My fam took me on vacation recently to Mexico. I brought Dostoevsky’s novel “House of the Dead” with me for some beach reading. The novel is about character Aleksandr Petrovich’s experiences in a Siberian prison camp. The story isn’t plot driven, and instead focuses on Aleksandr’s relationships and experiences. Dostoevsky wrote this book following his own experiences in a Siberian prison.
Most of the book focuses on how the convicts find their own meaning through the mundane routines of a prison work camp. As well as Aleksandr’s reflections on how to improve as a person despite being a convict. At this point in my life it’s unlikely I’ll end up in a Siberian prison camp. I mean I don’t know that I won’t, but probably not. Dostoevsky’s four years in prison shaped the rest of his life. Losing his freedom was part of it, but it seems the main part was learning the line between good and evil was far less clear than those in prison vs. everyone else. The range of human kindness and depravity in the prison didn’t appear to be much different than In the outside world.
Unfortunately, I won’t be able to have those sublime discoveries as I’m not in a Siberian prison with Russian peasants. I’m similarly upset I never got the chance to be wounded in WWI and fall in love with a nurse like Hemingway. What a drag. Anyway, these are my favorite excerpts from the book. They are passages that captured Dostoevsky’s ability to learn what he wants from his life through his imprisonment:
1.) The thought once occurred to me that if one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment, one at which the most fearsome murderer would tremble, shrinking from it in advance, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning. Even though the work convicts do at present is both tedious and lacking in interest, in itself, as work, it is reasonable enough: the convicts make bricks, dig the land, do plastering, construction; in this work there is a sense and purpose. Page 43
2.) “What did they send you here for?” interrupted one man who had been assiduously following Skuratov’s story.
“Oh, for going into the isolation blocks, for drinking vodka out of the barrels, for talking a whole lot of rot; so I didn’t really manage to make a whole lot of money in Moscow, one way and the other. And I really, really, really wanted to be rich. I can’t tell you how badly I wanted it.” page 117
3.) When the afternoon’s work was over, and I returned to the prison in the evening, weary and exhausted, a terrible feeling of anguish once again overcame me. ‘ How many thousands of days like this one still lie ahead of me’, I thought, ‘all of them like this one, all of them the same’. When it was already getting dark, I was wandering silently and alone behind the barracks, following the line of the prison fence. Suddenly, I saw our dog Sharik running towards me.
Sharik was our prison mascot, just as there are regimental mascots, battery and squadron mascots. The dog lived in the prison longer than anyone could remember, belonged to no one, considered everyone his owner and was fed on scraps from the kitchen. He was quite a large dog, black with white spots, a mongrel, not very old, with intelligent eyes and a fluffy tail. No one ever fondled him or paid him the slightest attention. From my first day, I stroked him and gave him bread out of my hand. When I stroked him he would stand quietly and look at me affectionately, gently wagging his tail as a sign of pleasure.
Now, not having seen me, the first person to fondle him in several years, for a long time, he had been running around looking for me among all the other convicts, and finding me behind the barracks came rushing towards me with a yelp of joy.
I don’t know what came over me, but I rushed forwards and kissed him, throwing my arms around his head; in one running leap he placed his forepaws on my shoulders and began to lick my face. ‘So this is the friend that has been sent to me by fate’, I thought, and every time I returned from work during those early sombre days, the first thing I did, before going anywhere else, was to hurry behind the barracks with Sharik jumping up in front of me, yelping with delight, embrace his head and kiss it again and again, while a sweet yet agonizing bitter sensation gnawed at my heart. And I remember that I would derive great satisfaction from the thought- as though taking pride in my own agony of spirit- that there was in the whole world left to me only one creature that loved me, that was devoted to me, my friend, my only friend- my faithful dog Sharik. page 140
4.) He was always quiet, never quarrelled, avoided all disputes as if from contempt for his companions, just as though he had entertained a high opinion of himself. He spoke very little, all his movements were measured, calm, resolute. His look was not without intelligence, but its expression was cruel and derisive like his smile. Of all the convicts who sold vodka, he was the richest. Twice a year he got completely drunk, and it was then that all his brutal ferocity exhibited itself. Little by little he got excited, and began to tease the prisoners with venomous satire prepared long beforehand. Finally when he was quite drunk, he had attacks of furious rage, and, seizing a knife, would rush upon his companions. The convicts who knew his herculean vigor, avoided him and protected themselves against him, for he would throw himself on the first person he met. A means of disarming him had been discovered. Some dozen prisoners would rush suddenly upon Gazin, and give him violent blows in the pit of the stomach, in the belly, and generally beneath the region of the heart, until he lost consciousness. Any one else would have died under such treatment, but Gazin soon got well. When he had been well beaten they would wrap him up in his pelisse, and throw him upon his plank bedstead, leaving him to digest his drink. The next day he woke up almost well, and went to his work silent and sombre. Every time that Gazin got drunk, all the prisoners knew how his day would finish. He knew also, but he drank all the same. page 56
5.) I also particularly enjoyed shovelling snow. This was usually done after blizzards, and was a very frequent occurrence in winter. After a twenty-four-hour blizzard, some of the houses would be covered with snow up to the middle of the windows, while others would be snowed up almost entirely. Then, when the blizzard had stopped and the sun had come out, we would be chased outside in large groups, sometimes all of us together, to shovel the drifts of snow away from the government buildings. Each man received a shovel, and a common assignment was given, sometimes an assignment such that it might well be wondered how it could be ever completed, and then all the men set to work simultaneously. The powdery, freshly fallen snow, slightly frozen on top, was easily shovelled up in enormous lumps which turned into glittering dust as we scattered them about. Our shovels cut straight into the white mass that sparkled in the sunshine. The convicts were nearly always cheerful when they did this work. The fresh winter air and the physical exercise warmed them up. Everyone grew cheerful; laughter, shouts, jokes rang out. Some of the men would begin to throw snowballs at each other, not, needless to say, without the ensuing shouts of the cautious prisoners, who were indignant at any laughter or jocularity, and the general animation usually ended in an exchange of violent abuse. Page 132.
6.) I remember how it seemed to me then: their desire for a just assessment of their performance was in no way self-deprecatory, but was rather an expression of their own personal dignity. The best and most outstanding characteristic of our common people is their sense of justice and their desire for it. The cockerel-like habit of always wanting to be first in every situation, and at all costs, and whether one is worthy of it or not – this is unknown among the common people. One has only to remove the outer, superficial husk and look at the kernel within attentively, closely and without prejudice, and one will see in the common people things one has no inkling of. There is not much that our men of learning can teach the common people. I would even say the reserves: it is they who should take a few lessons from the common people. page 191