The House of the Dead, by Feodor Dostoyevsky

The House of the Dead

This book about prison life in Czarist Russia was written after Dostoyevsky’s conviction for subversive activities, mock execution (where they scare you by going through the motions of executing you before stopping at the last second), and four year stint at a prison camp in Siberia. As I understand it, it is presumed to be largely autobiographical. It is written in the form of a memoir (with an introduction describing the “discovery” of the manuscript) of a fictional character. But the character overlaps a great deal with Dostoyevsky, and presumably the specific experiences he recounts and the other characters he describes overlap considerably with reality as well.

By writing The House of the Dead as a work of fiction, Dostoyevsky gives himself more flexibility to shape the narrative (where reality wasn’t sufficiently cooperative in providing the story he wanted or setting up the points he wished to make), plus maybe there were things that he could get past the authorities if presented in a novel rather than a journalistic exposé based on his own experiences.

Which raises the question of just how much this book differs from what it would have been if published in a society with something approaching full freedom of expression. Russia was certainly not such a society, and Dostoyevsky was hardly someone anonymous, someone operating small time who might stay under the radar. He was already quite well known to the authorities, as an ex-offender and as someone who was already a prominent intellectual and writer when this book was published in 1862.

Given that, for the most part this book is maybe a little more frank than one would expect. The authorities are not presented as uniformly in the right. They can be brutal and unjust in their treatment of the prisoners.

On the other hand, there are a lot of areas one could imagine this book exploring that it stays away from. There’s no criticism of the system as a whole, certainly not the people at the top of it, but only scattered inhumane individuals at lower levels. Dostoyevsky doesn’t criticize the judicial system’s punishing people for their politics, doesn’t address the fairness or unfairness of the trials that convict them.

When he does talk about some particularly brutal aspect of the prison system, he often hastens to add that that’s all changed now, that he’s merely describing how things were in the past before the various enlightened reforms.

Still, even if it turns out he’s pulling his punches in certain respects, this is not exactly a rosy picture of life in a Siberian prison camp.

Having spent a fair amount of time volunteering in a maximum security prison (one that by American standards was unusually enlightened and hadn’t completely given up on rehabilitation), I don’t know if I would say the life he’s describing is better or worse than that experienced in contemporary American prisons.

Maybe a little worse overall, given among other things the extreme weather, and just some of the basic health and hygiene issues. The latter make for some of the biggest gross out passages of the book. For example, the soup that routinely has cockroaches floating in it. Or the hospital gowns that are rarely if ever washed, simply being passed along when one person is discharged and another is admitted.

In some respects, what he’s describing feels a bit less “artificial” than our prisons. The prisoners seem to spend a lot of time working outside the prison, in whatever little Siberian town it is near. Mostly it’s back breaking physical work, though there is also mention of prisoners providing veterinary care and other services. But in some sense they remain a part of the community.

It’s a miserable existence obviously, but in its way I don’t know that it’s much worse than what the lives of people in Siberia were outside of prison. You work like a dog, the weather is brutal, the food’s bad (maybe it’s unlikely to be as bad as the cockroach soup, but on the other hand I would think there would be a greater risk for non-prisoners of having times when they lack food entirely), there’s little to enjoy in your life beyond getting drunk (yes, the prisoners do that too, though their access to vodka tends to be more hit or miss than it would be on the outside), and you probably die young.

Maybe I’d take the sitting in a cage all day amidst gang bangers watching TV life over this, but not by much. I’m not convinced either is better than being dead.

For a time while I was reading the book I found myself comparing the prisoner culture—the “convict code”—he describes with the contemporary one I learned about as a prison volunteer. I don’t know that I can say much with confidence about that, because I’m wary of making generalizations about current prison culture just from what I observed and was told about, and I’m also wary of putting too much stock in the things Dostoyevsky says about his prisoners. It’s like saying “this is what lawyers are like,” or “this is what Christians are like,” or “this is what businesspeople are like.” There’s always a lot of individual variation.

Still, I’ll mention a few points I happened to take note of.

Convicts, in Dostoyevsky’s view, are nearly all obsessed with their image, with their reputation. There’s some parallel here with my experience, but to me it always had more of a pragmatic edge to it.

He presents it more like it’s just part of the character of the type of people who are likely to end up in prison. Maybe that’s true to a point, but it always felt to me more like the environment had trained people to be like that, because of the adverse consequences of not being like that. It was more of a survival thing. You project a certain image, and do what you need to do to maintain your image, because if you don’t, you’re victimized or you don’t get your share of the spoils or whatever.

Your willingness to do anything to avoid the label of being weak is not (just) a matter of vanity or machismo; it’s a matter of self-preservation. Your life will be vastly worse if you get that reputation.

He describes the prisoners as having zero ability to delay gratification. He gives the example that even the prisoners who exploit other prisoners—through gambling, selling them smuggled vodka at exorbitant prices, etc.—and drain them of all their money, invariably then blow all that money themselves, with zero discipline, zero ability to look past this moment.

In my experience, is there some correlation between being the kind of impulsive person who can’t strive for long term goals, can’t save money, can’t delay gratification, and living a life of crime and ending up in prison? Sure. Prisoners on average have that failing more than does the general population. Most prisoners aren’t going to win any awards for their Protestant work ethic.

But it’s nowhere near as extreme as what he describes. Of the loan sharks and sharp gamblers and such in prison who find ways to separate the weaker inmates from their valuables, I’d say it’s more the exception than the rule that they then turn around and behave like the people they exploited.

