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Russian/Siberian Literature

Gerald E. Mikkelson 
Professor of Russian Language, Literature and Culture (MA and PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison) 
Russian language and literature, Pushkin, 20th century, Siberia, St. Petersburg

When you are studying about a part of the world, especially if you are talking about it in a wider temporal context, there are various kinds of evidence that can be used. Two of most important kinds are;

1. Visual/material/state of land, towns, etc./archeological

Archeological very active after 1960s when built Siberian branch of academy of sciences—some of best in Russia and even world. Academic cities like Akademgorodok (Russian: Академгородо́к). Archeology very important part of that. Accumulated a lot of physical evidence. 

2. Literature

There were, as far as we know, cultures with a written literature in Siberia historically (not including Chinese, which along with several Central Asian cultures, have written records going back thousands of years). As far as we know, the indigenous peoples didn’t have written languages in this part of the world. They did have musical, dance, art forms at a very advanced level, but it was an oral rather than a written cultural tradition. 

Siberian Russian literature that will be discussed in class will be primarily Russian literature, especially the written literature that arose having to do directly with Siberia. But many of the indigenous peoples of Siberia, such as Chuckchi people, acquired a written form during the Soviet period. The Soviets used Cyrillic as the basis for new alphabets. Written forms of oral culture began to develop during this period. 

Probably the most well known indigenous writer was Yury Ritkheu (died 3-4 years ago). He wrote novels and short stories about Chuckchi people. Wrote in both Russian and his indigenous language. During the Soviet period he wrote primarily in Russian (Soviets would publish his work in his indigenous language, but small circulation) mostly because of the size of the audience. The history of artistic and written expression of indigenous peoples of Siberia range from petroglyphs all the way to modern contemporary novels. 

Siberian (Russian language) literature will be the main focus of our discussion. Most Russian speakers arrived after 1581. Not many stayed. Not massive immigration but assertion of right by Russia to take over territory. Colonial policies of Russians in Siberia –Russian government was behind the conquest of western Siberia, approval of highest authorities, promoted and financed by tsars. Pushed from top for commercial reasons. But from beginning the colonial policies of the Muscovite government their policy (not written out in detail) they assumed it belonged to them. Urals to Pacific Ocean assumed jurisdiction before they occupied it. Everyone in the territory was subject to Russian rule. To establish that they had to fight a lot of battles, long and difficult struggle to complete conquest and put down opposition of indigenous groups. 

Distances so great and means of transportation before 19th century (railroads in 20th) were so slow and difficult that going to Siberia usually meant staying in Siberia. Russians settled in and cultivated crops, acquired livestock, cut down trees and homesteaded the land. By 1913 there were so many dairy products produced in Siberia that it became a net exporter of dairy products. Cow called sibirka (small cow) which was very productive for milk. 

The visual material evidence that could be used to learn about a place included archeological digs and grave sites, grave mounds, statuary over graves, etc. These were important but the most important kinds of evidence comes from the written record. Not just modern Russian but old church Slavic 

Almost immediately after crossing Urals and fighting early battles, for 200 years Cossacks were primary face of Russia in Siberia. But almost immediately behind them came the churchmen. Few women before 1825, when the Decembrist uprising led to the exile of noblemen to Siberia (their goal was to create a constitutional monarchy and liberation of serfs). Nicholas I hung five of the most prominent, then sent rest to exile. Aristocratic wives went to Siberia to be near their imprisoned husbands. This required great courage on their part. 

By 1630 some Cossacks had reached pacific ocean. Following closely behind them were educated churchmen, a few noblemen to set up bureaucracy (appointed by tsars to rule over towns like Tobolsk, the first Russian capital in Siberia). All towns like Tomsk, Barnaul, Chita, all the way to Vladivostok (Russian: Владивосто́к), were settled during this period. Had governor, educated members of aristocracy. 

