The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter 7.


At the outset of this chapter, the editor of the “Recollections” of the late Alexander Petrovitch Goriantchikoff thinks it his duty to communicate what follows to his readers.

“In the first chapter of the ‘Recollections of the House of the Dead,’ something was said about a parricide, of noble birth, who was put forward as an instance of the insensibility with which the convicts speak of the crimes they have committed. It was also stated that he refused altogether to confess to the authorities and the court; but that, thanks to the statements of persons who knew all the details of his case and history, his guilt was put beyond all doubt. These persons had informed the author of the ‘Recollections,’ that the criminal had been of dissolute life and overwhelmed with debts, and that he had murdered his father to come into the property. Besides, the whole town where this parricide was imprisoned told his story in precisely the same way, a fact of which the editor of these ‘Recollections’ has fully satisfied himself. It was further stated that this murderer, even when in the jail, was of quite a joyous and cheerful frame of mind, a sort of inconsiderate giddy-pated person, although intelligent, and that the author of the ‘Recollections’ had never observed any particular signs of cruelty about him, to which he added, ‘So I, for my part, never could bring myself to believe him guilty.’

“Some time ago the editor of the ‘Recollections of the House of the Dead,’ had intelligence from Siberia of the discovery of the innocence of this ‘parricide,’ and that he had undergone ten years of the imprisonment with hard labour for nothing; this was recognised and avowed by the authorities. The real criminals had been discovered and had confessed, and the unfortunate man in question set at liberty. All this stands upon unimpeachable and authoritative grounds.”

To say more would be useless. The tragical facts speak too clearly for themselves. All words are weak in such a case, where a life has been ruined by such an accusation. Such mistakes as these are among the dreadful possibilities of life, and such possibilities impart a keener and more vivid interest to the “Recollections of the House of the Dead,” which dreadful place we see may contain innocent as well as guilty men.

To continue. I have said that I became at last, in some sense, accustomed, if not reconciled, to the conditions of convict life; but it was a long and dreadful time before I was. It took me nearly a year to get used to the prison, and I shall always regard this year as the most dreadful of my life, it is graven deep in my memory, down to the very least details. I think that I could minutely recall the events and feelings of each successive hour in it.

I have said that the other prisoners, too, found it as difficult as I did to get used to the life they had to lead. During the whole of this first year, I used to ask myself whether they were really as calm as they seemed to be. Questions of this kind pressed themselves upon me. As I have mentioned before, all the convicts felt themselves in an alien element to which they could not reconcile themselves. The sense of home was an impossibility; they felt as if they were staying, as a stage upon a journey, in an evil sort of inn. These men, exiles for and from life, seemed either in a perpetual smouldering agitation, or else in deep depression; but there was not one who had not his ordinary ideas of one thing or another. This restlessness, which, if it did not come to the surface, was still unmistakable; those vague hopes of the poor creatures which existed in spite of themselves, hopes so ill-founded that they were more like the promptings of incipient insanity than aught else; all this stamped the place with a character, an originality, peculiarly its own. One could not but feel when one went there that there was nothing like it anywhere else in the whole world. There everybody went about in a sort of waking dream; nor was there anything to relieve or qualify the impressions the place made on the system of every man; so that all seemed to suffer from a sort of hyperæsthetic neurosis, and this dreaming of impossibilities gave to the majority of the convicts a sombre and morose aspect, for which the word morbid is not strong enough. Nearly all were taciturn and irascible, preferring to keep to themselves the hopes they secretly and vainly cherished. The result was, that anything like ingenuousness or frank statement was the object of general contempt. Precisely because these wild hopings were impossible, and, despite themselves, were felt to be so, confessed to their more lucid selves to be so, they kept them jealously concealed in the most secret recesses of their souls; while to renounce them was beyond their powers of self-control. It may be they were ashamed of their imagination. God knows. The Russian character is, in its normal conditions, so positive and sober in its way of looking at life, so pitiless in criticism of its own weaknesses.

