I must have been a political prisoner in some previous life as, for whatever reason, I am always drawn to books about prisons, gulags and miscellaneous other freedom restricting thuggery performed by men against other men whose crimes are nothing more than being alive. Perhaps it is the will to live, the strength of mind to never accept the tyranny of a dictator no matter the physical hardship imposed, and/or the inherent appreciation of liberty that comes from having it denied, that attracts me to this genre. Would I have the courage and ability to resist? To sacrifice everything that matters to me in life for an idea? For freedom?
I eagerly looked forward to reading The House of the Dead, as I absolutely cherish my readings of Dostoevsky and because I had never read this before. I was not disappointed. Dostoevsky is a master of bringing the reader into the soul of his characters. You do not just understand, you experience the experience he wants you to. The filth, the monotony, the somberness, the depravity, the hope, the eternal hope of one day being free…The House of the Dead puts the reader into a czarist era Russian prison, never to forget the experience, joyful at the pardon earned vicariously by the chains being removed at the completion of the book.
Though the book is a fictional novel, The House of the Dead reflects Dostoevsky’s experience of spending four years in a Siberian prison camp as a young man. He had been sent to prison for being associated with some other young men who were thought to be a bit too rebellious towards life under the czar. Initially, Dostoevsky and the others arrested with him were sentenced to die by firing squad. They were actually hooded, lined up to be shot, the “ready, aim” order had been shouted before a messenger interrupted saying the czar had commuted their sentence to prison time.
It is hard to imagine the terror that would go through one’s mind in that situation. Yet, a few hours after the canceled execution, Dostoevsky wrote his brother:
Brother! I have not grown despondent or lost heart. Life is life everywhere, life is within us and not on the outside. There will be people at my side, and to be a human being among people and remain one forever, not to be despondent and not to sink to low whatever one’s misfortunes–that is the meaning of life, that is our task in it.
The main character who represents Dostoevsky, Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, finds that at prison he is met with hostility from the other prisoners because he is a gentleman, and not a peasant. Finding himself in a horrid situation, Aleksandr Petrovich is amazed at what man can get used to, and worries deeply about it.
The idea of ever regretting this hole struck me with horror: I felt even then how monstrously a man may get used to things.
He experiences the darkness, cruelty, dirtiness and brutality of prison camp life, but ultimately is able to get a handle on his natural revulsion for the situation.
My eyes grew, as it were, accustomed to incidents, surroundings, men. To be reconciled to this life was impossible, but it was high time to accept it as an accomplished fact.
He finds the truth that man is infinitely able to get used to about anything. His positiveness towards man’s adaptability comes through when he says:
What cannot man live through! Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him.
There are people of every kind, of every type sharing prison with him. In trying to classify his fellow prisoners, he essentially gives up, saying:
Real life is infinite in its variety in comparison with even the cleverest abstract generalization, and it does not admit of sharp and sweeping distinctions. The tendency of real life is always towards greater and greater differentiation.
Certainly some types make their way through prison in an easier manner than others. Being a nice guy in prison gets you nowhere. In fact, concerning those who were particularly brutal:
A connoisseur in abuse was respected. He was almost applauded like an actor.
Besides abusers, one other group is well thought of in prison.
Everywhere among the Russian people a certain sympathy is felt for a drunken man; in prison he is absolutely treated with respect.
Amongst the many fiends in prison, Aleksandr Petrovich finds that mixed in within the evilness are good and decent individuals, saying of some of them:
There are natures so innately good, so richly endowed by God that the very idea of their ever deteriorating seems impossible. One is always at ease about them.
He finds many that many of his fellow prisoners have traits that would be valuable outside of prison and concludes that Russia itself tragically denies itself some of its best people by having their lives wasted away in prison.
And how much youth lay uselessly buried within those walls, what mighty powers were wasted here in vain!
Dostoevsky often humanizes his fellow prisoners, such as when discussing Christmas and its impact on the prison.
