least get to know its people well, so well as only a few know them.' Living cheek-by-jowl with criminals, Dostoevsky found 'coarse, hostile and embittered' men, prone to all manner of vices, from drunken excess to violent cruelty. Most shattering of all, for a young idealist convinced of the innate goodness all human beings, was that he saw among them 'not the slightest trace of repentance.'
Yet in the years that followed, Dostoevsky went on to re-imagine this collision with the dark and horrifying world of the penal fort. His post-Siberia novels emphasised the opportunities for moral resurrection in exile. The anti-hero of Crime and Punishment (1866), Rodion Raskolnikov, finally succeeds in shedding his nihilist convictions and fanatical utilitarianism to find love, redemption and even acceptance among the penal labourers of Siberia. During his trial for parricide in The Brothers Karamazov (1880), the dissolute nobleman Dmitry Karamazov embraces his own moral guilt for wishing his father dead, even though he is innocent of the murder. He welcomes a sentence of penal labour in Siberia’s mines as an opportunity for spiritual purification and rebirth.
Siberian exile was Dostoevsky’s foundational experience as an author and thinker. His observations in the Omsk penal fort of the darker impulses of the human psyche fed a relentless obsession with crime, responsibility and morality. Dostoevsky’s fellow prisoners offered haunting psychological studies for the thieves and murderers who fill the pages of his great post-Siberia novels.