Perhaps it was this inward misery of self-dissatisfaction which was at the bottom of the impatience and intolerance the convicts showed among themselves, and of the cruel biting things they said to each other. If one of them, more naïve or impartial than the rest, put into words what every one of them had in his mind, painted his castles in the air, told his dreams of liberty, or plans of escape, they shut him up with brutal promptitude, and made the poor fellow’s life a burden to him with their sarcasms and jests. And I think those did it most unscrupulously who had perhaps themselves gone furthest in cherishing futile hopes, and indulging in senseless expectations. I have said, more than once, that those among them who were marked by simplicity and candour were looked on rather as being stupid and idiotic; there was nothing but contempt for them. The convicts were so soured and, in the wrong sense, sensitive, that they positively hated anything like amiability or unselfishness. I should be disposed to classify them all broadly, as either good or bad men, morose or cheerful, putting by themselves, as a sort of separate creatures, the ingenious fellows who could not hold their tongues. But the sour-tempered were in far the greatest majority; some of these were talkative, but these were usually of slanderous and envious disposition, always poking their noses into other people’s business, though they took good care not to let anybody have a glimpse of the secret thoughts of their own souls; that would have been against the fashions and conventions of this strange, little world. As to the fellows who were really good—very few indeed were they—these were always very quiet and peaceable, and buried their hopes, if they had any, in strict silence; but more of real faith went with their hopes than was the case with the gloomy-minded among the convicts. Stay, there was one category further among our convicts, which ought not to be forgotten; the men who had lost all hope, who were despairing and desperate, like the old man of Starodoub; but these were very few indeed.

The old man of Starodoub! This was a very subdued, quiet, old man; but there were some indications of what went on in him, which he could not help giving, and from which, I could not help seeing, that his inward life was one of intolerable horror; still he had something to fall back upon for help and consolation—prayer, and the notion that he was a martyr. The convict who was always reading the Bible, of whom I spoke earlier, the one that went mad and threw himself, brick in hand, upon the Major, was also probably one of those whom hope had altogether abandoned; and, as it is perfectly impossible to go on living without hope of some sort, he threw away his life as a sort of voluntary sacrifice. He declared that he attacked the Major though he had no grievance in particular; all he wanted was to have some torments inflicted on himself.

Now, what sort of psychological operation had been going on in that man’s soul? No man lives, can live, without having some object in view, and making efforts to attain that object. But when object there is none, and hope is entirely fled, anguish often turns a man into a monster. The object we all had in view was liberty, and getting out of our place of confinement and hard labour.

So I try to place our convicts in separately-defined classes and categories; but it cannot well be done. Reality is a thing of infinite diversity, and defies the most ingenious deductions and definitions of abstract thought, nay, abhors the clear and precise classifications we so delight in. Reality tends to infinite subdivision of things, and truth is a matter of infinite shadings and differentiations. Every one of us who were there had his own peculiar, interior, strictly personal life, which lay altogether outside of the world of regulations and our official superintendence.

But, as I have said before, I could not penetrate the depths of this interior life in the early part of my prison career, for everything that met my eyes, or challenged my attention in any way, filled me with a sadness for which there are no words. Sometimes I felt nothing short of hatred for poor creatures whose martyrdom was at least as great as mine. In those first days I envied them, because they were among persons of their own sort, and understood one another; so I thought, but the truth was that their enforced companionship, the comradeship where the word of command went with the whip or the rod, was as much an object of aversion to them as it was to myself, and every one of them tried to keep himself as much to himself as possible. This envious hatred of them, which came to me in moments of irritation, was not without its reasonable cause, for those who tell you so confidently that a cultivated man of the higher class does not suffer as a mere peasant does, are utterly in the wrong. That is a thing I have often heard said, and read too. In the abstract, the notion seems correct, and it is founded in generous sentiment, for all convicts are human beings alike; but in reality it is different. In the real living facts of the problem there come in a quantity of practical complications, and only experience can pronounce upon these: experience which I have had. I do not mean to lay it down peremptorily, that the nobleman and the man of culture feel more acutely, sensitively, deeply, because of their more highly developed conditions of being. On the other hand, it is impossible to bring all souls to one common level or standard; neither the grade of education, nor any other thing, furnishes a standard according to which punishment can be meted out.

