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    Dostoevsky on the Irtysh, or the Underbelly of the Empire [1859]

Simon Tokarzewski

It was still dark. On the grey sky, opal-colored clouds created faint and flowerlike smudges. Little by little, the clouds revealed a hot summer day. The waters of the Irtysh River appeared pink. The rays of light fell onto the endless panorama of the Kyrgyz steppe. The day was going to be sunny and hot.

A breeze blew and joyful murmurs cascaded down the river and the steppe, all the way to the remote nomad village whose herd of horses was grazing nearby. The rocky embankment shone like gold in the morning sun.

Along this embankment marched a group of prisoners from a nearby labor colony. The prison drum woke them up long before dawn, yet no one complained because hot summer nights in the windowless barracks were torture, and even the hardest work in the forest was preferable to the stifling prison air.

Today we were supposed to cut down trees, build walkways, and clear up vegetation in the virgin forest. All this was needed because the governor of western Siberia, Piotr Dimitrievich Gorchakov, wished to make it easier for his guests to find their way in the forest during the hunting party planned for the visiting dignitaries from Petersburg.

With shovels on our shoulders and axes in our hands we marched gaily and steadily.

All of us were merry. Even the guards, usually gloomy and quick to offend, did not swear and did not urge us to go faster, did not threaten us with “a bullet in the head” for the possible attempted escape, and did not check our leg irons to see whether they were tight enough, something they usually did when prisoners were working outside the prison and far away from the fortress of Omsk. The charm of the landscape and fine air made them temporarily kind, trustful, understanding, and relatively content. In fact, the chief guard ordered the drummer to announce a break long before twelve noon. When this happened, the entire detachment got out of the forest and sat down in small groups.

We Poles sat together, trying as always not to be noticed or attract the other prisoners’ attention. In spite of good weather, the prisoners carried inside them tons of hostility, especially toward the “politicals,” which all of us Poles were.

Fyodor Dostoevsky and Sergei Durov [1] squatted down by us.

Dostoevsky said in French: “Today for the first time since my arrival in the Omsk prison I can truly breathe. I feel good. I feel as if I were not a prisoner forced to do hard labor, but a free man who chose to take an outing in the country.”

Ordinary criminals hated the “politicians” (their word for political prisoners) and mocked us for the fact that we did not commit any crimes but got to jail for God-knows-what, and in addition we were of noble status. When they heard us speak Polish or French, they became especially furious.

However, today Dostoevsky’s French was graciously forgiven. Only Sushilov[2] spat in our direction. Looking at us with contempt, he half-screamed and half-sang a peasant song, “Peter strutted in Moscow,/But now he has to weave rope.“[3] His singing was followed by his comrades’ contemptuous laughter.

Soon the attention was diverted to the kalashnitsy, or girls selling saiki, the sweet buns. The baking business provided a living for many a woman in Omsk, even though the price was low, only half a kopeck for a good size bun. The prisoners bought them in abundance and ate them on the spot, enjoying the sight of the pretty faces and figures. The girls looked coquettishly at the Don Juans with half-shaven heads, branded foreheads, and hideous leg irons. The bakery girls were a common sight wherever the prisoners worked, whether inside or outside Omsk, in brick-making plants, markets, smithies, or repairing roads in spring or fall, or during afternoon breaks. With their baskets full of baked goods, these girls were always greeted with joy and indecent jokes. Now, too, the prisoners shouted:

“Chekunda! Maryashka! Gavroshka! We have long been waiting for you. Where have you been, you good-for-nothings?”

“We were helping our mothers bake saiki,” answered the girls.

“You are lying! May the plague get you!”

“See how he swears,” retorted the girls with pretended anger, while Chekunda said with seriousness in her voice:

“I’ll tell you the truth. It is real truth: from midnight until noon, we were dancing all the time. . .”

“In the Jewish inn,” interrupted Sushilov, “at the mangy Elyashka’s.”

