The Empire’s iron road : the October 2016 Slavonic item of the month

This post examines one of the exhibits in the online Crime and Punishment at 150′ exhibition, a 19th-century map of the railway lines in Asian Russia.  Location plays a major part in the novel and was a major focus of the exhibition in turn.  Crime and Punishment is set chiefly in St Petersburg and is full of local detail about the imperial capital.   The Siberian setting of the epilogue is anonymised, in obvious contrast.  This vast map gives a good idea both of the scale of the Asiatic part of the Russian Empire but also of the work involved in laying down in iron the Romanovs’ reach to the East.

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The map was produced in 1899 by the Ministry of Railways (the formal term for railways here, and in the name of the map, is “lines of communication”).  The online image cannot quite convey the extraordinary size of the map.  As its record on iDiscover shows, it is a vast 180 cm wide and 80 cm high.  Our copy is cut into sections to allow the whole to be folded up; one of the internal seams can be seen towards the right in the close-up above.  Dostoevsky served his own sentence in Omsk (shown centre-right here), and this is the location often imagined by readers of Crime and Punishment as Raskolnikov’s place of imprisonment.

As explained in a previous blog post on the exhibition, the captions were written largely by University of British Columbia undergraduates taking a Dostoevsky course.  The caption for this item was written by Olivia Chorny.  “As a convict (for his membership in the Petrashevsky Circle) in Siberia,” she wrote, “Dostoevsky suffered myriad health problems, frostbite, abuse from other prisoners, unimaginable filth, and starvation … Yet his Siberian experience also helped Dostoevsky develop his personal philosophy and ideas about inequality, the nature of freedom, and the importance of hope.”

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The Dostoevsky statue in Omsk (photo: author’s own)

The prison system in Imperial Russia was harsh.  As Olivia spelled out in her caption, even the process of reaching one’s prison was appalling.  “To reach Omsk … Dostoevsky had to travel more than 2,000 miles from St Petersburg. The Trans-Siberian railway … would not be completed until 1916. Until this time, common prisoners would frequently be moved to Siberia by foot – an awful journey, in heavy leg fetters, that could last a year. Political prisoners, however, were often exempt from this march, and Dostoevsky was transported in an open sledge (even this he described as ‘almost unendurable’ in a letter to his brother).”  Dostoevsky’s years in Omsk are marked in the city by a museum about the author and his imprisonment and a statue.

The week before last, I had the great pleasure of taking part in the Crime and Punishment at 150′ conference that was the culmination of the wider programme of events of which the UL’s exhibition was one.  It was wonderful to spend two days listening to academics from all manner of disciplines talk about Dostoevsky and the impact of his most famous novel.  The papers showed that, 150 years on, scope for researching the novel remains huge.  It was particularly enjoyable to hear three UBC students who had taken part in the UL exhibition give papers inspired by their exhibition work.

It is definitely worth visiting the exhibit’s page to zoom in to enjoy the extraordinary detail it includes.  The main section covers the southern part of Asian Russia, but an inset map in the central lower section of the whole gives a view of the entire part, labelled here as Siberia.  Both maps demonstrate very clearly the difficulties the vast landmass and its physical conditions caused for the Ministry of Railways.  Railroad construction is confined very much to the southern edge, with a vast section towards the eastern end still to be constructed; access to Vladivostok by train was achievable at that point only through Chinese territory.

The map was sadly far too big to be considered for the smaller physical exhibition currently in the Library’s entrance hall.  This runs until the 5th of November.

Mel Bach

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