Writing—in the larger sense 

1. Writing by bishops 

Kiprian was a Russian orthodox priest. Chronicler focused on battles, events like eclipses or earthquakes, births and deaths of princes, etc. this tradition went back to 10th century amongst Russians. Also wrote about moral standards in area, and pointed out that Cossacks were not living according to moral standards. Tried to encourage people to live more in line with church. Many of the original writings were church writings.

2. Historians

Soon afterwards historians began to write the history of Siberia, the history of Siberia as a whole. Wrote down stories of indigenous peoples. Semyon Remezov, born around 1642-1720 worked as a cartographer and produced sketches of towns. First Russian geographic atlas of Siberia was a blueprint book with hand drawings of contours of towns published in 1699-1701. Also the Remezov chronicle. 

From 1700’s a German named Muller spent a lot of time in Siberia and wrote multi-volume chronicle. 

3. Novels, short stories later in time 

In first hundred years have chronicles and histories, no Siberian Russian literature like other European countries had. 

Stages of further development: 

When most of Poland was taken over by Russia many Poles participated in uprisings in 1831, 1863 (suppressed until 1918 when Lenin let it go). The leaders were exiled to Siberia, so many Poles and later Ukrainians became Siberians (in the latter case moved to farm). 

Golden age of Russian poetry 1820s and 1830s, the age of Pushkin (never set foot in Siberia). During his lifetime that Siberian Russian literature gets its first big kick start by 125 noblemen (exiled after they participated in the victory over Napoleon and led the Decembrist uprising). Many were writers, poets. Friends of Pushkin. Ryleev was a friend of Pushkin who was hanged. One of Pushkin's classmates was sent to exile and continued to write both prose and poetry. Common cliché was that these Decembrists ended up constituting the nucleus of the first Russian intelligensia in Siberia. Eventually liberated from prison/working in mines and could develop lives as teachers, artists, local civic leaders, became the nucleus of Siberian Russian intelligensia. Became interested in native people, first anthroplogical interest. 

Third category of literate Russians were 1820-1855 approximately, dozen or more were important. Decembrists called this because of the December uprising which occurred mainly in St. Petersburg on 14 december 1825. They had 2 principle objectives; veterans of war against Nepoleon, rose rapidly in ranks, returned to Russia and rather than settling down revolted, government was an autocracy Alexander I. The tsar had became repressive after the war, and the officers began to oppose autocracy and hoped to convert it into a constitutional monarchy (wanted to keep monarchy but restrict by constitution like in England). Wanted to create parliament, constitution patterned after U.S. or perhaps French constitution. Most radical Decembrists Mikhail Lunin and Pavel Pestel (one of 5 who was hanged 6 months after uprising) were regicides—espoused killing the king. Not just overthrow autocracy but wanted to execute tsar, family, court, class. Wanted to establish a Republican form of government (a Republic (Republic=representative government) 

Decembrist uprising was quickly put down, Nikolas I put down uprising in a bloody fashion. Sent more than 100 into exile/prison in Siberia. 

Second goal was abolition of serfdom, which was a form of slavery. Peasant serfs were Russians/East Slavs, overwhelming proportion of population were serfs who were owned by land-owners. Serfdom was abolished in 1861 (almost simultaneously with abolition of slavery in U.S.) Abraham Lincoln and Alexander II were the great liberators (there was an exhibit about this last year in Kansas City). 

We can look at the contributions of the Decembrist rebels who were exiled to Siberia and lived long enough to go on writing. Amnesty after Nikolas I died, many Decembrists went back to European Russia, but many remained (had become Siberians). Word "Siberians" as a label applied at that time to not only indigenous people but also to Russians who spent their lives in Siberia. Some intermarried with indigenous families. 

Third class of literate people in Russia who contributed significantly to written record in Siberia were Decembrists. It was a writing culture (we were a writing culture at one point). Letters, diaries, poetry, novels, etc. 

