In the fiercely contested lockdown reading lists that have been circulating on social media in recent weeks, “War and Peace” has emerged as a clear winner. Full of ballrooms, battlefields and passion, Tolstoy’s masterpiece is, however, short on advice about how to survive confinement with your wits intact. For that you must turn to another staple of Russian letters: the prison memoir. The penchant of both Tsarist and Soviet authorities for putting intellectuals behind bars created an unusually rich vein of isolation literature.
In his “Memoirs of a Revolutionist”, published in 1899, the anarcho-communist philosopher and scientist Pyotr Kropotkin details his two years of solitary confinement in a fortress in St Petersburg. He had been arrested for involvement in a secret group, the Chaikovsky Circle, that disseminated populist socialist propaganda to peasants and workers. Upon arriving at the fortress in 1874, he was required to change into “a green flannel dressing-gown, immense woolen stockings of an incredible thickness, and boat-shaped yellow slippers”. He did not find this comfy. “I always hated dressing-gowns and slippers,” he wrote. Kropotkin lived to work, and he would have scoffed at the idea that baking the odd sourdough loaf was a productive way to spend enforced solitude.
“The main thing,” he told himself, “is to preserve my physical vigor…Let me imagine myself compelled to spend a couple of years in a hut in the far north, during an Arctic expedition.” As an experienced geologist, this was not hard for Kropotkin to envisage. He resolved to walk five miles in his cell every day, and to perform “gymnastic feats” with his wooden stool. Without paper, pen or ink, he began to compose “a series of novels for popular reading, taken from Russian history”. He tried to memorise his unwritten novels from beginning to end, but this proved tiring.
Fortunately, he was soon given permission for writing supplies, and to complete his book on the glacial period for the Russian Geographical Society. “I could hardly express now the immensity of relief I then felt at being enabled to resume writing,” he wrote. “I would have consented to live on nothing but bread and water, in the dampest of cellars, if only permitted to work.” He pitied fellow prisoners who had only slates. Of course they used these to do exercises in foreign languages or mathematics, but they were deprived of the opportunity to produce more substantial work. Kropotkin completed two large scientific volumes. In the evening, after his pen and ink had been taken away, he read Russian history and “a great number of novels”. (No doubt the story would be different if Kropotkin had been imprisoned with a child under six.)
Despite his rich intellectual life, he hungered for communication. For the first 15 months, when he knocked on the walls he received no reply, and his only friends were the pigeons he fed through the grating in his window. But eventually a new prisoner was placed in the neighbouring cell. Kropotkin soon mastered a system in which the number of knocks corresponded to a letter’s position in the alphabet, making it possible to spell out words and sentences. Eventually he told a young neighbour the history of the Paris Commune from beginning to end. It took a full week of tapping.
When Kropotkin’s health declined in 1876 (the study of glaciers can cure boredom but not scurvy), he was transferred to a poorly guarded prison hospital. His revolutionary comrades soon helped him escape, when he was on his daily walk in the garden. A violinist played a “wildly exciting mazurka” that signalled for Kropotkin to run to a waiting carriage that would bring him to safety. He flung off the hated dressing gown as he ran; his loungewear days were over. His first stop was the barbers, where he shaved off his beard. Then he and a friend went to feast at one of the best restaurants in St Petersburg; no one would look for them there.
In 1884, the revolutionary socialist Vera Figner, a leading member of the People’s Will movement, was imprisoned in another fortress in St Petersburg. Government repression of non-violent groups like the Chaikovsky Circle had only helped to radicalise Russian revolutionaries; People’s Will believed in “propaganda of the deed”, which included political assassinations. In March 1881, its members threw a bomb at Tsar Alexander II’s bulletproof carriage as he travelled to the Mikhailovsky Manege, in St Petersburg, for a military roll call, and then another when he stepped out of the damaged vehicle. The second bomb was fatal.
