Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The House of the Dead


Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky was born in Moscow on Nov. 11, 1825. As
his father was a former military surgeon, Dostoyevsky grew up in the noble class.
He entered the military engineering school at St. Petersburg at age 16.
Shortly after graduating, he resigned his commission and devoted all his time
to writing. However, he soon became caught up in the movement for political
and social reform during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. He began to participate
in weekly discussions about the ideas of French utopian Socialists. This
Petrashevsky Circle was arrested in April 1849. After a long investigation,
Dostoyevsky, along with 20 other members of the Circle, were condemned to be
shot. Literally moments before his execution was to occur, his sentence was
commuted to four years hard labor in Omsk, Siberia. He accepted his punishment
and began to regard many of the simple convicts as extraordinary people.
During his sentence, he became devoted to Orthodox Christianity.

The House of the Dead was initially published in Russia, 1860. Upon
initial examination of the work, it appears to be a stream of consciousness
account of Dostoyevsky's four years in a Siberian prison camp. But, upon
further review, it seems to be more an account of Dostoyevsky's personality and
attitudes through these years. In his first year in prison, Dostoyevsky “found
myself hating these fellow-sufferers of mine.” (305) His first day in prison,
several convicts approached him, a member of the noble class and no doubt very
wealthy in the convicts' eyes, and asked him for money four times each; and
each refusal seemed to bring more convicts. He quickly grew to spite these
people, for they thought him to be an idiot, unable to remember that the very
same convict had approached him for money not fifteen minutes earlier. (67-8)
But, Dostoyevsky makes a startling realization at the end of this first year, a
discovery which allows him to drastically alter his personality: “...the
convicts lived here not as if this were their home, but as some wayside inn, en
route somewhere.” (303) this concept is followed by Dostoyevsky's realization
that he wanted, unlike many other convicts in the camp, to live as he did
before his imprisonment. He believed that “Physical, no less moral strength is
required for penal servitude if one is to survive all the materiel deprivations
of that accursed existence. And I wanted to go on living after I had left
prison....” (277). The remaining twenty pages are anti-climatic; they simply
deal with the change of a Major stationed at the prison and Dostoyevsky's
release from the camp.

Dostoyevsky's The House of the Dead is a beneficial source of historical
information. First of all, it presents life inside of a Siberian prison camp.
For years, Russians feared the concept of a Siberian prison camp, a place where
convicts, troublemakers and dissenters were to be sent. But, Dostoyevsky
presents a camp that does not fulfill such horrid expectations. While many of
the sections of the work deal with flogging and punishment, these stories are
outweighed by stories of the freedoms that most of the prisoners enjoyed: money,
vodka, harlots, special clothing, and special prison meals. While prisoners
enjoyed such benefits, these were, however, few and far between. Dostoyevsky
recounts how prisoners had to have shaved heads, lie on mattresses infested
with bed bugs and eat soup containing cockroaches. Summer days were consumed
by eighteen hours of manual labor. And their sentences included up to five-
thousand lashes with a birch cane. Finally, it deals with human nature, and
the lengths to which man may go to avoid his fate. Dostoyevsky provides the
tale of one prisoner, sentenced to thirty years in an especially arduous camp,
the “special” camp, would offer to trade names (and, therefore, sentences) with
a more gullible prisoner, who believed that a “special” camp provided exemption
from manual labor. This name change would often include a small bit of vodka
for the gullible prisoner. Also, he told of prisoners who, as they were being
taken to their sentencing, would kill an officer simply to delay their
sentencing, even though the convict was fully aware that such actions would
bring two or three times as much punishment upon them. the reader has no
reason to not believe Dostoyevsky and his tales: what could possibly come from
lying about prison experiences? Also, Dostoyevsky is one of the greatest, if
not the greatest, Russian authors; I would hope he can be trusted.

I would recommend this book, as well as other Dostoyevsky novels, to
others. Dostoyevsky is a very interesting