Examining Russian Prison Literature with Dr. Greg Ormiston

photo of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Since receiving the Talvi award in the spring, I have continued my research in the sphere of Russian prison literature. I am especially interested in the way Russian writers have portrayed the space and time of prisons, which, I believe, provides insight into the conception and construction of literary worlds of all kinds. My current project focuses on the contrasting depictions of prison in two landmark works of Russian literature: Fedor Dostoevskii’s Notes from the Dead House (1862) and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962).

On the surface, the two novels share much in common. Both are fictionalized accounts of prison camps based on the authors’ firsthand experiences as inmates. At the same time, both are seemingly less concerned with telling personal stories than they are with exposing a dark fragment of Russian and Soviet life that would otherwise remain hidden. Though the journalistic aspects of Notes from the Dead House and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich are similar, their fundamental conceptions of prison are surprisingly divergent, from the very beginning of each text.

For example, as Gorianchikov (Dostoevskii’s narrator) opens his prison notes, he introduces himself as a captive of space:

Our prison stood at the edge of the fortress, right next to the ramparts. You would sometimes take a look at God’s world through the cracks in the fence: surely there must be something to be seen? – and all you would see would be a corner of sky and the high earthe

photo of Fedor Dostoevskii

Fedor Dostoevskii

n ramparts, overgrown with weeds, and on the ramparts the sentries pacing up and down, day and night; and then you would think that whole years would go by, and you would still come to look through the cracks in the fence and would see the same ramparts, the same sentries and the same little corner of sky, not the sky that stood above the prison, but another, distant and free. (27)

The stasis of Gorianchikov’s world is enforced by physical, spatial boundaries (the ramparts, the fence, the weeds, the paths of the sentries) while time seems only to pass outside in the free world.

In contrast, the opening of Ivan Denisovich creates a temporal prison:

At five o’clock that morning reveille was sounded, as usual, by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters. The intermittent sounds barely penetrated the windowpanes on which the frost lay two fingers thick, and they ended almost as soon as they’d begun. It was cold outside, and the camp guard was reluctant to go on beating out the reveille for long. The clanging ceased, but everything outside still looked like the middle of the night when Ivan Denisovich Shukhov got up to go to the bucket. (3)

Ivan Denisovich’s prison is framed by an essentially unchanging, regimented schedule, which also strictly orders the events of the novel (e.g. reveille, daily chores and work, meals, and so on).

While critic Mikhail Bakhtin reminds us that literary space and time are always intertwined, the contrast between the dominance of space in Dostoevskii’s “house” and the oppressive timetable of Solzhenitsyn’s “day” will, I hope, make for an interesting study. I plan to present this project at the annual AATSEEL conference in February, 2018.


Gulag Prisoners

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