One of Decembrist poets was one of the five hanged (Russia is not the only country that hangs its poets). Ryleev—his role in planning of uprising was important enough, and didn’t repent when imprisoned in Peter and Paul fortress. 

125 leaders of uprising, all members of nobility, many were writers, Kyukhelbeker and Lunin were both writers and kept writing when in Siberia. Lunin was primarily a playwrite. Radical who never stepped back from his views. But the majority of Decembrists held more moderate views, pushed for a constitutional monarchy and serfs to be freed to be workers rather than chattel. 

Decembrists eventually freed from prison and were allowed to settle in exile in Siberia. Generally migrated towards towns and cities, wanted to go back to European Russia initially, but the longer in Siberia they became attached to Siberia. Alexander II gave amnesty after 1855 some went back to European Russia, but many stayed. Tomsk, Irkustk, Omst, etc. not only did they remain, they played a large role in Siberian intelligentsia (were amongst the most highly educated people in European Russia before the uprising). Became lawyers, medical doctors, surveyors, teachers, important roles. 

Regional intelligentsia is at first strange to Americans, but in Russian society it was common for a long time (into the 20th century) because a smaller percent of population were educated. Intelligent (noun) means more than being educated, it is someone who is educated, literate, articulate, but also with a highly developed social conscious (individually and collectively) works tirelessly for improvement of society. Not just to improve own wealth, but improve life for broader masses who are not as fortunate. In that sense Siberia didn’t have an intelligentsia until the Decembrists were sent out there. 

Writings of Decembrists are an extremely important part of what we know about Siberia. The category “Decembrists in exile” does not remain as compact as original 125, because the Russian government continued to banish people to Siberia. In the 19th century numbers were small compared to Soviet period (it was only hundreds) while during the gulag period of forced labor numbers exceed a million, many of whom died. 

The Decembrist phenomenon, as class of educated Russians who contribute to written record, expanded in waves. Russian revolutionary organizations like the Petrashevsky Circle contributed to it. Petrashevsky in 1840’s became interested in utopian socialism (Marx’s early writings came out at this time, but not as important as French utopian writers). French utopian socialist ideas were taken up by prominent writers such as Dostoevsky, who met in Petrashevsky’s apartment. He was publishing short stories in 1840’s, was getting recognition writing about downtrodden. There was a spy in the circle, reporting to authorities about discussions. Nikolas I was in power. 1849 arrested, sentenced to death by firing squad. Lined up with bags over their heads, at last minute horseman from winter palace arrived with the announcement that Nikolas I commuted their sentence to exile in Siberia. Dostoevsky wrote in many of novels about what it is like to think that you have 1 minute to live (his epileptic seizures date from this period). What goes through your mind is a film reel of your life replayed before your eyes. Spent 10 years in Kazakhstan and Siberia. Notes from the House of the Dead. Held in stockade with common criminals who hated educated Russians. This is foundation for literature on prison experiences, people all over the world who were imprisoned and wrote about it are influenced by this novel by Dostoevsky. 

Fyodor Dostoevsky spent 1849-1859 in Siberia. Out of his prison experience came his "Notes from the House of the Dead" which was his own autobiography as a prisoner in a fort. Political prisoners and criminals were thrown together. This book became important in the history of Siberian Russian literature. Crime and Punishment—hero (name based on word schism) was sentenced to Siberia and his girlfriend went with him. Epilogue of the novel has action in Siberia. 

Vladimir Korolenko exiled to far north to Yakutia, spent 3-4 years in Yakutsk amongst the Yakut people. Not only did he write about his experience as prisoner, but entire literary career was shaped by exile experience. To some extent he became a Siberian, because he didn’t write about Siberia as a terrible place, but he wrote lovingly about the people he met, both Russians and Yakut people, and wrote lovingly about Siberia. Dostoevsky never became a Siberian, but Korolenko was greatly influenced and essentially became a Siberian. 

