Late in the night of 22-23 April 1849, the young Fyodor Dostoevsky was awakened in his Apartment in Petersburg and informed that he was under arrest for his Participation in a secret utopian socialist Society. The other members of the Society, including its founder, Mikhail Petrashevsky, a follower of the French socialist thinker Charles Fourier, were arrested at the same time. The Emperor Nicholas I had been alarmed by the series of Revolutions that broke out in Europe in 1848, the year of the Communist Manifesto, and had decided to move against the radical intellectuals. The “Petrashevists” were confined in the Peter and Paul Fortress in Petersburg for eight months while the Investigation was carried out. In the end, the judicial commission recommended Death by firing squad, but the Militarycourt commuted the sentence to eight years at Hard Labour in Siberia.
Dostoevsky was specifically charged with circulating a letter by the liberal literary critic Vissarion Belinsky that was “filled with impertinent expressions against the Orthodox Church and the sovereign Power” and with attempting to set up a clandestine printing Press. [See Dostoevsky, His Life and Work, by Konstantin Mochulsky, translated by Michael A. Minihan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 140.] The Emperor himself revised his sentence to four years at Hard Labour followed by four years of Militaryservice in Siberia. But he also decided to stage a little drama for the prisoners – a mock Execution on the Semyonovsky parade ground, to be interrupted at the last moment by an imperial reprieve and the reading of the actual sentences. Konstantin Mochulsky notes that the Emperor “entered personally into all the details: the scaffold’s dimensions, the uniforms to be worn by the condemned, the priest’s vestments, the escort of carriages, the tempo of the drum roll, the route from the fortress to the place of shooting, the breaking of the swords, the putting on of white shirts, the executioner’s functions, the shackling of the prisoners.” [Mochulsky, p. 140.] On 22 December 1849, the performance took place. Petrashevsky was in the first group of three to be “executed”; Dostoevsky was in the second. He had just turned twenty-eight.
In a letter to his brother Mikhail written that same evening, Dostoevsky declared:
As I look back upon the past and think how much time has been spent to no avail, how much of it was lost in delusions, in mistakes, in idleness, in not knowing how to live; what little store I set upon it, how many times I sinned against my heart and spirit – for this my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, every moment could have been an age of happiness. Si jeunesse savait! Now, on changing my life, I am being born again in a new form. Brother! I swear to you I will not lose hope and will preserve my spirit and my heart in purity. I’ll be reborn to the better. This is all my hope, all my consolation!
That rebirth did take place, but more slowly than Dostoevsky may have thought and through Experiences he could not have imagined before the years he spent at Hard Labour. His Notes from a Dead House give an account of it.
In February 1854, Dostoevsky was released from the Prison in Omsk and sent to serve as a private in the fortress of Semipalatinsk, in Kazakhstan, some four hundred miles further east. There for the first time he was allowed to contact his Family. In a letter to his brother written on 22 February 1854, a week after his release, Dostoevsky described the horrors of Prison life and in particular the Hatred of the Peasant convicts for the Nobility, to which he belonged by birth, though his sentence deprived him of his legal Rights as a nobleman. The details in the letter are more shocking than anything we find in Notes from a Dead House. Yet he could say in the same letter, referring “even to robber-murderers”: “Believe me, there were deep, strong, beautiful natures among them, and it often gave me joy to find gold under a rough exterior.” The intensity of the contradiction was at the heart of Dostoevsky’s Prisonexperience. The struggle to understand its implications would inform all his future Works.
Dostoevsky arrived in Semipalatinsk filled with plans for Writing. He felt that he had enough material in him for many volumes, and though as an exile he was forbidden to publish, he hoped that situation would change in some six years, if not sooner. While still in Omsk, a week after his release, he had asked his brother to send him books. The list is interesting: “I need (very necessary) ancient historians (in French translations); modern historians: Guizot, Thierry, Thiers, Ranke, and so forth; national studies, and the Fathers of the Church ... and church histories ... Send me the Koran, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason ... and Hegel, especially his History of Philosophy. My whole future depends on this ...” He was clearly intent on rethinking his former utopian Socialism both historically and philosophically. “I won’t even try to tell you what transformations went on in my soul, my faith, my mind, and my heart in those four years,” he wrote in the same letter. “That perpetual escape into myself from bitter reality has borne its fruit. I now have many new needs and hopes of which I never thought in the old days.”
