Dostoevsky’s arrest in April 1849 forever linked him to a group of conspirators known as the Petrashevtsy, several of whom published poetry or prose about their experience as political prisoners. Along with his fellow Petrashevtsy sentenced for political opposition to Tsar Nicholas I, following a period of confinement and interrogation in the Peter-Paul Fortress, Dostoevsky was subjected to a mock execution on Semyonovsky Square in December of 1849 and then transported to Siberia to complete his sentence of hard labor and exile. After his meeting with the wife of a Decembrist representing the previous generation of political prisoners in Tobolsk at the beginning of his Siberian journey, Dostoevsky’s Siberian period is split between two cities in Western Siberia: Omsk where he along with co-conspirator Sergei Durov served four-year terms in the stockade and Semipalatinsk, where he served as a soldier until excused for physical limitations relating to his epilepsy. Despite the confirmed diagnosis of epilepsy, Dostoevsky did not suffer the crippling effects of hard labor experienced by his fellow inmate Durov, who was released early from state service to live out his days, primarily in the South of Russia. Nor did Dostoevsky return to an untimely death like his fellow Omsk inmate Józef Bogusławski or the poet and artist Taras Shevchenko, even though when seeking permission for travel to Western Europe, medical treatment abroad for his poor physical health was considered a motivating factor.
Ever the artist, after his release from Omsk, Dostoevsky wrote to his older brother Mikhail that he did not waste his four years in the stockade but used the time to gather material so that he could create true-to-type sketches of the Russian peasantry, while sharing their confinement and deprivation of rights. Immediate evidence of this labor is contained in his Siberian Notebook, but his autobiographical novel Notes from the House of the Dead remains his most substantive commentary on the stockade. His subtle narration in the novel allows him to touch upon controversial criminal justice issues, such as addressing recidivism, the death penalty, extrajudicial punishment, and retributive justice, without directly engaging issues in a more argumentative manner like his fellow Petrashevets Fëdor Lvov. At the same time, his choice of prose (that allows him to include many citations from his Siberian Notebook) instead of poetry to express the anxiety and dislocation attending incarceration and exile provides him with the space to explore a range of criminal types from different ethnicities and social classes. By creating a narrator, who leaves his own manuscript for posterity, Dostoevsky attempts to de-personalize his experience in favor of presenting the interaction among a disparate group of unfortunates confined to barracks located in a stockade whose courtyard measures 150 by 200 paces and who were representative not only of different ethnicities and social classes in the empire but also identified with a range of professional categories: writer, poet, landowner, recidivist political offender, tradesman, murderer, thief, vagabond, teacher, tutor, and political prisoner.
Although the story unfolds as the carceral experience of a murderer sentenced for killing his wife, the narrative of Notes from the House of the Dead resembles in some respects recollections written by other former political prisoners insofar as Dostoevsky intended to shock the sensibilities of his readership with references to inhumane living conditions and indifference to human life. For example, his images of a prisoner dying of consumption still in chains, of the delight of the executioner in tormenting his victim, of the vindictive behavior of the Major (whose strict discipline kept the prisoners fearful of denunciations), and of the wrongful imprisonment of a falsely accused parricide reinforce remembrances of abuse by authority figures that abound in Siberian prison accounts. Moreover, the introduction of infamous heinous criminals Orlov and Korenev in the novel indicates that Dostoevsky chose exceptional examples of offenders to enhance the omnipresent sense of physical danger in the prison environment, even though in his correspondence Dostoevsky clarified that the general hostility of the criminal element toward the nobility in the Omsk stockade was the main source of the threatening environment. A fellow inmate in his manuscript A Siberian Memoir of Józef Bogusławski provided a few specific examples of the types of danger that awaited the political prisoners of the nobility when depicting how a gang attacked their Christmas Eve dinner or the verbal abuse the nobility was required to tolerate from the prisoners in the courtyard. Nevertheless, because Dostoevsky assigned the narrator Alexander Gorianchikov to a category separate from the political prisoners, Gorianchikov displays only limited empathy when faced with the concerns over denunciation articulated by Szymon Tokarzewski’s namesake in the chapter A Grievance.
