Dostoevsky: Notes from a Dead House

March 16, 2017

51sti7s1M7L._AC_US218_Thinly disguised autobiography (to get past the Russian censor) by Dostoevsky here, and another really good translation from the Pevear and Volokhonsky duo. I’ve read a number of accounts of being a prisoner and an exile in both Russia and the Soviet Union, so there was also a chance to do some comparing.

Nothing prepares you for the utter sadism which led Dostoevsky to prison and exile. One of a number involved with opposition to the Tsar, he was initially condemned to death; this I had known, and obviously that the sentence was commuted, but apparently the Tsar planned, down to the minutest details, the mock execution to which the writer and his associates were to be subjected, before being reprieved at the very last minute…

So the account is initially carefully framed and disguised, although the mask slips fairly rapidly. We meet a range of the prisoners and hear about their crimes and punishments (as a nobleman, Dostoevsky was spared the compulsory corporal punishment, beating with rods – up to 4000 strokes – before his hard labour). There is much about the prison regime and the food, too, and here there is such a difference from the twentieth century accounts of like in the gulags by such writers as Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov or Evgenia Ginsburg. Dostoevsky and his compeers had the right to buy a pound of beef a day from the market and have it cooked for them… there is so much food and (illegal) alcohol available, compared with the starvation rations in Stalin’s camps. The description of their Christmas festivities does not sound like prison at all.

Prison does mean deprivation of liberty, hard labour does mean being made to work at tasks you’d not freely choose, and exile does mean being made to live somewhere not of your choosing, and it’s clearly these aspects that have the greatest effect on the writer. He and his fellow noblemen prisoners, including the many Poles who are in prison because of their efforts to win their country’s freedom from the Tsarist yoke, are isolated from the vast bulk of ordinary Russian prisoners, with whom they can enjoy no bonds of comradeship. An educated man like Dostoevsky is deprived of so much more along with his liberty, and again this lurks behind his accounts of friendships and kindnesses from others, and more general analysis of his condition and experiences, and those of his fellows. There are no kindred spirits, and you can feel the writer’s isolation behind his words.

Chekhov’s account of his visit as a doctor (so not a prisoner) to the convicts on Sakhalin island on the extreme eastern coast of Russia paints a far grimmer picture, but the nineteenth century accounts pale into insignificance compared with the horrors of the twentieth century gulag. It is important to remember that such camps were not per se designed to work men to death, as some of the Nazi concentration camps were, but they might as well have been, from the accounts we have of extreme conditions – the mines in Vorkuta in the Arctic or Magadan in far eastern Siberia – and permanent insufficiency of food. And yet, prisoners did live to be released and eventually tell their stories. And we are fortunate that Dostoevsky did, or we would not have his greatest novels to read today..

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