It is a great satisfaction to me to be able to say that among these dreadful sufferers, in a state of things so barbarous and abject, I found abundant proof that the elements of moral development were not wanting. In our convict establishment there were men whom I was familiar with for several years, and whom I looked upon as wild beasts and abhorred as such; well, all of a sudden, when I least expected it, these very men would exhibit such an abundance of feeling of the best kind, so keen a comprehension of the sufferings of others, seen in the light of the consciousness of their own, that one might almost fancy scales had fallen from their eyes. So sudden was it as to cause stupefaction; one could scarcely believe one’s eyes or ears. Sometimes it was just the other way: educated men, well brought up, would occasionally display a savage, cynical brutality which nearly turned one’s stomach, conduct of a kind impossible to excuse or justify, however much you might be charitably inclined to do so.

I lay no stress on the entire change in the habits of life, the food, etc., as to which there come in points where the man of the higher classes suffers so much more keenly than the peasant or working man, who often goes hungry when free, while he always has his stomach-full in prison. We will leave all that out. Let it be admitted that for a man with some force of character these external things are a trifle in comparison with privations of a quite different kind; for all that, such total change of material conditions and habits is neither an easy nor a slight thing. But in the convict’s status there are elements of horror before which all other horrors pale, even the mud and filth everywhere about, the scantiness and uncleanness of the food, the irons on your limbs, the suffocating sense of being always held tight, as in a vice.

The capital, the most important point of all is, that after a couple of hours or so, every new-comer to a convict establishment, who is of the lower class, shakes down into equality with the rest; he is at home among them, he has his “freedom” of this city of the enslaved, this community of convicted scoundrels, in which one man is superficially like every other man; he understands and is understood, he is looked upon by everybody as one of themselves. Now all this is not so in the case of the nobleman. However kindly, just-minded, intelligent a man of the higher class may be, every soul there will hate and despise him during long years; they will neither understand nor believe in him, not one whit. He will be neither friend nor comrade in their eyes; if he can get them to stop insulting him it will be as much as he can do, but he will be alien to them from the first to the last, he will have to feel the grief of a ceaseless, hopeless, causeless solitude and sequestration. Sometimes it is the case that sheer ill-will on the part of the prisoners has nothing to do with bringing about this state of things, it simply cannot be helped; the nobleman is not one of the gang, and there’s the whole secret.

There is nothing more horrible than to live out of the social sphere to which you properly belong. The peasant, transported from Taganrog to Petropavlosk, finds there Russian peasants like himself; between him and them there can be mutual intelligence; in an hour they will be friends, and live comfortably together in the same izba or the same barrack. With the nobleman it is wholly otherwise; a bottomless abyss separates him from the lower classes, how deep and impassable is only seen when a nobleman forfeits his position and becomes as one of the populace himself. You may be your whole life in daily relations with the peasant, forty years you may do business with him regularly as the day comes—let us suppose it so, at all events—by the calls of official position or administrative duty; you may be his benefactor, all but a father to him—well, you’ll never know what is at the bottom of the man’s mind or heart. You may think you know something about him, but it is all optical illusion, nothing more. My readers will charge me with exaggeration, but I am convinced I am quite right. I don’t go on theory or book-reading in this; in my case the realities of life have given me only too ample time and opportunity for reviewing and correcting my theoretic convictions, which, as to this, are now fixed. Perhaps everybody will some day learn how well founded I am in what I say about this.

All this was theory when I first went into the convict establishment, but events, and things observed, soon came to confirm me in such views, and what I experienced so affected my system as to undermine its health. During the first summer I wandered about the place, so far as I was free to move, a solitary, friendless man. My moral situation was such that I could not distinguish those among the convicts who, in the sequel, managed to care for me a little in spite of the distance that always remained between us. There were there men of my own position, exnobles like myself, but their companionship was repugnant to me.

