Dostoyevsky’s book, House of the Dead, is based on the authors’ personal experience with the Russian justice system over one hundred and fifty years ago in Siberia. Dostoyevsky had been arrested in 1849 and at first been sentenced to death for being involved the non-revolutionary Petrashevsky circle which read some Hegel and perhaps dared to critique the Imperialist policies of Tsar Nicholas I. After a terrifying mock execution, Dostoyevsky was sentenced to 6 years of hard labour, later reduced to 4, in Siberia. The prison camp was a hell hole, a tomb for health, time, and life; a place of of brutality, inhumanity, death, tears and paradoxically, of humanity and caring. He reflects near the end of his sentence, of the passing of the tedious arduous days “…as the dripping of water from the roof after rain, and”… burying each day with satisfaction that it was over and gone” (pp. 339, 340). With his perceptive professional eye, his existential philosophical-religious social perspective, and his writer’s ability to express his observations, the author captures the specifics of many enduring moments especially of the micro-dynamics of prison life. The reader becomes witness to life in the prison camp as well as the author’s inner struggles to make some sense of all the senselessness. Incredibly he survives with his faith renewed, a personal resurrection from the dead, from the house of the dead. During all those deadening days what had got him through was his hope for resurrection, for renewal, for a new life (p.339). His release and resurrection is described when having said his goodbyes, his fetter are removed by the blacksmith: “The fetters fell to the ground. I picked them up. I wanted to hold them in my hand, to have a last look at them. Already I could hardly believe they had ever been on my legs at all. ‘Well God go with you!’ said the convicts in voices that were curt, gruff, but somehow also pleased.’ Yes God go with you! Freedom, a new life, resurrection from the dead…What a glorious moment!” (p.356-357).
Having served as prison chaplain for 20 years, I became absorbed in the author’s descriptions and reflections on life “inside.” I could relate to many of the book’s themes and descriptions. Dostoyevsky explains that has written of his experiences because, “ …I believe it will be understood by anyone who serves a prison sentence in the flower of his years and strength, for the same things are bound to happen to him” (p.340). Physically, prisons and life inside are very different today, but the social and psychic drama and the civil death that happens behind the walls and bars is much the same, especially in these days of so called truth in sentencing and maximum security big-box prisons. However, as Dostoyevsky experienced and narrated, new life for him did arise from the numbing death dealing days of prison life. This is not an endorsement of prisons, (nor of the “new-improved” ones of the 21st century), but a testament that a miracle can occur despite incarceration. With his existential, spiritual eye, no doubt relying on his Russian Orthodox faith and his New Testament, the only book allowed inside, Dostoyevsky at times notices the transcending spirit of love and humanity inside. He describes the camp doctor as an example of compassion and understanding; the hospital area became a sanctuary in which ones humanness was respected and one could be restored. The camp doctor is portrayed as loved by all; the local visiting Orthodox priest is respected and venerated by virtually all. Both the Doctor and priest perhaps portray types of Christ: The Priest as the mediator of the mysteries and grace of God; and the doctor as Christ the compassionate incarnate love of God in Christ. Dostoevsky notes a great variety of faith expressions in the prison camp which are daily and unashamedly openly performed and tolerated by all. This varied religious-spiritual pluralism, at times eccentric, was vital to the men to maintain some manner of emotional equilibrium. Every lent, the prisoners were escorted in groups of 30, under armed guard, to the local Church for the sacrament. Dostoyevsky remembers his younger days when as a person of status and means, observing from the front near the altar, that the poor at the entrance door prayed more fervently and shamelessly. Now in fetters himself, at prayer in the back row by the entrance and observing the rite from afar:
Now it was my turn to stand back there, and even farther back: we were in fetters, and exposed to public disgrace; everyone avoided us, feared us, and on each occasion we were given alms. I remember that I found even this pleasant – it was an experience that contained a peculiar, subtle flavour of enjoyment. “If this is how it is to be, so be it,” I would think. The convicts would take their prayers very seriously, and each time they came to church each one of them would bring his widow’s mite with which to buy a candle or contribute to the collection. ”I’m somebody, too,” was what they thought or felt as they gave it up – “Everyone is equal before God…” We took communion at early mass. When with the chalice in his hands, the priest came to the words “…receive me o Lord, even as the robber”, nearly all the convicts fell kneeling to the ground with a jangling of fetters, apparently interpreting these words as a literal expression of their own thoughts (p. 275).
