Katorga and exile illustrated

Whilst planning a section of my chapter on pre-revolutionary works on Siberian prison and exile, I’ve been considering the role of images as well as the words, as many of the books I’ve been reading – at least most of those published after around 1880 in the UK and the States, and after around 1900 in Russia – are extensively illustrated. Partly to make my own examination of these images easier, and partly as a general resource, I’ve created a flickr album of the ones I’ve collected so far. A list of the books from which they’re taken is given at the bottom of this post, and I will continue to add to it. The one notable absence at the moment is Vlas Doroshevich’s Sakhalin: Katorga (1903), which I’m still downloading (most – although not all – of the images are on the wikisource version, and can be viewed on wikimedia: part 1 | part 1 mugshots | part 2), but in any case Doroshevich’s book is the subject of a different chapter, so it’s not so relevant to my work at the moment.

Convict branded 'SKA', Simpson, Side-Lights, p. 222

Convict branded ‘SKA’, Simpson, Side-Lights on Siberia, p. 222

The images are of varying quality – in both senses – and for practical reasons I’ve so far only included ones that are directly related to the question of the penal and exile system, even though this means omitting some stunning illustrations, particularly from George Kennan’s Siberia and the Exile System (1891; his encounter with Buriat buddhists is an especially rich source of pictures). In some cases the mixture of images included is significant in itself. It’s notable, for example, that of the 36 illustrations in Henry Lansdell’s Through Siberia (1882), only six are of the penal system, supposedly the special subject of his visit, and one of these is of a place he didn’t visit. A transition from illustrations to photographs takes place around the mid-1890s. Some of the photos are very interesting, but there are a lot of repetitions of the same images in different books, probably because many (most? all?) of them are official government photographs (Harry de Windt, The New Siberia, p. 24), which were undoubtedly the most readily available. There were evidently two sets, one relating to Sakhalin, including the mugshots Doroshevich uses (it was apparently obligatory to include at least one of two pictures of the infamous convict Sophia Bliuvshtein in all books on Sakhalin), and another of more general views of convicts, prison and mine complexes – mostly taken at a distance. But even amidst the standard and recurring images, one still occasionally comes as a surprise, as did the above picture of a branded convict from James Young Simpson’s Side-Lights on Siberia (1898). It made me realize how rare it is to see evidence of that practice, which was largely eradicated before the era of official photographs.

But it’s the earlier illustrations that interest me most – perhaps because they were more tendentious. I’ll just highlight a few that have particularly caught my attention. I’ve mentioned Harry de Windt’s absurd illustrations of convicts – who look like anything but – in his Siberia As It Is (1892) in a previous post. I view those as part of the author’s strategy to obscure the question of who the real inhabitants of the penal system actually were (i.e., the criminal convicts, overwhelmingly from the peasantry). One other illustration – used as the frontispiece to the book – relates to the same device:

'Political Prisoners in Siberia', de Windt, Siberia As It Is

‘Political Prisoners in Siberia’, de Windt, Siberia As It Is, Frontispiece

Clearly the figures in the cart are not political prisoners at all, they are exiles, which was quite a different matter (moreover the effete chap in the centre is probably much better dressed than the average political exile). It’s part of De Windt’s tendency to blur the categories and treat prison and exile as if they were the same thing, which has an insidious effect. He constantly represents such ‘prisoners’ as leading the life of riley, free to do what they want and live where they want, apparently giving the lie to Kennan’s depiction of hard labour convicts and filthy, overcrowded prisons. The prominent positioning of this picture initiates that process, which is a pity, as if it were in a different context, with a more honest caption, I think I’d rather like it. I can’t say the same of the next picture, but it does interest me:

'Criminal Kamera', De Windt, Siberia As It Is, p. 409

‘Criminal Kamera’, De Windt, Siberia As It Is, p. 409

This scene of a criminal kamera (communal cell) at Tiumen forwarding prison from the same book is quite a curiosity. At a glance it looks more like a market square or tavern than a cell (and yes, one could go on about the prison as a carnivalized space, blah blah), but more noticeable to me is the treatment of everything that marks out these figures as prisoners. The chains look more like fashionable accoutrements than any sort of encumbrance, the diamonds on the backs of coats appear to be design details, and the two figures with half their head shaved more closely resemble Ukrainian cossacks than convicts. It’s as though there’s something else going on altogether – what Prince Myshkin might have described as ‘ne to’ (‘not that’; talking about the wrong thing). But what then to make of the hunched, bearded figure in the foreground? Strangely, the more I look at it, the more I think of Dostoevsky’s eternal Russian peasant – the Muzhik Marei himself, perhaps. And I begin to wonder if the figure with the hooked nose sat in the centre is Isai Fomich. This is nonsense, of course – de Windt does mention House of the Dead (or Buried Alive, as the first English translation was known), but I don’t think it’s doing him too much of a disservice to suggest that neither he nor his anonymous illustrator was sufficiently tuned into it to incorporate such references.

De Windt (or rather, his illustrator) does at least in these two images depict scenes and characters that look vaguely as though they might belong somewhere in the expanses of the Russian empire. The same cannot be said for James Buel’s Russian Nihilism and Exile Life in Siberia (1883), whose title page promises an exposé of ‘Exile Life in Its True and Horrifying Phases’ illustrated with ‘over 200 splendid engravings’. ‘True’ it most certainly isn’t, and ‘splendid’ is stretching it a bit. Rather, it’s a concoction of hearsay and the lurid workings of the author’s imagination, with illustrations to match. Here is the remarkable engraving that accompanies the description of flogging with the knout, a method of punishment, Buel says, which ‘though ostensibly abolished, is inflicted on some poor convict at the Tobolsk prisons every day, as several citizens assured me’ (pp. 280-1):

'Administering the Knout', Buel, Russian Nihilism and Exile Life in Siberia, p. 281

‘Administering the Knout’, Buel, Russian Nihilism and Exile Life in Siberia, p. 281

This picture in fact quite faithfully illustrates the use of the knout as reported by Buel, described to him by ‘a gentleman who had witnessed several such floggings’ (p. 281). But it bears no resemblance to the actual punishment, in which the victim was strapped to a horizontal ‘mare’ (kobyla – there’s a picture of one in Charles Hawes’ In the Uttermost East, p. 341) – and the reality of the punishment was terrible enough that one wonders why anyone would find it necessary to resort to such medieval fantasies. But in many ways it’s the style of the picture that is most startling – it resembles a religious scene (but Catholic rather than Orthodox), while the contrast of the victim’s whiteness and the dark-skinned executioners imparts a racial dimension for no apparent reason.