Here is one of the incidents which obliged me to see at the outset, how solitary a creature I was, and all the strangeness of my position at the place. One day in August, a fine warm day, about one o’clock in the afternoon, a time when, as a rule, everybody took a nap before resuming work, the convicts rose as one man and massed themselves in the court-yard. I had not the slightest idea, up to that moment, that anything was going on. So deeply had I been sunk in my own thoughts, that I saw nearly nothing of what was happening about me of any kind. But it seems that the convicts had been in a smouldering sort of unusual agitation for three days. Perhaps it had begun sooner; so I thought later when I remembered stray remarks, bits of talk that had come to my ears, the palpable increase of ill-humour among the prisoners, their unusual irritability for some time past. I had attributed it all to the trying summer work, the insufferably long days; to their dreamings about the woods, and freedom, which the season brought up; to the nights too short for rest. It may be that all these things came together to form a mass of discontent, that only wanted a tolerably good reason for exploding; it was found in the food.

For several days the convicts had not concealed their dissatisfaction with it in open talk in their barracks, and they showed it plainly when assembled for dinner or supper; one of the cooks had been changed, but, after a couple of days, the new comer was sent to the right-about, and the old one brought back. The restlessness and ill-humour were general; mischief was brewing.

“Here are we slaving to death, and they give us nothing but filth to eat,” grumbled one in the kitchen.

“If you don’t like it, why don’t you order jellies and blanc-mange?” said another.

“Sour cabbage soup, why, that’s good. I delight in it; there’s nothing more juicy,” exclaimed a third.

“Well, if they gave you nothing but beef, beef, beef, for ever and ever, would you like that?”

“Yes, yes; they ought to give us meat,” said a fourth; “one’s almost killed at the workshops; and, by heaven! when one has got through with work there one’s hungry, hungry; and you don’t get anything to satisfy your hunger.”

“It’s true, the victuals are simply damnable.”

“He fills his pockets, don’t you fear!”

“It isn’t your business.”

“Whose business is it? My belly’s my own. If we were all to make a row about it together, you’d soon see.”


“Haven’t we been beaten enough for complaining, dolt that you are?”

“True enough! What’s done in a hurry is never well done. And how would you set about making a raid over it, tell me that?”

“I’ll tell you, by God! If everybody will go, I’ll go too, for I’m just dying of hunger. It’s all very well for those who eat at a better table, apart, to keep quiet; but those who eat the regulation food——”

“There’s a fellow with eyes that do their work, bursting with envy he is. Don’t his eyes glisten when he sees something that doesn’t belong to him?”

“Well, pals, why don’t we make up our minds? Have we gone through enough? They flay us, the brigands! Let’s go at them.”

“What’s the good? I tell you ye must chew what they give you, and stuff your mouth full of it. Look at the fellow, he wants people to chew his food for him. We’re in prison, and have got to stand it.”

“Yes, that’s it; we’re in prison.”

“That’s it always; the people die of hunger, and the Government fills its belly.”

“That’s true. Our eight-eyes (the Major) has got finely fat over it; he’s bought a pair of gray horses.”

“He don’t like his glass at all, that fellow,” said a convict ironically.

“He had a bout at cards a little while ago with the vet; for two hours he played without a half-penny in his pocket. Fedka told me so.”

“That’s why we get cabbage soup that’s fit for nothing.”

“You’re all idiots! It doesn’t matter; nothing matters.”

“I tell you if we all join in complaining we shall see what he has to say for himself. Let’s make up our minds.”

Say for himself? You’ll get his fist on your pate; that’s just all.”

“I tell you they’ll have him up, and try him.”

All the prisoners were in great agitation; the truth is, the food was execrable. The general anguish, suffering, and suspense seemed to be coming to a head. Convicts are, by disposition, or, as such, quarrelsome and rebellious; but a general revolt is rare, for they can never agree upon it; we all of us felt that since there was, as a rule, more violent talk than doing.

This time, however, the agitation did not fall to the ground. The men gathered in groups in their barracks, talking things over in a violent way, and going over all the particulars of the Major’s misdoings, and trying to get to the bottom of them. In all affairs of that sort there are ringleaders and firebrands. The ringleaders on such occasions are generally rather remarkable fellows, not only in convict establishments, but among all large organisations of workmen, military detachments, etc. They are always people of a peculiar type, enthusiastic men, who have a thirst for justice, very naïve, simple, and strong, convinced that their desires are fully capable of realisation; they have as much sense as other people; some are of high intelligence; but they are too full of warmth and zeal to measure their acts. When you come across people who really do know how to direct the masses, and get what they want, you find a quite different sort of popular leaders, and one excessively rare among us Russians. The more usual type of leader, the one I first alluded to, does certainly in some sense accomplish their object, so far as bringing about a rising is concerned; but it all ends in filling up the prisons and convict establishments. Thanks to their impetuosity they always come off second-best; but it is this impetuosity that gives them their influences over the masses; their ardent, honest indignation does its work, and draws in the more irresolute. Their blind confidence of success seduces even the most hardened sceptics, although this confidence is generally based on such uncertain, childish reasons that it is wonderful how people can put faith in them.

