Sunday, April 30, 2017

The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile under the Tsars - Daniel Beer fills the gaps

Daniel Beer’s The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile under the Tsars (2017) filled a major gap in my understanding of Russian history.  An idea that had been almost entirely abstract, or worse, overwhelmed by accounts of the Soviet Gulag, now seems somewhat less abstract.  Beer’s book is filled with specific stories, specific people, specific punishments – so, then, much less abstract.

Could I not read, instead, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead (1862) and achieve the same level of concreteness?  No, not exactly.  Chapter 7, “The Penal Fort,” is built around Dostoevsky’s experiences, and book, but is more generally about life in a Siberian prison, different than other kinds of exile, of which Dostoevsky’s was among the more brutal.  You wanted to stay out of a prison, out of the mines, and out of Sakhalin Island, the subject of Anton Chekhov’s 1893 book of investigative journalism.  But there were many kinds of exile, and many kinds of exiles.

The story of The House of the Dead is how the system changes over time, how the kinds of exiles change, and how the different types adapt to their punishment.  The 1825 Decemberists adapt to Siberia, working to move it closer to their own ideals.  The bomb-throwers and Communists of the 1890s and 1900s continue their fight by the same means that got them to Siberia.  Lenin used his three years of exile to write The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899).  “[W]hen he finally left Siberia at the beginning of 1900, he took with him 225 kilogrammes of book” (Ch. 14).  Now that is the way to measure books.

Lenin’s story suggests how incompetent the successive tsars were at punishing their enemies.  The response was generally too much, creating martyrs and public backlash among the more Europeanized Western Russians.  Any improvement in infrastructure or technology – the railroad, for example – only meant that the state could pack more criminals, vagabonds, suspicious characters, revolutionaries, and complete innocents into the Siberian camps, prisons, settlements, and frontiers.

The wildest section is Chapter 9, “General Cuckoo’s Army,” about the “hunchbacks,” the escaped convicts, who, in the vastness of Siberia, numbered in the tens of thousands at any given point.  They were a mix of people desperate to get back to European Russia (where they were forbidden to live), beggars, petty criminals, and murderous psychos.  The peasants who were there as voluntary settlers responded in kind.  At times I felt that I was reading a parody of the settlement of the American West.  I would love to read a book contrasting the settlement of the American West and Siberia.

Maybe that book exists.  I wouldn’t know.  My library only had Beer’s book as an electronic book, so I read it in part as an experiment.  The difficulties of moving around in the book killed any interest in checking sources in the footnotes.  At least some of the book is original archival research by Beer.  Which parts? I don’t know.  It was too tedious to find out.

Beer writes in an efficient but plain style, which sets up a pleasing contrast to his extensive use of more rhetorically interesting quotations from Dostoevsky, Chekhov, George Kennan, and a wide variety of other exiles, Russian and Polish, from across the 19th and early 20th century.  Beer is good with numbers, but there were many places where he would have benefitted by inserting a dang table – number of new exiles per decade, that kind of thing – but I suppose that is forbidden for commercial reasons.  The book would have looked too much like social history, which (don’t tell anybody) it is, a good one.


  1. Now this looks interesting. I've read Dostoyevsky, and The Gulag Archipelago and Sakhalin Island but one thing these books lack is a broad historical perspective, a look beyond the now of the writer.

    Tables and charts? Are you mad? That's the kiss of death to a book marketed to the general public. His original MS probably had loads of them; his agent removed half ("Boring!"), his editor the rest ("Can you write a paragraph that sums this all up for the reader?").

  2. The general public, I know, I know. Them.

    The longer perspective is exactly what is interesting, aside from the power of some of the individual stories. Whatever Dostoevsky or Chekhov saw, it was not quite like that in Siberia a while before or a while after.

    Actually, the story of what does not change is interesting, too. Bureaucratic inertia, human cruelty, human heroism, that kind of thing.

  3. Getting that overview would be a great help! I too have read Dostoyevsky and such (not enough, yet) but they are all individual accounts.

  4. I certainly had not understood how the exile system was constantly changing.

  5. I'm very interested in it, but I'm going to wait till the paperback comes out later this year, because this is exactly the kind of book you want a hard copy of. Also, anyone interested in Siberia should read Ian Frazier's amazing Travels in Siberia (the audiobook is read by the author, which is great except when he mangles the Russian).

  6. The electronic book experiment was only a partial success.

    Yes, the Frazier, thanks for the reminder. I should read Great Plains, too.

  7. Don't get me wrong, I love e-books and have hundreds of them (I never have to lug pounds of books with me on a trip again!), but they're for fiction and popular history, not reference books or serious histories with footnotes and maps and charts.

  8. That was exactly the experiment. The maps were not so bad - a single "bookmark" and I was in the right place. But the footnotes, what a disaster.

    My nightmare is that the published book in fact does have charts and tables, but that they were omitted in the electronic book.

  9. Thanks for the notes on this. I've been wanting a good overview of the Tsarist system since reading Anne Applebaum's "Gulag," which had a good teaser about the antecedents to the Soviet system but not much detail (and the only reference about it I could catch was written over a century ago).

    Sorry to hear about the experiment...unfortunately that mirrors much of my experience with non-fiction books. Some have been better than others, but when I find I want to flip between footnotes, the bibliography, and other sections I usually just give up. Give me paper.

    Again, thanks.

  10. Dwight, outstanding, you will get a lot out of this book. But yeah, paper, get a real book.