The Walking Dead

In America, the genre of the prison memoir includes Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver, and George Jackson’s prison letters. It runs through Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist on its way to memoirs of slavery and indentured servitude. It includes ancient captivity narratives—The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson—and, with the publication of Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary, it runs right up to our present tense.

In Russia, the tradition begins with the very first written work in the Russian vernacular, the Life of the Archpriest Avvakum, Written by Himself, which circulated in samizdat form for two centuries before it was finally printed, in 1861. It includes Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novelized memoir, Notes from the Dead House, which was serialized in the journal Vremya in the early 1860s. And, with the publication of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s My Fellow Prisoners, it also runs right up to our present moment.

Dostoevsky was just twenty-seven when he landed in a czarist prison, in 1849. He was arrested, along with dozens of others, as a member of the Petrashevsky Circle, a sort of reading group that had formed around a follower of the French Socialist Charles Fourier. Dostoevsky’s “crimes”—circulating and reading aloud a subversive letter, failing to denounce another writer’s short story, and taking “part in deliberations about printing and distributing works against the government by means of a home lithograph”—were the sort of things that Russian dissidents were still being arrested for in the 1970s and ’80s. But, in the immediate aftermath of the revolutions of 1848, they were already crimes that the Russian authorities took seriously. And so, on December 22, following months of interrogations at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, Dostoevsky and his fellow prisoners were conveyed by carriage to the city’s Semyonov Square.

The prisoners were all dressed lightly—although, according to Joseph Frank’s magnificent biography of Dostoevsky, there was a foot of snow on the ground. All of them would have seen soldiers, a priest, a crowd gathered, some distance away, at the edge of the square. A scaffolding had been erected, and three stakes were stuck in the ground beside it. When the prisoners were arranged, an official moved down the line and read each sentence, with the particulars in each case leading up to “The Field Criminal Court has condemned all to death before a firing squad and on December 19 His Majesty the Emperor personally wrote: ‘Confirmed.’”

Then the prisoners were split into groups. Three men—Petrashevsky among them—were tied to the stakes, and had their caps pulled down over their eyes. (As the soldiers raised their rifles, Petrashevsky managed to pull his cap back.) A minute passed. Dostoevsky was in the next group that was bound for the firing squad. But instead of shooting, the soldiers lowered their arms. Secret orders had been given—the prisoners were untied from their stakes—and an aide-de-camp arrived, carrying the czar’s pardon, and the real sentences. Dostoevsky ended up spending four years in a prison camp, and several more in exile. Dostoevsky’s comrade, Nikolay Grigoryev, lost his mind during the mock execution and never recovered his sanity.

Dostoevsky’s years in Siberia turned him away from the radical path he had started on, and introduced him to characters that would appear, much as they were in real life, in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. This makes Notes from the Dead House an autobiography, a testimony, and a skeleton key to Dostoevsky’s great works. More modest than the novels that followed it, it is, nonetheless, an invaluable book. This year, coinciding with the publication of Khodorkovsky’s memoir, we have it in a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

A guard tower at Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Siberian prison.
A guard tower at Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Siberian prison. Vladimir Varfolomeev/Flickr

Larissa Volokhonsky is Russian-born. Richard Pevear is an American. They live together in Paris, and their working method is odd: Volokhonsky, who says that her English is not quite fluent, produces a rough translation. Pevear, who says that his Russian is not up to par, takes over. Then they go back and forth, in a process that resembles a prisoner exchange—music for meaning, meaning for music—on a bridge that crosses the couple’s linguistic divide. In truth, one suspects, Volokhonsky’s English is really quite good, and Pevear’s Russian is not all that bad. But the end results are not as elegant as those achieved by Mirra Ginsburg in her translation of The Master and Margarita, or by Max Hayward in his Doctor Zhivago—novels that have also been translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky. Their virtue is in their fidelity to the text’s immediate moment, and to lapses or stumbles that might exist in the Russian: “Other translators smooth it out,” Pevear told David Remnick, in 2005. “We don’t.” How much of a virtue this lumpiness is, and how true to the text it turns out to be in the long run, is a matter for consideration. But in practice, the translations are effective, often excellent, and always worth reading. Pevear and Volokhonsky produce—we have them to thank for thousands of pages of Chekhov, Gogol, Nekrasov, and Tolstoy, as well as translations of all of Dostoevsky’s major novels—but never give the impression of being rushed.