Dostoyevsky reveals a colourful social-cultural diversity in the life of his “fortress” as he called it. He does not witness religious or social prejudice being practiced openly, but he acknowledges the reality of rather fixed notions of social status and ethnic differences. Social stratification with rigid class differentiations was accepted as the normal order of life in Russia, as well as in Europe itself, at that time in history. These social cultural beliefs ran deep, etched in human consciousness as well as endorsed by theology and political ideology. Respect for God’s Divine Order for life mandated the maintenance of the status quo of rule by Tsar (or King or Queen), noblemen, and clergy. This was just the way it was. Dostoevsky was doing time in prison in Siberia (read exile) for having challenged the political status quo even though he had been born and raised a nobleman. He does admit that there were different strokes for different folks (read classes); and, goes on to describe how punishment and incarceration effects noblemen differently than the common folk, but corporal punishment for anyone is demeaning and stultifying. In this corrosive atmosphere, he recognizes his affinity to these common folk and realizes we are all one-humanity at the core. He recognizes the ultimate worth of everyone yielding to an attitude of solidarity, compassion, and respect. Status and the right order of estates are not everything, but our common humanity is. A nation or culture that dehumanizes other human beings really implicates and brutalizes itself. To make this existential connection with humanity, we may have to be incarnate and suffer the realities of the social lives of those of low estate, those we call other, or “them.”
In his narrative, Dostoevsky describes brutal aspects of a justice system, commonplace at that time in Russia and Siberia. As a keen observer human behaviour and life, he describes scenes and themes in serving time in captivity, as a human being held captive, legal captivity mind you, by other human beings. Work camps in Siberia were akin to transportation, or exile, to frontier lands far away. This had been quite common throughout Europe in the early years of colonial rule. In Siberia, thousands of miles away from Moscow, there was no place to escape to, especially in winter, and the convicts made handy cheap labour for local farmers. Brutal corporal punishment and capital punishment disproportionate to the crime was also normal; England had just “reformed” Its prisons and work houses, their criminal policy on corporal punishment with rational, utilitarian policy to make punishment less publically appalling. In his Siberian hard labour prison, Dostoyevsky describes brutal lashings with birch or wooden rods, some of 1500 or 2000 lashes, in increments as allowed by the doctors; some judicial beatings for internal rule infractions led to death. According to the cultural sensitivities and mentalities of that era, these people resigned themselves to the fact that they had it coming; their world view was of a radically stratified society by social status and rank, they simply bowed to the fact that violation of a superior’s rules was a punishable act, one to be “accepted like a ‘man’.” Corporal and capital punishments were seen as obligatory to maintain God’s divine order for life. One could only hope and pray to get lucky and avoid this fate.