For her role in plotting the assassination, Figner received a death sentence that was soon commuted to life in prison. Like Kropotkin, and like many people confined to their apartments in newly silent cities today, she was disturbed by the “stillness which little by little overpowers you, envelops you, penetrates into all the pores of your body, into your reason, your very soul”. Without any events to mark the passage of time, she wrote in her celebrated work “Memoirs of a Revolutionist” in 1922 that “the real becomes vague and unreal, and the imaginary seems real. Everything is tangled up, confused. The long grey day, wearying in its idleness, resembles a sleep without dreams; and at night you have such bright and glowing dreams that you have continually to assure yourself that they are only the fruit of your imagination.” Figner eventually began communicating with her fellow prisoners by tapping, using the same code as Kropotkin. Because there was no literature in the prison library, the prisoners began composing poems – “acrostics and sonnets, odes and lyrics” – and tapping them out to each other.
As the years wore on, restrictions at the prison were loosened. Those experiencing unusually tender feelings for their houseplants in these days of self-isolation may identify with Figner’s lavish descriptions of her delight in gardening, even in a tiny walled-off plot that received almost no sunlight. She relished the feeling of the earth, “black, crumbly and cool” on her fingers, and was overjoyed when seeds grew into plants. “When the young plants began to come up, their little green shoots pushing through the ground everywhere, they gave us untold satisfaction; and when in summer the flowers bloomed…we went into childlike rapture. We longed for the grass, for the fields and meadows, and a tuft of green called forth an utterly unexpected wave of emotions from our starved spirits.”
After Yevgenia Ginzburg, a teacher and journalist, was arrested in 1937 (like most people arrested in Stalin’s purges, she had committed no crime), she was held in solitary confinement for long periods. As she writes in her memoir “Journey into the Whirlwind”, this gave her the chance “to observe the virtuosity that human memory can develop when it is sharpened by loneliness and complete isolation from outside impressions. One remembers with amazing accuracy everything one has ever read, even quite long ago, and can repeat whole pages of books one had believed long forgotten.” (You will not develop this virtuosity, needless to say, if you scroll through social media all day.)
As Ginzburg struggled to understand the messages being tapped on her wall by her neighbour in the next cell, Figner came to her rescue. Suddenly Ginzburg recalled the page of Figner’s memoir which explained the tapping code - the number of knocks corresponded to a letter in the alphabet. Ginzburg could now converse with her neighbour. Literature came to her aid throughout her harrowing journey, which eventually took her to Kolyma, one of the most notorious Gulag sites, after stays at prisons in Moscow and Yaroslavl. When the Yaroslavl prison library was closed, Ginzburg kept herself sane by giving herself lectures on Pushkin, then reciting all she could remember of his poetry. One of the first long poems to re-emerge in her mind was “The Little House in Kolomna”. Pushkin wrote it in 1830, when a cholera epidemic kept him confined alone in the countryside – one of his greatest periods of literary productivity.
When the prison library reopened, Ginzburg found that it was a surprisingly good one – better, in fact, than the purged libraries in the outside world. “Tolstoy and Blok, Stendhal and Balzac. How stupid I had been to have thoughts of death!” She started with Tolstoy’s “Resurrection”. Though she had always been “a passionate and indefatigable bookworm”, she found that now she could read with a new depth. “Sitting in a cell,” Ginzburg wrote, “one no longer has any call to pursue the phantom of worldly success, to play the diplomat or the hypocrite, to compromise with one’s conscience. One can immerse oneself in the lofty problems of existence, and do so with a mind purified by suffering.”
There were no books available on her journey to Siberia in a freight car labelled “Special Equipment” to conceal its human cargo. At the beginning of the month-long train trip, all of the 76 women in Ginzburg’s car were reciting poetry. Many had been in solitary confinement for years, and, as Ginzburg writes, “every one of us was rejoicing in the sound of her own voice”. With her exceptional memory, Ginzburg was the best reciter of all. She was rewarded for her efforts with precious sips from other people’s water rations.
Carried away by her own performance of a 19th-century poem about the brave wives of exiled revolutionaries, she forgot to be silent when the train stopped. A guard burst in, demanding that she give up the book he assumed she’d smuggled past him; he couldn’t imagine that a person could remember that much poetry. The guard demanded that Ginzburg prove her innocence by reciting for half an hour straight. She chose Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”, a politically neutral poem. As he listened to Ginzburg declaim Russia’s greatest novel in verse, the guard’s threatening expression “gave way by degrees to astonishment, almost friendly curiosity, and finally ill-concealed delight”. After the mandated half hour had passed, he demanded that she continue. Even the guards liked Pushkin. “The train had started again,” Ginzburg recalled, “and the wheels kept time to Pushkin’s meter.”