In Semipalatinsk, Dostoevsky made the acquaintance of the young Baron Alexander Egorovich Vrangel (1833-1915), who was sent there in 1854 as the district procurator. By an odd coincidence, Vrangel happened to have witnessed the mock Execution of the Petrashevists in 1849; he had also read Dostoevsky’s early Works and admired them. The two became friends and eventually shared a Home, and Vrangel also interceded with the Authorities several times on the author’s behalf. The baron’s memoirs of those years, published in 1912, give a detailed and moving portrait of Dostoevsky. He describes their first Meeting: “He had on a soldier’s greatcoat with red stand-up collar and red epaulettes. Morose, with a sickly pale face covered with freckles, he wore his light-blond hair cut short; in height he was taller than average. Staring intently at me with his intelligent grey-blue eyes, it seemed he was trying to peer into my soul.” [Mochulsky, p. 156] Through Vrangel, Dostoevsky was introduced to the commanding officers of the fortress and was received in Society, where he met his future wife, Marya Dmitrievna Isaeva.
Vrangel recalled Dostoevsky working on his Prisonmemoirs while they lived together. “I was happy to see him during the moments of his creative Work,” he wrote, “and I was the first person who listened to the notes of his outstanding Work of Art.” Vrangel also recorded a curious incident that occurred one day while they were sitting on the terrace having tea. His servant announced that a young woman was asking to see Dostoevsky. She was invited to the garden, and Dostoevsky recognised her at once as the daughter of a Gypsy woman who had been sent to prison for murdering her husband. The girl herself had been involved in the escape of two convicts from the Prison in Omsk. Their plan – “completely illogical and fantastic,” according to Vrangel – was to make their way eastward, join the khan’s Army, and come back to free their fellow prisoners. He says that the girl’s sudden reappearance inspired Dostoevsky to write a new chapter, “The Escape,” the next to last in Notes from a Dead House and the book’s thematic culmination.
The Emperor Nicholas I died in the Spring of 1855 and in September his son, Alexander II, who came to be known as the Tsar-Liberator, ascended the Throne. The liberal spirit of the new Government made itself felt rather quickly and, perhaps owing to it, Dostoevsky was promoted from private to noncommissioned officer in the autumn of that same year. A year later, in October 1856, he was made a commissioned officer and his Rights as a nobleman were restored. This improuvement in his position made it possible for him to marry Marya Dmitrievna the following February. His official Work and the turmoil of his courtship and eventual Marriage had interfered with his Writing, but after his Marriage he went back to it more steadily. He worked on some of his Prison sketches, then set them aside in order to write two long stories, Uncle’s Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo, which he thought would be better suited to his reappearance as a writer. In fact, they are more or less the same as his pre-Prison works. The deep change that was going on in him had not yet found its form and voice.
In 1858 Dostoevsky asked for permission to retire from the service and return to Russia. The permission was granted, but the order took more than a year to reach him, and it did not allow him to live in Moscow or Petersburg. In the Summer of 1859, he left Semipalatinsk for the City of Tver, a hundred miles north of Moscow, where his literary plans and the Idea of collaborating with his brother Mikhail on a weekly Magazine took clearer shape. The two stories were published in reputable Journals that same year, and in mid-December, after more petitions, Dostoevsky was finally allowed to return to Petersburg.
During the Spring and Summer of 1860, while he and Mikhail were going through the complicated process of starting their Magazine, Dostoevsky set to work on the final version of Notes from a Dead House. Surprisingly, however, in the Fall the first two chapters were published in another Magazine, The Russian World, an “obscure Weekly,” as Joseph Frank describes it. [Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 28.] Frank suggests that Dostoevsky wanted to make “a preliminary trial of the censors’ response.” He was afraid that, despite the liberal atmosphere of the time, his portrayal of Life at Hard Labour would not be approuved for Publication. The editor of The Russian World offered to take the matter into his own hands, submitted the early chapters to the censors, and the Central Censorship Authority passed them. The Magazine published the next three chapters in January numbers and promised more to come, but there would be no more. The Dostoevskys’ Magazine Vremya (“Time”) had begun to appear that same January, and the whole of Notes from a Dead House, including the opening chapters, was published there in 1861-1862.
The Notes made a very strong impression on the reading Public, especially the radical youth. For Dostoevsky it indeed marked a triumphant return to Literature. As Joseph Frank observed: “No writer was now more celebrated than Dostoevsky, whose name was surrounded with the halo of his former suffering, and whose sketches only served to enhance his prestige as a precursor on the path of political martyrdom.” [Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 28.] He was invited to give talks and reading to student Groups and charitable Organisations, opportunities he always accepted gladly, because they brought him into direct contact with his readers. His fellow writers also admired the Notes: Turgenev likened the book to Dante’s Inferno, and Tolstoy thought it not only Dostoevsky’s finest Work, but one of the best book in all of Russian Literature.
