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Book Review: The House of the Dead

By (January 18, 2017) No Comment

The House of the Dead:

Siberian Exile Under the Tsars

by Daniel Beer

Knopf, 2017

Readers of Dostoevsky’s semi-autobiographical classic The House of the Dead (recently given a quite good new English-language translation under the title Notes from a Dead House) will see the title of historian Daniel Beer’s new book and guess in an instant the relentlessly grim and airless reading that awaits them: this is the story of the vast system of repressive imprisonment and exile that existed for over a century under the Tsars, lasting right up until the Russian Revolution and then only undergoing a transformation into something arguably worse. Beer’s subject is the imperial policy of sentencing offenders – not only criminals but also dissidents, ardent nationalists, intellectuals, and anybody else the regime didn’t like – to the sprawling end-of-the-world known as Siberia:

Siberia … dwarfs European Russia. At 15, 500,000 square kilometers, it is one and a half times larger than the continent of Europe. Siberia has never had an independent political existence; it has no clear borders and no binding ethnic identity. It’s modern history is inseparable from Russia’s.

Over a million people suffered such exile, and virtually none of them were as fortunate as Dostoevsky, who was able to leave his exile a free man after comparatively little time and then write a classic of Western literature about the ordeal. The Tsarist ministers who oversaw the system of punishment-and-exile may have had a vaguely positive general notion of it, but as Beer points out and illustrates ruthlessly, those good intentions were only faint echoes by the time they became camp reality:

Conditions in Nerchinsk exposed a fundamental flaw in the state’s attempt to combine punishment and colonization in Siberia. Mikhail Speransky’s 1822 reforms of the exile system had envisioned penal labour as an instrument of reform. The mines and smelteries were supposed to yield not only iron, silver and gold but also a host of rehabilitated, energetic and hardy convicts. In reality, they forged destitute and dangerous criminals who had nothing to lose and were fleeing in droves.

Beer’s book is a landmark English-language study in a number of ways, but the book’s most touching aspect by far is its delving of primary sources in order to humanize the prisoners and their families, the crowds of hopeless individuals who were funneled into this nightmarish system. Beer sketches in dozens and dozens of quick biographies, giving glimpses whenever he can of the sordid day-to-day realities these prisoners experienced, including the lengths to which some of them would go in order dodge the vicious toil at the heart of their exile:

Self-harm was another favoured means of avoiding the back-breaking labour. Some who stick pins into the inside of their cheeks and then stand outside in winter temperatures of -30° C and below, causing the cheeks to swell up. Others would intentionally inflict frostbite on their hands, even to the point of having fingers amputated. One tactic was to simulate the symptoms of syphilis by inserting finely chopped horse hair into tiny incisions on the penis. The suppurations were enough to persuade all but the most experienced camp doctors that the convict was no longer fit for work.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously wrote The Gulag Archipelago in order to bring to life the iniquities of the penal system under in the Soviet Union. Daniel Beer’s book offers a depressing but definitive account of the gulag’s precursor.