All of these people were sent to Siberia against their wills. Not only did Siberia affect them, but they had a shaping influence on the development of literature in Siberia. This is called the “literary process” every writer who contributes something important to the literature of a place become part of the process, influencing each other. 

Jump ahead—writers from European Russia sent to Siberia as form of punishment: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Eugenia (Evgenia) Ginzburg—“Into the Whirlwind” fictionalized autobiography based on experience of Kolyma prison under Stalin (he was a communist, but was still persecuted). 

Solzhenitsyn spent about 10 years in Siberian prison, despite being a decorated war hero was arrested for a derogatory statement about Stalin written in a letter to a friend. “Cancer Ward” was a novel that took place in a cancer ward, treated and recovered just like Solzhenitsyn (who died in 2008). “In the First Circle” a novel about life in a Stalin prison camp. Only people in camp are scientists who have knowledge like Solzhenitsyn (who was a mathematician and physicist). Also wrote a somewhat fictionalized documentary that was well researched “Gulag Archipelego” traces the whole history of Soviet repressive system proved with statistics and personal accounts that it didn’t start with Stalin, began with Lenin during the Russian civil war, repressive system started as early as 1918 (Lenin died in 1924). Grew geometrically under Stalin, even beyond death in 1950’s. Came to an end under Gorbachev. 

Even if a particular Russian writer didn’t go to Siberia it still had an impact on their writing (like with Pushkin). For example, Tolstoy wrote about a woman who had to walk to Siberia to exile. Tolstoy never lived in Siberia but used it as a plot element 

Vladimir Korolenko was born in Ukraine and arrested in early 1880s/late 1870s, and exiled in Yakutsk. Shaped the character of his writing. He lived until 1922. Korolenko wrote a lot about Siberia, and his other writings were shaped by his experience of suffering and brutality. But he never lost his positive attitude towards human life. He became the founder of the modern Siberian Russian literature. Many people wrote the way he did about Siberia—the ruggedness of the land, but contrasted to the healthy, upbeat, forward looking attitude that Siberians have. 

Another category, a small subset of Russian writers for whom experience of Siberia was important--Russian writer/travelers to Siberia (voluntary) 

Most prominent— Ivan Goncharov 1850’s. Voluntary trip around Siberia by ship, took almost a year. The Frigate Pallada (the name of the ship he was on, sank in Siberia) 

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) The Island of Sakhalin (1890) 

Most famous of these works, described voluntary trip across Siberia, train to the end (no trans-Siberian) took sleighs, carrages, all the way to island of Sakhalin. Was a medical doctor, interviewed all the people there, both as a scientist and a writer. Not fiction, more of a scientific treatise but the writing was excellent. Published in Moscow. Letters were published, several of best short stories were based (considered greatest short-story and playwright in Russian language). Chekhov was appalled by conditions, by cruelty of administration, medical care was inadequate, climatic conditions were severe, Devil’s Island (France), Botany Bay (England) of the Russian Empire. He suffered through western Siberia (was coming down with syphilis) when he got to Yenisey he started feeling better and describes the landscapes more sympathetically. 

This is a different kind of Siberian Russian literature, written as travel log. Both describe travels and landscapes. Chekhov 1860-1904 voluntarily chose to make a long trip to Siberia in 1890s. It took months to go across Siberia to the island of Sakhalin. The hard labor camps for Russian exiles was on Sakhalin, this is where they sent the worst offenders and he went there to study them. Chekhov was both a writer and a medical doctor. He interviewed all officials and inmates, recorded vital information for each of them. Wrote the book the Island of Sakhalin, which changed public attitude and eventually the Russian government which shortly after closed the prison. Chekhov was the most important writer who went there voluntarily. The journey had a profound influence on his writing; the stories he wrote afterwards were very different and some of his most important. Gained a deep understanding of human suffering.    

