Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Three Aspects of Personhood as Defined by Dostoevsky, Kharms, and Leskov

The study of personhood in Russian prison literature is an examination of humans stripped of worldly context. Where they lived, whom they loved, what they wore, and how much money they made become peripheral among hundreds of people muddled together into the same mundane space. There are confines inhibiting individuality outside of prison as well, but nowhere is it clearer than within these concrete walls. Prison, which withholds manmade signs of individuality and holds the bodies that remain, compromises and challenges our preconceptions of the self. Within these walls, what is left?

Character exposition in Russian prison literature, fictional or not, suggests the fundamental composition of a person. Authors create characters stripped of their worldly domain who, through their struggle for individuality, teach us of this essence. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Leskov, and Daniil Kharms create their own unique narratives of imprisonment (to varying degrees of allegory) that shed light on principal aspects of personhood. Through character exposition and struggles for individuality, Notes from a Dead House, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” and “Blue Notebook No. 10” suggest three main elements of personhood that remain essential, even when incarceration steals everything else. These elements are body, autonomy, and essence.

This first element, the body, is the initial aspect of personhood. It is our first impression of others, the element subject to our immediate judgement. It is the element Kharms first utilizes in “Blue Notebook No. 10” with the opening statement, “There lived a redheaded man” (Kharms 117). Although he challenges the physical element later in the text, here, he bows down to its importance for the reader’s visual comprehension of the redheaded man. Once Kharms strips away all elements of the man’s body, once the man loses his physical signifiers, Kharms claims that whom we’re talking about becomes unclear. Looking at this piece through the lens of incarceration, the red-headed man symbolizes a disembodied victim of 1937 Soviet Russia’s prison system. This erasure is a reality for many prisoners. When the state locks them away between four concrete walls away from the outside world, their lives are no longer relevant to liberated storytellers like that of “Blue Notebook No. 10.” The prisoners are simply people who once lived. They become hypotheticals in the absence of physicality.

We can also discern the importance of the body in “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” with the narrator’s depiction of the protagonist, Katerina Lvovna. While she is not a literal prisoner until the end, men find ways to control her body from the story’s beginning. Before we learn anything of her character, tendencies, or emotions, we learn that she “was not exactly a beauty, but there was something pleasing about her nevertheless” (Leskov 3). Leskov’s narrator, whose physical judgement seems to come from a uniquely male gaze, begins by spoon-feeding us a vivid description of her stoic, cold appearance, and we therefore interpret her body before her mind. Her husband and father-in-law judge and repress her physicality as well when “they […] watch how she [sits] down, how she [walks], how she [stands]” (4). In this state of suppression Katerina’s body is dormant, but when she becomes involved with Sergei, one of her father-in-law’s stewards, her body reawakens. It is a glowing, lithe, “supine form” (19), much livelier than the initial “neck that could have been sculpted from marble” (3). Her body twines like a snake; it is graceful and supple; it appears bare despite the bunching layers of fabric. It is Sergei’s desire that resurrects Katerina’s body; he is the one to shape her newfound agency. With the line “I’m master of the whole of your white body!” his ownership becomes clear (18). From the narrator to her husband to Sergei to the prison system, men own her and imprison body. It is essential to her individuality, as her lively form with Sergei suggests, but her physical freedom only lasts so long when men control it.

The materialization of form, primary in both of these stories, allows the reader to visualize and associate with these imprisoned characters. The body is, after all, a new prisoner’s initial comfort, the one remaining tangible good from the outside world. Goryanchikov, the narrator living out Dostoevsky’s prison experiences in Notes from a Dead House, describes a man’s “hide” as “his last capital,” what remains when he has no other belongings (Dostoevsky 42). He often introduces his comrades with evocative descriptions of their appearances, prompting the reader to visualize them before digesting their character. The narrator skillfully intertwines physique with character, aligning the two to match first impressions to actions. There is Gazin, the “terrible creature” who is “terribly strong, of above average height, of Herculean build, with an ugly, disproportionately huge head; he walked with a stoop and wore a perpetual scowl” (46-47), and there is Alei, whose “beautiful, open, intelligent, and at the same time good-naturedly naïve face won my heart at first sight” (60). His enforcing the connection between mannerisms and appearance magnifies the relevance of physical form. 

Autonomy, or a person’s capacity to make independent decisions, is a second essential piece of self as suggested by these authors. It is something towards which humans naturally strive, even from within strict confines. When all other aspects of prisoners’ lives are in the state’s hands, financial freedom is one of the only ways a prisoner can express individuality. In Notes from a Dead House, Goryanchikov explains the importance of financial freedom when no other freedom is available, saying, “The whole meaning of the word “prisoner” is a man with no will; but in wasting money, he is acting by his own will” (79). He suggests that it is an essential part of personhood and that without any monetary freedom, the prisoners “would either have gone crazy, or dropped dead like flies...or, finally, gotten themselves into unheard-of villainies, some from anguish, others the sooner to be somehow executed and annihilated, or to somehow ‘change their fate’” (78). Without a morsel of financial freedom, the prisoners’ labor would be useless and maddening. The prisoners work for and dream of money, the end goal being, for those like Akim Akimych, a new suit (132), or for many others like Gazin, enough vodka to properly celebrate several months’ worth of work in one day (37). Prisoners make and spend primarily as an escape from the daily tedium. Indulgences are by nature enjoyable in any context, but in a monotonous prison, they are lifelines that also reproduce small pieces of free life. Autonomy, specifically monetary autonomy when the state strips a prisoner of all other forms of “will,” is essential to personhood and to purpose. What good would distinctive faces and distinctive souls be if people had no ability to act with them? 

