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In Siberian Prisons


Simon Tokarzewski (1821-1890)

Arriving at Omsk. Vaska

On November 12, 1849, toward the evening, we saw the town of Omsk in the distance and said to each other: “Even if Omsk is hell and Vaska Kryvtsov [the commander of the labor camp] is Lucifer himself, it is better to go to hell and meet Lucifer, but get a little rest.” The Cossacks in charge of the convoy were brutal, and five weeks of travel on foot exhausted us, especially that most of the time we wore leg irons while marching.

But the arrival in Omsk was the beginning of the saddest and most vividly remembered part of my life. The commandant of the local fortress to which we were first taken looked at our papers and dispatched us to the labor camp chief whose name was Vasilii Grigorovich Krivtsov. He was commonly called Vaska, and I will call him so from now on.

In the guard house we met an official named Diaghilev. He was polite beyond measure and lamented our fate while telling us that our personal belongings would be confiscated. He apparently hoped for a bribe; he also advised us to immediately change into prison clothes, because Major Krivtsov demanded it, and he is very severe. Finally he took us to Vaska.

The moment I saw Vaska will never leave my memory. I was threatened with beatings by one Zhuchkovsky in the [Russian-controlled] police headquarters in Warsaw, and with gallows by Storozhenko; and I endured foul language from Leichte, Siyanov, Tansky, Zhuchkovsky, Blumenfeld, and Kwieciński. But all of them could have taken lessons from Vaska.

We lined up in the courtyard of Vaska’s house. Diaghilev went in to announce our arrival, having beforehand reminded us to take off our caps. Soon there appeared on the porch a man of considerable height, a bit on the heavy side, with graying hair. His small moustache went as far as sidewhiskers, which in turn gave the impression of pieces of string attached to his red cheeks. This, and the red-lined eyes, indicated that Vaska was an alcoholic. The master of our life and death stepped out of his house in a housecoat.

“What’s that?” he shouted, “You call yourselves prisoners? Hard labor prisoners dressed in civilian clothes? Unshaven, with beards and moustaches? (Professor żochowski and Josef Boguslawski had long beards and moustaches.) What is this? How is it possible?”

I was standing right in front of Vaska and looked at him with the kind of apprehension one feels while being approached by a mad dog and not being able to move. I cannot describe the feeling. We all kept silent and possibly it would have ended with verbal insults only, if Vaska did not look at Professor żochowski and said:

“Who is that? He looks like a brigand!”

żochowski felt insulted and answered back:

“I am not a brigand but a political prisoner!”

I dare not repeat the words which then poured out of Vaska’s mouth. They were dirty and revolting. When he finished, he ordered Diaghilev to write down that Professor żochowski was to receive three hundred lashes.

“I’ll show you! “I’ll teach you what it means to serve!” Vaska kept repeating. He ended with an order:

“Shave their heads off, put prison clothes on them, put leg irons on, and bring them to me tomorrow for a checkup.”

“What should I do with their personal belongings, Your Highness?” Diaghilev asked.

“Take them away and give me a list, then sell them at auction and use the money to supplement the prisoners’ diet.”

A philanthropist indeed: he was concerned about the prisoners’ diet! One more outpouring of invectives ended with “Poshli von!” [Get out!] In the guard house it took little time to surrender our belongings and change into prison clothes. We were dispatched to the barracks for the night. It was dark. As we approached the barracks, we suddenly saw Jan Woźniakowski, [a mathematician and an earlier Polish insurrectionist] who had received a twenty years’ term. However, four or five years into his sentence a mathematical work of his caught the eye of a dignitary in Petersburg and as a result, he was released from prison, dispatched to a military work battalion, and given the rank of sergeant.

The first night in the barracks resembled an earlier night in Ochair [during our journey to Omsk]. In the morning we were marched off to be transformed into prisoners by a barber. Our friend Josef was the first to go: I have to admit I cowered behind. When Josef came back, with his beard and moustache gone and half of his head shaved off, I closed my eyes involuntarily. I swear that not even our mothers, fathers, or other family members would have recognized us after that operation!