1860’s-1880’s Siberian regionalism movement. Siberian regionalists from 19th century got their education in St. Petersburg then returned to Siberia and pursued the idea that Siberia had been treated very badly by the center, spoke about Siberia being a colony of Russia, not treated as an actual equal part. Siberia as a colony written by most important of the regionalists who wrote about the plight of indigenous peoples over the centuries, but also about economics, politics, etc. “Siberia as a colony.” The idea of talking about it as a colony in a negative aspect, regionalists accused center as taking natural resources and treat its native peoples badly, and look down on Russians who live in Siberia. Accused center as not giving anything in return. This was radical idea from point of view of Russian elites. Made a distinction that going beyond Urals was “going to Russia” or “going to Siberia”. Siberia as a colony was well supported statistically. Were regarded as separatists, this was reason for arrest, probably not executed but were arrested. This is still an issue today, and will be discussed by Dr. Herron (contemporary regionalist movements, especially during 1990’s during break up of the Soviet Union). Siberia, at least in the abstract, is regarded as a homeland by people who live there, even if they consider themselves Russian. Big homeland=Russia, little homeland=place where they are from. Identifying as Siberian goes back to beginning of Russian presence in Siberia, with the exception of being imprisoned there, living in Siberia tends to get into your blood. 

Sent to Siberia as form of punishment— 

Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov 1907-1982 was born in a Russian town in European Russia called Volgoda (ancient Russian provincial town near Moscow). Shalamov was not Slavic, his ancestors were Finno-Ugrians (Hungarian-Finnish language family- Mansi and Khantsy indigenous peoples) living near Urals are in this group, he was Komi (Zyrian). Shalamov’s ancestors were Russian and Zyrian. His ancestors were shamanists. He wrote autobiographically. His father was a Russian orthodox priest. His mother was from a merchant family. So clergy (one of most privileged classes, but not wealthy) on one side and merchant on other. Varlam sharlamov was youngest of 5 children. As approached WWI, revolution, town was somewhat out of the way so survived. He went to public schools, then Moscow university law school. 1924 Moscow was the capital of Soviet Union (moved from st. pete in 1918, one of first things Lenin did). Why did it move—Lenin did it for strategic reasons, st. pete at western edge of empire, USSR was a weak country initially defending itself against Poland, Japan, U.S., occupied parts of periphery, moved to Moscow because more centrally located for strategic purposes but also symbolically. St. Petersburg was the place where the revolution began, Lenin went to college there, workers movement arose, but moving to Moscow showed break with tsars (although original capitol under earlier tsars). Continuous revolution would overthrow burgeois governments around world, faster in more industrially advanced companies, idea of world revolution ground to a halt, began to pull inward. Stalin said build socialism in one country, gave up notion of overtly fomenting revolutions around world. After WWII China, Soviet block, etc. 

After Lenin’s death, Stalin establishing power, eliminating rivals (like Trotsky, Bukharian, the 5 who made the revolution). Show trials, had executed. Trotsky was primary believer in world revolution, when he was eliminated symbolized turn inward to single country goal. At this time Shalamov was 17 years old in law school in Moscow, widely read, believed in communism, belonged to a number of discussion groups. Greater equality, utopian views. Also a free thinker. Didn’t automatically accept propaganda, questioned and discussed ideas. While at law school he discovered that when Lenin lay dying in 1924 (sick during last 2-3 years of life, was not in charge, just pretended) but he had warned some of his chief lieutenants about Stalin (Lenin died of prolonged effects of gun shot wounds also had syphilus). Started warning people about Stalin—of all the people who had made the revolution, the one he trusted least was Stalin. Narrow minded, cruel, interested in accumulating power, not listening to others. Stalin became paranoid, Lenin suspected something like that could happen. Warned them against allowing Stalin to be sole power holder, advocated more of shared power. Left a letter—the “last well and testament of Lenin” which wasn’t publicized. Shalamov and his friends got a hold of a copy, early when Stalin had not yet consolidated power, Shalamov assumed needed to stop Stalin before his power became too great. Saw that gradually regime becoming more repressive, even though 1920’s still relatively free compared to what happened later (new economic policy, some private publishing houses). Shalamov was bright enough at a young age to see that things were happening, then found document and began to circulate as leaflets in university (had access to printing press, having private access to printing press from very beginning was a potential source of punishment). Printed copies and distributed them. One of their group reported them they were arrested. Shalamov sent off in 1929 to northern Ural Mountains, Komi. That was his first arrest. He was released, returned in 1931. Went back to college. 1937 was the peak of the purges when the most people were arrested by secret police; midnight arrests, he was taken off in the night, interrogated, some were executed, some sent for hard labor or punishment to camps in Siberia. Even though system of gulag punishment began earlier, there was a sharp rise in number of arrests and severity rose sharply in 1935. 

