The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter 9.

Men of Determination—Luka

It is difficult to speak of these men of determination. In the convict prison, as elsewhere, they are rare. They can be known by the fear they inspire; people beware of them. An irresistible feeling urged me first of all to turn away from them, but I afterwards changed my point of view, even in regard to the most frightful murderers. There are men who have never killed any one, and who, nevertheless, are more atrocious than those who have assassinated six persons. It is impossible to form an idea of certain crimes, of so strange a nature are they.

A type of murderers that one often meets with is the following: A man lives calmly and peacefully. His fate is a hard one, but he puts up with it. He is a peasant attached to the soil, a domestic serf, a shopkeeper, or a soldier. Suddenly he finds something give way within him; what he has hitherto suffered he can bear no longer, and he plunges his knife into the breast of his oppressor or his enemy. He then goes beyond all measure. He has killed his oppressor, his enemy. That can be understood—there was cause for that crime; but afterwards he does not assassinate his enemies alone, but the first person he happens to meet he kills for the pleasure of killing—for an abusive word, for a look, to make an equal number, or only because some one is standing in his way. He behaves like a drunken man—a man in a delirium. When once he has passed the fatal line, he is himself astonished to find that nothing sacred exists for him. He breaks through all laws, defies all powers, and gives himself boundless license. He enjoys the agitation of his own heart and the terror that he inspires. He knows all the same that a frightful punishment awaits him. His sensations are probably like those of a man who, looking down from a high tower on to the abyss yawning at his feet, would be happy to throw himself head first into it in order to bring everything to an end. That is what happens with even the most quiet, the most commonplace individuals. There are some even who give themselves airs in this extremity. The more they were quiet, self-effacing before, the more they now swagger and seek to inspire fear. The desperate men enjoy the horror they cause; they take pleasure in the disgust they excite; they perform acts of madness from despair, and care nothing how it must all end, or seem impatient that it should end as soon as possible. The most curious thing is that their excitement, their exaltation, will last until the pillory. After that the thread is cut, the moment is fatal, and the man becomes suddenly calm, or, rather, he becomes extinct, a thing without feeling. In the pillory all his strength fails him, and he begs pardon of the people. Once at the convict prison, he is quite different. No one would ever imagine that this white-livered chicken had killed five or six men.

There are some men whom the convict prison does not easily subdue. They preserve a certain swagger, a spirit of bravado.

“I say, I am not what you take me for; I have sent six fellows out of the world,” you will hear them boast; but sooner or later they have all to submit. From time to time, the murderer will amuse himself by recalling his audacity, his lawlessness when he was in a state of despair. He likes at these moments to have some silly fellow before whom he can brag, and to whom he will relate his heroic deeds, by pretending not to have the least wish to astonish him. “That is the sort of man I am,” he says.

And with what a refinement of prudent conceit he watches him while he is delivering his narrative! In his accent, in every word, this can be perceived. Where did he acquire this particular kind of artfulness?

During the long evening of one of the first days of my confinement, I was listening to one of these conversations. Thanks to my inexperience I took the narrator for the malefactor, a man with an iron character, a man to whom Petroff was nothing. The narrator, Luka Kouzmitch, had “knocked over” a Major, for no other reason but that it pleased him to do so. This Luka Kouzmitch was the smallest and thinnest man in all the barracks. He was from the South. He had been a serf, one of those not attached to the soil, but who serve their masters as domestics. There was something cutting and haughty in his demeanour. He was a little bird, but had a beak and nails. The convicts sum up a man instinctively. They thought nothing of this one, he was too susceptible and too full of conceit.

That evening he was stitching a shirt, seated on his camp-bedstead. Close to him was a narrow-minded, stupid, but good-natured and obliging fellow, a sort of Colossus, Kobylin by name. Luka often quarrelled with him in a neighbourly way, and treated him with a haughtiness which, thanks to his good-nature, Kobylin did not notice in the least. He was knitting a stocking, and listening to Luka with an indifferent air. Luka spoke in a loud voice and very distinctly. He wished every one to hear him, though he was apparently speaking only to Kobylin.

“I was sent away,” said Luka, sticking his needle in the shirt, “as a brigand.”

“How long ago?” asked Kobylin.

“When the peas are ripe it will be just a year. Well, we got to K——v, and I was put into the convict prison. Around me there were a dozen men from Little Russia, well-built, solid, robust fellows, like oxen, and how quiet! The food was bad, the Major of the prison did what he liked. One day passed, then another, and I soon saw that all these fellows were cowards.

“‘You are afraid of such an idiot?’ I said to them.

“‘Go and talk to him yourself,’ and they burst out laughing like brutes that they were. I held my tongue.

“There was one fellow so droll, so droll,” added the narrator, now leaving Kobylin to address all who chose to listen.

“This droll fellow was telling them how he had been tried, what he had said, and how he had wept with hot tears.

“‘There was a dog of a clerk there,’ he said, ‘who did nothing but write and take down every word I said. I told him I wished him at the devil, and he actually wrote that down. He troubled me so, that I quite lost my head.’”

“Give me some thread, Vasili; the house thread is bad, rotten.”

“There is some from the tailor’s shop,” replied Vasili, handing it over to him.

“Well, but about this Major?” said Kobylin, who had been quite forgotten.