Dostoyevsky, a convict with education and former status, found it hard to serve time as the common man seemed to be able to do. It did not come naturally to him, as it did to the commoners he thought. However, in his four years of serving time with them, along with much swearing, irrationality and brutality, he sees their humanity and has special memorable moments of experiencing human community with them. He notes especially his experiences in participating in Christmas skits, music and programs, and the food preparation. The whole camp got involved. Dostoyevsky comes away from his term of incarceration with a deeper sense of connection to the human beings that he did time with regardless of ethnicity or status; perhaps reflecting a social-status implication of his “resurrection.” He implies that it’s not basically the evil deviant citizen we need to be primarily concerned about; it is rather the brutalizing effect of powers assumed by authorities that lock up and punish other human beings. His influential perception and prophetic words are relevant today for those who dress up hard prison time with the “cosmetics” of 21st century technology. Dostoyevsky pointedly declares:
Tyranny is a habit; it is able to, and does develop into a disease. I submit that habit may coarsen and stupefy the very best of men to the level of brutes. Blood and power make a man drunk: callous coarseness and depravity develop in him; the most abnormal phenomena become accessible, and in the end pleasurable to the mind and senses. The human being and the citizen perish forever in the tyrant, and a return to human dignity, to repentance, to regeneration becomes practically impossible for him. What is more, the example, the possibility of such intransigence have [sic] a contagious effect upon the whole of society: such power is a temptation. A society which can look back on such a phenomenon with indifference is already contaminated to its foundations. Put briefly, the right given to one man to administer corporal punishment to another is one of society’s running sores, one of the most effective ways of destroying in it every attempt at, every embryo of civic consciousness, and a basic factor in its certain and inexorable dissolution (p. 242).
One could suggest that Dostoyevsky, writing about prisons in a cultural situation of almost two centuries ago, is out of date; and besides, he is writing novel, not a professional text on criminology. However, the author writes with a keen existentialist point of view as one who experienced the justice and authority of and political powers of 19th century Russia. There is an enduring nature to his critique of the dehumanizing nature of prison culture. Winston Churchill made similar warnings fifty years later about what incarceration reveals about the civilization of a country. Similarly, Justice Louise Arbour made reference to the same practice of the dangers of the violation of human rights of prisoners by Canadian prison officials in our century, and the danger of a downward spiral of degradation as a person in power ignores the human rights of one, he, or she, can easily do it to other. There are many incidences in recent history as well as social justice experiments that reveal the shadow side of incarceration. One can also say,” well prisons today are civilized and we no longer practice corporal or capital punishment as in Dostoevsky’s time”. True, cultural mentalities and penal practices have thankfully changed, in some ways; and, I am certain that Dostoyevsky’s and Tolstoy’s challenges to the violation of human rights in those days did make a difference then. The treatment of offenders who violated the social order in those days was responded to violently with swift counter-violence by the authorities. Capital and corporal punishment as justice was considered normal to most then; the convicts accepted their fate, and perhaps tried to change their luck by escape. Challenges to authority were readily seen as revolutionary and demanding severe punishment by the state of the kind Dostoevsky was served. However, the latent imprints of such punitive practices are still present in the shadow side of our modern attitudes and treatment of law breakers. Our media also m daily reflect vindictive hateful comments about criminals; few “hugs for thugs” available today. But if we profess to be a reflective, mature, just society, we cannot live as if the human rights and civil rights movements of the 1960’s and1970’s have not happened, nor may we ignore the wisdom of the prison abolitionists, nor ignore the alternative paradigm available from the work on restorative justice.
The world was seen differently in Dostoyevsky’s day than we do today. It is surprising though, that Dostoyevsky did not approve of the “reforms” Tsar Nicholas I was proposing. The Tsar was in favour of introducing to the Russian prison system, the new emerging state-of-the-art British model based on Utilitarian, rationalist thought. Dostoyevsky did not regard the new solitary confinement model such as that of Britain’s Pentonville (opened in 1842) as an improvement. The New Pentonville “super jail” near London England, was based on similar design and policy as the North American Philadelphia and Auburn models, (including Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston Ontario, a mixture of solitary confinement and hard labour and corporal punishment). Such prisons foreshadowed our 20th century maximum security prisons, majoring in sensory and social deprivation. Even Charles Dickens (in his novel, David Copperfield) treats the fabricated programed penitential lines of prisoners Uriah Heep and Mr. Littimer in Pentonville prison, as just that, fabricated. It seems apparent that the social connections and a sense of love and respect in human company, such as it was, that Dostoevsky experienced in his term of incarceration, was a necessary human condition for the survival of the human soul in prison. A fundamental lesson that prisoners need to learn, Dostoyevsky exhorts is to experience that they are loved and valued as human beings. The New prison factory-like fortresses in England and America were (and mostly still are) tombs of civil death, devoid of love, too sterile and cold for the human spirit to flourish.
