The Omsk of F.M. Dostoevsky
There are lots of cities on the map connected to F. M. Dostoevsky. The writer visited Berlin and Dresden, Genoa and Paris, Baden-Baden and London, Milan and Geneva, Venice and Cologne.
But only three cities sound in unison to the writer’s biography. There names are: Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and Omsk.
F. M. Dostoevsky was born in Moscow, his childhood passed there.
Saint-Petersburg. Novels of the writer immortalized strict lines of Saint-Petersburg’s streets, endlessness of bridges, closed circumspection of yards, worn out footsteps of old houses. How much did F. M. Dostoevsky write about this city! St.-Petersburg’s life air inspired novels of the great writer, his literary fame came to him in this city, there he lived and worked. There, in Alexandro-Nevskaya Lavra, he is buried.
In the Moscow — St.-Petersburg — Omsk triad our city has its own unique place. Here the writer suffered four years of penal servitude (since January, 23, 1850), stayed here a couple of weeks in the February of 1854 after his release from the prison where he was kept and ‘some three or four days’ in the July of 1859, when he was finally leaving Siberia. One can think that this is a period of life to be forgotten, to be struck out from one’s memory and not to be ever remembered. Yet for F.M. Dostoevsky the city of Omsk was not only a point on his biography’s map. What he lived and experienced in Omsk is reflected in his life and writings, being the fire to light the fireplace of his writings. In one of the Omsk prisons F. M. Dostoevsky’s views were put under great pressure.
From his childhood F.M. Dostoevsky was a religious person. When in prison, he had a bitter lot to live among those ‘through whose faces you could not see God’ — among murderers, thieves, vagabonds and swindlers. But the more life seemed not to leave a place for faith and confidence, the stronger thirst for faith rose in Dostoevsky. It cost him ‘a greater torture’. Having passed through those severities, he worked out his own credo, in which everything is ‘clear and saint’: ‘to believe, that there exist nothing so splendid, so profound, so sympathetic, so intelligent, so courageous, and so perfect as Christ, and not only does not it exist, but with a jealous love I say to myself that there cannot exist ever’.
This version of the writer’s credo, formed at this point of the spiritual development, resembles maximalist statement of young Dostoevsky: ‘The human being is a mystery. This mystery is to be unriddled, and even if it takes up the whole your life, you cannot say that you had lost time’.
From his early years F. M. Dostoevsky felt sympathy for ‘lower classes’. In ‘A Writer’s Diary’ dated 1873 he tells us about an episode when, being a child, he was frightened by a wolf, but a huge man Marey calmed and protected him. These memoirs not only helped Dostoevsky to survive in prison, but ‘to find gold under coarse crust’ — to distinguish human beings among murderers. The writer finds among them ‘characters profound, strong, beautiful: But not only one or two — several. You held ones in high respect, and others were absolutely beautiful’.
F.M. Dostoevsky, a nobleman only in second generation, was proud of his belonging to Russian nobility. But in prison he suffered from it for the first time, because it prevented him from gaining prisoners’ confidence — most of them committed crimes exactly against nobility. Dostoevsky had constantly been hearing for four years: ‘You, nobles, iron beaks, pecked us to death. You were a lord and tortured people, and now you are worse than the worst — you are among us, prisoners now’. In Omsk Dostoevsky had to live the life of commons for the first time. He worked hard at a brick factory, fired and pound alabaster, worked for an engineering service, shoveled away snow from Omsk streets. Evenings, when everybody was put together, Dostoevsky saw ‘noise, laughter, curses, sound of moving shackles and soot, shaved heads, stigmatized faces and rags’. All four years the writer could not have a piece of paper, pen or ink: he was sentenced not to write.
In such severe conditions of a prison Dostoevsky managed to remain ‘a man against other men’. Prisoners came to liking him for his compassion for ‘miserables’, for not having ‘an awful desire to be the first in all places at all costs’. Dostoevsky taught them to write and read, he was trying to help those who had suffered from cruel sentences when he was at the local hospital, he made a theatre play with other prisoners. Thus, step by step, prisoners from Omsk came to see their brother in Dostoevsky. Many of them appreciated Dostoevsky’s help. So, after leaving the prison, Dostoevsky had an opportunity to say: ‘How much did I understand people and their characters from prison! I lived with them and it seems that I know them well. How many stories of vagabonds and criminals, of all severe, hapless lives! It is enough to write many volumes. What a wonderful people!’
Different military men and officials from Central Administration of West Siberia helped the writer.
Talking about these people, we cannot pass over in silence the name of Alexey F’odorovich de Grave (Алексей Фёдорович де Граве, 1793-1864), Commandant of the Omsk Fortress. He was one of the most important Omsk officials and therefore was always on public. He could not help a political criminal openly, because it would put an end to his career. But it was for him that the writer never was condemned to corporal punishment or works that could destroy his health. Dostoevsky would write later: ‘The Commandant was a very noble man’.