One clear difference that jumped out at me when I read it is his observation that there’s no dishonor at all in informing, that prisoners understand that people are going to do it whenever it’s advantageous for them to do so. Much like they’ll steal from each other every chance they get, with no dishonor in succeeding.

Certainly that’s not true of my experiences with the prisoners. Having a reputation as a rat is about as low as you can go. Maybe certain kinds of sex offenders are despised more, but it’s close.

Not that informing doesn’t happen, and doesn’t happen a lot, but “no snitching” is the primary rule of the “convict code” from which all others are derivative. You owe your fellow prisoners that duty most of all.

One odd thing Dostoyevsky writes is:

I will observe in passing that friendliness was something one hardly ever saw among the convicts: I allude not to any general spirit of friendliness—that was even less in evidence—but simply to the private friendship of one convict with another. This was something almost completely absent in the prison, and it was a remarkable feature of our life.

That is absolutely not consistent with what I saw and heard in prison. Many prisoners made the point to me that the friendships they experienced in prison if anything were deeper and more real than on the outside, that precisely one of the things that keeps people in the life are these connections, this camaraderie that they rarely if ever experience elsewhere.

As I’ve noticed in other writings of the time by Russian authors—including Dostoyevsky himself—there was nothing like the fear and hatred of prisoners amongst the general population then that’s so prevalent today, and so routinely and easily exploited by politicians and radio talk show hosts and such.

Evidently—if these books are to be believed at least—there was much more a feeling that prisoners are “one of us.” Common people of the town would routinely give alms to the prisoners the same way one would to any other unfortunates who had a bad lot in life. (And the prisoners didn’t scoff at this or think it made such people weak; they were always grateful, and were surprisingly meticulous about splitting up such alms equally and fairly amongst themselves.)

A few other things caught my eye, not necessarily due to their relevance as comparisons to conditions today, but just as being interesting in general.

Dostoyevsky thinks (and I would say he’s guilty of gross hyperbole here) that the worst punishment—worse than the nearly fatal flogging that so many prisoners get fairly routinely or anything else—would be utterly useless work. That is, force the prisoners to dig ditches and then fill them back in, or something along those lines. He contends that in very little time they’d be driven insane, or be begging to be killed to be put out of their misery.

I doubt it. Heck, a lot of it’s a question of attitude. Is riding an exercise bike and going nowhere any less useless? In some contexts, where people take a certain attitude toward the activity and interpret it as providing them some benefit (like getting them in better shape), they’ll actually pay for the privilege of doing it.

I think there are a lot worse things that prisoners do or could be made to do than pointless work.

A pretty wild practice that he describes is “trading names.” Apparently, things were lax as far as identity, as far as knowing who’s who, so prisoners—perhaps in transit to their Siberian work camp—would sometimes come to an agreement that from this point forward, they would trade identities.

This would happen if, say, a prisoner with a 20 year sentence gave vodka and/or money (usually not even that much) to someone with a 2 year sentence, got them into debt, and then offered to wipe out the debt if they traded names so he could get the two year sentence.

Maybe it also sometimes happened through violence or threats of violence, but the cases Dostoyevsky describes are more in the nature of contractual arrangements, where each party gets something they want.

On the topic of the fanatical and brutal adherence to rules and punishment manifested by some of those in authority over the prisoners, Dostoyevsky notes:

These inept executors of the law decidedly fail to understand and are incapable of understanding that its literal application, without any understanding of its sense or spirit, leads straight to its being broken, and indeed has never led to anything else. “It’s the law, what more do you want?” they say, and are genuinely bewildered when they are asked for common sense and a sober head as well. They seem to consider the latter in particular to be a superfluous and outrageous luxury, an intolerable constraint.

An even more striking comment about the abuse of power comes later in the book. Here Dostoyevsky is addressing flogging in prison, and what it can bring out in the person delivering the punishment, but the point, or something very like it, could apply to violence much more broadly, from rape to economic exploitation and victimization to any number of other ways people find to defeat each other and feel satisfaction in doing so (including vicariously, such as those who swell with pride at the thought that our military will bomb the population of some foreign nation we’re currently mad at “back to the Stone Age”):

There was, I believe, something about this sensation [the pleasure of flogging a convict] that made the hearts of these gentlemen stop beating, something at once sweet and painful. There are people like tigers, who thirst for blood to lick. Whoever has once experienced this power, this unlimited mastery over the body, blood and spirit of another human being, his brother according to the law of Christ; whoever has experienced this control and this complete freedom to degrade, in the most humiliating fashion, another creature made in God’s image, will quite unconsciously lose control of his own feelings. Tyranny is a habit; it is able to, and does develop finally into a disease. I submit that habit may coarsen and stupefy the very best of men to the level of brutes. Blood and power make a man drunk: callous coarseness and depravity develop in him; the most abnormal phenomena become accessible, and in the end pleasurable to the mind and the senses. The human being and the citizen perish forever in the tyrant, and a return to human dignity, to repentance, to regeneration becomes practically impossible for him. What is more, the example, the possibility of such intransigence have a contagious effect upon the whole of society: such power is a temptation. A society which can look upon such a phenomenon with indifference is already contaminated to its foundations. Put briefly, the right given to one man to administer corporal punishment to another is one of society’s running sores, one of the most effective means of destroying in it every attempt at, every embryo of civic consciousness, and a basic factor in its certain and inexorable dissolution.

Sorry about the length of that, but it’s an amazing passage, and one well worth absorbing in full and reflecting upon.

I have nothing to add to it.

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