“Hey, you are lying,” Chekunda retorted, “not in the inn and not at the Elijah’s, but in the general’s house where we had a splendid time with the officers.”

“All right, let it be the general’s,” said Sushilov, “the general’s indeed! But there are generals and generals. Let me tell you girls, you were dancing with the vagabonds’ general and with his officers. ”

This joke made all the prisoners laugh, and the girls pretended to be offended. Sushilov went on: “See to it that you cows do not cozy up to the politicals!”

“On the contrary, we want to spite you! Your wish is our command!” The girls laughed happily, because their hot cakes were truly selling. These buns, washed down with water from a nearby spring, were lunch for most of us.

Their empty baskets on their heads, the girls were about to go away when the sergeant began to shout at us to go back to work in the forest; but all of a sudden an unusual sight attracted our attention. In the middle of the Irtysh River there appeared a boat decorated with green branches and flowers. A huge, swan-shaped, white boat with purple sails and a flag with an inscription in French, “Mon plaisir.” Following it was a flotilla of smaller white boats, likewise decorated with flowers and colorful sails. In the boats sat women in light dresses and hats, accompanied by military officers of the highest rank, dressed in the parade uniforms of the Krasnoiarsk regiment.

The current swiftly carried on these beautiful and elegant boats. The oarsmen paddled lightly and the regimental orchestra switched into a fortissimo.

The prisoners fell silent and watched. Conversations on the boats were discreet, and the sound of the orchestra was clearly heard mixed with the noise of the Irtysh waves.

“Freischütz! Ah! We saw this opera together, Fyodor Mikhailovich,” exclaimed Durov turning to Dostoevsky. The latter gave him a melancholy smile and said, “Yes, I remember.” They both sighed.

In the meantime the boats came close to us. The prisoners took off their caps and stood at attention. The guards followed suit.

In the first flowery boat, one with the ruby-red sails, there sat General Shramov’s wife[4] amid the military and civilian dignitaries from Petersburg and lesser dignitaries from Omsk. They were seated on benches covered with carpets. On Mrs. Shramov’s right sat a Petersburg notable; on her left, Governor Peter Gorchakov. This flotilla adorned with greenery and flowers in the midst of a majestic river, accompanied by an orchestra entertaining free, beautifully dressed, and light-hearted people, unfolded before our eyes as if it were a dream that came to us from too much heat on a hot July day. Slowly it disappeared behind a rock. The melodies from the Freischütz became more and more indistinct in the sun-gilded air. Finally we only heard the wind whispering in the old trees.

We went back to the forest to work. But the beautiful vision lingered in the memory of this band of hungry and miserable people, the people enslaved and humiliated by conditions in the labor colony. It stirred up bitterness, envy, and hatred toward those lucky few who sailed on the river a moment earlier.

“The scum of the earth! Petty thieves! They own millions and their bellies are stuffed with food. . . like generals they sleep on goosedown mattresses and get drunk every day like kings! They are not people but sons of bitches!” said the dwarflike, lame, and ugly Skuratov.[5] He paused, spat, and turned to us Poles with a contemptuous smile. “Well, how do you like it, you Polish gentlemen?”

The noncommissioned officer, Ivan Matveevich, who supervised the work gang, turned to him and said, “Stop talking! I am telling you, stop!” But his words went unheeded, and so did his urging to work faster (he used the knout unsparingly). The work was being done slowly and lazily. We felt particularly sad and apathetic after seeing those for whose pleasures we labored. We lost our habitual equanimity. The felling of trees seemed like an extremely onerous task, even though it was one of the coveted jobs in the penal colony. Time seemed to drag on unusually slowly, the air became extraordinarily dark and hard to breathe, and the trees seemed to shake as if attacked by evil winds.