The religious element returns at the end of Buel’s examination of Siberian exile life, when he tells us matters have recently improved, and that ‘Formerly, and not many years ago either, there were ecclesiastical courts in Siberia; self-constituted though they were, their decrees contained all the poisonous germs of that church policy which taught, during the middle ages, that it was proper to torture heretics to the end that their souls might be saved. These courts sat in judgment upon those accused of sacrilege, heresy, and witchcraft, which latter offence was, strange enough, more common than the others.’ (p. 341) And this is the illustration:

'Branding a woman convicted of witchcraft', Buel, Russian Nihilism and Exile Life in Siberia, p. 432

‘Branding a woman convicted of witchcraft’, Buel, Russian Nihilism and Exile Life in Siberia, p. 432

… which looks like a scene from a Gothic novel set in the Spanish Inquisition, complete with titillation in the form of the virginal whiteness of the victim. It might all mean something if Buel was trying to advance some sort of argument, and when he then turns his attention to the pogroms, it looks for a moment as though he is going to say something that – however bizarrely – might justify this stuff. But nothing is forthcoming. It’s just a collection of outrages embellished at will to cause maximum outrage, and his text makes it clear (as do many of the other pictures) that he was actually far more interesting in bear hunting anyway.

But this does raise the question of whom such works were written for, and whether they gained a substantial readership. There was a good deal of interest in the ‘Siberian question’, and certainly Kennan’s Siberia and the Exile System was widely read. A book like Buel’s, I suspect, had the potential to discredit the campaign against Russian prison conditions far more than those that simply denied any faults in the penal system, but was there really a market for this sort of trash? I’d never seen a reference to it until it came up in a search on archive.org, whereas Lansdell’s and de Windt’s books, whatever their shortcomings, are mentioned regularly – not least because these authors all refer to each others books – so perhaps it really did sink without trace. In which case, has digitizing it given it a status it never had, or deserved? And am I now now giving it more attention than it’s ever had? Probably, but it won’t get more than a few lines in my chapter.

Returning to the question of illustrations, it is also worth mentioning Kennan’s books, illustrated by his travelling companion, the artist George Frost, mainly, it seems, from photographs the latter took during the trip. There’s nothing extreme or horrific about the pictures – throughout they seem to be balanced and in fact quite muted in comparison with the often harsh descriptions. There are some rather good portraits of political exiles – including both those they met and others they did not – and very evocative group scenes that look far more natural than the one from de Windt I discuss above.

'Family kamera in Tomsk forwarding prison', Kennan, Siberia and the Exile System, vol. 1, p. 313

‘Family kamera in Tomsk forwarding prison’, Kennan, Siberia and the Exile System, vol. 1, p. 313

I think this is also a good example of one way in which illustrations can work better than photographs, as the few photos extant of convicts in cells (e.g. this one in Deutsch’s Sixteen Years in Siberia)  look very posed and empty compared to all descriptions. Frost was also extremely skilled at depicting the weather – there are a number of excellent pictures of convicts and guards struggling in snowstorms, such as this one, which again is something photographs at the time were unable to capture. Finally I must include quite a simple portrait, because it seems to me to have the most extraordinary humanity:

'Old hard-labor convict', Kennan, Siberia and the Exile System, vol. 2, p. 155

‘Old hard-labor convict’, Kennan, Siberia and the Exile System, vol. 2, p. 155

In the original article (open access) that forms the basis of my chapter, I argue that in Siberia and the Exile System, the peasant convicts are hidden from view. I still stand by that in relation to Kennan’s words, but Frost’s pictures, as these two examples show, tell quite a different story.


James W. BuelRussian Nihilism and Exile Life in Siberia (Philadelphia: West Philadelphia Publishing Co., 1883)

Lev DeutschSixteen Years in Siberia, trans. Helen Chisholm (New York: Dutton, 1905)

Vlas DoroshevichSakhalin (katorga) (Moscow: Tip. Tovarishchestvo I.D. Sytina, 1903)

Charles Henry HawesIn the Uttermost East: Being an account of investigations among the natives and Russian convicts of the island of Sakhalin, with notes of travel in Korea, Siberia, and Manchuria (London and New York: Harper & Brothers, 1904)

Benjamin Douglas HowardPrisoners of Russia: a personal study of convict life in Sakhalin and Siberia (New York: Appleton and Co., 1902)

George KennanSiberia and the Exile System (New York: The Century Company, 1891), vol. 1 and vol. 2.

Henry LansdellThrough Siberia (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1882)

James Young SimpsonSidelights on Siberia: some account of the Great Siberian Railroad, the Prisons and Exile System (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1898)

Harry de WindtSiberia as it is (London: Chapman & Hall, 1892)

Harry de WindtThe New Siberia: Being an account of a visit to the penal island of Sakhalin, and political prison and mines of the Trans-Baikal district, Eastern Siberia (London: Chapman & Hall, 1896)

Note: All the pictures on the flickr album are in the public domain. However, flickr does not offer a public domain license to individual users, so I have attached all the images to the public domain group and tagged them “public domain.”

Convicts and serfs: two books on Russian penal reform

I’m currently reading and re-reading material for a chapter of my book on narratives of prison, exile and hard labour, and have a few thoughts to put in order in relation to two books on Russian penal reform:

Bruce F. AdamsThe Politics of Punishment: Prison Reform in Russia 1863-1917 (DeKalb: North Illinois University Press, 1996)

Abby M. SchraderLanguages of the Lash: Corporal Punishment and Identity in Imperial Russia (DeKalb: North Illinois University Press, 2002)

Adams coverI’ve been putting off reading Bruce Adams’ The Politics of Punishment for quite a long time, having flicked through it at some point and gained the impression that it looked incredibly dry. I was right: the work of various commissions and government departments in imperial Russia, while undoubtedly important, is perhaps not the most exciting topic in its own right, but the treatment it receives here really does not help. The book is so acronym-heavy it becomes painful to follow at times, whilst reference to the people involved only by initials and surnames and occasionally departmental affiliations (more acronyms!) with no additional information (the book as a whole suffers from being largely divorced from a wider historical context) means that even recurring characters such as the marvellously named Konstantin Karlovich Grot never remotely come to life, and we gain absolutely no impression of what motivates them.

This becomes important for another reason, to which I shall return below, but that ultimately relates to a more serious problem. The Politics of Punishment is worthwhile as a study of how the imperial bureaucracy functioned – or failed to – but regarding its central claim that there was substantial reform to the Russian penal system in the half-century before the revolution, it falls down in several respects. Most significantly, it downplays the large-scale failure to implement reform and, as Schrader notes, ‘mistake[s] the rhetoric of reform for its reality’ (Languages of the Lash, p. 188). As a result, the picture of the penal system that emerges is so different to that we read about in memoirs and eye-witness accounts that, as UEA PhD student Mark Vincent commented in a recent Twitter conversation, one wonders if Adams is actually talking about the same system. Having one’s usual perspective challenged in this way is normally a good thing, but Adams makes no attempt to account for this difference (the tendency to examine the reforms in a vacuum is particularly apparent here). He simply dismisses books such as Kennan’s Siberia and the Exile System (vol. 1 | vol. 2) as only being interested in political prisoners (Politics of Punishment, p. 5), and makes no further reference to any counter-evidence. In my recent article in Europe-Asia Studies, ‘Knowing Russia’s Convicts‘ (now open access), which forms the basis of the chapter I’m writing, I argue that the peasant convicts were in fact central to katorga and exile narratives, and it’s through thinking about why (and how) they become so important that I have come to question various of Adams’ premises.