The secret of their influence is that they put themselves at the head, and go ahead, without flinching. They dash forward, heads down, often without the least knowledge worth the name of what they are about, and have nothing about them of the jesuitical practical faculty by dint of which a vile and worthless man often hits his mark and comes uppermost, and will sometimes come all white out of a tub of ink. They must dash their skulls against stone walls. Under ordinary circumstances these people are bilious, irascible, intolerant, contemptuous, often very warm, which really after all is part of the secret of their strength. The deplorable thing is that they never go at what is the essential, the vital part of their task, they always go off at once into details instead of going straight to their mark, and this is their ruin. But they and the mob understand one another; that makes them formidable.

I must say a few words about this word “grievance.”

Some of the convicts had been transported in connection with a “grievance;” these were the most excited among them, notably a certain Martinoff, who had formerly served in the Hussars, an eager, restless, and choleric, but a worthy and truthful, fellow. Another, Vassili Antonoff, could work himself up into anger coolly and collectedly; he had a generally impudent expression, and a sarcastic smile, but he, too, was honest, and a man of his word, and of no little education. I won’t enumerate; there were plenty of them. Petroff went about in a hurried way from one group to another. He spoke few words, but he was quite as highly excited as any one there, for he was the first to spring out of the barrack when the others massed themselves in the court-yard.

Our sergeant, who acted as sergeant-major, came up very soon in quite a fright. The convicts got into rank, and politely begged him to tell the Major that they wanted to speak with him and put him a few questions. Behind the sergeant came all the invalids, who ranked themselves in face of the convicts. What they asked the sergeant to do frightened the man out of his wits almost, but he dared not refuse to go and report to the Major, for if the convicts mutinied, God only knows what might happen. All the men set over us showed themselves great poltroons in handling the prisoners; then, even if nothing further worse happened, if the convicts thought better of it and dispersed, the sub-officer was still in duty bound to inform the authorities of what had been going on. Pale, and trembling with fright, he went headlong to the Major, without even an effort to bring the convicts to reason. He saw that they were not minded to put up with any of his talk, no doubt.

Without the least idea of what was going on, I went into rank myself (it was only later that I heard the earlier details of the story). I thought that the muster-roll was to be called, but I did not see the soldiers who verify the lists, so I was surprised, and began to look about me a little. The men’s faces were working with emotion, and some were ghostly pale. They were sternly silent, and seemed to be thinking of what they should say to the Major. I observed that many of the convicts seemed to wonder at seeing me among them, but they turned their glances away from me. No doubt they thought it strange that I should come into the ranks with them, and join in their remonstrances, and could not quite believe it. Then they turned round to me again in a questioning sort of way.

“What are you doing here?” said Vassili Antonoff, in a loud, rude voice; he happened to be close to me, and a little way from the rest; the man had always hitherto been scrupulously polite to me.

I looked at him in perplexity, trying to understand what he meant by it; I began to see that something extraordinary was up in our prison.

“Yes, indeed, what are you about here? Go off into the barrack,” said a young fellow, a soldier-convict, whom I did not know till then, and who was a good, quiet lad, “this is none of your business.”

“Have we not fallen into rank,” I answered, “aren’t we going to be mustered?”

“Why, he’s come, too,” cried one of them.

“Iron-nose,”7 said another.

“Fly-killer,” added a third, with inexpressible contempt for me in his tone. This new nickname caused a general burst of laughter.

“These fellows are in clover everywhere. We are in prison, with hard labour, I rather fancy; they get wheat-bread and sucking-pig, like great lords as they are. Don’t you get your victuals by yourself? What are you doing here?”