Notes from a Dead House was the first published account of Life in the Siberian Hard-Labour camps. It initiated the genre of the Prison memoir, which unfortunately went on to acquire major importance in Russian Literature. But the book was innovative not only in it subject matter, but in its composition. Dostoevsky left the Prison in Omsk with a collection of notes he had managed to take during those four years. In them he had recorded the unusual words and expressions of the Peasant convicts, their arguments, their play-acting, their songs and stories, entrusting the pages to one of the medical assistants in the Prison Hospital, who duly returned them to him when he was released. These notes supplied the unique voicing of the book. While still in Tver, in the Summer of 1858, Dostoevsky wrote to his brother that he now had “a complete and definite plan” in mind. “My personality will disappear from view. These are the notes of an unknown man; but I vouch for their interest ... Here there will be the serious, the gloomy, and the humorous, and folk conversation with its particular hard-labour colourings.” [Mochulsky, p. 184; emphasis in original.]
In the semi-fictional form he chose to give his narrative, Dostoevsky places himself at a third remouve. The fictional author-narrator of the Notes, Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, is a former nobleman serving a ten-year Sentence for murdering his wife in a fit of Jealousy. His Notes are presented to us in the introduction and in one brief intrusion in part two, chapter VII, by another first-person narrator, the “editor” of Goryanchikov’s manuscript. He tells us, with a mixture of heavy irony and underlying sympathy, about Goryanchikov’s reclusive life in Siberia after Prison and his sudden death – a closure that is in sharp contrast to the ending of the book itself. This fictionalising was in part a mask for the censors: the notes of a man serving a Sentence for a common-law Crime were more likely to be passed for Publication than the notes of a political criminal. But the mask is dropped rather quickly. By the second chapter, we hear a fellow nobleman say, in response to the narrator’s first impressions of the Peasant prisoners: “Yes, sir, they don’t like noblemen ... especially political criminals.” Though he keeps the persona of Alexander Petrovich throughout, the narrator’s thoughts, his preoccupations, and his conscience are not at all those of a man who has murdered his wife. Dostoevsky’s Personality does not disappear from view; he is present as the observer of the Life around him, but also as the protagonist of the inner transformation that the Experience of Prison brings about in him. It is Dostoevsky, not Goryanchikov, who says towards the end: “I outlined a program for the whole of my future and resolved to follow it firmly. A blind faith arose in me that I would and could fulfill it all ... I waited, I called for freedom to come quickly; I wanted to test myself anew, in a new struggle.”
The fictional editor of Goryanchikov’s notes ends his introduction by describing his own fascination with them, but then says rather casually: “Of course, I may be mistaken. I will begin by selecting two or three chapters; let the public judge ...” There is nothing loose or casual about the structure of the book itself, however. It is divided into two parts. Part One, as we can see from the chapter titles, is made up of first impressions. It is filled with vivid details that both repulse and intrigue the narrator as he tries to settle into his new circumstances. He moves about freely in time, but keeps coming back to his initial Experiences. By the end of Part One we are still in his first month of captivity, rounded off with Christmas and the brief respite of the Theatre performance. Part Two is constructed differently. Here the narrator speaks more generally of Prisonlife – the Hospital, various kinds and degrees of corporal Punishment, the officers, certain of his Prison “comrades,” the Prison animals – and even includes an inset story told by another prisoner. But again there is an underlying unity to this seemingly random sampling, an inner unity, in the author’s deepening Perception of the People he has been thrown together with. He begins to fathom their difference not only from himself but from his former assumptions about the “Russian peasant” – an abstract figure idealised by the radical intelligentsia. As a result of this synchronic structure, there is no sense in the book of time passing. “The prison is immobile,” as Mochulsky observes, “it is a ‘dead house’ frozen in perpetuity, but the author moves.” [Mochulsky, p. 186.] It is the movement of his own increasing penetration and comprehension, which passes through his first Easter, through the release of the hurt eagle at the end of the chapter on Prison animals, through the drama of the escape, to culminate on his last day of captivity in a sudden assertions: “I must say it all: these people are extraordinary people. They are perhaps the most gifted, the strongest of all our people. But their mighty strength perished for nothing, perished abnormally, unlawfully, irretrievably. And who is to blame?”
