Omsk state Dostoyevsky literature museum


"Literaturnoe nasledie sibirskikh perezhivanii F.M. Dostoevskogo" - Ричард Пис, США.

Dostoevsky spent nearly a whole decade in the 1850s in Siberia, first as a convict in the Omsk penal settlement, and later as a common soldier in exile there. His Siberian experiences undoubtedly had an enormous impact on him both as a person and as an artist. It has long been held that in Siberia Dostoevsky underwent a religious conversion. On his way to katorga he was greeted in Tomsk by three Decembrist wives – women who had followed their husbands into Siberia and exile – among these was Natalya Fonvizina. She gave him a copy of the New Testament with money sewn into the binding, and it was in a letter to her some four years later that Dostoevsky made his famous declaration of faith: ‘If someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth, and that in reality the truth were outside Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.’ [Pis’ma, I, 142]. This was a declaration he would later turn to artistic use in Shatov’s challenge to Stavrogin in Besy: ‘But was it not you who told me that if it were mathematically proved to you that the truth lay elsewhere than in Christ, then you would prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth?’ [10, 198]. The logical absurdism of this statement and the fact that artistically Dostoevsky later sought to ascribe it to a character so morally ambivalent as Stavrogin may give us pause for thought, and it is also odd that in Notes from the House of the Dead the upright Christian is a sectarian, an old-believer, and the exemplar of virtue in the work is non Christian – the muslim boy Aley.

On the other hand Joseph Frank has argued that the ‘conversion’ Dostoevsky underwent in katorga was that of a new attitude to the narod. Yet here, too, there are problems the narod Dostoevsky encountered in the penal settlement, were exceptional people, not typical of the narod and a whole. They were, after all, criminals.

Back in the more liberal ambiance of St Petersburg in the early 1860s, Dostoevsky’s experiences of the Omsk Penal Settlement took on literary form in the serialization of Notes from the House of the Dead. This was seen, on the one hand, as a work of grim realism and, on the other, as a symbolic expose, by which other Russian institutions could be measured. Thus I.D.Pisarev drew a comparison between conditions in Dostoevsky’s katorga and those depicted in the Bursa Sketches of N.G. Pomyalovsky, much to the detriment of the latter. Indeed, rather surprisingly, one of the official criticisms of Dostoevsky’s work was that it showed katorga in too favourable a light, and thus reducing its impact as a deterrent. But The House of the Dead is no stark compilation of facts, it is a work of great literary merit, relying as much on literary devices as on fact.

Dostoevsky’s Siberian experiences left a profound legacy for his later work. It was after Siberia that Dostoevsky became a truly major writer – an important figure, not only for Russian culture, but also for world literature. His Siberian experiences are reflected in the central role played by crime (particularly murder) in his major novels: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov and it is also to be seen in his insight into the psychology of the criminal mind. The ambiguity of his ‘religious‘ conversion among criminals is reflected in his novels in the association of murder with religious dissidence. Raskol’nikov, whose very name suggests ‘schizmatic’ murders in the name of the ‘New Jerusalem’. Rogozhin, in The Idiot, Petr Verkhovensky, in Besy and Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov all have associations, either symbolic or real, with the sect of the Castrates. Moreover, it seems significant that those very few figures from the narod who feature in his novels are also murderers (those in Myshkin’s stories in Idiot and Fed’ka in Besy).

Siberia itself features in his two greatest novels, his first and his last, Crime and Punishment and the Brothers Karamazov. It is in Siberia that Raskolnikov hopes to find redemption and true religion; a similar experience beckons Dmitri Karamazov at the end of the last novel. It is also significant that both heroes are followed into Siberia by faithful women, bent on supporting them. Dosotevsky’s meeting with Fonvizina and the example of the Decembrist wives appear to have left their mark on Dostoevsky’s thinking about the challenge of Siberia {Pushkin?].

In 1854, at the time Dostoevsky was leaving katorga for further exile in Siberia, another Russian writer was forced to submit himself to its harsh conditions. I.A. Goncharov on a trade mission to Japan and the far east was forced by the outbreak of the Crimean War to take the overland route back home across the Siberian wilderness. The journey was all the more amazing as Goncharov himself, like his hero Oblomov, was a self-confessed stay-at-home. He, too, wrote an account of his Siberian experiences in Fregat Pallada. More significantly, perhaps, it was after Siberia that he, too, produced his major work – the novel Oblomov.

