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Dostoevsky and the Gulag

I’ve started work on a paper on the depiction of criminals in labour camp writing for a workshop later this summer, and as Dostoevsky is one of my starting points, this has led me to revisit the broader question of the role of recurrent references to him in Gulag literature. This post is not intended to be in any way exhaustive, but just to gather together some thoughts and identify a few trends.

Dostoevsky’s writings exerted a powerful influence on twentieth-century Russian and world literature, in terms of both his thought and his aesthetics, but perhaps nowhere was this influence more strongly felt than in the field of labour camp writing. Dostoevsky was not the first political prisoner in the tsarist era to write about the experience of exile, imprisonment and hard labour; the early 1860s, when Notes from the House of the Dead first appeared, also saw the first publication of memoirs by the Decembrists exiled to Siberia, and of The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum, Written by Himself. The image of the Decembrists and their wives played a major role in cultural life in Russia in the nineteenth century (as, for example, in Nekrasov’s poem Russian Women, and Avvakum’s work, completed in 1675, is significant not only as one of the first examples of both Russian autobiographical writing and writing about the experience of prison and exile, but also because it is a very early work of Russian literature written in the vernacular. However, it is Dostoevsky’s fictionalized account of imprisonment and hard labour which established the tradition of labour-camp writing in Russia and overwhelmingly acted as the major source and point of comparison for twentieth-century Gulag writers.

Thus Solzhenitsyn says in The Gulag Archipelago that Dostoevsky is the writer prisoners should read (vol. 1, p. 214), but also uses references to Dostoevsky to show how the situation of convicts has changed for the worse since the Revolution (vol. 2, pp. 200, 203 and passim – there are over a dozen such references to Dostoevsky in this volume alone). Varlam Shalamov’s references to Dostoevsky also have the latter function, and he rejects Dostoevsky as a possible model for Gulag writers for this very reason (‘there’s no need to polemicize with Dostoevsky about the advantages of “work” in labour camps in comparison with the idleness of prison and the merits of “fresh air”. Dostoevsky’s time was another time, and hard labour then hadn’t reached the heights being told of here’; Shalamov, 1:129). On the other hand, he freely endorses the power of Dostoevsky’s approach to the people with whom he was imprisoned, even while insisting it is no longer relevant; for example, whilst claiming that Dostoevsky never encountered the true criminal world as it existed in the Stalinist era, he admits, ‘If he had come across it, we would, perhaps, have been deprived of the best pages of that book [House of the Dead — SJY] — the affirmation of faith in man, affirmation of the positive instincts found in human nature.’ (Shalamov, 2:8) Perhaps the most overt use of Dostoevsky’s work in a Gulag text relating to the Stalin era is found the Polish writer Gustav Herling’s A World Apart. The title is taken from House of the Dead, and the memoir uses several extracts from the novel as epigraphs, and details Herling’s experience of reading this book in the Gulag, as he comes to the view that violence of the state against the individual, and of individuals against each other, are an inherent part of Russian culture.

References to Dostoevsky are equally prevalent in works by the next generation of prisoners, in the 1960s and 1970s. We might expect that Valery Tarsis’s autobiographical novel of incarceration in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s, Ward 7, to have Chekhov’s short story, from which its title is clearly derived, as its main intertext. Ward 6 is indeed mentioned, and the head doctor in Tarsis’s work is compared to the doctor in Chekhov’s story, but in fact the novel contains over four times as many overt references to Dostoevsky, and is self-consciously constructed around a series of Dostoevskian dialogues on the themes of good and evil, beauty, and oppression.