That malicious dwarf Skuratov kept screaming so loud that his voice prevailed over the noise of axes and spades: “Hey, mister guard! The day is gone like a candle in the mangy Tobias’s story, and you still make us falcons work here?” “Some falcons!” Ivan Matveevich responded. “OK, we are not falcons, but you are not an officer either!” Skuratov’s wit was quick, and he knew how to needle Matveevich, who in spite of his modest rank insisted on being treated like an officer.

Skuratov murdered two of his siblings and for that he got a twenty-year sentence. He was usually in excellent spirits. He cherished his position as the prison clown and knew how to make the most gloomy prisoners laugh. Whatever he said met with guffaws. He was proud of it and knew how to turn it to his advantage. The cooks offered him tasty morsels, other prisoners shared their vodka and tobacco with him and even helped him do his share of work, which was often too much for his invalid stature.

As we walked back to the fortress, the sun was already low and it made the Irtysh waters look purple and bloody. Stuffy and humid air blew at us from the Kyrgyz steppes. The wind increased as we approached the town. A small cloud appeared, then another, until the entire horizon became dark and cloudy. The wind became a hurricane.

Along the road to Omsk there stood government sheds in which bricks and horse feed were kept, and where prisoners made bricks and broke large pieces of alabaster. Most of these sheds were already closed for the day, but in one of them, a smithy, work was still going on at full speed. One heard the sounds of powerful hammers and the clanking of iron bars falling on the floor. Bright sparks and heavy smoke came out of the chimney and blended with the dark horizon. Before the smithy stood several carts filled with iron bars. When we passed by, the officer guarding the cards shouted, “Stop!” He needed our muscle to unload the carts. There was no choice: we began to do so.

A light rain began to fall. It was not yet dark. The gold and purple sunset was still visible in the west, but on the eastern side the sky was so dark that it seemed to bring night prematurely.

“Obviously the heavens pity us and cry over our bitter fate,” said Sergei Durov, who liked pathetic rhetoric and posed as an unjustly treated, or rather mistreated, holy martyr. Soon the rain became a downpour, and it began to hail. We were soaked to the bone and felt grateful to the officer who, having consulted with Matveevich, allowed us to wait out the downpour in the shed.

We entered. Half-naked soldiers were working at a gigantic anvil and bellows. The fire exuded heat which brought to mind the Cyclops’ workshop or the entrails of hell. The blacksmiths sang a melancholy song as they worked on the iron.

Then suddenly a shot was heard, and then a second, third, and fourth. Apparently several pistols were fired simultaneously. The officer and Ivan Matveevich jumped up and ran to the door. The shooting continued, and the soldiers dropped their hammers and ran out. We prisoners followed in spite of possible punishment. As we poured out onto the road we saw an awe-inspiring view. The Irtysh rose up with the storm and the waves were a story high. Just a few hours ago the Irtysh flew quietly and peacefully; now it howled like a legendary monster, spitting out of its mouth fountains of muddy water and foam. The wind made nature scream, it twisted the waves and shook the flowery boats which sailed so proudly at midday. Now they were on their way back to Omsk, and obviously failed to reach safe waters before the storm.

The hurricane tore the flowery garlands and the red sails into pieces. It broke steering wheels and made hay of the sailors’ attempt to row to the shore. The boats were trying to get to the land at any price, but the hurricane pushed them back into the river’s middle. Two of the boats were tossed around like toys, and they hit each other repeatedly. It seemed that two natural powers, water and hurricane, allied with each other in order to destroy this beautiful flotilla and the carefree and merry people we saw at noon.

When they saw the smithy’s light, the hapless sailors began to shoot to turn our attention to them. However, even with the best of intentions we could not help them. We had no ropes and no people skilled in using them. The rain was coming down in sheets, the wind broke down trees all around us, it thundered every few seconds, and lighting blinded people on the shore.