The gap between policy and implementation seems to be the result mainly of the chronic shortage of money which appears to have afflicted the Russian government – or was it simply that the finance ministry was unwilling to release funds to pay for reforms? Either way, if the financial question had such an impact at one end of the reform process, would it not make sense to consider its role elsewhere in that process? But Adams rejects any such possibility:

Historians seeking economic motivations for human behavior may prefer to believe that fiscal considerations provided the basic motivation for organizing convict labor, but they would find no evidence to support such a claim in this case. Economic considerations may well have given rise to and/or reinforced other justifications for prison labor. It may well be that it was less acceptable to talk about making prisoners work for their keep than about the hope that work rehabilitated them. All such conclusions, however, would be entirely speculative. (Politics of Punishment, p. 138)

Let’s leave aside the fact that Adams is perfectly happy to draw speculative conclusions in other areas, for example in his willingness to ascribe humane motives to the reformers (although one might well question how humane reforms that envisaged building 75 prisons on the model of Pentonville –  a byword for the inhumanity of prison regimes at the time – would be), or in the idea that this originated in the need to keep up with the European neighbours (pp. 140-1). Beyond this, one might suggest that the frequency and vigour with which both Adams and his champions of prison reform deny the primacy of economic motives may well in fact be an indication of their significance. This pertains particularly to the question of penal labour – touted primarily as a means of reform (thereby creating a link between katorga labour and the Stalinist concept of perekovka or reforging, a question I shall explore elsewhere in my book), and with the financial benefits hidden in the small print, so to speak.

But in the context of the Great Reforms and the recent emancipation of the serfs, how significant is it that prisoners and exiles were considered a source of free labour, and to what extent was the Russian economy – accustomed to serfdom – reliant on the existence of sources of free labour? These questions are increasingly important to my work, so various books on the peasant question and on Russian economic history beckon. Any recommendations for good readings on these topics will be very gratefully received.

Schrader coverSo The Politics of Punishment, because of what its deficiencies reveal rather than despite them, has raised an important question for me. Abby Schrader’s Languages of the Lash has proved extremely valuable in my thinking about the answer to that question as well as raising others, but for much more positive reasons. I first read this not long after it was published, but it’s only on this reading that I have realized quite how impressive it is, and that is partly because of the contrast of Schrader’s approach to Adams’. While The Politics of Punishment focuses solely on the question of penal reform, and as a result suffers greatly from the absence of a wider context, Schrader does not address corporal punishment as an isolated question. Rather, she uses it as a prism through which to explore wider questions about social structures and identities in imperial Russia, and to show how contradictions in legislation and rhetorical inconsistencies reveal the limits of the reforming agenda more generally. There is a great deal worth discussing about this book, but I shall just address a couple of key points that are particularly illuminating for my own work.

Above all, I was struck by Schrader’s examination of the ways in which social identity and the relative privileges (or burdens) of membership of particular estates (sosloviia) were, at least after 1785, related to exemption from – or liability to – flogging. Clearly the application of varying degrees of punishment to offenders of different social status was not unique to Russia, but the fact that this was enshrined in law (once there was a proper legal code rather than a jumble of contradictory ukazy) and in itself was used as a means of social engineering, must have been much more unusual. This is significant for me because of the correlation that arises following the Great Reforms between (male) peasants – no longer enserfed but being kept determinedly at the bottom of the social heap – and convicts (of both sexes), as they remained the only two groups that were still subjected to corporal punishment. In essence, the system treated peasants, both during and after serfdom, as if they were already criminals, regardless of whether any crime or misdemeanour had been committed, and convicts as if they were serfs. This is important not only from the point of view of writers’ inscription of the identity of convicts in nineteenth-century narratives – the central focus of my chapter – but also in relation to the question I raise above about the use of prison labour and the economy’s reliance on free labour.

A second significant parallel that emerges, which Schrader explores in some detail in her final chapter, is that of punishment to crime, as reformers posited a connection between flogging and domestic violence: one Privy Councillor ‘correlated the prevalence of corporal punishment with wife beating, implying that the brutality of both state and home reinforced Russian society’s moral depravity.’ (Languages of the Lash, p. 164) Schrader shows that this becomes a serious issue that threatens to ‘infect’ all those involved in the flogging, and by extension, all of Russian society (p. 77) – again this is something my article addresses.

The concern expressed by various commentators and interested parties – including former prison doctor V. Ia. Kokosov and Lev Tolstoy in his 1903 story ‘After the Ball‘ – that the violence of flogging came uncomfortably close to sexual sadism (Languages of the Lash, pp. 180-3) is already apparent – which Schrader doesn’t mention – in the meditation on the ‘executioner within’ in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead (part 2, chapter 3). Obviously this was a work Tolstoy knew well, but one wonders whether other reformers were influenced by it as well. What hadn’t occurred to me (or, as far as I recall, to other critics) previously is that the correlation between corporal punishment and domestic violence is also made explicit in Dostoevsky’s novel through the positioning of the harrowing chapter ‘Akulka’s Husband’ straight after the chapter where the ‘executioner within’ is discussed. Moreover, this chapter, in which a prisoner regales his companion with the extremely graphic story of how he beat his wife to death, takes place in the prison hospital, after three chapters in which corporal punishment has been the major theme, as Dostoevsky’s narrator Gorianchikov talks to convicts who have been flogged and witnesses the effects of flogging for himself. Violence is never far from the surface in House of the Dead, but this adds a different dimension, I think. And it also considerably complicates the question of infection by state violence in my chapter. Time to put my thinking cap back on…

No worse than English prisons…

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.

Title page of J.W. Buel's Russian Nihilism and Exile Life in Siberia

Title page of J.W. Buel’s Russian Nihilism and Exile Life in Siberia

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.

Harry de Windt, Siberia As It Is, p. 204

Harry de Windt, Siberia As It Is, p. 204

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.

Henry Lansdell, Through Siberia, p. 651: Sakhalin island: the author did not visit here

Henry Lansdell, Through Siberia, p. 651: Sakhalin island: the author had not visited the island

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.

The Gulag fantastic?

Kolyma: Dalstroy prisoners constructing the 'Road of Bones' highway from Magadan to Yakutsk

Kolyma: Dalstroy prisoners constructing the ‘Road of
Bones’ highway from Magadan to Yakutsk

I have just finished teaching a new cross-cultural course, Tales of the Unexpected, with my colleague Peter Zusi. A whistle-stop tour through the fantastic and supernatural from the Grimm brothers to H. P. Lovecraft, the course has been great fun, but beyond the appearance of Gogol (his Ukrainian folktale ‘Vii’) and Dostoevsky (the classic work of the Petersburg fantastic The Double), I didn’t anticipate it having much resonance with my research. It came as something as a surprise, therefore, to find echoes in a number of the texts we studied of ideas that relate to my current work on Gulag writing and particularly the short stories of Varlam Shalamov.