We were taken back to Vaska. It was early morning. Vaska was about to depart for a meeting with his superior, and for that reason he was sober and his eyes and cheeks were less red than usual. Even his voice was less stringent, and he attempted to speak moderately and gently, feigning compassion and consideration. He told us that we deserved the punishment we received, and that the punishment meted out to us was just. The words tsar and zakon [law] were used abundantly in his speech. He concluded by saying that we should curry his favor by our good behavior. After that lecture, we were led to the smithy where thick and heavy irons were soldered onto our legs. As mentioned before, in the guard house all our belongings were taken away: the only exception was a couple of shirts left to us on Vaska’s kind orders. The rest was sold. Where? When? To whom? We were never told. Later, while working in Vaska’s home, I noticed our satin pillows on Vaska’s bed, while the fine woolen suit that belonged to Alexander Mirecki eventually appeared on Vaska’s body shielding it from the cold.

Alexander Mirecki came to the Omsk prison in 1846. For four years he was the only political prisoner there and lived among common criminals. Of all the Polish prisoners he suffered most from Vaska’s brutalities. A poor fellow!

Vaska, who was then new to Omsk himself, would visit the barracks several times a day and issue innumerable orders for changing and reforming everything. He incensed the convicts so much that at one point they plotted to murder him. This happened before we came. A certain Vlasov attacked Vaska; the attack came to naught, and Vlasov was put on trial and sentenced within twenty-four hours. He died under the blows. He received two thousand lashes while alive, and an additional thousand when he was already dead. The prisoners were ordered to watch the execution.

There apparently existed other plans to murder Vaska. At one time, Vaska entered the barracks surrounded by armed soldiers. The convicts began to shout and goad each other to have a go at Vaska. Some of them shouted, “Let us not just stand here!” Others retorted: “Cowards! Cowards! You were not afraid of thousands of men, and now you are afraid of this one man?”

Yes, they were afraid! Like maltreated animals, they were afraid to strike their torturer and persecutor. The fear of painful punishment and the fear of death were stronger than the desire for vengeance and murder. But Vaska also showed fear. He promised to improve. It was grotesque to see, I was told, how this impudent and omnipotent major, this frightening prison dictator became as gentle as a lamb and began to speak in a frightened voice: “Children! From now on I’ll be your father! I’ll feed you kasha!”

He left the barracks unharmed.

The vengeance was terrible. For a long time, not an hour passed without someone being dragged out of the barracks and taken to the guard house for a beating. The usual “portion” was three hundred lashes; depending on Vaska’s mood and the amount of vodka he consumed, an extra hundred or two might be added.

It is true that many convicts were nasty people, but Vaska habitually ordered this torture for no reason at all. It was enough to sleep on one’s right side to qualify. This is not a joke. On a number of occasions Vaska would storm into the barracks at night and select for beatings those who slept on the right side of the body. He explained this by saying that Jesus Christ always slept on the left side and everybody should follow Him. Another reason to be beaten arose if one passed Vaska’s house without taking off or putting on his cap at a required distance and in a prescribed manner.

We all tried to keep away from the Major’s house. Vaska was proud, vengeful, cunning, promiscuous to an extreme degree, a card sharp and a drunkard: almost an embodiment of evil. This man had unlimited power over the social refuse gathered in prison, and over us politicals who were incarcerated there. It was his ostensible duty to improve the morals and manners of convicts who hardly ever thought of anything but satisfying their physical desires. But Vaska was no different. Indeed, we all agreed that his moral profile was similar to that of the most hardened criminals.

While speaking of Vaska, I should also mention other dignitaries who had indirect or direct power over the prisoners. During my years of incarceration, Peter Dmitrievich Gorchakov was the military governor of Eastern Siberia. He was a prince and an aristocrat known for his promiscuity. His mistress, a certain Mrs. Shramova, had a husband who was a general serving under Gorchakov. It was commonly known that Mrs. Shramova was a “make-believe” wife of Prince G. and bore him three daughters and one son. She was also the real ruler of Eastern Siberia: in order to get anything done, one had to appeal to “Mrs. General” and curry her favors with the well-known means. Only after taming her could one go to the Prince, this time with a certainty that one’s request would be met. Mrs. Shramova’s protégés got the best paid jobs, and of course the Prince’s sons-in-law received appropriate titles and remuneration. For his beloved the Prince organized balls and pleasure trips on lakes and land. Military orchestras played over the Irtysh River, and its banks were illuminated by lanterns to amuse Mrs. Shramova and her guests.(1) All this while General Shram silently followed the Prince and his “real wife,” and for his silence received orders, stars, crosses, and other distinctions. Whoever refused to maintain relations with Mrs. Shramova or did not try to flatter her received a cold shoulder from the Prince. It happened more than once that such a person was removed from office and had to stand trial.