However, as it often happens in summertime, the storm did not last long. When the rain began to subside, the officer ordered his people to unharness the horses and ride to town on horseback in order to bring ropes, boats, people, and other supplies. He ordered the prisoners to stay, intent on using our help during the rescue mission. But the black and disheveled clouds over the Irtysh fled north and soon disappeared altogether. The Irtysh became calm again. Only “the sheep,” or plasters of foam floating on smooth waters, testified to the storm that had moved over the river just minutes ago.

Still, the flotilla of leisure ships was by no means safe. The sailors ceaselessly tried to steer the rudderless boats toward us, but they were not successful. The wind was stronger and it pushed the boats toward the deepest and most dangerous part of the river. The women in the boats began to scream in desperation. “Save us, save us!” they shouted, “in the name of God and his miracle-maker St. Nicholas!” “Please be quiet, I beg you,” shouted back the officer pointing toward Omsk with a long pole, at the end of which there waved a white sheet. He wanted them to understand that help would come from Omsk any minute now.

The boat with the bright red sails was in the worst shape of all. This was the boat where the Mrs. General Shramov enjoyed herself with the Omsk dignitaries and Petersburg guests. It was clear that the charming Mon plaisir” had a hole somewhere in her body. She did not move but only heaved slowly, as if undecided whether to sink or not. The sailors were doing something to its sides, apparently trying to patch up the hole. The ladies’ dresses were soaking wet, while the men used their hats to pour water out of the boat, trying to keep it steady. They also were throwing out all kinds of objects: carpets which a moment ago covered the seats, baskets, boxes, shawls, umbrellas, ladies’ coats. . . . Obviously they tried to lighten the weight of the boat. In vain. The vessel slowly but surely was taking in water and sinking. And there was no sign of the rescuers from Omsk.

In the meantime, other boats were slowly approaching the shore and their salvation. Only the people in the red-colored sailboat were in danger of sinking in the middle of the mighty river.

Suddenly, a gigantic soldier working on “Mon plaisir” rose up. He was summoned by General A., who was also in the boat. He approached the general and saluted him. The general issued a short order. The soldier again stood at attention, his huge body straightened up as if on a parade. Then he took off his cap, threw it down, looked up at the sky which was by then cloudlessly blue and pink-crossed himself three times and jumped into the death-bearing waters with the cry “God help me!” “Mon plaisir” heaved violently, and then it went up a bit.

The ending was happy. The entire flotilla of boats including “Mon plaisir” was saved from sinking or catastrophic damage. To celebrate the happy ending, Prince Gorchakov and Mrs. General Shramov organized an even more splendid hunt than previously planned. The extra splendor was meant to make up for the unpleasant emotion that the Petersburg guests must have experienced during the unfortunate sailing excursion on the Irtysh River.

As for us prisoners, we continued to march out from prison to the forest to clear the brush for the road, make benches from the trees we felled, and use leftover branches to erect shelters meant to shield hunters during bad weather, and bowers where the military brass and their guests could enjoy their dinners.

On the third day after the storm, while we were walking back along the river shore after the day’s work, the guards suddenly stopped and screamed, “Andronik Onoprienko!” Their voices conveyed regret and indescribable fear. They began crossing themselves and murmuring some unintelligible prayer, and moved backward instead of forward. We prisoners also had to stop. “What the hell!” shouted the guard at the end of the convoy. By way of answer, the guard at the front pointed at the ground and repeated in a trembling voice:

“Andronik Onoprienko!”

On the wet sand lay a corpse. It was blue, enormous, with eyes wide open. It was the corpse of the soldier who three days ago jumped off “Mon plaisir” at the order of his commander. He had obviously hit a whirlpool and drowned.

What struck us Poles was that no one in authority took any interest in that soldier. No one tried to find out whether he reached the shore or not, and no one was looking for his corpse. It so happened that destructive nature turned out to be charitable this time: it returned the body, so that it could be buried in consecrated ground.

“Why are you standing here like oafs? May you drop dead from drinking!” shouted the noncommissioned officer. “Andronik Onoprienko drowned, what’s the big deal? Why did this idiot jump off the boat anyway?”