Katerina of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” displays a similar drive towards autonomy. Though she has reached monetary freedom (or whatever disfigured form of it was available to women of the time), she finds a different type of prison in womanhood. We learn of not only her boredom, but also the many levels of confinement keeping her from the outside world: “First, there was the boredom of life in a barred and bolted merchant’s house with a high fence and unchained watch dogs running about the yard, an unrelieved boredom that more than once reduced the young woman to a state of depression bordering on stupor” (4). Her life as a merchant’s wife restricts her to barren simplicities, and because of this boredom, she aches for an exciting break from a routine that is not so different from a prisoner’s. Sergei provides this excitement with his empty promises of love, and Katerina, so desperate for change, stops at nothing to achieve autonomy. 

As we see from Goryanchikov’s comrades and Katerina, confinement’s threat to autonomy makes it all the more significant. Dostoevsky suggests that without this freedom prisoners would go insane or die, and Leskov tells the story of two people that go to such lengths for freedom that they end up in chains. When confinement denies its inhabitants of even the slightest freedoms, it limits the mind as much, if not more, than the body.

But body and autonomy cannot compose a person without a person’s essence, a piece that is far more difficult to grasp. Kharms, in fact, presents this aspect by stripping away the body and leaving the reader to determine what remains. The simple fact that “There lived a redheaded man” yet there is no body, nothing physically tangible about this man, implies that something else comprises the “him” we still refer to at the end of the story (Kharms 45). With no body, at least in the eyes of the liberated world, he has no power, no legacy, and little agency, much like the prisoners in Dostoevsky or Leskov’s stories. Here is a man that has been stripped of the primary aspect of personhood. What is left?

Perhaps it is this third aspect of personhood. It slips so easily from our grasp that we don’t know quite what it is, we only know that it is there. Consciousness, we could call it, or the secular soul, or essence. (These terms are of course not interchangeable; it is difficult to define something that takes such obscure forms.) There is a man. He has no body, no autonomy without a vessel to do his bidding, yet he still exists. There is something here that we cannot confine within a body or a prison. Life experiences, idiosyncrasies, and a state of consciousness conglomerate into this transcendent existence the redheaded man occupies. It is not something physical or quantitative, rather it is something about a person that remains with the prisoners even after that person is gone. It gives hope that someone’s essence can transcend physical confines, that their individuality will remain even after everything else is taken. 

This is the part of a person that the narrator in Notes from a Dead House tries so desperately to put into words when describing his fellow inmates. His attempt at defining Akim Akimych is a fluid combination of physicality and idiosyncrasy. He is “tall, lean, weak-witted, terribly illiterate, extremely pedantic, and punctilious as a German” (Dostoevsky 29). He attempts to grasp and share this unique character through stories of his meticulous and fruitless attempts at control. In “Appendix: The Peasant Marey,” however, Dostoevsky realizes the futility of his and Goryanchikov’s attempts to typify prisoners based on their actions and reactions in such a public place. In remembering an intimate childhood encounter with the peasant Marey, he determines just how impossible it is to judge the character of his comrades in such a socially charged setting, for “I could not look into his heart” (Dostoevsky 304). One can only catch a glimpse of a person’s essence in those pure morsels of intimacy, devoid of premeditation or judgmental eyes.

Perhaps this essence is what remains, even when the redheaded man loses his head and Kulikov receives fifteen hundred lashes (Dostoevsky 292) and Katerina’s “eyes [see] only darkness” (Leskov 56). This consciousness, or what some might call the soul, stays an essential part of personhood even when the other parts are in chains. It connects someone to the outside world and provides intimate hope for individuality, even in a weak body with dwindling autonomy. Despite the cruel circumstances, the conscious essence remains intact, and there is hope for a prisoner in its perseverance.

Body, autonomy, and essence define and drive individuals in the works of Dostoevsky, Leskov, and Kharms. The body becomes the primary descriptor when a person is removed from their outer environment. Autonomy, specifically monetary autonomy, becomes all the more essential in the absence of all other forms of freedom. Essence acts as a beacon of hope for prisoners; it is the part that remains when the rest of the self is compromised, and it is the piece one leaves behind. Though there are other nuanced parts of personhood outside of what is outlined here, incarceration compromises these other parts of self and leaves the prisoner to adapt to the fundamental things that remain. These fundamentals are what Leskov shares with Sergei and Dostoevsky shares with Goryanchikov. They are what we as readers share with these characters and what give us the common ground necessary to empathize with humans in such a vastly different environment.


Dostoevsky, Fydor. Notes from a Dead House. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Vintage-Random House, 2016.

Leskov, Nikolai. “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: A Sketch.” Translated by Robert Chandler. Hesperus Press Limited, 2003.

Kharms, Daniil. “Blue Notebook #10.” Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. Edited and translated by Matvei Yankelevich, Overlook Duckworth, 2009.

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