Representing the Poles in Zapiski iz Mertvogo doma: The Genesis of the Polish Question in Dostoevskij's Oeuvre

Elizabeth Blake, University of Memphis

In his article "Poles in Dostoevskij" Zbigniew Zakiewicz raises an important point for tracing the genesis of Dostoevskij's interest in the Polish Question. Zakiewicz shows that in spite of the fact that Dostoevskij must have encountered Poles in his youth (since they accounted for a third of the student population at the Engineering School he attended), Dostoevskij did not engage in literary dialogue with any Poles until his Siberian period. Zakiewicz therefore concludes, in agreement with his predecessor Jerzy Stempowski, that beginning with Zapiski iz Mertvogo doma and continuing throughout his lifetime Dostoevskij drew on his personal contact with Poles in the close quarters of the prison in Omsk to create fictional portrayals of Poles in his novels. Still, it is important to note that these depictions of Poles in Dostoevskij's novels differ strikingly from the various eye-witness accounts of the author's relationship with Polish political prisoners and exiles. In an effort to account for these differences in Zapiski iz Mertvogo doma, I will compare Dostoevskij's fictional work with the memoirs of his acquaintances in Siberia.

This study will first consider Dostoevskij's treatment of the Poles in Zapiski iz Mertvogo doma in light of these other accounts in order to place Dostoevskij's relationship with his Polish contemporaries within a historical context. For example, A. E. Vrangel''s memoirs will reveal Dostoevskij's aversion to the significant community of Polish exiles in Semipalatinsk for whom Vrangel' expressed great sympathy.Yet a comparison of Dostoevskij's critical assessment of his fellow Polish inmates' patriotic fervor in Zapiski iz Mertvogo doma will seem understated when compared with Szymon Tokarzewski's description of Dostoevskij's as a Russian imperialist in the memoirs Seven Years in Penal Servitude (1911) and The Convicts: Siberian Scenes (1912).

Then I will discuss how Dostoevskij's writing of Zapiski iz Mertvogo doma in the early 1860s coincided with heated political debates surrounding the Polish question. A. P. Miljukov's remembrances relating Dostoevskij's revision of episodes about the Polish political prisoners will demonstrate the significance of political considerations in the creation of Dostoevskij's prison account. Finally, an examination of the publication history of Zapiski iz Mertvogo doma in Vremja (the journal that Dostoevskij co-edited with his older brother) will further attempt to show the extent to which this first representation of Poles in Dostoevskij is shaped by the political conflict between nationalities of his day.