Alexei de Grawe, the son of Colonel Fyodor de Grawe (the fortress’ commandant), was unjustly persecuted in this manner. His name indicates that his ancestors came from France, perhaps during the French Revolution. Aleksei Fyodorovich de Grawe was not a bad man. If he did not accomplish anything positive, it was because he did not know how; but he did not do evil because he did not want to. In his early youth he served in the military in Lithuania; because of his name and French background he was admitted to the homes of the gentry there. He always remembered his Lithuanian years with fondness, regretting that they were irrevocably gone. He was a passionate hunter and an excellent shot; he liked to hold parties, praising Polish hospitality [in Lithuania], and he himself entertained guests generously. He liked to be told that “De Grawe welcomes guests in the Polish way.” He was a Russian Orthodox and did not speak a word of French. His wife Anna was of a purely Russian background. She was an exceptionally fine and noble woman with a serious outlook on life: she regarded it as her duty to help people financially and morally, and she helped everyone who asked for her help. It was owing to her solicitations that a Home for orphan girls was founded in Omsk. Anna Andreievna taught there and collected money for the Home by organizing theatrical performances in which she was both actress and stage director. During my sojourn at Omsk I never heard anyone speak ill of her. Both I and other Poles were recipients of her kindness and assistance. Whenever the persecution was particularly harsh, it was enough to mention the circumstances to Anna Andreievna, and the culprit would calm down. Yet in spite of his basic honesty her husband Aleksei was harassed and persecuted by Prince G., and only because Anna Andreievna refused to ingratiate herself to Mrs. Shramova and did not attend the balls given by the governor.

To return now to our story. We were led to the door of that satanic abyss in which I spent seven years of my life, where I lost my youth, my health and my physical strength; and where I often suffered more than human beings are able to suffer. Having left that place, I can say, following the poet, “Like Dante, I passed through Hell.”

The door of the prison opened. Alexander Mirecki stood on the threshold. Even though he did not know us, he embraced us with a sad smile. Together with him stood a band of common criminals who were to be our companions for the next seven years. My God! How horrible they seemed at first. These shadows of the condemned approached us, so as to shake our hands with the hands that committed murder and other awful crimes. Even though we felt repulsion, we had to submit to it. I have to confess that I lost courage. At one point I withdrew my hand and, pushing everyone away, I entered prison with my head held high. This was very undiplomatic of me. All the men in the barracks became furious at me, started hating me and calling me “the devil” and, if they felt so inclined, throwing other invectives at me. There were weeks when I could not cross the courtyard without hearing curses and invectives. There were moments when I felt like jumping down a precipice if it opened before me, in the hope that it would be more bearable than my surroundings. But there was nowhere to hide, not even for one minute. Moral turpitude everywhere, and criminals everywhere.

Once I fell into total despair and fury. I ran out into the courtyard with my heart pounding, and the wildest thoughts went through my mind as I hurried around that yard that was the only space where I could move on my own. I suffered so much and felt so helpless that I decided to commit suicide. A thought occurred to me that since I was strong, I could use that strength to inflict an injury upon myself, and then the end would come. I would probably have done so, because suicide seemed to be the only escape from the insults, persecution, and physical suffering.

My dear Professor żochowski saved me from from this attack of cowardice and from the sin of forfeiting my soul. It was late in the afternoon, and other convicts had not yet returned from their labors, while we Poles were already in the barracks, having completed ours. Professor żochowski went out to pray. This old man had truly suffered injustice from the drunkard Vaska, as he was sentenced to three hundred lashes on his arrival at Omsk. He lived in the same environment as I but, unlike myself, he was so serene. He did not resent his fate and did not curse it, but looked at everybody and everything with the calmness of a sage and the forgiveness of a Christian. I felt so imperfect by comparison to him; I knew I was small-minded and sinful. I fell to his feet, fettered by heavy irons and pressed my head against his knees. “Please let us pray together, father!” I cried. “And then please pray for me, pray for me every day!”

I always feel embarrassed when I remember this moment of weakness. At that godless moment I forgot that God had given me a Will, the power of which should conquer everything. My Will ordered me to suffer for my homeland, and to suffer without dramatic despair, to suffer in silence.