In 1934 Kirov was assassinated in Leningrad, was head of security in oblast and member of Politboro. This was a trigger for the Terror. By 1934 Stalin expected his will to become fact, negotiations were in secret, announcements were made after the fact and generally “unanimous”. Occasionally votes were taken and somebody could oppose. Kirov proposed a different policy and opposed a vote on a policy of Stalin’s, Kirov’s notion got more votes than Stalin, Kirov was charismatic and popular amongst bureacrats. Stalin recognized him as a potential rival and probably arranged his assignation in December 1934 in Smolny. Funeral in Leningrad, Stalin made his only trip to Leningrad (he hated the city because it was associated with Lenin, saw as place with opposition popping up). Purge of Leningrad party association, Stalin installed a flunky who repressed writers, artists, academics. Sharp spike in arrests all over the USSR. Hundreds of thousands of people arrested, this was the period of the Stalin Terror. 

Shalamov arrested ostensibly (not true) belonged to a Trotskyite anti-Soviet plot, claimed plotting overthrow of the Soviet Union. Spent about 5 years in prison. 1942, WWII broke out, released for a short time then arrested in 1943, spent 10 years in Kolyma. Released in 1953 after Stalin’s death, limited amnesty. Arrest in 1943 supposedly because remarked that Ivan Bunin (first Nobel prize winning writer from Russia) was one of greatest Russian writers of all time (Bunin was blacklisted). Lived in France. Krushev came into power, secret speech of 1956, during the years 1954-56 Shalamov lived in Kalinin (now Tver) on upper reaches of Volga river. Did construction work. Did not go back to prison, at this point was in his 40’s. he wrote stories and poems at this time, occasionally poems were published in abbreviated form. Autobiographical writings. 1956 moved to Moscow, the year of protests (many writers suddenly got published during one of the thaws). Until 1982, long period. Solzhenitsyn also lived in Moscow at this time, 1974 kicked out. Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov corresponded, and exchanged a handful of letters in which each of them discussed their different kind of prison experiences. Solzhenitsyn had experience in prison/scientific institute, sent to work in technical fields. Better food, more comfortable dorms (heated, beds). Shalamov spent more than 20 years in the worst possible conditions, wrote stories that were eventually published, but did not live to see his works in print. “Kolyma Tales” Shalamov died just before his works were published in Russian by an émigré publishing house in France. Work about people under the greatest amount of stress imaginable, and either break or survive. Solzhenitsyn acknowledged that Shalamov experience was far more stressful and punishing experience, but they disagreed how you survive, Solzhenitsyn was a communist, and had thought about being KGB, became an army officer, became a Russian orthodox Christian under stress. He argued that the character who survives best is religious, god will take care of him. Solzhenitsyn converted to Christianity. Shalamov said that there is nothing worse than this kind of gulag experiences, no good, nor redeeming experiences, and even though his father was a priest, he said his soul died in camps. Whatever it was that allowed him to survive it had to be something else beside religious faith. 

How did they survive? It was complex, each had different reasons, much of it was pure luck. Different for each individual case, not just faith, courage, or whatever—not same answer for all. This is a difficult question which these writers have grappled with.