An Artist Incarcerated: Dostoevsky’s letters during prison life

An Artist Incarcerated: Dostoevsky’s letters during prison life

It is no coincidence that the recognition that made Fyodor Dostoevsky a literary icon came from his work after his internment in Siberia. Prison literature, after all, comes from a life of hostility, drudgeries, and debasements. In such breeding ground of desperation and despair, a transformation of the soul goes through. It was no different for Dostoevsky. And even though it took him six years after his release to publish Notes from Dead House, the vivid picture that he presents leaves no doubt that such great works of writing can indeed spring from such acutely restricted circumstances.

“Even people sent up for life dreamed of something almost impossible. This eternal restlessness, manifesting itself silently but visibly; this strange fervor and impatience of sometimes involuntarily expressed hopes, at times so unfounded that they were more like raving, and, what was most striking of all, that often dwelt in the most practical-seeming minds—all this gave the place an extraordinary appearance and character, so much so that these features may have constituted its most characteristic qualities,” says the narrator Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, a prisoner in Siberia for ten years of hard labour for murdering his wife. When he published Crime and Punishment after this semi-autobiographical novel, he became an even bigger sensation.

This steep swing would neatly part his life in before and after came at quite a time! The moderate success of his debut, Poor Folk (May 1845) had already moved on and he had also failed to impress again with his second, The Double. He had found a likeness in Vissarion Belinsky, the historic literary critic who had called Poor Folk Russia’s first “social novel.” His influence on Dostoevsky was brief but deep and steered him towards the philosophy of socialism.

First English language edition of Poor Folk.

Still financially troubled, he wrote quite a number of short stories and somehow managed to survive. It was then, looking for some support he joined the Petrashevsky Circle. Petrashevsky Circle, a literary discussion group of progressive-minded commoner-intellectuals, subscribed to the ideas Western philosophy and literature that Tsar Nicholas I had banned. For Dostoevsky, the simple discussions of the group for a for greater freedom in Russian social life was not something that could endanger the freedom they already had. And it has to be so if what the great anarchist  Mikhail Bakunin said about them is considered- “the most innocent and harmless company”.  Alas, it was this attachment that would change the course of his life, bringing to him the peril.

It was though, not before or after, but during these darkest hours that his explored the dark recess of human mind. A great insight into the mind of the profound writer during this time comes from passionate and desperate letters he wrote to his elder brother. These letters also reflect the different hues of human emotions in simplest utterings. It becomes a window to all- hope, misery, pain, peace, cheer, despair, desperation, dread- that Dostoevsky suffered through.

His crime? He was accused of having taken part in a conversation about the ‘severity of censorship; of reading, copying, and sharing ‘Bielinsky’s revolutionary letter to Gogol’! He was also alleged to have knowledge of the plan to establish a ‘clandestine printing press’. His punishment? Degradation and death.The first of these letters was dated July 18th, 1849, about three months after he had been jailed on April 23rd with other members of Petrachevsky circle and held in Petrapaulovsky Fortress. The letter truly reflects what he calls ‘the shattered state of my nerves which keeps a constant crescendo.

“The time goes by most irregularly, now too quickly now too slowly…..My early days with their fresh impressions, storm in on my soul and I live all the past over again. The worst of all are twilight hours, and the five hours during which I have to lie in darkness are hard to bear.”

The letter transposes between hope and fear, back and forth in gloom and cheer.

“I do not let the time go by naught; I have never worked so con amore as now. While I was working in freedom, I was always obliged to diversify my labours with amusements; but here the excitement consequent of work has to evaporate unaided.”

By the end, earnest and profound, he recalls one of the biggest truth of the humankind.

“The tedium is a passing matter, and cheerfulness depends in the last resort upon myself. Human beings have an incredible amount of endurance and will to live. I should never have expected to find so much in myself; now I know it from experience.”

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