I had already mentioned Alexander Mirecki. He arrived in Omsk in 1846. Soon afterwards Vaska was appointed the master of our prison, and the Pole became his favorite victim. Vaska took away everything Mirecki had owned, and then sent him to the hardest labor, personally supervising the discharge of his orders. Every day during his morning and evening visits to the prisoners’ barracks he poured invectives at Mirecki. He used to say to him: “You are a muzhik [peasant], and therefore I can thrash you!” Once he ordered one hundred lashes be administered to Mirecki. Why? Mirecki and others did not know. Fortunately, Vaska’s deputy Kuplennikov was a decent man, and he told the soldiers not to beat Mirecki and keep this a secret. It was only later that we learned why Vaska so persecuted Mirecki.

When we arrived at Omsk, Mirecki was working at the most repugnant and hardest job: he was a parashnik. That meant that he had to clean pit toilets at night. The work would start at 10:00 PM and end at about midnight. On several occasions the fateless Mirecki had to be lowered on ropes into the very depth of these pit toilets. While doing his “work” he lost his sense of smell and never regained it. Before we came, the hapless Mirecki served in that capacity for two full months, and then, after a certain break, again two months.

On the next day after our arrival we were awakened by screams, devilish guffaws, and swear words. On Vaska’s deliberate orders each of us politicals was assigned to a different barrack, so that we only had deistvitelnye [real] criminals as our companions. When the latter went to work, Professor żochowski, Josef , and myself got together in the yard. We shook each other’s hand, and Professor żochowski said in his saintly voice: “Good morning!” This wish never came true. Not one day of the twenty-five hundred and fifty-five days spent in the Omsk Gehenna could be called “good.”

The yard was a large square resembling some unusual geometrical figure, perhaps a hexagon. The fortress itself was not surrounded by a wall as is the custom in Europe, but by a high fence made of entire trunks of trees pressed to each other and sharpened at the top. The trunks were firmly planted in the ground. This wooden wall was surrounded by an earthen embankment guarded by soldiers day and night. The gate was even more solid than the wall, and was likewise guarded. It opened twice a day: to let prisoners under guard to go to work, and to let them in again.

Inside the wall there was a space of several hundred yards across. There were two barracks there, each of them surrounded by its own wooden fence.(2) The two kazarmas [military barracks] were inhabited by the common criminals and by political prisoners, and the third housed a kitchen, cellars, and a pantry. Each building was long and narrow. Daylight came through the window reinforced with iron bars. At night the barracks were illuminated by thin tallow candles called “Sabbath candles” in Poland, because the poorer Jews used them on Sabbath day.

We slept on plank beds. A prisoner’s allotment of space on these communal beds was three wooden boards. A make-believe “pillow” was also made of wood. The prisoners who could not afford real pillows had to use these substitutes. The “real” pillows were made of straw, wood shavings, sand, and rags randomly collected. The pillow cover was made of cotton, and the gaudier it was, the more attractive it seemed to the convicts. Each barrack housed from twenty to thirty men, and in each of them air was poisoned by the breathing of the inhabitants, the smell and smoke of candles, and odors of vodka and tobacco. In theory, the prisoners were forbidden to smoke and drink, but they disobeyed this rule on a grand scale.

As soon as the barracks were locked at night, lawless freedom took over. “Do what you wish!” seemed to be the criminals’ motto as soon as the duty officer’s steps faded away. At that time a drunken orgy began: in spite of the official rules, the convicts managed to procure vodka from town. How? A certain convict who was positively disposed toward me once tried to introduce me to the mysteries of this procedure and the adventures related to it. In his view, such smuggling required “wisdom” and “cleverness” to cheat soldiers and guards. According to the convicts’ moral code, a smuggler was a real hero. But we politicals avoided the smuggled vodka, and our ideas about heroism were quite different. Thus I thanked my conversationalist profusely and pleaded a lack of time. Therefore, I cannot say anything about the ways vodka was smuggled into prison.

The convicts also liked to play cards. Some of them were born card cheaters. The game would start on a cheerful note and end sadly. The loser beat up the winner with fists, kicked him, and sometimes stabbed with a knife. Of course it was forbidden to have knives, and therefore the lucky winner concealed his wounds before the authorities and did not complain at all. The players’ savings were staked up in this game; they were tiny by standards of the free world, but the convicts treasured them greatly. Because of prison conditions, they were precious to them. Thus the lucky player would become the owner of a gallon of vodka and a few kopeks-and would get a beating from the loser.

Our clothes were made of a poor quality woolen fabric, and the colors were black, navy, or gray. The coats were sewn in such a way that one side was black and the other gray. The same style was used for trousers: one leg was navy, the other black. The sheepskins had random patches sewn into them.

