My work on nineteenth-century narratives about Russian imprisonment and exile has not only led me to read the classics that established the genre, notably Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead and Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, but has also necessitated ploughing through many less celebrated works by both travellers and former prisoners and exiles. (See my previous post on Siberian narratives for a list of those available online.) Some of these are quite fascinating – Lev Deutsch’s Sixteen Years in Siberia (1905), for example, is significant as a depiction of his own experience, but it also contains a lot of important detail about the situation of female prisoners at the time.
Alas, not many are so well written, or capable of holding the interest in the same way. Even some of the memoirs are very dull; Rufin Piotrowski’s My Escape from Siberia (1863) may sound worth reading, even exciting, but I assure you it is neither. Way before the end of its almost 400 densely-written pages I was losing the will to live. Among the travelogues, the main fault is often voyeurism. James Buel’s Russian Nihilism and Exile Life in Siberia (1883) is particularly bad as it manages to exhibit a prurient fascination with the prisoners’ suffering at the same time as the rest of his narrative makes it clear he is actually far more interested in hunting and adventure than he is in the prison question.
But the most problematic – as well as the most unreadable – of the travelogues are those that aim to show the Russian penal system in a positive light. The worst offenders here are Henry Lansdell’s Through Siberia (1882; vol 1 and vol 2)and Harry de Windt’s Siberia As It Is (1892). They are easy to dismiss for a number of reasons. The means they use to convey their message are painfully obvious. The constant expressions of surprise at the brightness, cleanliness and spaciousness of the prison accommodation they saw batter you into submission, so that statements such as, ‘I failed to discover the slightest defect in the sanitary arrangements, or the smallest approach to an offensive smell’ (de Windt, p. 201) become the expectation.
Prisoners in both books are repeatedly seen ‘lolling about’ (Lansdell, p. 114), while the unlikeliest of comparisons are used to emphasize how charming and civilized everything is: ‘the demeanour of the exiles more resembles that of a picnic party than a convict gang’ (de Windt, p. 192). De Windt’s illustrations, meanwhile, depict supposed convicts who look less like Russian peasants than English cricketers who have had the misfortune to have a portion (not quite half, as regulations stipulated) of their head shaved – the handlebar moustache on this one is a particularly nice touch.
De Windt, the later visitor, cites Lansdell’s book repeatedly and approvingly as corroborating evidence (see e.g. pp. 126, 154, 169, 268, 272) – in fact the books are so similar one begins to wonder whether de Windt bothered going to Siberia at all. He admits he did not make it as far as Sakhalin, but quotes Lansdell at length as an authority on the subject (p. 297), failing to note that Lansdell didn’t visit the island either. The nomination of such a credulous dupe as an authority is itself ridiculous; Lansdell’s capacity for accepting uncritically what he is told by officials is matched only by his ability to dismiss as exaggeration anything to the contrary he is told by exiles. The book is a tissue of hearsay, so peppered with phrases such as ‘I was told that…’, ‘I heard that…’, ‘it is said that…’ that it is difficult to believe the author saw anything with his own eyes. His criticism of House of the Dead (known here under the title it was first given in English translation, Buried Alive) for the absence of reference to dates or places that would make its contents verifiable (Lansdell, pp. 384-6), was the result of a common misapprehension of the text amongst early English readers, but he evidently made no inquiries of his Russian hosts.
Lansdell may have been simply foolish and incurious, but de Windt was far more disingenuous – his trip was made, after all, at the behest of the ‘MP for Russia‘ and opponent of the radicals Olga Novikoff, who penned the introduction to his book. But as propaganda it’s pretty ineffective as it’s so over-the-top: he claims that the negative portrayal of the Russian penal system can only be found in Kennan’s Siberia and the Exile System (1891; vol 1 and vol 2) and the testimony of former exiles (de Windt, pp. 359-61), but his list of evidence of positive opinion (de Windt, pp. 444-56) – which blithely ignores Russian-language sources – over-eggs the pudding. Equally, his attempts to play down aspects of Russian penal practice by comparing them to features of English life – which Lansdell also does – descend into absurdity when he notes that the birch used for flogging prisoners ‘is precisely similar to those used at Eton’ (de Windt, pp. 343-4).
Leaving aside the curious formulation ‘precisely similar’, this may tell us more about the mores of British public schools than it does about the Russian carceral system. But the rhetoric of similarity to Britain to which such comments belong raises a much more serious question. Both writers repeatedly compare Russia prison conditions to those in Britain, and assert that what they have seen in Siberia is certainly no worse, and frequently better, than in Britain. In the case of punishments as well, the comparison seems to favour the Russians; as Lansdell writes, ‘I saw at Nikolaefsk the wooden kobyla, or “mare,” on which the culprit [note the use of this term; there is certainly no sense of sympathy for any of the convicts in these texts – SJY] is laid; it is preferable, I should think, to the birching “horse” in the Middlesex prison, Coldbath Fields’ (Lansell, p. 654). That may be debatable, and, as elsewhere, he provides no evidence to support his assumption. But when he comments that the plête, while undoubtedly ‘fearful’, is used on prisoners who would be hanged in Britain, he has a point. The British penal system may have been quite different, but it was no less brutal, and its punishments no less cruel than the Russian.
There is clearly an element of whataboutism to this, designed to deflect attention from the subject in hand, and there is little to be gained from indulging in a competition to find the harshest prison system. But the question that arises, which is of particular significance for my work, is why, if the Russian penal system was not unusual, did it become such an important cultural symbol, and why has it generated such a huge body of literature, not only at home, but also abroad? (I do not suggest that there is no prison writing elsewhere, merely that it does not have comparable status, and that it has not captured the imagination beyond its own borders in the same way.) Much as I view Dostoevsky as responsible for establishing the parameters of prison writing in House of the Dead, I don’t think the very existence of the genre is solely the result of the incarceration of educated people capable of transforming their experiences into literary works – if it were, then why haven’t Dickens’ depictions of prisons, or Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol had a similar effect on British or Irish literature? Nor, when we think of the twentieth century, is it simply a question of numbers – the population of the Gulag was indeed large, and it produced an enormous number of memoirs and other writings, but so is the prison population in the USA, without the development of a similarly prominent body of work. Nor is it a question of injustice, as although the Russian system is generally seen from the outside as disproportionate and indiscriminate, that is not necessarily how things are viewed within Russia itself. In the Stalin period, many of those arrested thought that in their own case an error had been made, but that others genuinely were enemies of the people. And to bring things up to date, in the case of Pussy Riot, many Russians reportedly thought the women deserved the sentences they received.
This all suggests that prison writing has gained in significance in Russia not because of specific circumstances, but because prison and exile occupy a different position in relation to Russian society. My view of what that position is, however, will have to wait for another day – or indeed for my book.