I have read Notes from Dead house of Dostoevsky. While reading it I kept thinking of Gulag Archipelago of Alexander Solzhenitsin written somewhat 50 years after Dostoevsky wrote his notes. Both novels describe life in prisons in Russia. Historically, 50 years is a rather small time span. But the two novels are drastically different, as if they were written in two different worlds. Obviously, Russia has changed a lot between end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century.
Solzhenitsin’s novel is a lot more brutal. Therefore, while reading Doestoevsky I kept wondering how it was possible for Russia to change so much in such a short time. October revolution changed not only the elite of Russian society, it changed absolutely everybody. Somehow, I thought that lower classes, the common people are more resilient to the destructive change. Dostoevsky often called ordinary people the true bearers of Christian values. But from the novel of Solzhenitsin it is quite obvious that the revolution blew those values away from people’s minds rather quickly. Comparing these two novels indicates it very clearly that common people are very vulnerable to the ideology forced on them from above. If you teach them Christianity then people will become devoted Christians. If you teach them the rule of force then people will start eliminating each other.
Our current generation was raised in post-Soviet era, which was also rather brutal. Empty shelves in supermarkets and hunts for even most basic food are still vivid memories of most adult people in modern Russia. So our mentality is a lot closer to what Solzhenitsin describes in Gulag Archipelago novel than to what Dostoevsky describes in his novels. This is why I thought it is interesting to take a look at what a prison in Siberia looked like according to Dostoevsky.
Both Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsin were political prisoners arrested for their political views. Both of them belonged to a somewhat upper level of the society, as Solzhenitsin was a successful mid-level military commander when he was arrested, and Dostoevsky was a nobleman. Therefore, they were feeling like strangers after being put to prison. However, Dostoevksy mentioned that so many people came to help him get used to living in prison. One guy started serving him without asking for reward, as if Dostoevsky was still a nobleman. When Dostoevsky asked him why that guy was serving them, he replied that that’s the way Russian society worked: noblemen are Fathers, and commonplace people are Children, and the latter should help the former, like in a big family. What a spirit of camaraderie it was!
It is possible to trace this kind of relationship among Russian people throughout Dostoevsky’s novel. For example, whenever the prisoners were marching through a town, ordinary people tried to give them some money or food, as if those prisoners were their brothers.
The life inside the prison was pretty close to life in today’s summer camp. Prisoners were cooking food for themselves, they had their own bakery which produced the best bread in the town, it was even possible to bring in wine from the city markets to the prison. In the prison they had theater, whereas in the city they did not have it, so many people visited the prison only for the purpose of seeing the theather’s performance. People from many parts of Russia were brought into the prison, including people from Caucasus and Poland. There was even one jewish guy who was the only jeweller in town, so he was dealing with noble people very often and apparently got a lot of reward for that. In short, the prison was the cultural center of life in a Siberian town in the end of 19th century.
Dostovesky’s prison was anything but evil place. Solzhenitsin’s prisons were hell on Earth. And the central question is – why it happened. In a Russia where everybody was a brother to each other, how such a thing as October revolution could have happened? How could a civil war get started in a country where people could share their foods and shelter with strangers? Can you imagine anybody who lets some unknown person stay in his house without any pay nowadays?
But somehow USSR managed to win the World War II which obviously required lots of commitment and unity from Russian people. People were mutually suspicious during their normal lives, but at the most critical moment they acted in a unified fashion. And this is exactly opposite to Russia of pre-revolution days.
Normal life and life on the brink of collapse. Brotherhood and survival of the fittest. These topics are central to getting to understand what happened in Russia in 20th century and these two novels provide an insider view of this interesting question.