Luka was only waiting for that. He did not go on at once with his story, as though Kobylin were not worth such a mark of attention. He threaded his needle quietly, bent his legs lazily beneath him, and at last continued as follows:

“I excited the fellows to such an extent that they all called out against the Major. That same morning I had borrowed the ‘rascal’ [prison slang for knife] from my neighbour, and had hid it, so as to be ready for anything. When the Major arrived, he was as furious as a madman. ‘Come now, you Little Russians,’ I whispered to them, ‘this is not the time for fear.’ But, dear me, all their courage had slipped down to the soles of their feet, they trembled! The Major came in, he was quite drunk.

“‘What is this, how do you dare? I am your Tzar, your God,’ he cried.

“When he said that he was the Tzar and God, I went up to him with my knife in my sleeve.

“‘No,’ I said to him, ‘your high nobility,’ and I got nearer and nearer to him, ‘that cannot be. Your “high nobility” cannot be our Tzar and our God.’

“‘Ah, you are the man, it is you,’ cried the Major; ‘you are the leader of them.’

“‘No,’ I answered, and I got still nearer to him; ‘no, your “high nobility,” as every one knows, and as you yourself know, the all-powerful God present everywhere is alone in heaven. And we have only one Tzar placed above every one else by God himself. He is our monarch, your “high nobility.” And, your “high nobility,” you are as yet only Major, and you are our chief only by the grace of the Tzar, and by your merits.’

“‘How? how? how?’ stammered the Major. He could not speak, so astounded was he.

“This is how I answered, and I threw myself upon him and thrust my knife into his belly up to the hilt. It had been done very quickly; the Major tottered, turned, and fell.

“I had thrown my life away.

“‘Now, you fellows,’ I cried, ‘it is for you to pick him up.’”

I will here make a digression from my narrative. The expression, “I am the Tzar! I am God!” and other similar ones were once, unfortunately, too often employed in the good old times by many commanders. I must admit that their number has seriously diminished, and perhaps even the last has already disappeared. Let me observe that those who spoke in this way were, above all, men promoted from the ranks. The grade of officer had turned their brain upside down. After having laboured long years beneath the knapsack, they suddenly found themselves officers, commanders, and nobles above all. Thanks to their not being accustomed to it, and to the first excitement caused by their promotion, they contracted an exaggerated idea of their power and importance relatively to their subordinates. Before their superiors such men are revoltingly servile. The most fawning of them will even say to their superiors that they have been common soldiers, and that they do not forget their place. But towards their inferiors they are despots without mercy. Nothing irritates the convicts so much as such abuses. These overweening opinions of their own greatness; this exaggerated idea of their immunity, causes hatred in the hearts of the most submissive men, and drives the most patient to excesses. Fortunately, all this dates from a time that is almost forgotten, and even then the superior authorities used to deal very severely with abuses of power. I know more than one example of it. What exasperates the convicts above all is disdain or repugnance manifested by any one in dealing with them. Those who think that it is only necessary to feed and clothe the prisoner, and to act towards him in all things according to the law, are much mistaken. However much debased he may be, a man exacts instinctively respect for his character as a man. Every prisoner knows perfectly that he is a convict and a reprobate, and knows the distance which separates him from his superiors; but neither the branding irons nor chains will make him forget that he is a man. He must, therefore, be treated with humanity. Humane treatment may raise up one in whom the divine image has long been obscured. It is with the “unfortunate,” above all, that humane conduct is necessary. It is their salvation, their only joy. I have met with some chiefs of a kind and noble character, and I have seen what a beneficent influence they exercised over the poor, humiliated men entrusted to their care. A few affable words have a wonderful moral effect upon the prisoners. They render them as happy as children, and make them sincerely grateful towards their chiefs. One other remark—they do not like their chiefs to be familiar and too much hail-fellow-well-met with them. They wish to respect them, and familiarity would prevent this. The prisoners will feel proud, for instance, if their chief has a number of decorations; if he has good manners; if he is well-considered by a powerful superior; if he is severe, but at the same time just, and possesses a consciousness of dignity. The convicts prefer such a man to all others. He knows what he is worth, and does not insult others. Everything then is for the best.

“You got well skinned for that, I suppose,” asked Kobylin.

“As for being skinned, indeed, there is no denying it. Ali, give me the scissors. But, what next; are we not going to play at cards to-night?”

“The cards we drank up long ago,” remarked Vassili. “If we had not sold them to get drink they would be here now.”

“If!—— Ifs fetch a hundred roubles a piece on the Moscow market.”

“Well, Luka, what did you get for sticking him?” asked Kobylin.

“It brought me five hundred strokes, my friend. It did indeed. They did all but kill me,” said Luka, once more addressing the assembly and without heeding his neighbour Kobylin. “When they gave me those five hundred strokes, I was treated with great ceremony. I had never before been flogged. What a mass of people came to see me! The whole town had assembled to see the brigand, the murderer, receive his punishment. How stupid the populace is!—I cannot tell you to what extent. Timoshka the executioner undressed me and laid me down and cried out, ‘Look out, I am going to grill you!’ I waited for the first stroke. I wanted to cry out, but could not. It was no use opening my mouth, my voice had gone. When he gave me the second stroke—you need not believe me unless you please—I did not hear when they counted two. I returned to myself and heard them count seventeen. Four times they took me down from the board to let me breathe for half-an-hour, and to souse me with cold water. I stared at them with my eyes starting from my head, and said to myself, ‘I shall die here.’”

“But you did not die,” remarked Kobylin innocently.

Luka looked at him with disdain, and every one burst out laughing.

“What an idiot! Is he wrong in the upper storey?” said Luka, as if he regretted that he had condescended to speak to such an idiot.

“He is a little mad,” said Vassili on his side.

Although Luka had killed six persons, no one was ever afraid of him in the prison. He wished, however, to be looked upon as a terrible person.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53