“Your place is not here,” said Koulikoff to me brusquely, taking me by the hand and leading me out of the ranks.

He was himself very pale; his dark eyes sparkled with fire, he had bitten his under lip till the blood came; he wasn’t one of those who expected the Major without losing self-possession.

I liked to look at Koulikoff when he was in trying circumstances like these; then he showed himself just what he was in his strong points and weak. He attitudinised, but he knew how to act, too. I think he would have gone to his death with a certain affected elegance. While everybody was insulting me in words and tones, his politeness was greater than ever; but he spoke in a firm and resolved tone which admitted of no reply.

“We are here on business of our own, Alexander Petrovitch, and you’ve got to keep out of it. Go where you like and wait till it’s over . . . here, your people are in the kitchens, go there.”

“They’re in hot quarters down there.”

I did in fact see our Poles at the open window of the kitchen, in company with a good many other convicts. I did not well know what to be at; but went there followed by laughter, insulting remarks, and that sort of muttered growling which is the prison substitute for the hissings and cat-calls of the world of freedom.

“He doesn’t like it at all! Chu, chu, chu! Seize him!”

I had never been so bitterly insulted since I was in the place. It was a very painful moment, but just what was to be expected in the excessive excitement the men were labouring under. In the ante-room I met T—vski, a young nobleman of not much information, but of firm, generous character; the convicts excepted him from the hatred they felt for the convicts of noble birth; they were almost fond of him; every one of his gestures denoted the brave and energetic man.

“What are you about, Goriantchikoff?” he cried to me; “come here, come here!”

“But what is it all about?”

“They are going to make a formal complaint, don’t you know it? It won’t do them a bit of good; who’ll pay any attention to convicts? They’ll try to find out the ringleaders, and if we are among them they’ll lay it all on us. Just remember what we have been transported for. They’ll only get a whipping, but we shall be put regularly to trial. The Major detests us all, and will be only too happy to ruin us; all his sins will fall on our shoulders.”

“The convicts would tie us hands and feet and sell us directly,” added M—tski, when we got into the kitchen.

“They’ll never have mercy on us,” added T—vski.

Besides the nobles there were in the kitchen about thirty other prisoners who did not want to join in the general complaints, some because they were afraid, others because of their conviction that the whole proceeding would prove quite useless. Akim Akimitch, who was a decided opponent of everything that savoured of complaint, or that could interfere with discipline and the usual routine, waited with great phlegm to see the end of the business, about which he did not care a jot. He was perfectly convinced that the authorities would put it all down immediately.

Isaiah Fomitch’s nose drooped visibly as he listened in a sort of frightened curiosity to what we said about the affair; he was much disturbed. With the Polish nobles were some inferior persons of the same nation, as well as some Russians, timid, dull, silent fellows, who had not dared to join the rest, and who waited in a melancholy way to see what the issue would be. There were also some morose, discontented convicts, who remained in the kitchen, not because they were afraid, but that they thought this half-revolt an absurdity which could not succeed; it seemed to me that these were not a little disturbed, and their faces were quite unsteady. They saw clearly that they were in the right, and that the issue of the movement would be what they had foretold, but they had a sort of feeling that they were traitors who had sold their comrades to the Major. Jolkin—the long-headed Siberian peasant sent to hard labour for coining, the man who got Koulikoff’s town practice from him—was there also, as well as the old man of Starodoub. None of the cooks had left their post, perhaps because they looked upon themselves as belonging specially to the authorities of the place, whom it would be unbecoming, therefore, to join in opposing.

“For all that,” said I to M—tski, “except these fellows, all the convicts are in it,” and no doubt I said it in a way that showed misgivings.

“I wonder what in the world we have to do with it?” growled B——.

“We should have risked a good deal more than they had we gone with them; and why? Je hais ces brigands.8 Why, do you think that they’ll bring themselves up to the scratch after all? I can’t see what they want putting their heads in the lion’s mouth, the fools.”

“It’ll all come to nothing,” said some one, an obstinate, sour-tempered old fellow. Almazoff, who was with us too, agreed heartily in this.

“Some fifty of them will get a good beating, and that’s all the good they’ll all get out of it.”