I already wrote about how we were shaved. There was some leeway in that department. The convicts who paid attention to their appearance ordered the front of their heads to be shaven while leaving hair in the back, whereas those who had no interest in appearance were shaven in the usual way, with one side hairless and the other covered with hair. We Poles chose the second way. According to the ukaz [edict] of His Highness Vaska, we were shaved weekly-half of our heads and moustache on the same side. The barbers were talentless and they used blunt tools; sometimes it seemed that the razors were made of wood. As soon as the barber started going over a convict’s face and head with his dull razor, the entire body of the victim would begin to tremble. The convicts complained a great deal about these terrible barbers, and often quarreled with them using foul language. We Poles bore it-perhaps not patiently, but at least with a certain silent pride which we pledged to observe in prison, and especially in the presence of the common criminals.

The workday started as follows. At dawn, the drum was sounded in the military barrack. Soon afterward an officer and military guards began to open the prisoners’ barracks one after another. This meant that we had to get up. Sometimes it was very difficult to drag one’s bones down from the plank beds, especially because our nights were often sleepless and devoted to memories and dreams. But one could not tarry. The crowds of sleepy convicts ran to the water buckets. People used small jugs to draw water which they then put in their mouths, and then spat onto their hands; thus they washed with a mixture of water and saliva. Since they were half-shaven, there was not much time spent on hair combing. Then they jumped into their prison clothes and were ready to go.

We stood in two rows in front of the barracks, surrounded by soldiers with their rifles on the ready. An officer who was also a civil engineer appeared in the company of guards. We were divided into groups and went to the places of work assigned to us. At night the guards checked whether anyone was missing. They remembered how many people left in a given group, and counted aloud: one, two, three. But sometimes a guard was not good at counting and had to recount many times over; finally he would call on each convict by his name and patronymic. We were supposed to answer, “Here!”

Once a convict tried a joke. Instead of answering “Here!” he answered “He is not here!” Alas for the jester, Vaska was present in the barracks even though the convicts did not see him. The jester received one hundred lashes for what was in fact an innocent prank.

Upon leaving for work in the morning we took with us big slices of bread. The bread was well baked and tasty, of the kind called rye mix in Poland. This piece of bread was our breakfast. Dinner was eaten in the kitchen in small shifts. We sat down at the table and the cook poured soup into our earthenware bowls. There were two or three persons to a bowl, depending on its size. Large bowls with sliced bread were also put on the table, and one could eat as much bread as one wanted. Soups alternated between cabbage and cereal, and meat byproducts floated in them; on holidays, real meat was served. Not infrequently, the soups included unwanted additions, mainly cockroaches. Ordinary convicts joked about these floating insects: they simply took them out and kept on eating. For us Poles this caused nausea and inability to eat, sometimes for several days.

Soon upon our arrival, the ailing Karol Krzyżanowski was brought in from Ochair. He never got well and eventually died in the prison hospital. His widow and two daughters also arrived and settled in Omsk. Mrs. Anna Krzyżanowski was a truly good woman, and she often visited us both in the barracks and in our workplaces outside the camp. As I mentioned earlier, we had left our meager funds with her in Ochair; thus her arrival improved our situation considerably. She procured for us excellent pillows stuffed with camels’ hair, as well as folding mattresses and homemade underwear and comforters. But just because these comforters were so good, they had to be given an appearance of being old rags, so that Vaska would not requisition them. Whenever he saw anything that was in a prisoner’s possession that had any value, he ordered it to be taken away and sold, or he used it for his own benefit. He even allowed the rich prisoners to procure their own food. Obviously he thus saved on their upkeep.

Having received money from Mrs. Krzyżanowski, we made a deal with one of the cooks (the most promising one, by our estimate) to receive a piece of broiled or fried beef every day. The cost was minimal: a pound of meat in Omsk cost one grosz [penny] in winter, and three pence in the summer. We also acquired our own samovar [water boiling equipment], teakettle, glasses, and plates, as well as spoons and forks (knives were not allowed). Finally we got ourselves a washbasin. All this we had to hide in heavy trunks with good locks, because stealing was a matter of habit in prison. The convicts did not consider it a transgression, but rather a clever and convenient way of bettering their fate. The person from whom things were stolen could not complain or seek the return of stolen goods. If he did, he became a butt of jokes and acquired the nickname durak [idiot] because of his inability to guard his property.

Another common feature of life in prison was eavesdropping. One stool pigeon is worth mentioning. He was a spy in the grand style, and in his previous life he knew how to cheat the counts and princes in Petersburg. But finally he was caught and sent to the Omsk fortress.

