Douglas Smith

Russia’s Wild East

The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile under the Tsars

By

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‘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!’

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