Shalamov, who spent 17 years in the hard labour camps of Kolyma, notoriously the harshest part of the Stalinist gulag, is renowned for stories that, while they are full of poetic nuances, express the brutality of that experience with unflinching realism. The curious echo of the opening line of Pushkin’s fantastic story ‘The Queen of Spades’ at the beginning of Shalamov’s story ‘On Tick’ (1956) may give us pause for thought, but ostensibly these tales have no relation to literature of the fantastic and supernatural. However, as I discovered, there are significant commonalities relating to ideas of language, writing and authorship that suggest Shalamov’s approach to his subject is similar to that of fantastic writers of earlier eras.

In Frankenstein, the developing consciousness of the creature creates the paradox of him telling the story of his life prior to language. As the eloquence and knowledge he acquires later shape his expression of his earlier experiences, the poetry of the creature’s uncomprehending gaze initially obscures, but ultimately emphasizes, the fact that even the concepts he does bring to bear in his descriptions were unknown to him at the time of the original experience:

Soon a gentle light stole over the heavens, and gave me a sensation of pleasure. I started up, and behold a radiant form rise from among the trees. I gazed with a kind of wonder. […] No distinct ideas occupied my mind; all was confused. I felt light, and hunger, and thirst, and darkness; innumerable sounds rung in my ears, and on all sides various scents saluted me: the only object that I could distinguish was the bright moon, and I fixed my eyes upon that with pleasure. (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818 edn, book II, chapter III)

Shalamov’s story ‘Sententiousness’ (1965) features a reversal of this process, as convicts existing in inhuman conditions face the loss of human language:

My language, the course language of the coal face, was impoverished, as impoverished as the feelings that still survived around my bones. Reveille, go to work, lunch, end of work, lights out, citizen boss, may I address you, spade, pit, yes sir, drill rod, pick, it’s cold outside, rain, cold soup, hot soup, bread, ration, leave me a bit to smoke – I’d managed with a couple of dozen words for over a year. Half of them were curses. […] I didn’t look for other words. I was happy that I didn’t need to look for other words. I didn’t know whether these other words existed. I couldn’t have answered that question. (Shalamov, ‘Sententsiia‘)

His narrator (perhaps Shalamov himself, but this is seldom entirely clear), so weak and exhausted that he has been granted a temporary respite from work in the mines, describes a reawakening of language – and consciousness – that parallels the story Shelley’s creature tells:

I was afraid, dumbfounded, when in my brain suddenly – I remember this clearly – under the right parietal bone there appeared a word that was quite useless for the taiga, a word that not only my comrades, but I myself didn’t understand. I cried out this word, rising up on the bunks, turning to the sky, to eternity:

Sententiousness! Sententiousness!’

And I roared with laughter.

The loss and rediscovery of language is significant here because of the impossibility – evident in the creature’s tale in Frankenstein – of conveying those sensations in the language and concepts in which they were originally experienced. For Shalamov, faced with the imperative to bear witness to the suffering of the Gulag, this question is crucial, as it affects authenticity. As he notes in one of his memoirs:

And imperceptibly the intellectual himself loses everything ‘unnecessary’ in his language… Every story of mine is in this respect inevitably doomed to falsehood, to untruth. I never thought a single drawn-out thought [in the camps]. […] How do I return myself to that condition, and in what language can I write about it? […] I want the truth to be the truth of that very day, […] and not the truth of my world view today. (Shalamov, Vospominaniia: ‘O Kolyme’. ‘Iazyk’)

Read the full post »

Keeping Faith with the Party

I’ve been working on my research project on narratives of imprisonment, hard labour and exile for several years now, and am at last making concrete progress with my book. While I’m completing it, I plan to use the blog to organize my notes by writing short reflection pieces on primary and secondary sources as I read or re-read them – not reviews as such, as my main aim is to clarify my own thoughts. So, first up, admittedly for the somewhat random reason that I felt like reading it, rather than because it pertains most immediately to my current plans for chapter revisions, is:

Nanci Adler, Keeping Faith with the Party: Communist Believers Return from the Gulag (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012)

Adler coverThis is a necessary book for me because in its focus on questions of memory and testimony in the context of political belief systems, it addresses the very significant question of how the experience of the Gulag differs from that of the Nazi concentration camps. The existence of ‘official’ narratives publicizing the work of labour camps (notably the White Sea Canal book) and loyalist narratives such as those by Boris Diakov and Georgy Shelest disrupts our understanding of Gulag writing as a primarily ‘dissident’ literary mode. The studies that have already addressed these texts, Cynthia Ruder’s Making History for Stalin  (University Press of Florida, 1998) and Dariusz Tolczyk’s See no Evil (Yale University Press, 1999), although interesting in many ways, do not really integrate this phenomenon into the camp writing tradition. Adler’s book does not do so either, but this is because she uses narratives (and oral histories) to examine her subjects’ perception of events, rather than looking at them as narratives, which is my focus. Nevertheless, her analysis of communism as a faith system is useful in highlighting, for example, the ability of belief to survive contradictory evidence, the conception of the individual as less important than the larger whole, or the means justifying the ends, and the tendency to absolve the party of responsibility (in a sense the individual here comes back into play, but as a scapegoat, effectively confirming his or her insignificant status in relation to the party).

These factors are no doubt significant, and yet in some ways they seem to me insufficient to explain the tenacity of belief in communism amongst some of its victims. It suggests that faith is inviolable, which is clearly not true. Faith is frequently accompanied by doubt; some people lose faith when faced with circumstances that challenge their beliefs, and that certainly happened to some communists. What made those who held onto their beliefs different? Was their belief in some way different, not allowing space for doubt? In which case was it fanaticism rather than faith? Or was it simply a matter of different personality types? And how many (or what proportion of) party members continued to believe despite their own victimization? Adler discusses some cases of communists who lost faith much later, even though it had survived the Gulag, but I didn’t really find an answer to those questions – probably because there is probably no more concrete answer (or statistics) to be found here than in relation to any faith system. Perhaps more comparison with people who did lose their faith would have helped in this regard.

What did come across strongly was the sincerity of many of her subjects – an important consideration, as popular perceptions of the Gulag tend to assume that all those who supported it were mendacious. This was evidently not the case, despite the massive corruption in the system. At the same time, insincerity is reintroduced through the more practical explanations for maintaining belief, most significantly the fact that party membership remained the only viable route to self-advancement. This became especially important for those struggling with material difficulties and limited job prospects when they returned from the Gulag. But can this group of convicts and ex-convicts in any way be described as believers?

So the picture that emerges from from Adler’s study is, unsurprisingly, one of mixed motives, and although the cases she examines are very interesting in themselves – and the book is worth reading for these alone – overall I was left slightly unsatisfied. I suspect that is because it doesn’t quite get beyond the position of an outsider looking in. But for insiders, one can see how it makes sense. For instance, Yuri Trifonov’s novel Disappearance (1987 – unfinished and unpublished during the author’s lifetime, but probably one of the best novels about the purges) gives us a typically subtle insight into the mentalities of that period. The main adult characters facing arrest, the Bayukov brothers – old Bolsheviks based on the author’s father and uncle – and their friends, including an ageing former prosecutor who has fallen out of favour with the rise of Andrei Vyshinsky, have little comprehension of why the purges are taking place and whether those arrested really are enemies. But they understand one thing quite clearly: they showed no mercy to the enemies of the revolution during the civil war, and they in turn expect none to be shown to them. What matters is the continued existence, and ultimate success, of the whole enterprise, so not only can others be sacrificed to the greater good, one also accepts one’s own sacrifice when necessary.