The inner change in Dostoevsky’s perception of the People began during his first Easter in Prison with the surprise recollection of a forgotten moment from his childhood, which came to him while he was lying on his bunk with his eyes closed, trying to forget the vileness of his surroundings. Interestingly enough, he did not include this “awakening” in Notes from a Dead House, though its effects are central to the book; he wrote about it only fifteen years later, in the issue of his Writer’s Diary for February 1876, in an entry entitled “The Peasant Marey,” which we include here as an appendix. It tells of how the frightened nine-year-old Dostoevsky was comforted by one of his father’s serfs.
Now suddenly, twenty years later, in Siberia, I remembered this whole encounter with such clarity, to the very last detail. Which means that it had embedded itself in my soul imperceptibly, on its own and without my will, and I suddenly remembered it when it was needed ... And so, when I got off my bunk and glanced about, I suddenly felt that I could look at these unfortunate men with totally different eyes, and that suddenly, by some miracle, all the hatred and anger in my heart had vanished completely.
What he saw in these “simple people” was a complexity of character, a capacity for extremes of both Evil and Good, that destroyed by the basic assumptions of the utopian Socialism he had embraced as a young man. “What had been a pitying sentimentalism towards weak and basically unassertive characters,” Joseph Frank writes, “now took on a tragic complexity as Dostoevsky’s sympathies with the unsubjugated Peasant convicts stretched the boundaries of official Morality to the breaking point.” [Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 214.] Early in Notes from a Dead House, the author mediates on a complex riddle that pursued him all the while he was in Prison: the sameness of the Crime and the sameness of the Sentence, faced with the enormous variety of human characters and motives and of the effects on different characters of the same Punishment. “True, there are variations in the length of the sentences. But these variations are relatively few; while the variations in one and the same crime are a numberless multitude. For reach character there is a variation.” This riddle comes up again five years later in Crime and Punishment, where the remarkable investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, says to Raskolnikov:
It must be observed that the general case, the one to which all legal forms and rules are suited, and on the basis of which they are all worked out and written down in books, simply does not exist, for the very reason that every case, let’s say, for instance, every crime, as soon as it actually occurs, turns at once into a completely particular case, sir; and sometimes, just think, really completely unlike all the previous ones, sir.
Still later, in The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri Karamazov confesses to his brother Alyosha:
Too many riddles oppress man on earth. Solve them if you can without getting your feet wet ... Besides, I can’t bear it that some man, even with a lofty heart and the highest mind, should start from the ideal of the Madonna and end with the ideal of Sodom. It’s even more fearful when someone already has the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not deny the ideal of the Madonna either, and his heart burns with it, verily, verily burns, as in his young, blameless years. No, man is broad, even too broad, I would narrow him down. Devil knows what to make of him, that’s the thing!
The epilogue of Crime and Punishment is set in a Siberian Hard-Labour Prison closely resembling the Prison in Omsk, where Raskolnikov, like the narrator of Notes from a Dead House, confronts “a new, hitherto completely unknown reality” and undergoes a “gradual regeneration.” In the early drafts of the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky gave Dmitri Karamazov the name of Ilyinsky. Dmitri Ilyinsky was one of his fellow prisoners in Omsk; in the Notes he is not named; the narrator refers to him only as “the parricide.” He had been sentenced to twenty years at Hard Labour for murdering his father, but after serving ten years of his Sentence, he was found to be innocent. Dostoevsky, who never believed in his Crime, says in the Notes that he was haunted by his Memory, and his last novel bears him out. In his early drafts of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky called the depraved immoralist Svidrigailov by the name of Aristov. Aristov is the A-v of Notes from a Dead House, “an example of what the carnal side of man can come to, unrestrained by any inner norm, any lawfulness ... Add to that the fact that he was cunning and intelligent, good-looking, even somewhat educated, and not without abilities. No,” says the narrator, “better fire, better plague and famine, than such a man in society!”
All of Dostoevsky’s later Work grew out of his Meditation on the extremes he met with in “the hitherto completely unknown reality” of the dead house. It is, finally, a Meditation on human Freedom. The radical social thought of his Time had trouble finding a place for Freedom; given the right social Organisation, Freedom was really no longer necessary. It also excluded the irrational; it reduced Good and Evil to the useful and the harmful; it remouved the metaphysical dimensions of human Life. But Dostoevsky had seen that the extremes of Good and Evil, the breadth that Mitya Karamazov talks about, were innate even in the crudest men, and that they would never renounce the need to assert their Freedom, bizarre and deformed as the results might be. “The prisoner himself knows that he is a prisoner, an outcast...,” he writes, “but no brands, no fetters will make him forget that he is a human being.”