With Dostoevsky, their lumpy method works well—in part, because Dostoevsky wrote under tremendous external pressures, along with the requisite internal ones, and was an especially lumpy writer. In the original, he’s ironic, at odds with himself, jagged and fiery, almost unhinged. You feel Vertov and Eisenstein swirling around in his sentences. But Notes from the Dead House was already translated—one could say, watered down—by Dostoevsky himself, in the sense that he wrote it with government censors in mind, along with the officials who still ruled his destiny. By Dostoevsky’s own, later standards, it’s a bit anodyne: a book of vignettes, character sketches, and observations that tend to be subtle, or veiled.

Notes from the Dead House was the first of Dostoevsky’s works to appear in English, in a translation, by Marie von Thilo, that was published in 1881—the year of Dostoevsky’s death. Von Thilo’s accuracy can be gauged by his title: Buried Alive: Or Ten Years of Penal Servitude in Siberia. But we also have the book in translations by H. S. Edwards, Constance Garnett, Jessie Coulson, David McDuff, and (quite recently) Boris Jakim.¹ In other words, this memoir-novel already exists in English. Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation does not improve, markedly, on the others. Why, then, do we need it, now? Perhaps the timing affords Pevear and Volokhonsky a chance to critique Vladimir Putin—who has kept the Dead House very much alive in Russia—without drawing undue attention to themselves, or breaking character. If so, this is admirable. But I can’t help thinking that what we do need, much more than this seventh translation of Notes from the Dead House, is a second translation of Varlam Shalamov, who was sent to the gulag for the very Soviet crime of calling Ivan Bunin “a classic Russian writer.” Shalamov was a classic Russian writer himself—a genius, in fact, who exists in English only in one, less-than-perfect translation, which is now approaching its fortieth year. Solzhenitsyn asked Shalamov to coauthor the Gulag Archipelago (Shalamov declined). But Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales hold their own with Babel’s best stories—even outside the land of the gulag, they deserve a much wider audience.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky started his professional life in the Komsomol (the Communist Youth League, in which he was a rising star) and went on to become the richest man in Russia: a king among the oligarchs. But he was fearless, or thickheaded, in his dealings with Russia’s real king, Vladimir Putin, involved himself in politics, and, in 2003, was arrested for fraud and tax evasion. As with Dostoevsky (and the archpriest Avvakum before him), the czar took a personal interest, and Khodorkovsky ended up in prison in Moscow, and in Siberia, where he had worked as the chairman and CEO of Yukos Oil Company.

At the outset, Khodorkovsky was not your typical prisoner of conscience (in Russia, prisoners like him are called “business prisoners”). But, in time, he became one. He remained a thorn in Putin’s side until his sudden release in 2013, and remains a thorn to this day: Though My Fellow Prisoners does not mention Putin by name, every word in it is an indictment of Putin’s regime. And while Khodorkovsky does mention Solzhenitsyn in his forward, as well as Shalamov, Notes from the Dead House is his real prototype. Khodorkovsky’s arrangement of vignettes and character studies brings Dostoevsky’s to mind. So do his short chapter titles:

“Kolya”; “Roma”; “The Suicide”; “Betrayal”; “The Aggrieved”; “The Rat”; “Amnesty” (Khodorkovsky)

“New acquaintances—Petrov”; “Desperate Men—Luka”; “The Grievance”; “Prison Animals”; “The Escape” (Dostoevsky)

One implication is that, in profound ways, little in Russia has changed since 1849, or 1989. Another, conveyed by Khodorkovsky’s excellent title, is that, under Putin, all Russians are prisoners.

There are a few ways in which this very short book disappoints. By and large, Khodorkovsky tells us little about himself. “Do I remember the details of my arrest?” he asks. “Not particularly.” Was he confused, or concerned? “Confusion, a sense of uncertainty—these are entirely alien feelings to me.” This might be perfectly true (whatever you make of him, there’s no denying Khodorkovsky’s bravery), but the lack of genuine self-reflection is as jarring in memoirists as it is common among oligarchs. As for the vignettes—Khodorkovsky is not Dostoevsky. But then My Fellow Prisoners shares qualities with another genre, that of the campaign memoir, and as such it is much more successful (and more revealing than American campaign memoirs tend to be). Khodorkovsky has said that he has no interest in ruling Russia, in general—but that, in a crisis, who knows what he’d do? And so, periodically, he exhorts the reader:

What happens to those of us who are too frightened to stand up for our rights, who adapt and hide behind a mask of submissiveness? Does this protective mask not morph to become our real face? [. . .]

