Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead is a major work of psychological insight, a rich tapestry of the inner life struggles of a procession of characters banished to the harsh conditions of a nineteenth-century Siberian prison camp. Fiction and memoir are interwoven, insofar as Dostoevsky himself experienced life in such a prison camp from 1850 to 1854.
“The Life Sentence” was not incorporated in the published text of Notes from the House of the Dead. It was found among the papers of Alexander Milyukov, a friend of the Dostoevsky family, and was first published in the complete works of Dostoevsky, Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii (Leningrad, 1972). It appears here for the first time in English.
In our prison barracks, Fyodor Mikhailovitch said, there was a young prisoner, a passive, quiet and uncommunicative man. I kept my distance from him for a long time—I didn’t know how long he had been at hard labor, or why he had landed in the special section reserved for men convicted of the worst crimes. He had a good reputation with the prison authorities because of his exemplary conduct, and the convicts liked him for his gentleness and servility. We gradually became closer, and one day, as we were returning from labor, he told me the story behind his exile. He had been a serf in a province near Moscow, and this is how he ended up in Siberia.
“Our village, Fyodor Mikhailovitch,” he began, “is big and prosperous. Our squire was a widower, not yet old—I wouldn’t say he was evil, but befuddled and debauched with the female sex I would say. We had no love for him. Anyway, I decided to get married: I needed a woman to run my house, and there was a girl I loved. We came to an understanding, we got permission from the manor, and they married us. And as me and my bride left the church and were going home, we went by the squire’s estate, and suddenly six or seven of his men came at us, grabbed my wife and dragged her off to the manor. I ran after them, but some men threw themselves on me. I yelled, I fought, but they tied my hands with straps and I couldn’t break loose. Well, so they made off with my wife and dragged me to my hut, and threw me all tied up onto my sleeping bench, with two guards outside. I tossed all night, and late next morning they brought my bride back and untied me. I got up, and she threw herself on the table, crying with misery. ‘Don’t torment yourself!’ I tell her. ‘It is not your fault that you fell into sin!’ From that day on I kept thinking and thinking how I could repay the squire for fondling my wife. I sharpened my ax in the shed, so sharp you could slice bread with it, and carried it hidden so no one would see it. It might well be that the other peasants saw me hanging around the estate and realized I was up to no good, but no one cared. No one had much love for our squire. But for a long time I couldn’t get at him—he was with guests or with his lackeys. It was very hard. And I felt a stone in my heart that I couldn’t pay him back for his evil deed. The bitterest thing of all was seeing my wife’s misery. Well, so one evening I was walking behind the manor garden. I look—and there’s the squire, walking down the path all alone, not seeing me. The garden fence was a low balustrade with a trellis. I let the squire walk ahead a ways, and then jumped over it. I pulled out my ax, stepped on the grass so he wouldn’t hear me and crept up behind him. I got really close, and grabbed the ax with both hands. I wanted the squire to see who had come for his blood, so I coughed on purpose. He turned, saw it was me, and I threw myself at him, bringing the ax down on his head... Wham! Here you go! This is for having loved her! Brains and blood came spattering out. He fell without a gasp. And I went to the police station and declared that this and that had happened. So they grabbed me and beat me and sent me here with a twelve-year sentence.”
“But you’re in the special section for convicts with life sentences!”
“The life sentence at hard labor, Fyodor Mikhallovitch, is for a completely different matter!”
“What was it?”
“I finished off the captain!”
“The one in charge of the chain gang. It was clearly his fate. I was marching in a chain gang—that was the summer after I had settled things with the squire. It was in the province of Perm. The chain gang was huge. The day was blistering hot and the march went on and on. We were collapsing in the baking sun, we were worn to death. The soldiers in the convoy were barely moving their feet, while we, who weren’t used to the chains, suffered terribly. Not everyone was strong—some were old, others hadn’t had a crust of bread in their mouths all day. On this march no villagers came to the roadside to give us even a bite to eat. All we got was some water once or twice. How we made it the Lord only knows. So when we arrived at one of the camps some of the men just fell to the ground. I can’t say I was finished, just really hungry. On forced marches in those days the chain gangs were fed. But here, we look and nothing’s set up yet. And the prisoners start saying: ‘What! They’re not going to feed us? We have no more strength, we’re skin and bones! We’re sitting here, we’re lying here, and no one’s even throwing us a piece of food!’ My feelings were hurt. I was hungry, but felt even worse for the old and the sick. ‘Will we be getting some food soon?’ we ask the soldiers.—‘You have to wait!’ they tell us. ‘We haven’t got the order yet.’ So tell me, Fyodor Mikhailovitch, was this fair? A clerk was walking through the barracks and I said to him: ‘Why don’t they give us food?’—‘You can wait!’ he answers. ‘You won’t die!’—‘But look,’ I tell him. ‘Everyone is at the end of their rope, marching all day in this heat! Give us something to eat now!’—‘We can’t!’ he says. ‘The captain has guests, and they’re having breakfast. When they’re finished, I guess he’ll give the order!’—‘Will that be soon?’—‘When he’s eaten his fill and picked his teeth, then he’ll come out!’—‘What’s this?’ I say. ‘He’s resting, and we’re dying like dogs?’—‘Hey! How dare you raise your voice to me!’—‘I’m not raising my voice to you,’ I answer, ‘I’m just saying that we have sick men who can barely move!’—‘You’re trying to start a brawl! I’m going to tell the captain!’—‘I’m not trying to start a brawl!’ I tell him. ‘And you can report to the captain whatever you want!’ Some of the prisoners began complaining and someone started swearing at the officers. The clerk flew into a rage. ‘You’re a troublemaker!’ he shouts at me. ‘The captain will take care of you!’ He left. I was seized by a fury that I cannot describe. I knew this would end badly. I had a pocket knife for which I had traded my overalls with a convict in Nizhni Novgorod, and I don’t remember now how I slid it from under my shirt into my sleeve. I look up, and I see an officer come out of the barracks, his mug all red, his eyes looking like they’re about to pop—he must have been drinking. And that damn clerk behind him. ‘Where’s the troublemaker!’ the captain shouted, and came right at me. ‘So you’re the one making trouble?’—‘No, sir, I’m not making trouble. It’s just that I’m worried for the others—do we have to starve to death? Neither the Lord nor the Czar has decreed it should be so.’ He flies at me, shouting: ‘How dare you, you nobody! I’ll show you what’s decreed for scum like you! call the soldiers!’ And I have my pocket knife in my sleeve and hold it ready. ‘I’ll teach you a lesson!’ he shouts.—‘Sir, you’ll teach me? There’s nothing you can teach me! I don’t need your teaching to know myself!’ I told him that to spite him, to get him even angrier so he would come closer. He won’t be able to hold back, I think to myself. Well, I was right. He clenched his fists and ran at me. I jumped and whammed my knife into his belly and slashed it right up to his throat. He keeled over like a log. That was that. His unfairness towards the convicts had really maddened me. It was for this captain, Fyodor Nithailovitch, that I ended up in this special section for life.”