K. I. Ivanov (К. И. Иванов), Decembrist’s I. A. Annenkov (И. А. Анненков) son-in-law, was ‘like a brother’ to him and ‘did his best’ in order to help the writer. K. I. Ivanov was an aide-de-camp of the head of engineering service’s of Siberian Independent Corps. The prisoner’s company was under their jurisdiction too. Dostoevsky wrote to his brother ‘If I had not found good men here, I would have died’ about these people: the head doctor of a military hospital Ivan Ivanovich Troitskiy (Иван Иванович Троицкий) and his wife Mariya Nikolayevna (Мария Николаевна), Siberian Cadet Corps (Сибирский Кадетский Корпус) inspector Ivan Vikentyevich Zhdan-Pushkin (Иван Викентьевич Ждан-Пушкин) and Corps’s priest Alexandr Ivanovich Sulotskiy (Александр Иванович Сулоцкий); corporals of battalions ?4 and ?5 Brylkin (Брылкин), Chovansky (Хованский), Osipov (Осипов), Sokolov (Соколов).
And we cannot pass over in silence the Kapustin family. Yakov Sem’onovich Kapustin (Яков Семенович Капустин, 1792-1859) was the head of the Central Administration of West Siberia when Dostoevsky was in Omsk. The writer will mention him later in his ‘The House of the Dead’ as an ‘old merited hospitable official’. In the salon of his wife Yekaterina Ivanovna (Екатерина Ивановна, born Mendeleyeva (Менделеева), 1816-1901), the ‘cream of the Omsk intelligentsia’ were gathering.
In the middle of the nineteenth century the Kapustin’s home was one of the few places in Siberia where you could spend your spare time interestingly. But not only did the Kapustin’s guests discuss literature and play music, they also were thinking about ways to help ‘miserables’ from the Omsk prison. Remembering the Kapustin family, Dostoevsky said that they ‘were unsophisticated and noble kind-hearted people’.
In 1854, when he had left prison (but continuing to serve the penalty), Dostoevsky was sent to Semipalatinsk (Семипалатинск) and entered the 7th Siberian Battalion. Service time was not mentioned in the sentence; that meant that Dostoevsky had to spend 25 years in army (the common service time those years). Friends were constantly pleading for him, and he himself was inquiring to officials with petitions of resignation. He wrote: ‘My dream is to resign from army and get a civil work somewhere in Russia <:> But it is not the civil work that is my life’s goal <:> I wish to have a permission to publish my works <:> I have a conviction that it is the only way for me to be truly useful’.
It is exactly after Omsk when Dostoevsky wrote all his great novels, and every one of them contains an echo of Omsk experience.
How many criminals did Dostoevsky see in Omsk! And how huge was the number of those whose sentence was unjust, was applied excessively roughly or, vice versa, excessively lightly. They all had different opinions about their crimes and punishments, and they all had ‘their own novel’ that led them to prison. There were the place’s own ‘special laws, special costumes, special tempers and customs, unique life and special people’. The writer had his food for thought, observation and conclusions in Omsk. P.P. Sem’onov-T’an-Shanskiy (П.П. Семёнов-Тян-Шанский) was right when said that ‘the staying in the ‘The House of the Dead’ made talented Dostoevsky a great writer-psychologist’.
There are lots of pages in ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘The Idiot’, ‘The Possessed’, ‘The Raw Youth’, ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ with reflections of the Omsk experience. The writer’s thoughts about ‘ground’, ‘the Russian idea’, about a universal uniting vivifying function of Russia, the call to a ‘proud man’ to subdue and to work in his own field all come from Omsk, from those short and endlessly long four years when Dostoevsky was only on his own.
We do not have many places that remind us of the great writer’s life, but this small but precious amount includes the Commandant’s of the Omsk Fortress House, former guardhouse building, former Cadet Corps building, Lutheran church, Tarskiye and Tobolskiye Gates.
Streets, a library, a literary museum, a classical university are named after the famous writer. A monument to him was erected in 2001 (the 180th anniversary of Dostoevsky’s birthday) in the Tarskiye Gates’ range, through which Dostoevsky was convoyed to Omsk. In 2005 the unique complete full works of Dostoevsky were published. It consists of 18 volumes (in 20 books) and includes not only new scientific articles and commentaries by famous scientists-specialists on F.M. Dostoevsky’s works, but also a great amount of first attributed to him texts. For the first time the full works of F.M. Dostoevsky includes his own drawings. The publishing was realized on the initiative and with the financial help of the Governor, the President of the Government of Omskaya oblast L. K. Polezhaev (Л.К. Полежаев).
The contemporary Omsk is a big industrial and cultural centre, a city, where live curious pupils and university students, thoughtful scientists: museum workers, local area researches, and university teachers. We add to this number architects, designers, officials of the highest rank, who are interested in saving and growth of cultural traditions, ‘grassroots’ life of Russia. We also add to this number thousands of tourists from all over the world, who come to the Omsk of Dostoevsky, because it is our city that helps to understand not only the works of the genius, but also his life and fate.
Omsk is consonant with Dostoevsky.
© Омский государственный литературный музей имени Ф.М. Достоевского