Grigory Ryzhakov – Russian Writer

Literature, Prison and Russian mentality

 A theme of imprisonment is very popular in Russian literature.

It probably started with Pushkin, Lermontov and other poets of Russian Golden Age who often criticised Tzar, the autocratic Russian State and the lack of freedoms for serfs and other poor people.  For their liberal writing these poets were often sent into exile to remote parts of Russia.

In fact, I myself was born and grew up on Sakhalin Island (situated just north of Japan), which used to be a prison island until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

Anton Chekhov visited the island in 1890, stayed there for three months and wrote a book Ostrov Sakhalin about the island, in which he told us about horrific and degrading state of the people that had been living there.

Another writer and journalist Vlas Doroshevich also visited Sakhalin and documented the life of convicted criminals including the legendary female thief Sonya Golden Hand.

As we all know the fall of monarchy in Russia didn’t put an end to oppression of Russian people. After the devastating WWI and several years of Civil War and Red Terror there was a relatively peaceful period of New Economic Policy.

A map of the Gulag camps, which existed between 1923 and 1961, based on data from the Human Rights Society “Memorial”. Some of these camps only operated for a part of the Gulag’s existence. Source: Wikipedia

Russian produce reached the pre-WWI level and people were hopeful. But Stalin, who seized power after Lenin’s death, started a new era of oppression by ordering to organise a network of prison camps called GULAG. Millions of innocent Russian people, including notorious scientists, doctors, and artists were labelled as “enemies of the Soviet people” and sent to these camps along with regular criminals. The scale of the atrocities of GULAG was described in the epic narrative by Alexander Solzhenitsyn The GULAG Archipelago.

Another writer Sergei Dovlatov wrote an autobiographical story The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story telling about his experience as a guard in the Soviet prison.

No wonder that the prison theme was quite central to writers of the Soviet Period.

For centuries, Russian people have perceived central government (e.g. monarchs or the communist party) and its rule as an oppressive machine, with imprisonment being one of the most efficient tools to keep people “at bay”. Many Russians still honour rebellious poets of the Golden Age for their bravery.

I remember growing up in the time of transition when Russia abruptly switched from communism to wild-west capitalism. Several amnesties aided by a surge of unemployment led to the flourishing crime in the 90s. The streets were full of people just released from prisons, and, vice versa, a lot of people went to prison at that time.

Teenagers like me started hanging around with ex-convicts and picking up fast the prison slang and mentality. Adolescents often even formed gangs, which had the prison hierarchy, abusing the smaller kids of the gang or kids outside the gang. Some of the children victims were just 4 or 5 years old. Twenty years from then, they are grown up people now, but just imagine how much these awful experiences affected their mind-set, self-esteem and personal success. I was lucky, because I have an older brother whose authority protected me from trouble when I was a kid. I quickly grew bookish and stayed home most of the time, which also shielded me from the bad influence.

I often think about those years and what a catastrophe it was and how our generation and the next one have been/will be paying for it. And one of the biggest prices we pay now is that the prison life was transported to and glued to the mainstream culture. Some of the most popular TV series in Russia are about imprisonment. The most popular music genre is Russian chanson, which is often crime- and prison-themed music.

Though Russia has been an open country since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 many of its citizens still don’t consider themselves as free people. If you follow the recent political developments in Moscow, you know that the country is ruled by a bunch of ex-KGB men, a criminal corporation. The main activity of it is stealing the money generated from selling the natural resources, that’s why I call this system a cleptocracy. A few who stood on the way of Putin and his allies are now dead or in prison (Mr Khodorkovsky is an example).

However, last year the situation began to change. We are observing the formation of a new society in Russia, more assertive in terms of its rights. Last winter thousands of people in many cities of Russia protested against the fabricated results of Duma (Parliament) elections. However, despite this new wave, the majority of Russians still voted for Putin as a new president in the elections held earlier this year (according to both official figures and independent exit polls).

So why do people keep voting for the government they don’t trust? I think it’s possibly the prison psychology, which influences a significant part of the Russian population.

Some of the features of this psychology, in my opinion, are these:

  • fear and distrust of authority
  • respect for money and power (while the general rights of an individual are ignored)
  • perception of freedom as an unachievable ideal, a fairy tale
  • lack of belief in success of the civil society (as opposed to authoritarian rule)
  • acceptance of the prison hierarchy as suitable, normal state of the society

As long as this kind of psychology dominates in Russia, the country’s literature will keep exploring the relationship between prison and the human soul, prison and the state, prison and society, etc.

Andrei Rubanov is an ex-banker who became one of the most distinguished and prolific modern Russian authors. He’s most famous for the dystopian scifi novel Chlorophilia. However, he first came into a view of lit critics because of his masterful autobiographical novel Do Time Get Time about his criminal life and imprisonment. This, perhaps, is one of the ultimate and finest examples of a connection between prison and literature.

The jail theme is not unique to Russia. Think about The Count of Monte Cristo and The Shawshank Redemption, which are among the most beloved stories of all time. Why are they so captivating? Is it about a glory of the free human spirit? What do you think about it? And what is your favourite prison story and why?

P.S. the giveaway results:

The winners of the last two of weeks are Stephanie Dagg and Geir Halvorsen. Each of you has won a copy of Andrey Rubanov’s novel Do Time, Get Time. Congratulations!

P.S.S. Every e-mail subscriber to this blog will receive a free copy of my e-book called Usher Syndrome. To subscribe, just submit your e-mail address in the right upper corner of the post page (at the top of the sidebar).

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  • http://www.facebook.com/alastair.rosie Alastair Rosie

    I think prison stories work well in that they can become redemption stories, not always in a religious sense, but with some reference even subconscious to religious redemption. In a secular society it’s the classic tale of the underdog triumphing over a totalitarian society. Animal Farm and 1984 were both written by Orwell, after his stay in Russia in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution. In that sense these two are prison books in a wider sense because they make the whole world one big prison with the government playing the part of the guards. This dystopian them has been carried through many times over and seems to be playing out in real life in the West.
    In reference to Russia however, and just as a casual observer it appears they have had limited experience with actual democracy. There was a botched attempt by the Czar pre 1917 followed by decades of bolshevik tyranny, after the fall of Communism the country once again lurched into a half-hearted attempt, associating wealth, material possessions and power with freedom. It remains to be seen with the rise of Putin, set against popular protest movements how Russia will become an actual democracy. It has the semblance or facade of democracy but without the meat and bones.
    That’s my opinion anyway.

    • GrigoryRyzhakov

      thank you for sharing this, Alistair. I didn’t know about Orwell and his Russian experience. Interesting observations about a facade of democracy. In a way, there’s not much democracy in the West too, considering that uber-rich people control the direction of politics, legislation,etc. The mere fact that they’ve hidden over $20 10^9 of taxes offshore also outs a big question mark on the existence of true democracy. In any case, freedom should be inside of us 🙂

  • http://twitter.com/EbookEdit Ebook Editor

    Delighted to win the book, thank you. 
    Glad to hear you came through the gang culture unscathed. 
    France also seems to be a country where people vote for politicians they distrust. At present there’s a rumpus because the politicians have voted against a law which would make them reveal how they spend their €76,000 allowances (on top of their salaries). One guy is known to have claimed €12,000 for cuban cigars. That’s the same as what most people in our poor, rural part of France earn in a year. It’s disgraceful but no one seems to want to do anything about it. 

    • GrigoryRyzhakov

      If such things happen in the EU, what  is to be expected from Russia?
      Interestingly, Russia and France have very similar music and even mentality. Even Russian chanson descended from its French counterpart. Now you mention another similarity – proneness to corruption.