An Artist Incarcerated: Dostoevsky’s letters during prison life

An Artist Incarcerated: Dostoevsky’s letters during prison life

The next two letters to Mikhail was written in August and September and his younger brother seems to have made some peace with the situation. He says the permission to walk in the garden is ‘a great happiness to me’ and he calls being given a candle to read his ‘second piece of luck.The next letter from Dostoevsky to his brother was written on December 22nd, 1949, the day he experienced a quick and but unbelievable swerve of fate. One of the most famous letters from the great writer, he had had much to say in it. As if the Universe did not have the heart to rob the world of this luminary but like the unpredictable fate of a boat navigating a stormy sea, his life came very close to finality. Minutes before he was to face death, he was spared and instead condemned to four years of hard labour in Siberia. what he says about the despair of minutes between life and death tells us of the deep bond siblings shared.

“ No more than a minute was left me to live. I remembered you, brother, and all yours; During the last minute, you, you alone were on my mind, only then I realised how I love you, dear brother mine.”

Chained precisely at midnight and put in open sledges, the arduous journey from Saint Petersburg to Siberia for Dostoevsky and his friends started on the Christmas eve. “I was heavy hearted. My head beat with a peculiar flutter, and that numbed its pain,” he said of the night later.

Through the raging snowstorm, they stood their ground on the confines of Asia and Europe where lay before them the biting Siberia and their mysterious future there. After the travelling for about two weeks they reached Tobolsk in the new year where they spent six days before leaving for their destination, Omsk. Although Dostoevsky finally did manage to meet his brother, that he would have no more contact with the outside world from here on makes it all the more significant. The letter, a copy of which made by Madame Dostoevsky and later kept at National Archives of Russia, reflects the hopes and fears of Fyodor Dostoevsky as a life of prisoner stands before him. He starts with reassurance:

“I have not become downhearted or low spirited. Life is everywhere, life in ourselves, not in what is outside of us…..not to be downhearted, nor to fall in whatever misfortune may befall me- this is life; this is the task of life. The idea has entered into my flesh and my blood. Yes, it’s true! The head which was creating, living with the highest life of art, which had realised and grown used to the highest needs of the spirit, that head has already been cut off from my shoulders. But there remains in me my heart and the same flesh and blood which can also love, and suffer, and desire, and remember, and this, after all, is life. On voit le Soleil! Don’t grieve for me.”

But his torment soon follows.

“Can it indeed be that I shall never take a pen into my hands? after the four years, there may be a possibility. How many imaginations, lived through by me, created by me anew, will perish, will be extinguished in my brain or will spilt as poison in my blood! If I am not allowed to write, I shall perish. Better fifteen years of prison with a pen in my hands!”

He also regrets the past

“When I look back at the past and think how much time has been wasted in vain, how much time has been lost in delusions, in errors, in idleness, in ignorance of how to live, how I did not value time, how often I sinned against my heart and spirit- my heart bleeds.”

“Well, goodbye brother! Remember me without pain in your heart. Plan out your life, arrange your destiny,” he tells his brother, assuring him once again that the dark and damp years of material hardship in Omsk would not kill him and he will re-emerge. “ Life is a gift, life is a happiness, each minute might have been an age of happiness. Si jeunesse savait! Brother! I swear to you that I shall not lose hope, and shall preserve my spirit and heart in purity. I shall be reborn to a better thing. That is my whole hope, my whole comfort.”

That though doesn’t mean that it was not hard. Once working for four hours straight in snow his feet were frosted. He also had to constantly face the ire and prejudice from other inmates who thought of him as so-called ‘nobles’ who mistreated people as masters but now wanted to be brothers in the face of peril. He could not read and if, at all he could, it had to be sly. He complained of never getting time by himself. If one thinks of the fierce and convincing argument of Joseph Frank- his great biographer who leading expert on the life and work of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky whose five-volume biography of Dostoevsky has been eulogized as major literary biographies of the 20th century- one can see these complaints more as his nerves getting better of him.

Joseph Frank convincingly concluded that during life in Omsk Dostoevsky underwent a metamorphosis that changed his view of working-class Russian people. From “barbarians awaiting the light”—his own characterization of the view he’d had of the peasantry as a young revolutionary—he transcended to see them as representatives of spiritual light itself. Forced into close quarters with murderers, thieves, and petty criminals, “Dostoevsky came to believe in the moral beauty of the Russian peasantry, its infinite capacity to love and forgive those who had for so long sinned against it,” is how Frank puts it. Dostoevsky wrote,

“Believe me, there were among them deep, strong, and beautiful natures, and it often gave me great joy to find gold under a rough exterior.”

Towards the end of this letter, Dostoevsky attempts to capture the magnificent change that eventually became the foundation of his greatness

“I won’t even try to tell you what transformations were undergone by my soul, my faith, my mind, and my heart in those four years. Still, the eternal concentration, the escape into myself from bitter reality, did bear its fruit. I now have many new needs and hopes of which I never thought in other days.”.

These letters make for a fascinating insight into the mind of a great artist incarcerated.

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