Travels from Dostoevsky’s Siberia

by Elizabeth Blake

Blake_.inddIn April 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter Paul Fortress for his participation in the Petrashevsky Circle.  Before the year was out he and his fellow conspirators had been subjected to a mock execution and then sentenced to either imprisonment or exile in Siberia, the Caucasus, and Orenburg.  Travels from Dostoevsky’s Siberia (Academic Studies Press, 2019) is comprised of archival narratives written by three Polish political prisoners, two of whom shared the experience with the Petrashevsky conspirators, as well as my commentary on each of the three parts (based on over a decade of research). These translations provide the reader with eyewitness testimonies about the life of state prisoners in Western Siberia when Dostoevsky was imprisoned in Omsk and lived in exile in Semipalatinsk.

Kibitka Citadel

A kibitka at the Warsaw Citadel

These famous writer-revolutionaries shared Fyodor Dostoevsky’s experience of living in Western Siberia, after having been imprisoned and exiled by Nicholas I’s regime, and survived to compose their accounts, providing an intimate portrait of their struggle to comprehend the deprivation of their rights and to build networks that helped them to defend against their maltreatment by capricious and abusive authority figures.  The notes to the primary sources include historical information about various conspiratorial groups, agitational activities, and Siberian culture, gathered from archival, print, and digital resources, to provide readers with a sense of the interconnectedness of revolutionary movements across the Russian Empire and beyond owing to shared language, geographical space, nationality, religious identity, and political ideology.

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The confluence of the Irtysh and Om rivers (Omsk)

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A statue of Dostoevsky’s friend Chokan Valikhanov (Omsk)

In the first part, Józef Bogusławski, who lived with the Russian novelist for four years in the Omsk prison fortress, provides additional background information to several characters (Major Krivtsov, Mirecki, Bogusławski, Bem, Durov, Korczyński, Tokarzewski, Żochowski, and Aleksei de Grave) the reader meets in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead. Bogusławski differentiates Dostoevsky from Durov based on the former’s education in the tsar’s military and discusses some of the divisive literary and political debates causing tension between the Russian novelist and the group of Polish political prisoners.  Bogusławski’s memoirs (1898) supplement this most famous text written by any of the five authors (Bogusławski, Dostoevsky, Durov, Tokarzewski, and Żochowski) in the Omsk prison fortress by recording the language, rituals, hardships, and journeys experienced by political prisoners in Dostoevsky’s Siberia.

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The statue “Lyubа” of the wife of the Governor General of Western Siberia (Omsk)

In the second part, a selection from Memoirs from a Stay in Siberia (1861) provides a portrait of several provincial authorities in Omsk (including Aleksei de Grave and Pyotr Gorchakov) based on Rufin Piotrowski’s brief stay in the town before being assigned to work in a factory. His account of the infamous Omsk Affair, an aborted rebellion organized by Father Jan Sierociński, and the brutal flogging of its leadership without mercy supplement various published accounts of the escape attempt that claimed so many victims.

In the final part, Bogusławski’s co-conspirator and prolific writer Bronisław Zaleski, in “Polish Exiles in Orenburg” (1866), reveals the substantial literary and intellectual contributions of the Orenburg circle (whose members included such famous poets as his fellow conspirator Edward Żeligowski, the Ukrainian nationalist Taras Shevchenko, and Dostoevsky’s friend Aleksei Pleshcheev) with references to the Decembrists, the Petrashevsky conspirators, and the Omsk Affair.

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Zaleski’s sketch of the bay at Novopetrovsk

Zaleski’s many portraits of officers and government officials as well as his extensive complaints about the military life of drills, denunciations, and training enhance our knowledge of Dostoevsky’s own service in Semipalatinsk following his prison term.  Moreover, Zaleski, like Piotrowski, provides a connection to the Parisian circle of Polish exiles linked to the Great Emigration following the 1830 uprising––those who gathered around Prince Adam Czartoryski’s circle at the Hôtel Lambert.  The members of this group of Polish exiles supported these unfortunate victims of Nicholas I and Alexander II through direct financial contributions, political advocacy, and the publication of their fates in the Western press.

Memorial Citadel

A memorial to prisoners at the Warsaw Citadel

The narratives of this generation of unfortunates from the western edge of Imperial Russia contribute to our cultural knowledge about famous Russian exiles, including the Decembrists and the Petrashevtsy both because of their shared experience and common language.  This collection therefore imparts to the reader not only a better understanding of the hardships of the carceral continuum but also enriches one’s encounter with Dostoevsky’s post-confinement writings.


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Dostoevsky statue at the historic Omsk stockade location

Elizabeth Blake is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at Saint Louis University, where she teaches courses on Russian culture, language, literature, and theology that contribute to programs in Fine and Performing Arts, Theological Studies, and Catholic Studies.  Her U. S. Department of State Title VIII and U. S. Department of Education Fulbright-Hays funding through American Councils, a Faculty Research Leave, and a Mellon grant helped fund the secondary research for Travels from Dostoevsky’s Siberia (2019), the culmination of several research trips to Krakow, and are contributing to a monograph on the impact of Dostoevsky’s Siberian period on his oeuvre.  Her research on Orthodox-Catholic exchanges, Russo-Polish conflict, Siberian studies, and the nineteenth-century European novel informed her first monograph, Dostoevsky and the Catholic Underground (2014), and a dozen articles, which have appeared in leading peer-reviewed journals (Dostoevsky Studies, Polish Review, and Slavic and East European Journal) and collections.

Aside from Zaleski’s sketch, the images that appear in this post are the author’s own photographs.

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