Apart from their innate reverence for the great day, the convicts felt unconsciously that by the observance of Christmas they were, as it were, in touch with the whole of the world, that they were not altogether outcasts and lost men, not altogether cut off; that it was the same in prison as amongst other people.
Dostoevsky feels strongly about prisoners being given meaningful work. He finds useless busy work abhorrent, and detrimental to the humanity of the prisoner and to keeping a prison safely in control.
The idea has occurred to me that of one wanted to crush, to annihilate a man utterly, to inflict on him the most terrible of punishments is that the most ferocious murderer would shudder at it and dread it before-hand, one need only give him work of an absolutely, completely useless and irrational character.
Besides being tasked with meaningful work, Dostoevsky argues very passionately for treating prisoners with respect. I find his argument particularly powerful.
Every one, whoever he may be and however down-trodden he may be, demands–though perhaps instinctively, perhaps unconsciously–respect for his dignity as a human being…And as he really is a human being he ought to be treated humanely. My God, yes! Humane treatment may humanize even one in whom the image of God has long been obscured.
He particularly despises corporal punishment, and the sickening effect it has on those who practice it.
Tyranny is a habit; it may develop and it does develop, at last, into a decease. I maintain that the very best of men may be coarsened and hardened into a brute by habit. Blood and power intoxicate; coarseness and depravity are developed; the mind and the heart are tolerant of the most abnormal things, till at last they come to relish them. The man and the citizen is lost for ever in the tyrant, and the return to human dignity, to repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.
Like that which exists under most petty little tyrants, cogs in the totalitarian wheel who do the dirty work without which no tyrant would be powerful enough to subdue his people for long, the Major who ran the camp was a vicious and mean individual who was really nothing, a non-entity in any other role.
But all his prestige went with his uniform. In a uniform he was terrible, a deity. In civil dress he became absolutely a nonentity, and looked like a lackey.
Prisoners all share a goal. “The one object of prisoners was freedom and to get out of prison.” Having that goal is more important than the self-obvious nature of the desire.
Without some goal and some effort to reach it no man can live. When he has lost all hope, all object in life, man often becomes a monster in his misery.
Think about freedom, and the ultimate loss of it. Most of us live in societies where we have lost all perspective on what freedom really means. Imagine spending your life behind bars, for no crime other than someone in power feeling you deserve such a life.
And what will one not give for freedom? What millionaire would not give all his millions for one breath of air if his neck were in the noose?
By the time he is released, Aleksandr Petrovich has essentially experienced a spiritual re-awakening.
I remember that all those years, which were so much alike, passed drearily, miserably. I remember that those long, dull days were as monotonous as drops of water trickling from the roof after rain. I remember that nothing but the passionate desire to rise up again, to be renewed, to begin a new life, gave me the strength to wait and to hope.
Dostoevsky mentions one other thing of which Russian leadership seems to never learn, be it under czars of old, communism, or the semi-totalitarian rule of Putin… how much better their society would be if the people were given more say.
The highest and most striking characteristic of our people is just their sense of justice and their eagerness for it…There is not much our wise men could teach them. On the contrary, I think it is the wise men who ought to learn from the people.
About the Edition
- Wood engravings by Fritz Eichenberg
- Test designed and set in Monotype Dante, 12 point size with three points of leading between lines, with headings hand-set in Wilhelm Klingsporschrift (designed by Rudolf Koch), by Michael and Winifred Bixler of Boston
- Type and wood engravings printed by Daniel Keleher at Wild Carrot Letterpress in Hadley, Massachusetts High finish white stock from Mohawk Mills in Cohoes, New York
- Binding design by Antonie Eichenberg with binding cloth, 100% cotton, plum-gray Toile Athena, woven in France and imported by Clarence House of New York, title and author stamped in deep copper
- Binding done at Robert A. Burlen & Son in Hingham, Massachusetts
- Endpapers are Fabriano Ingres grigio
- 384 pages, 6 7/8″ x 10 1/4″
- Signed by Eichenberg and Bixler
- Limited to 2,000 copies, mine is #705