1. Siberian Literature: Russian Authors

Dr. Mikkelson

The question that we will consider now is how do we know about the conditions of prisoners in the exile system?  What kind of evidence do we have?

We have visual images (paintings, photographs), but the main thing that we have are writings about Siberia. And that is what we will focus on now-- the overwhelming majority of the evidence that we have that allows us to put together the "big picture" both spatially and temporally is the written record.

Stages in development of Siberian Russian literature

1. Chronicles

Kiprian (Cyprian in English) was the first Orthodox bishop in Siberia. He lived in Tobolsk in the 1620s and 1630s, which was within just a few decades of first colonization. The church sent not just priests to ostroks, but also bishops and higher ranking churchmen. One of the most important functions of a bishop was to keep a record of events. They were involved in not only recording statistics and keeping records of deaths, births, etc. but also in looking after the moral standards of Russians. Kiprian spent a lot of time preaching and writing about the departures from moral standards of the time. Chronicles were kept throughout Russian history by churchmen (Letopis' has the roots:  let=years, pis=writing).

2. Decembrist Uprising (1825)

The first serious organized high level attempt to bring about a revolution was the Decembrist Uprising. This was not a peasant uprising, it was brought about by noblemen who were veterans of the Napoleonic wars. This occurred during a transition-- Alexander I died in 1825 and Nicholas I was coronated in 1826, and it was during that period that the Decembrist Uprising occurred.

Many of the most prominent Decembrists were writers, poets, and playwrights. If they were among those who escaped execution they were sent to prison and exile (5 were hanged, including the prominent writer, the poet Ryleev). Over 120 were sent to hard labor in silver mines in region around Chita east of Baikal, then exile. Some were classmates of Pushkin. The majority were either writers before being sent to Siberia, or became writers during their exile. Many were trained in math, geography, anthropology, and other technical and scientific fields. These exiles formed the beginnings of the Intelligentsia in Siberia. They wrote memoirs, poetry, and prose. Some were painters, and the artists also portrayed their experience of imprisonment and exile. Their wives followed them into exile giving up noble status and lives of luxury. They stayed in Siberia with their husbands and made significant contributions to the development of society in Siberian cities.

The Decembrist Uprising occurred during the Pushkin period in Russian history (Pushkin's importance to culture as a whole was so great that historians use his name as a period designation). This was the heyday of Romaticism in Russian arts (originally imported from Europe). A number of Decembrist writers and poets showed influence of Romaticism, but their branch was civic writings-- they expressed political ideals in their writings. (Amnesty of the Decembrists was granted by Alexander II after the death of Nicholas I, but many stayed in Siberia by choice. Alexander II instituted a period of reforms in the early 1860s such as trial by jury, reforms in education, taxes, and the military, as well as freeing the serfs.)

3. Romantic Period

Many prominent intellectuals came from Tobolsk, even though it was never a particularly large city. Tobolsk was probably most important city (perhaps second only to Irkutsk) in terms of where prominent people were born. The poet Pyotr Yershov was also from Tobolsk, and like all intellectuals of that time he spent some time in school in St. Petersburg. the connection between Siberia and St. Petersburg is always important. He became a teacher, then a school principal. His most famous story was Конек Горбунок (The Little Humpbacked Horse). It was a long work of prose poetry which is still very popular in children's theater (you can read it in English translation by clicking here). Even though he had a modest reputation, Pushkin was very fond of Yershov both personally and for his poetry.

Here is a children's animated version (click on the "cc" in the toolbar                                                                    Here are highlights from the ballet.
for English subtitles).

4. Siberian Regionalists

Nikolai Yadrintsev (1842-1894) was educated in St. Petersburg (most Siberian Regionalists had at least some training in St. Petersburg and then went back to Siberia). His most important works were his writings about Siberia. He did sound research and led expeditions (geological, geographical). Yadrintsev is one of the three most important members of this group of writers from the latter half of the 19th century. They are called oblastnik (from oblast=region and nik=person) and devoted their lives to advocacy on behalf of Siberia. They were advocating that Siberia be treated justly by the empire. The most famous of Yadrintsev's books is "Siberia as a Colony" published in 1882, second edition 1892. In it he talks about Indigenous Peoples, colonizations, resources, demography, geology, etc. He not only explored Siberia, he also wrote and advocated for it, and fought for certain things to happen-- building of a university (first was in Tomsk), fought for more humane treatment of Indigenous Peoples (many forms of discrimination). The Regionalists wanted the Indigenous Peoples to be allowed to maintain their traditions while being given opportunities for educational and economic advancement. They fought for the construction of railroads (railroad building began in 1830s in England and Germany, expanded east and west with the Transiberian being built in the 1890's). The Regionalists were sometimes jailed in the 1860's because they were accused of being separatists. Shchapov probably second most famous Regionalists, as well as Gregory Potanin. Potanin was an explorer, naturalist, and geographer. The overwhelming majority of Potanin's manuscripts are still in university archives and have not been published. He also wrote fiction. These Regionalists were friends and collaborators. They also published newspapers together.

5. Political Exiles (Phase 2)

Twenty years after the Decembrists were exiled it became minimally possible to dispute government policies (but it was still dangerous). The emperor who had persecuted the Decembrists, Nicholas I, was still in power (he didn't die until 1855). Despite the modest amount of liberalization that was taking place, a new generation of political dissidents were arrested for subversive activities and sent to Siberia. These were the Utopian Socialists who began discussion groups in the 1840's (Marx began to publish his early works in the 1830's but these were not discussed). The Utopian Socialists in Russia were not yet discussing Marx but rather his French precursors such as Fourier (they didn't advocate armed over throw but rather the development of utopian settlements). The Petrashevsky Circle was one of the groups that held discussions in private apartments, and Dostoyevsky was a participant as a young man. Spies turned them in and they were sentenced to death by firing squad. Dostoyevsky's stories of poor folk and his other short stories were highly regarded by leading critics at the time, yet he was arrested and sentenced to death. They were taken to Semionov-Plaz and lined up to be executed when suddenly a carriage pulled out, an officer jumped out, and handed a paper to the commander saying that Nicholas I had commuted their sentences to prison and exile. They were then taken to Peter and Paul fortress (which was built to defend St. Petersburg against the Swedes, but was also used as a prison). From there Dostoyevsky was sent to Omsk and put into an ostrok. These experiences inspired him to write Notes from the House of the Dead, a highly autobiographical novel based on personal experience of prison.

Two other significant writers who were influenced by Siberia were Tolstoy and Chekhov. Tolstoy's final novel was about resurrection and a tragic love affair between a nobleman and a peasant woman arrested for crime. In it he follows her to Siberia (she had to walk in chains, he rode in carriage). Chekhov wrote The Island of Sakhalin, but also Out of Siberia which contains his correspondence during his journey as well as four of the stories he wrote after he got back which were highly influenced by the interviews he conducted in the prison. 

While Dostoyevsky was the most important member of his of generation of exiles who was a writer, members of later generations of "exile writers" were also significant.  Korolenko was exiled close to the end of the 19th century. Another important writer was Shalamov, who was exiled during the period of 1929-1953. Shalamov was a student in Moscow, and took part in a loose group who discussed how Stalin was beginning to depart in significant ways from Lenin's original ideas. They circulated Lenin's "last will and testament" where he warned his colleagues against Stalin. For this he was sent into hard labor.

We can conclude by considering a few questions:
What do we learn about Siberia from Chekhov's writings from his voluntary trip, as opposed to the writings of the exiles who were forced to Siberia?
What does it mean to be a Siberian?
What do we learn about Siberia from these writers as a group?