What is remarkable – and Adler notes this several times – is that it didn’t seem to occur to anyone to ask whether (or why) such sacrifices were truly necessary, and what sort of party would demand them, or, to reformulate it in the language of the Thaw, would make such ‘mistakes’? This ultimately brings us back to the question I end up emphasizing repeatedly in my Russian Thought classes about the de-centring of the self, and the fact that the liberal subject has practically no place in Russian philosophy – does it make any substantial appearance outside Herzen’s thought? So in a sense examining the whole question of adherence to a collective ideal at the expense of the self is perhaps addressing the wrong issue, as this could be seen as the norm rather than the exception.

In saying this I have no wish to downplay Adler’s achievement. Her research is very sound and she has unearthed some fascinating stories that shed new light on the experience of the Gulag. But for me the failure to get entirely to grips with this aspect of the subject raises significant questions, not least because of the centrality of conceptions of identity to some of my own recent articles on labour camp narratives (this post contains a link to one example), and to my book. So what is not said here gives me as much food for thought as what is.

Discovering Ivy Litvinov

A post for Women’s History Month

A few weeks ago whilst preparing for my final-year undergraduate Dostoevsky class I plucked an old translation from my shelf that I’d bought a couple of years previously at the Amnesty shop in Shoreditch boxpark. I’d barely looked at it before – I tend to collect old Dostoevsky translations more out of habit than anything else – but I was very surprised when I opened it to see that it was translated by Ivy Litvinov, the British wife of the Soviet diplomat. Beyond the facts that Maxim Litvinov had lived in London prior to the revolution and had acquired a wife in the process – which had registered during research Lenin for my Russians in London project – I knew nothing at all about Ivy Litvinov, so I was intrigued, and sat down to read her translation of ‘Skvernyi anekdot’. It has the title ‘Most Unfortunate’, which didn’t convince me at first, although the more I think about it, the more it seems like a suitably idiomatic English expression that reflects not so much the period when she was translating (the 1950s), but, as is so often the case with expats, her previous life in Britain, which she had left in the early twenties, with only irregular visits thereafter.

The translation itself really impressed me, which is not something one can often say about that era; of those published in Britain, David Magarshak’s translations for Penguin are remarkable mainly for making Dostoevsky, Gogol, Goncharov and Chekhov sound exactly the same, while those produced by the various foreign language presses in the Soviet Union at the time are generally even worse, ranging from the merely laboured to the grossly inaccurate. Litvinov, on the other hand, captures the verbose pomposity and humour of Dostoevsky’s narrative in a rather stylish and readable manner.

I started to scan my shelves and discovered this was not the only translation by Ivy Litvinov I owned – I also had some Chekhov, and Alexei Tolstoi’s three-volume Ordeal – the latter given to me as a joke by a friend when I decided to study Russian at university. A quick search of the SSEES library catalogue, Amazon and Abe Books revealed several more, as well as some of her original works, and as no such thing is available elsewhere, I have compiled a list which I hope will encourage people to seek out her work. I’d be grateful for any additions or corrections. There are certainly a few short works published in Russian that I haven’t yet managed to track down.

There are a couple of websites that give some details of Ivy Litvinov’s life (the best comes from a family member, while there are a few interesting details here), but the best source is undoubtedly the affectionate but clear-sighted biography by John Carswell, The Exile: A Life of Ivy Litvinov (Faber, 1983). I don’t therefore intend to present her biography in enormous detail here, but will just give the outlines.

She was born Ivy Therese Low on 4 June 1889. Her parents were Walter Low, the son of a Jewish immigrant from central Europe, and Alice Baker, the daughter of an officer in the Indian army. Walter died when Ivy was only five years old, and her mother remarried a medieval scholar who worked at the British library and eventually became Assistant Keeper of books. After a fairly unhappy childhood – the present step-father as despised as much as the absent father was adored – in which Ivy drifted towards more intellectually broad-minded relatives, she ended up working at the Prudential offices in Holborn, and began her writing career. Her first novel, Growing Pains (Heinemann, 1913), published at the age of 23, exhibited the autobiographical streak that is apparent in much of her best writing, and the same is true of her second (rather racy) novel, The Questing Beast, which, according to Carswell (p. 72), is one of the first novels to depict women in office life. The first book is difficult to get hold of now, but the second has been published as an ebook.

Ivy Litvinov, Moscow, 1920s

Ivy Litvinov, Moscow, 1920s

It was through her relatives in 1916 that she met Maxim Litvinov, who was then living in London, as many of the Bolshevik revolutionaries did at one point or another (see my post on Lenin in London). The story of their courtship and marriage is given fictional treatment in her rather wonderful 1969 short story ‘Call it Love’ – a highly evocative depiction of London in that era as well as of the tentative romance between two strangely unmatched people from very different backgrounds. The story ‘Early Days’ (1973) gives a more straightforwardly autobiographical account of the same events (Carswell, p. 81). Maxim Litvinov stayed in London after the revolution as a quasi-diplomat – holding meetings on benches in St James’s park – but was arrested in September 1918 in retaliation for the arrest in Moscow of Bruce Lockhart, and after 6 weeks in Brixton prison was exchanged for the the British agent. Ivy stayed in London with their two children, Misha (later the father of the dissident Pavel Litvinov) and Tania (who later became a renowned English to Russian translator, as well as collaborating with her mother on many Russian to English translations).

The family was reunited in Moscow in 1922, and although there were trips abroad, mainly to Europe but also accompanying her husband to Washington DC when he was made Soviet ambassador during the war, Ivy remained in the Soviet Union for more or less the next fifty years, despite never converting to the cause politically. Her relationship with Maxim was rather bumpy. There were numerous affairs, mainly Ivy’s, who was clearly fairly adventurous; for example, Carswell (p. 119) quotes a letter with pretty frank description of an orgy with a lover and his friends in Hamburg in 1928. There were also periods of separation from her husband, including a stint in self-imposed exile in Sverdlovsk in the late thirties when the purges were at their height and things were looking most dangerous for Maxim. But whatever else was going on, there was clearly a lasting loyalty there, and they remained a couple throughout.

Basic Step by Step, by Ivy Litvinov

Basic Step by Step, English language textbook by Ivy Litvinov

Although she had produced a few short pieces, Ivy made a more serious attempt to resurrect her writing career later in the twenties and even underwent hypnotism to help her. The eventual result, published by Heinemann in 1930 under her maiden name, was His Master’s Voice (later published in the States as A Moscow Mystery), a somewhat Agatha Christie-ish murder story set in the shadow of the Kremlin. I’m reading this at the moment and have to say that while I’m enjoying the local colour (which her British publishers saw as unmarketable at the time), I don’t think it’s as accomplished as her later short stories. Writing mystery novels certainly didn’t become a habit, and in the thirties Ivy became more involved with English language pedagogy, producing several text books, readers and dictionaries, and promoting C. K. Ogden’s Basic English programme.

