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In Russia, humanity has struggled for centuries

NONFICTION

The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars

By Daniel Beer

Knopf

368 pages, $35.00

In Kenneth Clark’s “Civilization,” Europe rediscovers culture in the ruins of Greece and Rome. In Daniel Beer’s “The House of the Dead,” the Tsars bury Russia in the rubble of a penal system. Penal colonies were a convenient way of dealing with malcontents. Rome used Romania; England used Australia; Russia used Siberia. Western nations closed them in response to calls for more humane treatment of criminals and dissidents.

Russia resisted the call. This book explores that cost in political and human terms.

Peter the Great westernized Russia on the backs of his peasants. When they rebelled, they were either executed or whipped, disfigured and sent to Siberia. In 1753 Empress Elizabeth, in response to European countries banning corporal punishment as inhuman, banned executions but kept penal colonies. Capital offenders were pronounced “civilly dead;” then they were forced to lie on the executioner’s block. Then the Tsar granted them life instead of death to show his mercy. Their nostrils were torn off so others were not tempted to steal or say “harmful things” about the Tsar. “The sovereign’s power, not only to take life but also to grant it, remained the cornerstone of the exile system in the centuries that followed.”

If Napoleon hadn’t decided that Russia’s fabulous natural resources would be better utilized under his rule, the Tsar's relationship to his peasantry might never have changed. But the Russian winter defeated Napoleon and Russian soldiers chased him into France. In so doing they discovered the serfs fighting with them were not inferior beings and that the French way of life was better than theirs. Few Russians had visited Europe, so autocratic government was all they knew. The Russian soldiers brought new attitudes back with them.

In 1825 the Tsar died and a power struggle ensued between the Tsar’s brother and his son. A group of Russian officers had had enough. On Dec. 25, they attempted to set up a democracy like the one France helped create in America. Inexperienced at leading a rebellion, they were quickly defeated. Members of the nobility couldn’t be whipped and scarred, so they were stripped of their titles and lands and declared “civilly dead.”

If the Tsar had let the Decembrists disappear into Siberia, they would have never been heard from again. But he kept them in groups and watched them obsessively. He raised them from the “civilly dead.” The Decembrists asked for their wives to accompany them, and the Tsar, not wanting to oppose to the sanctity of marriage, agreed. But he balked at letting them take their children.

The relatives of the Decembrists — many close to the Tsar — were perfectly willing to wipe the memory of these ingrates from their minds. But separating women from their children made the Decembrists human again. The Tsar’s moral authority was questioned for the first time. It would never fully recover.

Others forced the Tsar to make bad decisions. Poland was constantly being invaded. It needed a powerful partner to survive. Under Napoleon’s rule, Poland became a Western culture with strong liberal leanings. When Napoleon was defeated, Poland was partitioned to Russia, an autocratic power.

Many of its citizens called for the same changes the Decembrists wanted. They too were sent to Siberia. But the Decembrists spoke Russian — however haltingly — and had money and food sent from home. The Poles had none of this and were forced to do hard labor like common criminals. They tried desperately to escape. One couple gained notoriety. Their children born in Siberia died and they hid their embalmed bodies in the carriage as they tried unsuccessfully to make it to the border. Tolstoy wrote a short story about it called “For What?” A Frenchman named Custine wrote an entire book about the mistreatment of Poles that was read throughout Europe. In his novel, “Resurrection,” Tolstoy wrote, “It’s as if they had run a competition for corrupting the greatest number of people in the most effective and infallible way.”

It was one thing to torture your own citizens but quite another to do it to the citizens of sovereign country that had been entrusted to your care. The moral authority of the Tsar was questioned not only in Russia but also in Europe.

Inspired by the revolutions sweeping European in 1848, a young Dostoevsky joined a secret society that was infiltrated by spies. He was led to a firing line, then pardoned and sent to Siberia. His brilliant, first-hand account, titled “From the House of the Dead” was impossible to ignore. He also showed that the prevailing views about what should be done were both wrong.

Herzen and Chernyshevsky wanted to continue westernizing Russia. The Slavophiles wanted to build a new culture based on “the simple faith and the natural humility” of the peasants.  Dostoevsky knew from personal experience that Russia would never become a European democracy. He also knew from living with peasants in prison that the Slavophiles were looking at the peasantry through rose-colored glasses, and that “none of us loves them as they really are but only as each of us imagines them to be.”

The Tsar wanted better prisons. He chose an island off the east coast of Siberia because it was escape-proof. It didn’t matter that Sakhalin Island was hardly capable of sustaining normal life and totally incapable of sustaining the “civilly dead.” In 1890 Anton Chekhov, under the cover of being a doctor (which he was) went there to collect data for a medical report. Instead he wrote a masterpiece of investigative journalism that described a hellish world like no other, one mandated by the Tsar. His report drove one more nail into the failed state. The journey also hastened the author’s death.

The Russian’s word for arbitrary power, proizvol, also means despotism, highhandedness and outrage. It was now used to describe why these conditions continued to exist. Siberia had become a symbol of Russia’s backwardness. It was also an effective recruiting device for the revolutionaries. The governors in Siberia pleaded with the Tsar to stop sending criminals so they could sustain at least a modicum of civilized behavior. The number of exiles increased every year.

The next Tsar, Alexander II, made some concessions, but he also crushed a second rebellion in Poland and sent more Poles to Siberia. A terrorist group assassinated him. His son, Alexander III, reacted with predictable ferocity, creating a model of government that exists to this day. He gave officials the power to exile anyone suspected of sedition without a hearing or habeas corpus. Simple vagrancy or being “incompatible with public tranquility” was enough. It was now easy to be caught up in the exiling mechanism, but the punishment was still for sedition and crimes against the state.

Siberia became “a giant laboratory of revolution.” Lenin and Trotsky were exiled there in style with servants and thousands of books. Alarmed by the reports of atrocities, Europe welcomed these revolutionaries when their prison terms were over.

Nicholas II abdicated in 1917, and the prison system imploded. Fanatics emerged determined to destroy the 1 percent that owned everything.

On April 16. 1917 Lenin boarded a sealed train arranged by the German government and started his trip to the Russian capital. The Communists declared the old prisoners heroes and replaced them with members of the ancien regime and those incompatible with party policies. The Gulag was born. Same play. New cast.

William L. Morris is the co-creator of The Buffalo News poetry page and a longtime teacher of Russian Literature in secondary schools.

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