Later in the century (1890) another Russian writer undertook a gruelling trans-Siberian journey to work among convicts on the far island of Sakhalin. Chekhov already new that he was suffering from tuberculosis and to undertake his sociological study of penal settlements in Sakhalin he did not need to travel overland through Siberia, he could have gone, as he returned, by sea. Chekhov’s biographers have speculated on the reasons for his Sakhalin adventure, suggesting such motives as disappointment in love, a sense of stagnation in his life, and an attempt to rebut criticism that as a writer he lacked social commitment. As yet he was known as a writer of short stories, but he felt that he had to make a more lasting legacy. The two aspects of his podvig – the Siberian journey and the living among convicts, seem to reflect the dissimilar Siberian experiences of his two great predecessors, who had afterwards produced major works of fiction.

In a letter to Suvorin before he set out, he had advanced two reasons for the journey. The first, a personal one, is the need to overcome a national predisposition to laziness. If this suggests a struggle with incipient Oblomovism, then his second, more public-spirited reason, that red-nosed warders are not to blame for the convicts’ plight, but ‘all of us’, is strangely reminiscent of Dmitri Karamazov’s hopes for his own efforts among the Siberian convicts: ‘But there are a lot of them, hundreds of them, and we are to blame for them’ [Chekhov, Pis’ma, 31-32; Dostoevsky, PSS, 15, 31]

Dostoevsky and Goncharov were clearly before Chekhov as he undertook, and later reassessed, his trip to Sakhalin. There are references direct and indirect to both authors in the fragmentary record of his outward journey, V Sibiri, as well as in the fruits of his labours there, Ostrov Sakhalin.[ to Dost.(possible allusions): Soch. 14-15, 26, 64, 65, 145, 137, 241, 351, 424, 653, 818-19, 829; to Goncharov, 34, 647, 889] Indeed, in writing this work he lists Goncharov’s Fregat Pallada as one of the works he consulted, and in V Sibiri he comments on Goncharov’s own experience of Siberian travel.[ Chekhov appears to have thought highly of Fregat Pallada (Pis’ma, 1, 29 and 9. 19] Moreover, Oblomov appears to have been on his mind while he prepared for his journey, to judge from a letter he sent to his brother Aleksandr, requesting newspaper information on Sakhalin, in which he draws a very disparaging comparison between his brother and Oblomov’s servant Zakhar, who were apparently both at one in their fatalistic acceptance of lice and bugs. [Chekhov, Pis’ma, 4, 26 (and commentary of M.L. Semanova in Soch. 14-15, 783)].

That other towering figure of nineteenth-century Russian literature, L.N. Tolstoy, never went further east than the Bashkir Steppes in order to take a kumys cure, yet Siberia figures prominently in his last great novel, Voskresenie.

Tolstoy was a great admirer of Dostoevsky’s Zapiski iz mertvogo doma. Early in 1863, not long after its first publication as a separate (though not fully complete) edition he wrote to his aunt A.A. Tolstaya urging her to read it, telling her it was very necessary (ochen’ nuzhno) [O Lit. 93]. In 1868 he attempted to use the argument of the ‘form’ of Dostoevsky’s Zapiski iz mertvogo doma along with that of Gogol’s Mertvye dushi to justify the construction of War and Peace [O lit. 115]. On re-reading Dostoevsky’s work in 1880 he wrote to Strakhov: ‘I know of no better book in all the new literature, including Pushkin’ [O.lit. 168], and in Chto takoe iskusstvo? (1898) he singles out Zapiski iz mertvogo doma as the sole Russian work among the ‘obraztsy vysshego, vytekayushchie iz lyubvi k bogu i blizhnemu, religioznogo iskusstva, v oblasti slovesnosti’ [O.lit 450 cf also 467]

The climax of Dostoevsky’s work is ‘voskresn’e iz mertvykh’ [4, 232]; it is this concept which Tolstoy gives to his novel about Siberia, and it seems significant that in the zavyazka of Tolstoy’s plot the hero Nekhlyudov gives his victim Maslova some Dostoevsky to read [52].