Bogusławski’s account in addition to Siberian archival records attest to Dostoevsky’s ability to benefit from his noble status and former military training within the fortress’s patriarchal hierarchy, but House of the Dead prefers to emphasize Russianness as a source of enlightenment, so Gorianchikov’s instruction for the Dagestani Alej in the Russian alphabet posits a counterargument to Bogusławski’s narrative of marginalization that seeks to align the Circassians and Karbadians from the Caucasus with the Polish prisoners from the Western provinces in a challenge to Russian imperial domination. For this reason, in his account of a prison brawl with Russian convicts, Bogusławski described the physical scars of a courageous subjugated nation on the broken skin and fractured bones of Karbadian inmates. Although Dostoevsky denied in his notebooks from the 1860s that he advocated for assimilation by military force, his loyal support for Russian expansion during the Crimean War and his assumptions regarding autochthonous nationalities’ voluntary acquiescence to the Russian army situates only Russians in positions of leadership.
Recollections of Dostoevsky’s work on the novel refer to his composing it or sharing parts of it in Semipalatinsk, Tver, and St. Petersburg where House of the Dead became an important publication for the journal Time that Dostoevsky founded with his older brother Mikhail. By the time Dostoevsky arrived in St. Petersburg in 1859, other Siberian deportees – many of them exiled writers – had gathered in the capital city following the tsar’s amnesty that had annulled their sentences. Yet, the initial intellectual momentum behind reforms supported by the new tsar waned before the completion of the novel, since the very public event of Shevchenko’s funeral (at which Dostoevsky was in attendance) and continuing arrests for political crimes, including those of his acquaintances like Nikolai Chernyshevsky, overshadowed the early 1860s, even before the politically polarizing event of the January Uprising in Warsaw in 1863. Still, Dostoevsky’s portrayal of the Polish and Lithuanian political prisoners, especially the episode recalling the flogging of the elderly pious inmate Józef Żochowski, as well as his decision to allow future 1863 insurgent Josephat Ohryzko to publish the 1862 edition of House of the Dead drew him into an ethnic debate that caused the closure of the journal Time, which he and his brother had founded in 1860 and in which the novel had appeared.
Nevertheless, his incarceration continued to impact his writing, as he examined in four more novels – Crime and Punishment, Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov – the various ways in which the criminal mind responds to the opportunity to commit murder. His rejection of environmental determinism – especially as it is expressed in Notes from the Underground – placed him in a defensive position vis-à-vis the more radical voices of his time, including that of Chernyshevsky. All the same, he cultivated a public persona with a sympathetic interest in carceral reform in lectures and meetings, as a result of which he influenced a younger generation of reformers like Nikolai Iadrintsev, but Dostoevsky turned to the past he experienced rather than anticipate the future when depicting the Petrashevtsy in Diary of a Writer or the Siberian dimension to his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. For this reason, Siberia as imagined by the late Dostoevsky appears anachronistic even before Anton Chekhov’s journey to Sakhalin in 1890, since in the aftermath of the 1863 uprising deportations of revolutionaries were conducted not by the hundreds but by the many thousands with the deaths of such prominent radical figures as Nikolai Serno-Solovievich and, later, Chernyshevsky garnering the sympathies of another generation. To focus on the plight of the political prisoner, in contradistinction to a growing demand for general prison reform internationalized by George Keenan’s publications on Siberia, Lev Tolstoy not only distinguished Dostoevsky’s talent as originating in House of the Dead but also depicted the tragic fate of a Polish Siberian deportee from the 1830 uprising Wincenty Migurski in his 1906 story Wherefore?, even though the father of Soviet literature, Maksim Gorky, had already depicted a subsequent generation’s political prisoners in his story Prison. Still, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s references to House of the Dead in Gulag Archipelago attest, Dostoevsky’s autobiographical novel has continued for over a century to represent for the Slavic world the tsarist system of criminal justice, which successive generations of reformers felt compelled to invoke in their more modern critiques of Russian penal institutions.