Dostoyevsky had a keen eye for the nuances of human social and cultural as well as psychological-spiritual experience. Dostoyevsky illustrates the amazing capacity of the prisoners to endure; that the prisoner’s hope “to change one’s fortune”, or, “I will get out some day”, kept the prisoners sane and human in the” house of death”. Dostoyevsky is aware of the self-defeating habits that often kept them locked in unhealthy lifestyles. However, the inmates do not become repugnant to him. Sharing life with the prisoners in the harshness of the dehumanizing institution, Dostoyevsky himself awakens to what is truly sacred and enduring in their humanity, and his own. Observing the genuine humanity of the prisoners as they stage a Christmas program, he discloses, “One has only to remove the outer, superficial husk and look at the kernel within attentively, closely and without prejudice, and one will see in the common people things one had no inkling of. There is not much that our men of learning can teach the common people. I would even say the reverse: it is they who should take a few lessons from the common people” (p. 191). However, one cannot conclude that because of the lessons learned that changed Dostoyevsky’s social perspectives and deepened his faith, for what he calls “resurrection”, that he endorses forced confinement. Far from it, the prison form him is puts to death the soul, vitality, youth, human dignity and threatens to destroy the social bonds necessary of life’s flourishing. Miracles, though, can occur despite society’s inhumanity to itself.
Dostoyevsky’s account illustrates the importance human bonds and the validating of each ones humanity. Experiencing worth and mutual validation as a human being was at the core of “resurrection for him. Criminologist Nils Christie, in the 20th century, noted the brutalizing effect of social distance, thus emphasizing the importance of social affirmation and attachment in prison. In Social psychology, the related term, social categorization, an aspect of social cognition, is used to describe how we as human beings tend receive and use information about other human beings in society. Categorizing other humans as, “them,” distinguished from “us,” creates social distance. Such categorizing becomes unjust and caustic when it lowers and dehumanizes the other as a thing, a project to be worked on; or implicitly endorsing prejudicial and harmful action against those of a negatively labelled group. Christie, a Norwegian criminologist in WW II prison camps, observed that Nazi prison guards who treated prisoners with a sense of common humanity, such as sharing family pictures, and learning the language of foreign enemy prisoners, etc., showed more leniency and compassion to the prisoners than did the guards that postured in a cold, authoritarian and aloof manner. The cold, professionally dethatched guards could consequently do hard cruel things to the prisoners without compunction. It is easy to commit hard punishment onto those we don’t feel close to; compassion and justice and love inhere in social closeness.
Social categorization and social distance are destructive to the health of the common good of society. Social distance can easily create a social atmosphere in which human beings are seen as less than human, who then as objects of social scorn, deserve bad things. I am just horrified at the lack of recognition of human worth for people in conflict with the law or for those in prison. Derogatory labels dehumanize and desensitize, so when good people from ordinary society hear that thousands of murderers and criminals are languishing in jail, very little empathy is evoked. Dostoyevsky counters that all people, irrespective of life status or circumstances, are image bearers of God, and human, and since human must be treated as such. It is especially, he states, “…these “unfortunates’ [convicts] that must be treated in the most human fashion” (p.145).
Dostoyevsky and Churchill remind us that our prisons can tell us much about the moral health of our nation. How we talk about people different than us is an important factor of a healthy society. Labelling and categorizing other human beings as bad, mad, unbelievers, criminals, riff raff, and brigands, you name it, all foster distance, making it easier to ignore their human rights and wellbeing. Once we lower ourselves to declaring war on them as enemies, as garbage to be swept off the streets, as a lower form of life that do not deserve to be treated as human beings ,we are possibly heading for, as Dostoyevsky says, “inexorable dissolution.” Once we have reduced the humanity of the other, we have reduced our own as well; and of course, we have harmed Christ as well, for he did say, that which we do the least of our society, we do unto him.