17. Siberian Penance

Karta putei soobshcheniia Aziatskoi Rossii / Map of Railroads in Asian Russia
St Petersburg: Kartograficheskoe zavedenie A. Ilʹina, [1899]

If St Petersburg plays a large part in many of Dostoevsky’s works, Siberia and the topic of exile there also permeate a large number of them. As a convict (for his membership in the Petrashevsky Circle) in Siberia, Dostoevsky suffered myriad health problems, frostbite, abuse from other prisoners, unimaginable filth, and starvation. This is reflected in the epilogue of Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov describes life in a Siberian prison as ‘crowded, miserable and unhealthy’. Yet his Siberian experience also helped Dostoevsky develop his personal philosophy and ideas about inequality, the nature of freedom, and the importance of hope.

To reach Omsk, where he served his sentence, Dostoevsky had to travel more than 2,000 miles from St Petersburg. The Trans-Siberian railway, however, which penetrated Asiatic Russia, and is pictured on this 1899 map of Russia’s rate of railroad progress, would not be completed until 1916. Until this time, common prisoners would frequently be moved to Siberia by foot – an awful journey, in heavy leg fetters, that could last a year. Political prisoners, however, were often exempt from this march, and Dostoevsky was transported in an open sledge (even this he described as ‘almost unendurable’ in a letter to his brother).

Olivia Chorny

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