Is it not worth trying to make our world just a bit less cruel? [. . .]

Can we really be at peace with ourselves, pretending that someone else’s fate is no concern of ours? How long can a country survive when indifference becomes the norm?

These are good questions. But who is this “we”? Khodorkovsky is in exile now, in Switzerland, together with the $100,000,000 he managed to get out of Russia. (His critics say he has several times that amount.) Millions of Russians view him with respect—or, at least, with respect-with-reservations. But Dostoevsky seems to have learned more in prison, and every time I came across such a passage in Khodorkovsky’s memoir, I thought of one, rendered quite well by Pevear and Volokhonsky, in Dostoevsky’s memoir-novel.

Unlike the prisoners that surrounded him, Dostoevsky was a nobleman. So is the narrator of Notes from the Dead House. One day, he notices that other prisoners have gathered, at some odd hour, in the prison yard. Thinking that he’s missed a roll call, the narrator rushes outside to join them, only to find that the guards are not there, and that the other prisoners are annoyed, at best, to see him there. Finally, after some words are exchanged, one of the prisoners takes him by the arm and escorts him out of the yard. “Never before had I been so insulted in the prison,” the narrator says, “and at the time it was very painful for me.” The narrator finds out that the men have assembled to protest the tripe—actual tripe, and not very well cooked—they’ve been given. He asks another prisoner: “Tell me, Petrov . . . aren’t your people angry with us?”

“Who’s angry?” he asked, as if coming to his senses.

“The prisoners, with us . . . with the noblemen?”

“Why should they be?”

“Well, because we didn’t come out for the grievance.”

“And why should you present a grievance?” he asked, as if trying to understand me. “You eat your own food.”

“Ah, my God! But some of yours eat their own food, and they still came out. We should have, too . . . out of comradeship.”

“But . . . but what kind of comrade are you for us?” he asked in perplexity.

I glanced at him quickly: he decidedly did not understand me, did not understand what I was getting at. But I understood him perfectly at that moment. For the first time now, a certain thought that had long been vaguely stirring in me and pursuing me finally became clear, and I suddenly understood something that I had realized only poorly till now. I understood that I would never be accepted as a comrade, even if I was a prisoner a thousand times over, even unto ages of ages, even in the special section. It was Petrov’s look at that moment that especially remained in my memory. In his question, “What kind of comrade are you for us?” such unfeigned naïveté, such simple-hearted perplexity, could be heard. I thought: isn’t there some sort of irony, malice, mockery in these words? Nothing of the sort: you’re simply not a comrade, that’s all. You go your way, and we go ours; you have your business, and we have ours.

Among other things, this remarkable passage describes Dostoevsky’s realization that he has gone to the Dead House for nothing: That no intellectual will lead Russia’s masses toward utopia, or anything else. And while Khodorkovsky is not, properly speaking, an intellectual, it’s a passage he’ll want to consider as he moves further along toward his own, perhaps less difficult, destiny.


¹ Edwards called his translation The House of the Dead or Prison Life in Siberia; Garnett’s and McDuff’s are both entitled The House of the Dead; Coulson has it as Memoirs from the House of the Dead, and Jakim uses Notes from the House of the Dead. In the original—Zapiski iz Myortvogo doma—there’s no article at all, just as there is no article in Zapiski iz podpol’ya, a novel that Pevear and Volokhonsky translated as Notes from Underground. In the case of the prison novel, some article, definite or indefinite, does seem to be called for. But why the “a”? It was the Dead House that Dostoevsky found himself in, not just a Dead House. Perhaps Pevear and Volokhonsky meant to point out that, in Russia, there are many prison camps. But those camps belong to the same system, and P&V’s change from “the” to “a” illustrates ways in which successive translations can yield diminishing returns.

Alex Abramovich lives and works in Astoria, Queens.