Doroshevich on Sakhalin

I had other plans yesterday, but was feeling far too tired and depressed to concentrate on the writing I was supposed to be doing. So, to take my mind off present-day violent criminality at home, I started thinking about violent criminality more than a hundred years ago on the other side of the world…

I recently wrote a review (for Slavonica) of the new translation by Andrew Gentes of Vlas Doroshevich’s Sakhalin (the 1903 edition is on, although there seem to be some problems with duplicate pages/pages missing). It was quite a welcome task, as it meant I finally had to sit down and read the whole thing. For some reason I’ve only ever dipped into it before, and never found the time or energy to get through it all (it’s a hefty book – the translation is over 450 pages long – and despite being on the middle-brow side, it’s not the easiest read). I’m not actually sure in retrospect that it benefits from a start-to-finish reading (its original form as feuilletons in fact makes it ideal for reading occasional snippets), but it’s an important book I need to know and a gap I should have filled in before now.

I don’t want to repeat here what I’ve written in my review, but there’s one aspect I’d like to devote a bit more attention to: the comparison I kept making while I was reading between this book and Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. This surprised me a good deal. It’s well known that the colony on Sakhalin was the most brutal part of the Tsarist penal system, but it’s generally very easy to see the differences between descriptions of hard labour and conditions in prisons and camps in the pre- and post-revolutionary eras. Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, based on his visit only a couple of years before Doroshevich’s, certainly does not evoke comparisons with the Stalinist Gulag. And yet Doroshevich’s account, whilst containing sufficient similarities to Chekhov’s to show that the system – and in particular the levels of corruption it maintained – had not changed to any great extent between their visits, seems closer to Shalamov’s descriptions of the harshest and most violent part of the Gulag.

I don’t think this is down to sensationalism. Both writers are concerned to make maximum impact, but Doroshevich’s book is generally more measured than its lurid reputation suggests, and while Shalamov undoubtedly depicts extremes, his descriptions, in the sense of what is actually portrayed and the language that is used, are often surprisingly low-key. Rather, the similarity seems to be the product of their mutual preoccupation with the criminal mentality.

Doroshevich’s focus on the criminals he encounters on Sakhalin far outstrips Chekhov’s, and even Dostoevsky’s in Notes from the House of the Dead (although Doroshevich himself evokes the latter on several occasions). Shalamov contends that Dostoevsky never knew real thieves and that those he depicts in House of the Dead would be held in contempt by the real criminal world. My assumption was always that this signified a fundamental change in the criminal world between Shalamov’s time and Dostoevsky’s (and Shalamov himself suggests this in The Tatar Mullah and Fresh Air). But reading Doroshevich makes me realize there’s something else at work, because you can see that, whether because of Dostoevsky’s narrator’s emphasis on the impossibility of knowing the peasant convicts, or because the author’s idea of the god-bearing Russian peasantry (which was, after all, developed as a result of his encounter with this world in the prison stockade) prevented him from addressing certain questions, he does not – and I do not say this lightly – match the clarity and detail of Doroshevich’s insight into criminal mores.

And, particularly in its discussion of the thieves’ law, that detail frequently echoes what we see in Shalamov, suggesting a continuity in the make-up of the criminals between the Imperial and Soviet eras (the idea of continuity is generally accepted as far as mechanics of the system are concerned, but there seems to an assumption among both eye witnesses and commentators that the particularly vicious type of criminal with a highly evolved code of honour seen in the Gulag was a specifically Stalinist phenomenon). For example, many pre-revolutionary texts refer to the convicts’ habit of concealing their identities, but even where it is accepted that anonymity is a deliberate strategy rather than a form of amnesia, as in George Kennan’s Siberia and the Exile System (vol 1 | vol 2), there’s a general sense that the practice, and the brodiagi themselves, are harmless – in fact, Kennan presents such figures as being rather more civilized and educated than the average (see, e.g. vol 1, pp. 372-3). Not so in Doroshevich, where we read:

If a penal laborer escapes, is captured, returned again to the same prison and calls himself a “brodiaga, origins-forgotten,” no one knowing him has the right “to recognize” him, that is, to reveal his true name, under pain of death. Subject to this immutable law are not only penal laborers but guards, who almost never identify the brodiagi jailed under them. Other officials keep this law in mind, “recognizing” a returned fugitive only reluctantly. “Now just wait for the knife in your back!” (p. 239)

This resembles not other nineteenth-century texts, where we generally get little reference to the violent code governing criminal life, but is close to the world Shalamov depicts. For example, in A Piece of Meat, when the author’s alter-ego, Golubev, encounters the thief Kononenko, who is using the name Kazakov, he knows that: ‘If Kononenko was Kazakov, then there was no hope for Golubev. If Kononenko even suspected, Golubev would die.’

In his attention to this and other aspects of convict behaviour, Doroshevich shows that he understands the workings of katorga law in a way that many other writers from that period do not. And it is this that gives him some quite striking insights into the personalities of the criminals he encounters. Thus, in a manner similar to Shalamov’s focus in the collection Sketches of the Criminal World, Doroshevich discusses katorga songs and poet-murderers to emphasize not the humanity of his subjects (although that question is addressed elsewhere – unlike in Shalamov), but the way their sentimentality feeds their violence (see, for example, pp. 247-53 and 416-37). It’s penetrating stuff (I particularly liked the description of sentimentality as the “margarine of emotion,” p. 417), and this does make up for what the book lacks, in places, in artistic refinement.

For me the comparison with Shalamov brings to light a number of features that make this work a valuable historical document (I don’t have time to discuss the others now). In its focus on the criminals, it offers a perpective we do not see in other pre-revolutionary texts on the Russian penal system. Thanks to Andrew Gentes, and Anthem Press, for bringing it back to public attention, and to an English-language audience for the first time.

Russia’s Penal Colony in the Far East: A Translation of Vlas Doroshevich’s “Sakhalin”, trans. Andrew A. Gentes (London and New York: Anthem, 2009)


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  1. Tsarist and Soviet prisons and their prisoners « XIX век

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