In such texts, Dostoevsky is frequently viewed as a moral touchstone and a prophet, owing to the critique of oppression inherent in his characters’ “anthill theories,” and the idea from The Brothers Karamazov that ‘if there is no immortality, then everything is permitted’ (Dostoevskii, vol. 14, p. 76); his novels showed, as Andrei Sinyavsky states in Soviet Civilization, the real-life consequences of the absolute imposition of the utopian project (p. 32), as well as what happens when the ethical is subordinated to the political – as with Raskolnikov, the Grand Inquisitor and the revolutionaries in Demons. Dostoevskian references in Gulag texts therefore call for a return to the primacy of the ethical and emphasize the authors’ experience of the consequences of the prevailing ideology. Thus Eduard Kuznetsov, imprisoned in 1970, uses a metaphor from The Brothers Karamazov, among other references to Dostoevsky, to describe the entire process of revolution and terror: ‘Insofar as the kingdom of the Smeryakovs, who murdered all the Dimitris and Alyoshas in 1917 and then again the Ivan Karamazovs in 1937, appears indestructible…’ (p. 47) Although some might argue that the Ivans did the killing in 1917, Kuznetsov’s use of this construction suggests that the corruption and violence of the Soviet regime existed at its very inception, and was not a later falling away from the ideal.

This confirmation of the particular relevance of Dostoevsky’s ideas and writing to the Stalinist system has to be understood in the context of official attempts to turn the author into persona non grata, destroy his reputation and altogether de-canonize him, precisely because of his critique of socialism (James Goodwin’s Confronting Dostoevsky’s Demons gives a good account of this). Critical literature on Dostoevsky during the Stalin period took the form of savage attacks, and only Gorky and a small number of the most committed Bolsheviks were permitted to write about him at all. A typically arch passage from The First Circle, when Clara Makarygina recalls the university literature course she gave up, in which ‘there had been a quick survey of some complete nobodies like Stepniak-Kravchinsky, Dostoevsky and Sukhovo-Kobylin, the titles of whose books it was apparently not even necessary to learn’ (p. 237; translation altered; see chapter 43 of the full 96-chapter version), indicates the State’s ideal positioning of Dostoevsky among the forgotten authors of the time (but note also that the inclusion of Stepniak here suggests earlier generations of revolutionaries were equally apt to fall into disfavour). In the face of attempts to deny him a place in Russian literature, Gulag narratives re-canonize Dostoevsky and re-introduce his themes of oppression, morality, mortality into literary discourse.

Beyond the literature of the labour camps, we see a similar trend developing in the sixties and seventies. In Yuri Trifonov’s wonderful novel House on the Embankment, Professor Ganchuk, after a lifetime of admiring Gorky and polemicizing with Dostoevsky in lectures, sees the light with a phrase which elides two of Dostoevsky’s most powerful ideas:

He said that the thought that had tormented Dostoyevsky – if man’s last refuge is nothing but a dark room full of spiders, then all is permitted – had hitherto been interpreted in a wholly simplistic, trivial sense. All such profound problems had, in fact, been distorted into pathetically inadequate form, but the problems themselves were still there and would not go away. Today’s Raskolnikov’s did not murder old women moneylenders with an ax, but they were still faced with the same agonizing choice: to cross or not to cross the line. In any case, what was the difference between using an ax and any other method? (p. 343).

And Boris Pasternak was known to refer to the Ezhovshchina as the Shigalevshchina, after the character in Demons who states that starting from unlimited freedom he arrived at unlimited despotism. (Dostoevskii, vol. 10, p. 311) Thus when the literary scholar and camp survivor D. S. Likhachev, writing much later, illustrates the early development of his thinking with reference to Dostoevsky (for example, ‘If time is an absolute reality, then Raskolnikov was right’, p. 67), he is signalling a rejection of official discourse, and his approval of subsequent moves by dissidents in the Soviet period to reclaim Dostoevsky’s artistic and philosophical legacy; references to Dostoevsky become textual markers, a sign of author thinking both as an individual and about the individual.

Likhachev also notes in his memoirs (p. 291n) that whilst imprisoned on Solovki in the early 1930s, the historian and kraeved N. P. Antsiferov worked in Krimkab – where letters, drawings, and verses by criminal prisoners were collected – in order to ‘come to understand the psychology of the people of Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead.’ (p 346) The work carried out in Krimkab by the intellectuals bears other hallmarks of a ‘Dostoevskian’ approach to imprisonment; just as Dostoevsky developed an interest in forms of language and collected examples of criminal slang (in his Siberian Notebook) for later use in his writing, so Likhachev records that on Solovki, ‘questions of language and linguistic culture became one of the most important topics of our conversation’ (p.139). He notes that the philosopher A. A. Meier’s work on myth and language was begun there (p. 137), while Likhachev’s own first published work after his release was a socio-linguistic article on criminal slang (‘Cherty pervobytnogo primitivisma vorovskoi rechi’). Later generations of prisoners and writers, in particular Solzhenitsyn (see The Oak and the Calf, p. 114) and Siniavsky (in Voice from the Chorus), also developed an interest in labour camp and criminal language, collected it and made great use of it in their works. The question of language represents the starting point for the paper I’m writing, so at this point I shall bring these musings to a close.


