Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Community as a Form of Resistance in Notes from a Dead House and Assata: An Autobiography

Notes From a Dead House and Assata: An Autobiography tell the story of political imprisonment. Though the protagonists differ in race, class, gender, location, and time period, Dostoevsky and Shakur foreground the role of community in resisting the dehumanizing nature of incarceration. The goal of these texts is to communicate the experience of incarceration to the reader. Despite their radically different experiences and narrative choices, both protagonists form bonds with their fellow prisoners in order to survive their incarceration and reclaim their humanity.

Assata Shakur and Fyodor Dostoevsky existed in a historical moment of extreme state repression where it was possible to be seized from your community at any moment and taken into the hands of the state. Assata Shakur was a member of the Black Liberation Army (BLA) which operated as an underground militant revolutionary organization in the U.S. throughout the 1970s. Shakur was arrested in 1973 and later sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a state trooper. She escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in 1979 and gained asylum in Cuba where she remains to this day. Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849 for his participation in a utopian socialist reading group that read books that were banned for their criticism of Tsarist Russia. He was sentenced to four years of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp directly followed by 6 years of forced military labor in exile. Notes from A Dead House was published in 1861 featuring the protagonist Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov (a man sentenced to ten years of forced labor in Siberia for the murder of his wife) who functions as a stand in for Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky was not able to publish an autobiography of his experience in hard labor due to political repression.

The conditions of each prison are described by the authors as dehumanizing: “There was no natural light, and the jailers refused to open the small windows located near the ceiling. The average temperature was 95 degrees. It was infested with ants and centipedes” (Shakur 66). The beginnings of each text are characterized by the themes of alienation and loneliness. Shakur and Goryanchikov have just been ripped from their communities and placed in a traumatizing space they have yet to learn how to navigate. Goryanchikov upon arrival feels deep isolation, depression and grief; he is a nobleman and the majority of the prison population are serfs. This class difference causes immediate mistrust and alienation from his fellow convicts. While this causes him pain throughout the novel, he initially believes that his fellow convicts are bad people he has no desire to connect with, stating “Later on, I came to realize that there was yet another torment in addition to confinement and compulsory labour, perhaps the sharpest of all. It was forced co-existence. To some degree, coexistence is forced upon us” (Dostoevsky 31). This attitude, his class status, and the labor conditions of the prison keep him from being able to form a community.

This is in direct contrast to Shakur’s initial experience of incarceration. Upon arrival at the prison, she is kept in a single cell and not allowed to leave. She had been tortured before being placed in prison, and is immediately comforted by hearing the voices of other black women with whom she feels safe: “Behind the guard, through the open door, I could see some of the women standing around. They were all, it seemed, Black. They smiled and waved at me. It was so good to see them, it was like a piece of home” (Shakur 46). Shakur is a black woman from a working-class background, as are almost all the other women in the prison. She describes her fellow convicts with love and sees them as her community, but is unable to interact with them because the prison sees her ability to organize community as a threat to the system.

Despite Goryanchikov’s challenges to having a community, he begins to form deep connections with his fellow convicts. At some point in the beginning of his term (Notes from A Dead House is not written linearly so it is difficult to tell when this begins to happen), Goryanchikov starts to consider whether his initial judgements of his fellow convicts are wrong: “‘These people, perhaps, are no worse than others whom I had left behind.’ But I shook my head doubtfully as I thought this. And yet, how right I was!” (Dostoevsky 82). One of the people he regards to be a good person is Sushilov, who desires to serve Goryanchikov in exchange for money. Though Goryanchikov is initially frustrated by this, when he later yells at Sushilov, he expresses deep regret and guilt. As he learns to trust the other prisoners and some begin to trust him, he starts to feel a sense of community in the prison which lightens his depression. He forms many relationships in which they mutually care for each other. In the appendix, Dostoevsky writes of a spiritual awakening he had during his sentence. He thinks of an interaction he had with his family's servant as a child in which the servant defied all his pre-existing expectations of who Dostoevsky thought he was, and treated him with unconditional love and patience. This causes him to reconsider his perception of the other prisoners because he realizes they all may be capable of treating him the way this servant did that day. Though this was Dostoevsky’s experience, this transformation can be seen in his character as well. When Goryanchikov forms connections, it is because of his newfound ability to see the complexity in his fellow prisoners and look past his judgments.

Shakur works to be with other prisoners at any cost, often physically fighting to achieve this. Throughout her years of incarceration, she is repeatedly moved from prison to prison and often kept in solitary confinement. While Goryanchikov is mostly fighting with himself, Shakur is constantly fighting with the system. When she is being kept in solitary, she begins to push past the guards in the doorway when they would deliver her food and walk into the common area to be with the other women. She did this everyday, and she bonded with a woman named Eva: “Eva and I got on famously...She taught me a lot about prison, and she was forever telling some funny story about her life” (Shakur 60). After a while, the guards attempt to physically remove her from the communal area and bring her back to her cell. When the guards ask which prisoner is JoAnne Chesimard (Shakur’s government name), Eva claims that she is Assata, and the other women follow suit. This ends in Shakur and her community militantly resisting the guards taking her back to her cell. In every prison Shakur is in, she approaches the other black women with love, kindness, and solidarity, and manages to form a community.

The prison described by Goryanchikov is a space in which connections are hard to form. The hard labor and the living conditions crush the human spirit: “There was no end to gossip and backbiting: our lives were a perpetual damnation” (Dostoevsky 20). Goryanchikov argues that “prison and hard labour do not reform the criminal, of course, but only serve to punish him and to safeguard society” (23). Despite this, the prisoners manage to build their own society inside the prison that replicates the outside world. Goryanchikov states, “No matter how humbled he may be, he instinctively demands respect for human dignity. The convict very well knows that he is a convict and an outcast, but no brands or fetters can make him forget that he is a man and that he must be treated as a human being therefore” (129). In this framework, Dostoevsky is arguing that building community within the prison system is a battle to regain humanity, and therefore a direct act of resistance to the system.

This understanding of incarceration is the backbone of what Shakur communicates through her Autobiography. Shakur understands the prison system to be a replacement for slavery (therefore at its core, the prison industrial complex exists to dehumanize black people) and dedicated her life to the liberation of black people. While in prison, she released a statement to the public titled "To My People." In this statement Shakur writes, “We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains!” (Shakur 52). This is the revolutionary ideology underpinning her Autobiography. In every prison she occupies, she fights by any means necessary to connect to her people, thus regaining her humanity which exists as the antithesis to the state’s power.

These texts threaten the power structures that exist to erase Shakur and Goryanchikov by demonstrating the value of forming bonds with other prisoners. Telling their stories directly counteracts the goal of their incarceration by communicating what goes on inside these institutions to the outside world, revealing to their readers the stories and the people who have been hidden.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Notes from a Dead House. Trans. Richard and Larissa Volokhonsky. Vintage, 2016.
Shakur, Assata. Assata: An Autobiography. Zed Books, 2001. 

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