It was after Maxim’s death in 1951 that Ivy turned to translation, and during that decade she kept up a phenomenal work rate, translating, either on her own or with her daughter Tatiana, around 25 novels and collections of stories, plus a couple of critical works. And to judge from the ones I have read so far, they are worth seeking out – Carswell makes very little of her translation work in the biography, but in fact I think this is one of her most significant contributions. In the sixties she also began to write short stories again – some fictional and some as part of her ‘sorterbiography’ (rather more interesting in terms of their form than the straightforward memoirs many people probably wish she had written) – which were published mainly in the New Yorker from 1966.

In 1960 she made her first extended visit to Britain for many years, but returned to the Soviet Union because of her family. However, in 1972 she returned to Britain permanently, living in Hove, actually, until her death in 1977. By this stage part of her family was already in the west, including her granddaughter Vera and her husband Valery Chalidze (whose 1977 book Criminal Russia has proved very useful to my research recently) and, later, Pavel Litvinov and his wife and children. Tatiana – ironically entitled to a British passport because of her father’s lack of official diplomatic status when she was born (Carswell, p. 200) – eventually came to join her mother in 1976.

I recommend the stories Ivy Litvinov published in the sixties and seventies, and strongly disagree with the verdict of Samuel Lipman who, in an extended review of Carswell’s biography, dismisses them as ‘a stale rehash of old memories of an England now forgotten or a retelling of scene from Russian life better done by native practitioners’ (Music and More: Essays, 1975-1991, Northwestern University Press, 1992, p. 276). Certainly in the British-set stories, there is a sense of a life that had disappeared by the time of writing, but for stories set in that period, as in the case of ‘Call it Love’, it is entirely appropriate. In the case of the Russian tales, I think she does have a new and different perspective.

she knew she was rightProbably because of my main research interest, what has really struck me about some of these stories is the persistent presence of the Gulag. This gives her depictions of often very mundane situations a traumatic underpinning that occasionally reminds me of the later short stories of Vasily Grossman. At times this has a really unsettling effect, as in the story ‘Apartheid’ (1970), in which a bourgeois couple rent a dacha for the summer and initially try to keep their children away from the ‘potentially undesirable’ granddaughter of their landlady who lives round the back, and who is equally reluctant to let the children mix. But they play together anyway, so attempts to separate them are abandoned. However, once they have invited the little girl, Milochka, into their dacha, the parents are horrified when she starts prattling on about Magadan, and they realize her mother must be in a labour camp in Kolyma. An uncanny effect is created by the jarring discrepancy between Milochka’s positive references (‘In Magadan we had cream with our kasha…’) and what the parents and readers know. This sense is intensified by Milochka’s gradual appropriation of all her playmates’ toys and their habit of parroting her explanations (”Milochka says…’), so that this small child becomes a very sinister figure, who infiltrates their family through her ideological domination of the children, and forces the adults to contemplate aspects of life they wish to ignore.

‘Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, Where Have You Been?’ is not as successful, but this curious tale which submerges the story of a camp survivor within an animal fable contains a similar theme. It reminded me of one of the subjects in Jehanne Gheith’s oral history work with Gulag survivors – a former prisoner who named his dog Stalin and, by caring for it on a daily basis, went through a process of ‘non-narrative healing or repair’ (J. M. Gheith, ‘”I never talked”: enforced silence, non-narrative memory and the Gulag’, Mortality 12.2 (2007), p. 171). In Litvinov’s story, the cat, acting as the one point of continuity between the past and the present, represents both a comfort and the threat of exposure, which for me exemplifies the ambivalence of the Soviet experience.

There are other stories that address the Gulag theme, such as ‘Bright Shores’, and I may write about those at a later date. I am persuaded that Ivy Litvinov is worth reading as a writer and as a translator. I hope this post will encourage others to read her and contribute to her emergence from the obscurity she has never entirely managed to escape.

Four short links: digitized 20th-century collections

Ovod (The Gadfly), 1906

Ovod (The Gadfly), 1906

In the last few days I’ve come across a couple of nice collections of digitized early 20th century Russian journals and books, reminding me of what great resources there are out there, freely available to read and in some cases reuse (which does beg the question of why so many other things are locked away and unusable – at SSEES we’re lucky that the library has been investing in quite significantly in digital collections recently, but access to these materials ought not to be a matter of luck). Anyway, for our enjoyment and delectation, and possible future research, we have:

1. The Russian State Public Historical Library’s collection of 145 Russian Futurist books. Includes works by Burliuk, Goncharova, Kamensky, Kruchnykh, Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov and others. More Russian avant-garde books are available from the Getty Museum’s web page for the 2009 exhibition Tango with Cows.

2. Russians without Russia: press archive of emigré journals. 21 stunning emigré journals in excellent reproductions, downloadable as single pages.

3. Russian political satire at the Digital Public Library of America. Some fabulous titles here, collated from various collections. It’s not immediately obvious how to get to the full content, but if you click on the image, then on the eye icon, you’ll be transferred to the appropriate page.

4. It’s not remotely in the same league as the others visually, but SovLit’s list of early Soviet journals has much to recommend it, not least the full text (and in plain text – joy!) of a number of titles, including Novyi LEF (New LEF) and Kuznitsa (The Forge).

The image is taken from the front cover of Ovod (The Gadfly), 1 (1906), from the library of the University of South California. It is reproduced under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 licence.

Bedtime reading

A fit of nostalgia following the recent death of the actor Lewis Collins has seen me revisiting old episodes of The Professionals, which was probably the first grown-up TV series I watched as a kid. It’s very entertaining, not least in the way it confounds expectations. The default position may be causal sexism, for instance (and much of it is appalling), but then suddenly there’s a surprisingly sensitive discussion about the challenges of being a lesbian in the police force. Equally unexpected are the high-brow cultural references. I was taken aback when Waiting for Godot was mentioned in an early episode, but nothing prepared me for Doyle’s bedtime reading in episode 9 of the first series, When the Heat Cools Off.

The Professionals, series 1, episode 9: bedtime reading

The Professionals, series 1, episode 9: bedtime reading

Yes folks, that is a copy of Zhores Medvedev’s Ten Years After Ivan Denisovich. The episode, which reveals something of Doyle’s backstory in the police, revolves around the reinvestigation of a case in which a man may (or may not) have been wrongly imprisoned, so this may explain the choice of reading matter. It’s a reminder, as well, of what a high profile Solzhenitsyn had in the seventies – even my parents had a copy of the Gulag Archipelago on their shelves, despite having no noticeable interest in Russian literature or Soviet politics. But while one might perhaps have expected to see a copy of Ivan Denisovich itself, the Medvedev book seems to me to be on a different level altogether. Is this the most obscure cultural reference ever to appear in a popular TV programme? Answers on a postcard please.

