November 07, 2021

Dostoyevsky in Siberia and Beyond

Dostoyevsky in Siberia and Beyond
It's extremely difficult to recognize Dostoyevsky without his beard, but there he is (on the right).  Photo by N. Leybin via Wikimedia Commons

When most people think of the great works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, they imagine the gloom and doom cast over the imperial capital city of St. Petersburg. It is the perfect setting for many of his novels, after all. The muted pastels that line the city streets, matched with the notoriously dreary weather, create a recipe for the perfect scene. However, what fewer people associate with the author is the ten years that he spent cast away from the city by imperial decree, and how that affected his literature. 

In April 1849, Dostoyevsky and members of the elite group of intellectuals known as the Petroshevsky Circle were arrested for disobedience to the tsar and sentenced to death. However, the death sentence was only very nearly carried out, because at the very last second the men were given a reprieve and told that they would be completing their sentences at a labor camp in exile in Siberia.  

As a traveler who truly feels as though everyone who visits Russia should experience a little self-imposed "Siberian exile," I’ve compiled an itinerary of all the places that Dostoyevsky (not so willingly) traveled to while he was away from Russia’s “Window to the West.”

A white dreary building in the snow.
Tobolsk Prison on a delightful winter day | Photo by Evgeny72rus via CC BY-SA 3.0

Tobolsk Prison

After a brutal two-week journey from St. Petersburg by wagon (in January, no less), Dostoyevsky first arrived in the Siberian city of Tobolsk on January 9, 1850. The city of Tobolsk is fairly close to the now more famous city of Tyumen, but it was once the capital of the Siberian region. 

While Dostoyevsky was only held prisoner at Tobolsk Prison for twelve days, it’s still  worth seeing, if you want to get the authentic nineteenth-century Siberian prison experience. While the prison itself no longer operates as an institution, it is in excellent condition and acts as a museum and even a hostel. Visitors can walk around the property and see what grim conditions the author and many other criminals had to live under, such as the “sweat-box” punishment cells, which were too small for some men to even stand up inside. And, for the especially brave, you can book a night inside one of these cells and stay at the “Prisoner” Hostel! But don’t worry, the conditions aren’t too bad: the hostel offers amenities such as air conditioning and wifi (this isn’t capital punishment, after all). 

A green gate with a pole in front. On the pole there is an eagle statue.
The Tobolsk Gate (part of Omsk Fortress) which Dostoyevsky would have used regularly to move about the complex. | Photo by ogg-omsk via CC BY-SA 3.0

Omsk Fortress 

Dostoyevsky was then transferred to Omsk for the remainder of his imprisonment. He served time at the Omsk Fortress for four years, a good portion of which he spent in the prison hospital, due to his declining health and his epileptic seizures. He witnessed a lot of the horrors of prison life here, too, which greatly influenced his semi-autobiographical novel, The House of the Dead.

Portions of the fortress have been restored and are marked as locations of historical significance. Here you can walk through the same (or restored versions of the same) gates that Dostoyevsky used to cross on his way to and from the barracks (which are also still present and part of the open-air museum). The summer hospital where Dostoyevsky likely spent a good amount of time (and likely penned portions of The House of the Dead) is also still standing; however, it is in total disrepair, so visitors are not allowed to enter. 

If a trip to Omsk isn't in your future, you can also take a 3-D tour of the fortress complex through their website. 

A log-house-style cabin with green details.
Photo by Yakov Fedorov via CC BY-SA 3.0

Semey, Kazakhstan: The Memorial House-Museum of F.M. Dostoyevsky 

While Dostoyevsky was supposed to serve a much longer sentence, he was allowed to leave Omsk after only four years of imprisonment, on the condition that he join military service following his release. In January 1854, Dostoyevsky was enlisted as a private in the troops of the Separate Siberian Corps.  He went on to spend more than five years in Semipalatinsk (now known as Semey, Kazakhstan). This was the place where Dostoyevsky was finally able to make his return to writing and began working on novels and short stories once again. 

The apartment that Dostoyevsky rented for his final two years of residence is still standing and has been rebranded as the Memorial House-Museum of F.M. Dostoyevsky. It is the only museum dedicated to the author that exists outside of Russia. There you can see many of the objects that existed in the apartment back when Dostoyevsky lived there, as well as learn more about the author’s life. 

You can also take a 3-D tour of the museum from the comfort of your own computer. 

A dark wooden building among red flowers.
Photo by Yaroslav Belyaev via CC BY-SA 4.0

Novokuznetsk: The Literary-Memorial Museum of F.M. Dostoyevsky

While serving in Semipalatinsk, Dostoyevsky was introduced to the woman who would become his first wife: Anna Dmitriyevna Isayeva. She and her previous husband lived in the same city as Dostoyevsky for a short period of time, but then relocated to Novokuznetsk. After Anna's husband passed away, Dostoyevsky traveled to visit her at her home in Novokuznetsk a few times, and eventually the couple married there. 

While the church where they married has long since burned down, the house is still in good shape and serves as the Literary-Memorial Museum of F.M. Dostoyevsky. Exhibits describe both Dostoyevsky's life and literature in detail. There are even specific papers documenting Dostoyevsky's wedding and his tumultuous relationship with Isaeva. 

The Omsk State Literary Museum of F.M. Dostoyevsky

After completing his service in Semipalatinsk in 1859, Dostoyevsky and his new wife made the return voyage back to St. Petersburg. Oddly enough, one of the pitstops they made along the way was in the very city where Dostoyevsky had so long been imprisoned. Once there, they met with Commandant Alexei Fedorovich Grave. Although the commandant was responsible for enforcing Dostoyevsky’s imprisonment, he was also secretly very kind to Dostoyevsky and helped him survive his time in custody. 

The commandant’s house is still in Omsk and has become the Omsk State Literary Museum of F. M. Dostoyevsky. Of course, the museum features many invaluable resources about Dostoyevsky’s life and works, but also displays exhibits about local authors and poets from Omsk as well.

So while Dostoyevsky's time in exile was unfortunate for him on a multitude of levels, for a man who is known for being the gray cloud of Russian literature, he came out of the experience with a surprising number of silver linings. For one, the people who helped him, including benevolent prison officers, filled him with a sense of gratitude.

Additionally, while he loathed most of the cities that he actually lived in (he wrote in a letter that Omsk was an "ugly little city"), evidence suggests that he was particularly enamored with the city of Barnaul, which he visited briefly on a handful of occasions. After all, who can resist the beauty of the Altai

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