Fyodor Dostoevsky - in prison
During the regency of Tsar Nikolay I (1825-1855) the Enlightment was an invective. Nikolays' despotic style of government permitted a reactionary force in the Russian society that allowed for an development of informers and spies. The Tsar was to be the highest chief of police. This structure made it possible to suppress independent thinking, a feature further emphasized by strong censorship and the closure of the Philosophical department in the University of Moscow. The official line was that of orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality.
Dostoevsky was in strong opposition towards censorship and serfhood which gave the estate-owners the right to sell their peasants like cattle. But he was also a stout defender of monarchy and one of his happiest moments in life was when Tsar Alexander II abolished the serfhood in 1861. But that was a long way from the repressive state of Nikolai I. Together with other young intellectuals in the Petrashevsky group, Dostoevsky was arrested and sentenced to death. Due to a last minute reprieve the sentence was transformed to four years hard labour in Siberia.
In a letter to his brother Andrey, Dostoevsky wrote:" ...I consider those four years as a time during which I was buried alive and shut up in a coffin. Just how horrible that time was I have not the strength to tell you...it was an indescribable, unending agony, because each hour, each minute weighed upon my soul like a stone." Dostoevsky was totally isolated in prison, at least the first year. This was so because he was a "nobleman", while the rest of the prisoners belonged to the peasantry and the artisan classes.
The horror of his experience is described in a letter to his brother Mikhail: "These men were coarse, irritable and malicious. Their hatred of the nobility knew no limits, and so they received us noblemen with hostility and a gleeful schadenfreude. If they had had half a chance they would have devoured us." He continues to talk about his hardships and says that "...the only thing that saved us from this misery was our equanimity, our moral superiority, which they could not help but comprehend and which they respected as a sign that we were not subservient to their will." Then, after a long description of the lack of food, endless visits at the hospital, etc, he says: "Apart from this, I feel quite well."
This period in prison is described in The House of the Dead, published in 1862. After four years in labour camp he served another four years in the Siberian army as a private.