'The House of the Dead' recalls heroics, horror in Russian penal colonies

Historian Daniel Beer devotes fine attention to the group of idealistic officers known as the Decembrists, many of whom served decades in Siberian exile.

The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars By Daniel Beer Knopf 496 pp.

Daniel Beer, a lecturer at University of London, won’t allow readers of The House of the Dead, his thorough and sober history of the tsars’ brutal 19th-century penal colonies to be distracted by comparisons  to the USSR’s spectacularly worse Gulag system.

Beer’s focus is on the tsars’ system, and, as if he were preparing us for an exam, won’t let us look ahead to the Soviet or Nazi horrors, or swivel around except for a glimpse or two at the era’s smaller-scale and less lethal British and French penal colonies. Beer rigorously leaves the most passionate judgments of Russia’s crude and dysfunctional system to its contemporary victims and perpetrators.

For instance, Tsar Nicholas I’s minister of foreign affairs, applying a typically thuggish psychology, regretted when Russia’s eastern border opened onto the Pacific Ocean, because, as he put it, “remote Siberia had been for us a deep sack into which we tossed our social sins in the form of exiles and penal labourers and so on.” The heartless bureaucrats in St. Petersburg thought that shackled prisoners and desperate exiles would somehow scamper away across the sea; most often, however, they longed for European Russia, the contemptuous Mother who had cast them into that “deep sack.”

Beer devotes fine attention to the group of idealistic officers known as the Decembrists; after trying in 1825 to steer authoritarian Russia toward democracy, those do-gooders who weren’t executed served decades in exile. Many of them were joined in Siberia by their heroically activist spouses. (A prison commandant “once remarked that he would rather deal with 100 political exiles than with half a dozen of their wives.”) A few families, on the other hand, turned their backs on the brave men. The political philosopher Alexander Herzen, writes Beer, “was indignant at this ‘shameless repudiation of loved ones.’ In their loyalty to the emperor, many relatives and friends ‘proved themselves to be fanatical slaves  – some out of baseness and others,
which was even worse, out of conviction.’”

Beer’s writing is clear, his judgments careful and restrained as he lays out the series of tsars who took for granted that they embodied the law, that their caprice regarding sentencing and pardoning conveyed justice. The author provides numerous accounts of the dysfunction, cruelty, and foolhardiness of the tsarist exile system, as seen through the eyes of Fyodor Dostoevsky (whose great novel "Notes from the House of the Dead" inspired Beer’s title), Anton Chekhov (who wrote a long careful survey of the prison island Sakhalin in 1890), and survivors’ memoirs, diaries, and letters.

Among the victims of tsarist exile was Vladimir Lenin: “Despite his frustrations with the speed of the postal system (it took about 35 days to send a letter to the capital and receive a reply), Lenin devoured texts on politics, economics, industrial history, agriculture and statistics, and, when he finally left Siberia at the beginning of 1900, he took with him 225 kilograms of books.” Of course under Lenin’s leadership of the Bolsheviks before, during, and
after the 1917 Russian civil war, he initiated a labor-camp system that would never allow such freedom of time and thought to another prisoner. When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was serving an eight-year term in the Gulag (his crime: making jokes about Stalin), he and other prisoners were delighted when for toilet paper they were handed a page from a book, the contents of which they devoured while standing in line. As Solzhenitsyn wrote in "The Gulag Archipelago": “[A]nd what reading that was! You could try to guess whence it came, read it over on both sides, digest the contents, evaluate the style – and when words had been cut in half that was particularly essential! You could trade with your comrades.... Visits to the toilet thus became a means of acquiring knowledge.”

(Pardon me! I can imagine Professor Beer frowning that I’ve gone off topic: Don’t think about the Gulag or about America’s own dysfunctional prison system!) Beer is liveliest and less buttoned-up when he discusses Poland’s repeated resistance to the bullying Russian empire and the consequent imprisonment of the idealistic, democracy-promoting Polish revolutionaries who were often remarkably unbowed, refusing to see themselves as tsarist subjects. In 1865, Polish revolutionaries “insisted upon rights not encoded in the penal statutes of the Russian state but rather rights fundamental to all human beings.” Leo Tolstoy was among many who admired the idealistic and enlightened Poles, and his fictional story, “What For?,” about an escape attempt by a Polish noble and his heroic wife is, even in Beer’s doggedly historical recounting of it, absolutely thrilling.

The tsars, one after the other, could not comprehend a society founded on civil rights or democratic processes. Mikhail Lunin, one of the Decembrists exiled to Siberia, kept his pen flowing and publicly admonished the tsar and his minions: “ ‘You have taken it upon yourself to cleanse Russia of the contagion of liberal ideas and have plunged her into an abyss of dissolution, into the vices of spying and the darkness of ignorance. With the hand of the executioner, you have extinguished the minds that illuminated the social movement and directed its development. What have you put in their place? We in turn summon you before the court of our contemporaries and of posterity: answer for yourselves!’”

The authorities’ answer, of course, was to take away Lunin’s pen and lock him away in a frigid cell until he died. We’ve learned that autocrats take offense when accused of doing what they’re actually doing. But what is prison and exile for: to reform or to mercilessly grind down the souls and bones of our fellow sinners? Beer presents us with one of those cases that would leave a classroom full of earnest undergraduates in tears. Fyodor Shirokolobov was, even to himself, a seemingly irredeemable criminal; Dostoevsky could have invented him and developed his situation into an excruciating fictional episode.

After an attempted escape, Shirokolobov was chained to a wheelbarrow for five years: “‘When I went out to work with the barrow, it filled me with hatred. I suffered it … like a dumb beast.… I would look at my wheelbarrow wife with a sense of bitterness, absurdity and shame.… It might seem unlikely that a moral abomination such as myself could feel a sense of human shame … but my soul was outraged by this punishment.’”

The many photographs and images of this grim period (including one of a prisoner and his “wheelbarrow wife”) are enough to make one blush with shame for the human race.

Bob Blaisdell edited "Essays on Civil Disobedience" (Dover).

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