There are many points of comparison between Zapiski iz mertvogo doma and Voskresenie. In both we learn of the attitude of ordinary Russians towards the convicts, the ‘neschastnye’ and the giving of alms [Vosk. p.10 – Dost ?]; in both we learn of the strained relations between the peasant convicts and the gentry political prisoners, and the charge of ‘darmoedy’ levelled at them [T. 408, 421 - Dost. ?]

There is much about Tolstoy’s portrayal of katorga that he could only have learned from a third source (or sources): the strange practice of prisoners agreeing to swap places [T. 409, D. ?], the availability of alcohol [T.124, D.?]. Both authors speculate on the nature of criminal types. Dostoevsky, typically, sees duality in his division of the convicts into ‘reshitel’nye lyudi’ and ‘nishchie ot prirody’. Tolstoy, with his more rational approach and love of lists, divides them into five categories [T. 329-331; 338-9].

Two images in Dostoevsky’s work seem to have particularly impressed Tolstoy. The steppe eagle as a symbol of freedom [193-4], and the stark figure of the emaciated lifeless corpse of Mikhaylov, still in its shackles [4. 140-41] In 1904 Tolstoy reprinted these sections from Dostoevsky’s work under the titles of ‘Orel’ and ‘Smert’ v gospitale’ in his Krug chteniya [O.lit. 638]. Interestingly similar images are to be found in Voskresenie. In the novel’s opening section the flight of a pigeon reminds a convict of his own plight [10] and at the end of chapter 37 of part II we have the image of a body still in fetters: that of a convict who has died from heatstroke [360]. During this incident of the heat wave we see Tolstoy, through footnotes, attempting to tie his narrative to facts, yet his novel is clearly a work of fiction, and his use of skaz in the tale told by Taras in chapter 41 of part II [376-8] is reminiscent of the fictional devices used by Dostoevsky –the insert stories in Zapiski iz mertvogo doma: the tale told by Luka Kuz’mich, and Akul’kin muzh [4. 88-92; 165-173]*

The theme of resurrection in Siberia is also a feature of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Resurrection from the dead is a religious strand in the novel, which finds its symbolic heart in the story of the raising of Lazarus. Yet, if Tolstoy has also been influenced by this novel, he has placed resurrection in a sexual context and in so doing has also inverted its sexual dynamics: it is not the prostitute (Sonya) who follows the male hero to Siberia to resurrect him, but the male hero (Nekhlyudov), who follows the fallen woman and prostitute there with a similar aim. Yet resurrection is not just for Maslova, but for Nekhlyudov too, and the ending of the novel: ‘Chem konchitsya etot novyy period ego zhizni, pokazhet budushchee’ offers the same uncertainty as the ending of Crime and Punishment: with its guarded promise of obnovlenie in the future.

Dostoevsky’s last great novel Brat’ya Karamazovy also projects the theme of redemption in Siberia, and Dmitri Karamazov will also be followed there by the ‘fallen woman’ Grushen’ka. Of all Dostoevsky’s novels Brat’ya Karamzovy seems, on the face of it, to be closest to Tolstoy’s Resurrection. *{The question of influence, however, is problematical. From his diary of 1910 (entry 19th October) and from a reported conversation with V. F. Bulgakov in the same month [712] it is not clear whether Tolstoy is reading Brat’ya Karamazovy for the first time [T.o lit., 616, notes 712 but his earlier entry for 11th February of the same year: ‘Perechityval Dostoevskogo – ne to’ raises the possibility.}

In both novels one may see a similarity in the critical description of the courts scenes (though details of court procedure Tolstoy was helped by the eminent jurist A.F. Koni, as also was Dostoevsky. Both novels display a similar playing with the concept of nikto ne vinovat [Vosk. 330, 338-9, 369, 370) 467] and vse vinovaty 467], but Ivan’s idea of vse pozvoleno Tolstoy attributes to Nietsche. Particularly striking in both novels is the moment of questioning and self-questioning evoked by the plight of a suffering child – Dmitri Karamazov’s di’te and the starving peasant child in Voskresenie, whose image so enters into Nekhlyudov’s consciousness and conscience [229, 230, 239].


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