Archpriest Avvakum, The Life, written by Himself, ed. and trans. Kenneth Bostrom (Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Slavic Translations, 1979) Russian | parallel text
G.R.V. Barratt, ed., Voices in Exile: The Decembrist Memoirs (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1974)
F M Dostoevskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Moscow and Leningrad: Nauka, 1972-1990)
James Goodwin, Confronting Dostoevsky’s Demon: Anarchism and the Specter of Bakunin in Twentieth-Century Russia (New York: Peter Lang, 2010)
Gustav Herling, A World Apart, trans. Joseph Marek (London: Heinemann, 1986; first publ. 1951)
Eduard KuznetsovPrison Diaries, trans. Howard Spier (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1975)
Dmitry S. Likhachev, Reflections on the Russian Soul: A Memoir, trans. Bernard Adams, ed. A. R. Tulloch (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2000)
D. S. Likhachev, ‘Cherty pervobytnogo primitivisma vorovskoi rechi,’ Iazyk i myshlenie, 3-4 (1935), 47-100
Varlam Shalamov, Sobranie sochinenii v shesti tomakh (Moscow: Terra, 2004-5)
Andrei Sinyavsky, Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History, trans. Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov (New York: Arcade, 1990)
Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Oak and the Calf: A Memoir, trans. Harry Willetts (New York: Harper & Row, 1979)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (vols 1 & 2), Harry Willetts (vol 3) (London: Collins Harvill, 1974-8) vol 1 | vol 2 | vol 3
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle, trans. Max Hayward, Manya Harari and Michael Glenny (London: Collins Harvill, 1988; first publ 1968)
Valeriy Tarsis, Ward 7, trans. Katya Brown (London & Glasgow: Collins Harvill, 1965)
Abram Terts [Andrei Siniavskii], A Voice from the Chorus, trans. Kiril Fitzlyon (London: Collins Harvill, 1976)
Yuri Trifonov, Another Life and The House on the Embankment, trans. Michael Glenny (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1999)
V. A. Tunimanov, ‘Dostoevskii, B. L. Pasternak i V. T. Shalamov: skreshchen’e sudeb, poeticheskikh motivov, metafor‘, in F. M. Dostoevskii i russkie pisateli XX veka (St Petersburg, 2004), pp. 272-379

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  1. Sarah,

    This is really terrific stuff. Ever since I read Herling’s memoir many years ago, I have wondered the extent to which Gulag memoirs were shaped consciously or not by Dostoevsky. I never felt well-versed enough in Dostoevsky to make any conclusions about it, but it is always a bit vexing for the historian trying to determine how to use narratives that are so clearly shaped by literary example as much as by personal experience.

    I’m particularly interested by your final comments about prisoners studying language a la Dostoevsky, especially because this seems to be the moment at which you must clearly go beyond direct references to Dostoevsky or his works in the texts and get to ways in which the memoirists made sense of their experience in ways shaped by Dostoevsky.

    I look forward to seeing your continued work on this, and also wanted to let you know how much I admire your blog and your commitment to open access.

  2. Steve –
    Thanks very much for this. I think once you get beyond overt references, there are two major factors at work in terms of how later memoirs were shaped by Dostoevsky. The first is the adoption and/or adaptation of the type of cyclical narrative structure that House of the Dead employs, where one year depicted in detail is made to represent a number of years. The other is, as you say, to do with language, and very much relates to the representation of the criminals, which is what I’m working on. I hope to publish a couple more posts on related topics while I’m writing the paper, so you’ll see how it’s shaping up in due course.
    The Russian History blog is a great project – I really enjoy reading it and also appreciate the steps you’re taking in the fight to reform academic publishing practices. Congratulations on making such a success of it in such a short time!

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