“Here’s the Major!” cried one; everybody ran to the windows.

The Major had come up, spectacles and all, looking as wicked as might be, towering with passion, red as a turkey-cock. He came on without a word, and in a determined manner, right up to the line of the convicts. In conjunctures of this sort he showed uncommon pluck and presence of mind; but it ought not to be overlooked that he was nearly always half-seas over. Just then his greasy cap, with its yellow border, and his tarnished silver epaulettes, gave him a Mephistophelic look in my excited fancy. Behind him came the quartermaster, Diatloff, who was quite a personage in the establishment, for he was really at the bottom of all the authorities did. He was an exceedingly capable and cunning fellow, and wielded great influence with the Major. He was not by any means a bad sort of man, and the convicts were, in a general way, not ill-inclined towards him. Our sergeant followed him with three or four soldiers, no more; he had already had a tremendous wigging, and there was plenty more of the same to come, if he knew it. The convicts, who had remained uncovered, cap in hand, from the moment they sent for the Major, stiffened themselves, every man shifting his weight to the other leg; then they remained motionless, and waited for the first word, or the first shout rather, to come from him.

They had not long to wait. Before he had got more than one word out, the Major began to shout at the top of his voice; he was beside himself with rage. We saw him from the windows running all along the line of convicts, dashing at them here and there with angry questions. As we were a pretty good distance off, we could not hear what he said or their replies. We only heard his shouts, or rather what seemed shouting, groaning, and grunting beautifully mingled.

“Scoundrels! mutineers! to the cat with ye! Whips and sticks! The ringleaders? You’re one of the ringleaders!” throwing himself on one of them.

We did not hear the answer; but a minute after we saw this convict leave the ranks and make for the guard-house.

Another followed, then a third.

“I’ll have you up, every man of you. I’ll—— Who’s in the kitchen there?” he bawled, as he saw us at the open windows. “Here with all of you! Drive ’em all out, every man!”

Diatloff, the quartermaster, came towards the kitchens. When we had told him that we were not complaining of any grievance, he returned, and reported to the Major at once.

“Ah, those fellows are not in it,” said he, lowering his tone a bit, and much pleased. “Never mind, bring them along here.”

We left the kitchen. I could not help feeling humiliation; all of us went along with our heads down.

“Ah, Prokofief! Jolkin too; and you, Almazof! Here, come here, all the lump of you!” cried the Major to us, with a gasp; but he was somewhat softened, his tone was even obliging. “M—tski, you’re here too? . . . Take down the names. Diatloff, take down all the names, the grumblers in one list and the contented ones in another—all, without exception; you’ll give me the list. I’ll have you all before the Committee of Superintendence. . . . I’ll . . . brigands!”

This word ”list“ told.

“We’ve nothing to complain of!” cried one of the malcontents, in a half-strangled sort of voice.

“Ah, you’ve nothing to complain of! Who’s that? Let all those who have nothing to complain of step out of the ranks.”

“All of us, all of us!” came from some others.

“Ah, the food is all right, then? You’ve been put up to it. Ringleaders, mutineers, eh? So much the worse for them.”

“But, what do you mean by that?” came from a voice in the crowd.

“Where is the fellow that said that?” roared the Major, throwing himself to where the voice came from. “It was you, Rastorgouïef, you; to the guard-house with you.”

Rastorgouïef, a young, chubby fellow of high stature, left the ranks and went with slow steps to the guard-house. It was not he who had said it, but, as he was called out, he did not venture to contradict.

“You fellows are too fat, that’s what makes you unruly!” shouted the Major. “You wait, you hulking rascal, in three days you’d—— Wait! I’ll have it out with you all. Let all those who have nothing to complain of come out of the ranks, I say——”

“We’re not complaining of anything, your worship,” said some of the convicts with a sombre air; the rest preserved an obstinate silence. But the Major wanted nothing further; it was his interest to stop the thing with as little friction as might be.

“Ah, now I see! Nobody has anything to complain of,” said he. “I knew it, I saw it all. It’s ringleaders, there are ringleaders, by God,” he went on, speaking to Diatloff. “We must lay our hands on them, every man of them. And now—now—it’s time to go to your work. Drummer, there; drummer, a roll!”

