Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 15

Katorga

In the four years he spent in prison camp, Dostoevsky had not received a single word from his family, and the complete loss of contact inspired him to compose a lengthy letter to Mikhail on February 22, 1854, just a week after being released. Picking up the thread of his life at the moment of departure for Siberia, it begins by recounting the impressions gathered on the eighteen-day journey and the major incidents marking his arrival at the first way station, Tobolsk. “It was a sad moment when we crossed the Urals,” Dostoevsky recalls. “The horses and sledges had foundered in the drifts. A snowstorm was raging. We got out of the sledges— it was night—and stood waiting while they were dragged out. All around us was the snow and storm; it was the frontier of Europe; ahead was Siberia and our unknown fate, while all the past lay behind us—it was so depressing that I was moved to tears.” 1

On January 9, the party reached Tobolsk, once the capital city of Western Siberia and, at that time, the main distribution center in which prisoners arriving from European Russia were sorted out and dispatched to their final destinations. The prison was set inside a fortress complex, and as Dostoevsky's party climbed the road up to it, one of the first sights to greet their eyes was the town's most ancient and notorious exile, the famous Uglich bell, located just off the road along which they were proceeding. Its story was known to all: At the discovery of the death of Crown Prince Dimitry, suspected of having been murdered by his guardian, Boris Godunov, the bell had rung to summon the inhabitants of Uglich to avenge the boy's death. The new tsar, Boris, later ordered the offending bell to be publicly flogged and mutilated, and it was exiled to Siberia in perpetuity with the injunction that it never ring again. But the people of Tobolsk had long since housed the Uglich bell in a small belfry, and its deep-voiced sonority called them to prayer. There it stood along the roadside, a constant reminder to later exiles of the despotic, capricious, and all-encompassing authority of the Russian tsars, as well as of the ultimate futility of many of their sternest ukazy.

Dostoevsky's reception in Tobolsk illustrates some of the moral incorporated in the subversive survival of the Uglich bell. “I will only say,” Dostoevsky writes

1Pis'ima, 1: 134; February 22, 1854.

-185-

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