‘Here was a world all its own, unlike anything else; here were laws unto themselves, ways of dressing unto themselves, manners and customs unto themselves, a house of the living dead, a life unlike anywhere else, with distinct people unlike anyone else.’ So wrote Dostoevsky in Notes from the House of the Dead, a novel based loosely on his imprisonment in a Siberian penal labour camp as punishment for his involvement in the Petrashevsky Circle, a subversive group that met secretly in St Petersburg during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I.
Crammed into flimsy wooden barracks with criminals, thieves and murderers, Dostoevsky endured horrific conditions – bone-chilling cold, lice, fleas, cockroaches, filth and spasms of violence that conspired to destroy human dignity. It was a ‘ceaseless, merciless assault on my soul’, Dostoevsky wrote to his brother after his release: ‘eternal hostility and bickering all around, cursing, cries, din, uproar ... All that for four years!’
Dostoevsky published his Notes in the early 1860s to draw the attention of educated Russians to the appalling conditions of Siberian labour camps. It caused a sensation and became something of an instant classic. ‘I know of no better book