I have a particular love for Russian prison literature. For the third time, I am reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead. By no means is it anywhere near the greatest of Dostoyevsky’s novels, but the subject has always fascinated me.
After the October Revolution, and especially during Josef Stalin’s reign, the literature of the GULAGs became a standard literary genre. I love Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s massive The GULAG Archipelago as well as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The First Circle. Also well worth reading is Varlam Shalamov’s grim Kolyma Tales.
It is a common misconception that Dostoyevsky’s book is not a novel but just a thinly fictionalized account of his own four years in Omsk. At the time he wrote it, he was trying to reestablish his literary reputation after four years in prison and subsequent time with the Siberian Army Corps of the Seventh Line Battalion in Semipalatinsk. He was worried that if he wrote a book that was less than uplifting, he would once again be regarded as a political prisoner and suffer excessive censorship.
While it is anything but pollyanna-ish, The House of the Dead provided a rare look at the Tsar’s prison colonies on the other side of the Ural Mountains.