He told them off himself in small detachments. The convicts dispersed sadly and silently, only too glad to get out of his sight. Immediately after the gangs went off, the Major betook himself to the guard-house, where he began to make his dispositions as to the “ringleaders,” but he did not push matters far. It was easy to see that he wanted to be done with the whole business as soon as possible. One of the men charged told us later that he had begged for forgiveness, and that the officer had let him go immediately. There can be no doubt that our Major did not feel firm in the saddle; he had had a fright, I fancy, for a mutiny is always a ticklish thing, and although this complaint of the convicts about the food did not amount really to mutiny (only the Major had been reported to about it, and the Governor himself), yet it was an uncomfortable and dangerous affair. What gave him most anxiety was that the prisoners had been unanimous in their movement, so their discontent had to be got over somehow, at any price. The ringleaders were soon set free. Next day the food was passable, but this improvement did not last long; on the days ensuing the disturbance, the Major went about the prison much more than usual, and always found something irregular to be stopped and punished. Our sergeant came and went in a puzzled, dazed sort of way, as if he could not get over his stupefaction at what had happened. As to the convicts, it took long for them to quiet down again, but their agitation seemed to wear quite a different character; they were restless and perplexed. Some went about with their heads down, without saying a word; others discussed the event in a grumbling, helpless kind of way. A good many said biting things about their own proceedings as though they were quite out of conceit with themselves.

“I say, pal, take and eat!” said one.

“Where’s the mouse that was so ready to bell the cat?”

“Let’s think ourselves lucky that he did not have us all well beaten.”

“It would be a good deal better if you thought more and chattered less.”

“What do you mean by lecturing me? Are you schoolmaster here, I’d like to know?”

“Oh, you want putting to the right-about.”

“Who are you, I’d like to know?”

“I’m a man! What are you?”

“A man! You’re——”


“I say! Shut up, do! What’s the good of all this row?” was the cry from all sides.

On the evening of the day the “mutiny” took place, I met Petroff behind the barracks after the day’s work. He was looking for me. As he came near me, I heard him exclaim something, which I didn’t understand, in a muttering sort of way; then he said no more, and walked by my side in a listless, mechanical fashion.

“I say, Petroff, your fellows are not vexed with us, are they?”

“Who’s vexed?” he asked, as if coming to himself.

“The convicts with us—with us nobles.”

“Why should they be vexed?”

“Well, because we did not back them up.”

“Oh, why should you have kicked up a dust?” he answered, as if trying to enter into my meaning: “you have a table to yourselves, you fellows.”

“Oh, well, there are some of you, not nobles, who don’t eat the regulation food, and who went in with you. We ought to back you up, we’re in the same place; we ought to be comrades.”

“Oh, I say. Are you our comrades?” he asked, with unfeigned astonishment.

I looked at him; it was clear that he had not the least comprehension of my meaning; but I, on the other hand, entered only too thoroughly into his. I saw now, quite thoroughly, something of which I had before only a confused idea; what I had before guessed at was now sad certainty.

It was forced on my perceptions that any sort of real fellowship between the convicts and myself could never be; not even were I to remain in the place as long as life should last. I was a convict of the “special section,” a creature for ever apart. The expression of Petroff when he said, “are we comrades, how can that be?” remains, and will always remain before my eyes. There was a look of such frank, naïve surprise in it, such ingenuous astonishment that I could not help asking myself if there was not some lurking irony in the man, just a little spiteful mockery. Not at all, it was simply meant. I was not their comrade, and could not be; that was all. Go you to the right, we’ll go to the left! your business is yours, ours is ours.

I really fancied that, after the mutiny, they would attack us mercilessly so far as they dared and could, and that our life would become a hell. But nothing of the sort happened; we did not hear the slightest reproach, there was not even an unpleasant allusion to what had happened, it was all simply passed over. They went on teasing us as before when opportunity served, no more. Nobody seemed to bear malice against those who would not join in, but remained in the kitchens, or against those who were the first to cry out that they had nothing to complain of. It was all passed over without a word, to my exceeding astonishment.

7 An insulting phrase which is untranslatable.

8 French in the original Russian.

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