Skuratov stepped forward and, pushing his cap away from his forehead, said:

“Ivan Matveich, he jumped because he received the order to jump from the general.”

Everyone admired Skuratov for this. We shook our heads with disbelief, and the noncommissioned officer upbraided the hunchback: “You are lying, you Siberian plague!” But the dwarf kept repeating: “I am not lying, Ivan Matveich, I am giving you my honest word! Nevalid and Grishka and other sailors talked about it yesterday, when we were helping them load the damaged boats onto carts. As everybody knows, Andronik Onoprienko was fat as a bull and strong as a bear. He weighed a lot. . . . The general’s boat had a hole in it . . . so the general ordered Onoprienko to jump off the boat to make it lighter. Grishka and Nevalid and other sailors heard the brass talk: ‘Nothing will happen to him, he will just take a bath, and he is probably dirty. . . . We shall give him a bottle of vodka and fifty kopeks when he gets to the shore.’ This is how the generals were talking.”

But the poor Andronik did not make it to the shore, and he missed an opportunity to drink his vodka. Nor did he get his fifty kopeks. He just lost his life.

I felt as if a glacial wind blew at me and froze me to the marrow of my bone. This is how I felt while prisoner Skuratov was telling his tale.

The road to the penal colony took us near the summer military camp to which the now-deceased Andronik belonged. Among the tents made of hemp soldiers moved back and forth finishing up their daily labors, and they sang this song:

When they tell us to go, we go,
When they tell us to stand, we stand.
When they tell us to lie down, we lie down,
And we sleep in the grave, until the order comes.

Our little Polish contingent: Professor Žochowski, Mirecki, Józik Bogusławski, and myself, walked together. As soon as the sad and depressing singing stopped, Fyodor Dostoevsky caught up with us.

“Did you hear that song, gentlemen? Did you hear? Good for them! The Krasnoiar heroes! Good for them! With such an army one can accomplish miracles! One can win every battle! One can overcome Alexander the Great! One can conquer Constantinople! Place the victorious Russian flags over the Bosphorus and the Hellespont; one can conquer the world!”

He was shouting this in a tone of excitement and admiration for the soldiers, with his face glowing and his eyes on fire. He looked forward proudly, stretching his arms as if he saw some wonderful and bright dream materialize in front of him.

We were approaching the palisade surrounding the fortress in which our prison was located. The guard pulled the bell rope by the gate. It opened with a squeak. The party of prisoners entered the prison. Guards began to count those returning. “One! Two! Three! Four!” they shouted while touching each prisoner’s shoulder with a long stick. After this ritual, they went back to the officers’ quarters, while we went to the kitchen for a meal.

Dostoevsky again stepped forth in front of the Polish group. “What I told you while we were walking on the road must happen! It must!” he repeated with great emphasis. “I am telling you this!”

We did not respond.


1. Along with Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sergei Durov was also a member of the Petrashevsky Circle and was sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. See Tokarzewski’s “In Siberian Prisons, 1846-1857,” Sarmatian Review, vol. XXV, no. 2, 1117-1126, for further details.
2. A character under that name appears in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead. In Tokarzewski’s story, he is not as mild and meek as Dostoevsky’s portrayal.
3. She was governor Gorchakov’s mistress and openly flouted her influence over him, as described in Tokarzewski’s In Siberian prisons.
4. This character also appears in House of the Dead, in a prettified form.
5. Skuratov is likewise a character in House of the Dead.

Simon Tokarzewski, Pośród cywilnie umarłych: Obrazki z Žycia Polaków na Syberyi [Among the Legally Dead: Pictures from the Lives of Poles in Siberia]. Warsaw: Biblioteka Dzieł Wyborowych, n.d. 129 pages. Hardcover. Pp. 5-27. Translated and annotated by the Sarmatian Review staff.

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