The Crocodile: a Preface

Regular readers will know that The Crocodile is one of my favourite works by Dostoevsky, because of its connections to the Crystal Palace as well as its humour. But it was only a couple of weeks ago, while I was preparing a class on the story, that I got round to reading the fake “Editorial Preface” that accompanied its original publication in Dostoevsky’s journal The Epoch. I don’t know why this is not normally published with the story – it’s hidden away at the back of volume 5 of the 30-volume Complete Works (pp. 344-6), and I’ve not seen it included in other editions – but I think it’s brilliant. It’s a rambling masterpiece of pomposity and equivocation, but also, in raising the question of the attribution and veracity of the story, it acts as a hilarious addition to the parody of knowledge that is so central to The Crocodile itself. So I decided to translate it (I admit, this was a displacement activity – I had a set of essays that needed marking), and because I’ve not had time to publish many posts recently, here it is. The translation is somewhat rough and ready, and I’d be grateful for any suggestions for improvements. The original text can be found at the end of this version.

The Crocodile: An Editorial Preface

The editors are surprised to print this almost incredible story only because perhaps somehow all of it really did happen. The story explains that a gentleman of a certain age and a certain appearance was swallowed whole by a crocodile located in the Passazh arcade, and that he not only remained alive, but even lived in the bowels of the crocodile unharmed and, apparently, willingly for two weeks; that he was, during this time, visited by vacuous members of the public inclined to amusements, that he entered into conversation with visitors, fussed about his pension, often changed direction (both physically, i.e., turning from side to side, and morally, in terms of his behaviour) and, towards the very end, from idleness and frustration, became a philosopher. Such dreadful piffle would, of course, be unnatural, if the extremely sincere tone of the author had not inclined the editors in his favour. Besides which, almost all the newspaper articles, even poems and furious polemics, that appeared on account of the swallowed gentleman, were cited in the greatest detail. All this rubbish was delivered to the editors by Mr. Fyodor Dostoevsky, a close associate and member of the editorial board, but the real author of the story remains unknown. One day, while Mr. Dostoevsky was away from home (on business not germane to the reader) some unknown person turned up at his apartment and left on his table a manuscript with a short letter from himself, but without a signature. In this letter he briefly but pompously recommends his work and asks for it to be made public by publishing it in “The Epoch”. Since the story was also not signed by anybody, the editors authorized Fyodor Dostoevsky, for the sake of appearances, to sign it with his name, and at the same time, by way of justice, to invent a decent pseudonym for the unknown author. Thus, the unknown author was named Semyon Strizhov, for some unknown reason. As for Mr. Dostoevsky, he eagerly signed his name, justly arguing that if the public liked the story it would be better for him, because they would think he’d written it, but if the public didn’t like it, he would only have to say he didn’t write it and that would be the end of it.

The editors, however, do not conceal from the public one very important fact, namely, no matter how they tried, how much they sought at least something that might shed some light on the unheard of incident in the Passazh, nothing helped! No-one, absolutely no-one had heard or read a word about anything even remotely similar to it, although it turned out that many people went to see crocodiles in the Passazh. In short, to the great regret and annoyance of the editors, there turned out to be no gentleman whatsoever who had been swallowed alive. The editors tried to find the newspapers issues and articles mentioned by the author, but to their surprise, quickly realized that newspapers with such names do not exist. In such an emergency only one possibility remained: to believe it all and decide, albeit reluctantly, but at the same time in all honesty, that the stranger who had revealed the manuscript could not be lying, and therefore everything reported by him was truthful. This we did, but right here we consider it our duty to declare that if, by chance, it all turns out to be a lie and not the truth, then there has never been a more incredible lie in our literature, except perhaps that famous case when a certain Major Kovalyov’s own nose one morning escaped from his face and later went for a stroll in the Tauride Gardens and down Nevsky in full dress uniform with a feather in his hat. In any case the editors would very much like the public to believe it all, for if they don’t believe it, it means they’re accusing the editors of lying, which would be disagreeable.

And yet, we say sincerely, although not without some embarrassment, there are people, even among the editors, who have opposed us heatedly for deciding to believe such (supposedly) arrant mystification. This minority has furiously accused us, despite us doing everything required of us to vindicate such an incredible occurrence in the eyes of the public. Not sufficiently appreciating our efforts, they screamed, obviously missing the point, that the unknown person’s story is not only contrary to the natural sciences, but even anatomy, that it’s impossible for a crocodile to swallow a person of a certain age, perhaps seven vershoks tall and, most importantly, educated, etc., etc. – you don’t need to read all their clamour, it’s not worth it, especially since the majority vote was in favour of the editors, and it’s already been decided there’s nothing better than the principle of the majority vote for establishing the truth. Nevertheless the editors, to fulfil their duty in all good faith, bent their ears to these interjections. Immediately four permanent members were commissioned from their midst to find the truth in the Passazh. They were all required to enter the crocodile room as a collective, acquaint themselves with the crocodiles and search everything themselves on the spot. On the commission were both secretaries to the editorial board, with and without portfolio, a critic and a novelist. Sparing no expense, the editors gave each of them a quarter-ruble to pay for their entrance to the crocodile room. All the quarter-rubles comprised the inalienable property of the editors and were acquired by them through legal means, without any kind of intervention from any other editors whatsoever.

The members of the commission came back just an hour later in the greatest indignation. Moreover, they did not even want to talk to us, probably from frustration, and all looked in different directions. Finally won over by the strenuously tender attentions of the editors, they agreed to break their silence and announced directly, but quite rudely all the same, that the editors had no business sending them to the Passazh, that the whole absurdity of it was apparent at first glance, that a crocodile could not swallow a person whole, but that, who knows, perhaps it could somehow happen. This sharp and even, one might say, one-sided verdict alarmed the editors in earnest. Nevertheless, it was all very soon definitively settled. In the first place, if “perhaps it could somehow happen”, then that means it really could have happened, and secondly, according to the research of the former commission it turned out to be clear that the unknown person’s story was not talking about those famous crocodiles now being shown in the Passazh at all, but some other, foreign crocodile that was also apparently shown in the Passazh, that lived there for three or four weeks, and, as is clear from the story, was taken back to his homeland in Germany. This latter crocodile could, of course, have been bigger and more capacious than the two crocodiles there now, and, consequently, why shouldn’t he have been able to swallow a gentleman of a certain age, and educated to boot?

Such reasoning finally resolved all the editors’ perplexity. The main thing was that they triumphantly vindicated the story and could print it, although they could have managed quite well without it, already having a sufficient set of articles and exactly the number of pages that had originally been promised to the public for each issue of “The Epoch”. But, not constrained by this promise, the editors added those superfluous pages. If we’ve already let “superfluous men” out into the world, why should it not come to pass that a magazine can also have superfluous pages?


The lib.ru version does not include the letter that supposedly accompanied the manuscript, but it appears in the Complete Works (p. 346):

Письмо неизвестного сочинителя к Ф. Достоевскому

Милостивый государь, спешу сообщить Вам, как члену редакции журнала “Эпоха”, историю об одном из самых необыкновенных и даже, смею сказать, невероятных событий, которое может обогатить оригинальностью не только одну вашу “Эпоху”, но даже и всю нашу эпоху. Прошу вас немедленно предать его гласности.

