The House of the Dead by Daniel Beer
The idea of Siberia “runs like a skein” through Russian literature, said David Aaronovitch in The Times. Pushkin, Chekhov and Tolstoy all set works there, while Dostoevsky was himself a prisoner there for five years – an experience that “shaped almost everything he wrote”. The region was “Russia’s Australia” – a vast, nearly empty semi-continent. And like Australia, its colonisers had two competing impulses: to develop it, and to use it “as a gigantic natural prison”. As Daniel Beer shows in this “fascinating” history of Siberian exile under the Tsars, in Russia’s case the “punitive function” was to the fore. Between 1801 and 1917, more than one million Russian subjects were sent to Siberia, said Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. Injustices and atrocities “pile up” on every page of Beer’s book, which is a “splendid example of academic scholarship for a public audience”. After a “typically horrific” journey by foot, often lasting years, prisoners would be packed into narrow barracks, forced to work in mines and factories, and “brutally beaten by their guards”. Rape and murder were rife. It “speaks volumes” that a favourite work-avoidance tactic was to push horsehairs into “tiny incisions in the penis”, to mimic the symptoms of syphilis.
The system did not even achieve one of its main objectives, which was to boost Siberia’s economic development, said Douglas Smith in the Literary Review. The logic it was founded upon was “fundamentally flawed”; the weakness of the Russian state meant that the penal system’s infrastructure was “never robust enough to meet its requirements”. All that it did, tragically, was to reduce prisoners to the “state of animals” – a brutality that then “spilled out of the camps” to infect all of society.