Неизвестный сочинитель

Letter from an unknown writer to F. Dostoevsky

Sir, I hasten to inform you, as a member of the editorial board of “The Epoch”, of a story about one of the most extraordinary and even, dare I say, incredible incidents that may enhance the originality not only of your “Epoch”, but even of our entire epoch. I ask you to publish it immediately.

An unknown writer

Women in the Gulag

I always welcome new contributions to the study of the Gulag, particularly (because it is a dimension that remains much less explored than the history) those that focus on personal experiences of the Soviet labour camp system and the writings associated with it, so I was looking forward to reading Paul R. Gregory’s Women of the Gulag: Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives (Hoover Institution Press, 2013). It’s interesting because the book is related to a documentary project and follows the survivors and their children, but the book itself came as something of a surprise and disappointment as so little of it rests upon experience of the labour camp system. Instead, Gregory informs us, ‘the Gulag refers to a state of mind – to the knowledge that anyone and everyone could be shot, jailed or exiled as the victim of mass insanity and hysteria originating from somewhere above.’ (p. viii) In fact, the Gulag per se forms a central part of only one of the five stories. In two other cases it features only in the ‘aftermath’ chapter (just over one page is devoted to Agnessa’s imprisonment for black marketeering, and Adile’s deportation to Kazakhtstan is covered in two pages), while of the other two women included, Evgeniia Ezhova committed suicide before she could be arrested, and Fekla’s family was deported to a special settlement as kulaks – a traumatic experience that affected her subsequent life in many ways, but in a somewhat different way from that of imprisonment. So the Gulag does not actually appear to be the subject of the book at all, and because of the presentation of the lives specifically as stories rather than objects of research, no space is devoted to comparing the different types of experience.

This focus away from the labour camps may in itself be significant, given the tendency of many memoirists to devote far less attention to the years of hard labour than they do to the months of imprisonment (Evgeniia Ginzburg is a case in point), which can be related to Gorianchikov’s reflection in Notes from the House of the Dead that:

Записывать ли всю эту жизнь, все мои годы в остроге? Не думаю. Если писать по порядку, кряду, все, что случилось и что я видел и испытал в эти годы, можно было, разумеется, еще написать втрое, вчетверо больше глав, чем до сих пор написано. Но такое описание поневоле станет наконец слишком однообразно. Все приключения выйдут слишком в одном и том же тоне (pt 2, ch 9)
Am I to describe the whole of that life, all of my years in prison? I think not. If I were to write down in ordered sequence everything that happened, everything I saw and experienced during those years, I would of course end up writing three or four times the number of chapters I have already written. In the end, such a description would become monstrous. All the events could come out sounding the same. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead, trans. D. McDuff (Penguin, 2003), p. 339

But this at least should be a subject for reflection, not an excuse to avoid the main issue.

Equally problematic is the choice of the five women whose stories make up the book, as all five women came into contact with the Gulag or the Terror because of their husbands or families. ‘Family members’ did indeed account for a significant proportion of women arrested and sent to the Gulag or exile in this period, but far from all, and it surely cannot have been impossible to find at least one woman who experienced the repressions as an autonomous individual. Moreover, three of them were married to or related by marriage to high-ranking party officials and NKVD officers. This is a deliberate choice made in order to explore the consequences of the ‘Faustian bargains’ made by such women (p. x), but the domination of this question over others skews the perspective away from more normal experiences of Stalinism, and while I am very interested in Evgeniia Ezhova (Vasiii Grossman’s story about the Ezhov family, ‘Mama’, plays a central role in a forthcoming article in the Journal of European Studies) I would have preferred a wider variety of subjects, including more that could be counted as typical.

I’m slightly mystified by Gregory’s contention that his book is different because of the focus on women. He claims that ‘most belles-lettres on the Gulag, starting with the classic accounts of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov, explore primarily the travails of the men’ (p. x). This ignores a vast amount of material by women, starting with the classic account of Evgeniia Ginzburg (well known long before the publication of Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales), and more recently including two important collections of memoirs: Simeon Vilensky, ed., Till My Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag, trans. John Crowfoot (London: Virago, 1999) – a selective translation of Semen Vilenskii, ed., Dodnes’ tiagoteet: Zapiski vashei sovremennitsy (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1989) – and Veronica Shapovalov, ed. and trans., Remembering the Darkness: Women in Soviet Prisons (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), which takes its material from the Memorial archives in St Petersburg. Neither of these books makes it onto Gregory’s bibliography, but they offer a far wider perspective on the Gulag experiences of women and will remain my first recommendations.

Remembering the Darkness contains perhaps the most unusual individual story of life in the Gulag, the memoir of Valentina Grigorievna Ievleva-Pavlenko (pp. 317-53). It’s a text that I love teaching because it confounds all my students’ expectations and makes them confront all sorts of questions that many traditional narratives – particularly by women – tend to sweep under the carpet. Eighteen when she was sentenced to six years in the camps, Valentina’s story is one of love and sex in the Gulag. We follow her through a series of affairs as she moves through the camp system, and read of the men who fall in love with her, the thieves and brigade leaders who try to make her their property, the times when she has to pay for favours with her body, or finds ways to avoid doing so, and the jealousy she encounters from other women. It in no way conforms to the standard, uplifting narrative of mutual support and virtuous conduct that we normally associate with women Gulag survivors, which frequently give the impression that sex is an activity the occurs only amongst the most depraved of female criminals but is entirely absent from the lives of political prisoners. The first time I read Ievleva-Pavlenko’s memoir I felt that because it was the most trivial account of the camps I’d come across, she was in fact filling in some of the missing detail from narratives which – as much as I admire them – present self-images of such purity and respectability that one has to suspect they are not telling the whole story. That may well be because of survivors’ reticence about revealing intimate details, rather than any desire to deceive, but in a sense Ievleva-Pavelenko, because she lacks any such scruples, normalizes the Gulag narrative. Hers is not a tale of moral superiority and the triumph of the human spirit, of extraordinary behaviour in extraordinary circumstances, but of the continuation of her normal life; the camp system here is not a space of exception, but simply an extension of everyday life in the Stalin era.

But Ievleva-Pavelenko’s behaviour is unusual in another way, because we repeatedly see her refusal to cooperate – with the interrogation, with the prison rules, and, most strikingly, in refusing to work unless it suited her, even when that resulted in punishment. And while the latter in particular may have derived from a basically self-centred attitude which is hardly admirable in itself, it still demonstrates a spirit of resistance and a startling rejection of the state’s terms of existence that one seldom encounters in Gulag narratives. In a way she remains more firmly outside the system than any prisoner convicted under Article 58 that I’ve come across, and her position perhaps more closely resembles that of the professional criminals (the ‘thieves in the law’). Given the scarcity of sources by members of that fraternity, Valentina’s perspective on labour camp life may be valuable as a proxy that can reveal something of their mentality. So while her memoir may shock my students, and is certainly neither edifying nor moving, in its author’s failure to stick to the rules – of both camp life and survivors’ narratives – it shows aspects of the Gulag that are otherwise largely inaccessible. Sometimes the trivial and ordinary is exactly what we need.