Some time into my stay I decided to learn a trade and volunteered for the smithy. After three months of diligent work, I learned how to hold the hammer well, and some of my work looked real nice. One day Vaska burst into the smithy and, upon seeing me there, got furious.

“Away with you,” he shouted shaking his fists, “You are government cattle, you are government property. You have no right to learn, you were sent here to work for the government and not to learn a trade.”

I eventually mended my relations with the common convicts. At the beginning, the three of us [political prisoners] kept them at arm’s length or, as they used to say, na blagorodnoi distantsii. They called us “boyars” and invented nicknames for each of us. Professor żochovski was called “saint,” because during his beating upon arrival in Omsk, he came back to the barrack pale as paper and with bleeding lips, but he did not swear, did not use profanity, did not moan or cry. Instead, as a true martyr, he knelt down and prayed. This poor old man prayed every day for a long time. He was always quiet, silent, and serious, and he evoked sympathy and respect of the most cruel and savage criminals.(3) Josef Bogusławski was called bolnoi [sickly]. Indeed, he was sick all the time and he looked bad. I was called khrabryi [brave] because while I never started quarrels with anyone and tried to get out of the way as much as possible-the criminals were afraid of my fists and kept away from me. “Don’t touch him!” the word went out to all the barracks. The convicts had an exaggerated idea of my physical strength, because one of the soldiers escorting us from Ust-Kamenogorsk told them that I carried the sick Josef Boguslawski for miles, in fact, most of the time during the trip of several hundred miles. Sometimes the convicts began conversations with us, and occasionally we talked together for quite a long time.


There was in the camp a muzhichok [little peasant] of less than twenty years of age. He was tall and slim, with blond hair and blue eyes, and with a pale and pleasant face. He always seemed immersed in deep thought. His sentence was twenty years for murder, and his face was branded. I liked this muzhichok and thought with melancholy that after twenty years, this near-child would get out not as a grown man but as a deeply corrupt criminal. I wanted to know why he killed and in what circumstances? He told me. We used to go together to work at a brick factory. One day I lay on the grass during a rest period. The sun was hot, but proximity of the Irtysh River made the air pleasantly chilly. Fedka squatted next to me and whispered: “Barin!” [Master]

“What do you want, brother?” I said, “Please do not call me master, my name is Simon Sebastianovich.”

“Well,” said Fedka, “please tell me, Simon Sebastianovich, is it so everywhere in the world that people are punished so severely for killing a man as here in Omsk?”

“In other countries, the punishment is even harsher than here in Russia. Often the killer is sentenced to death. His head is cut off, or he is hanged from the gallows that is taller than our fortress wall.”

Fedka grabbed his head with both hand and moaned.

“So it is better here!” he exclaimed, “If they cut off your head or hang you from the gallows, all is over! Whereas here one suffers for a long time, but eventually one gets out and back into the world.”

“You poor child,” I thought, “Do you realize how long you will have to suffer and what you can expect from ‘the world’?”

But I seized the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity about Fedka’s past and asked whom he killed, when, how, and where. The boy thought a little and then said:

“I killed a nobleman, my father ordered me to.”

From Fedka’s incoherent narrative I gathered that his father, also named Fedka, was a forester at a large estate in the province of Tver. The owner of this estate sold his forest and was returning home with money. The old Fedka decided to become rich all at once: kill the estate owner, steal the money, and run away. So he waited in ambush in the forest through which the nobleman was expected to pass. He handed his rifle to his sixteen-year-old son, and said: “Aim well, son, and directly at the head! First the master, and then the driver!”

Fedka followed orders without thinking why. The carriage came. Fedka fired and hit the nobleman. The frightened horses galloped away and the driver brought to the estate the dead body of his master. In the meantime, Fedka Senior ran away without paying attention to his son. In a few hours the search was called. Fedka Senior knew the forest well and found such a good hiding place that he was not discovered. But the boy with his rifle was caught immediately. When asked, he admitted he fired the shot, repeating all the time as an excuse: “My father told me to fire at the nobleman, he told me to fire at his head, he did.”

Fedka spent two years in the Tver prison, then was sentenced to twenty years of hard labor in Siberia. He happened to be sent to Omsk.

I marveled at the father who pushed his only child into crime and then left him to be picked up by the police: an obvious monster unworthy of being called a man. After talking to Fedka I was depressed for days. I also felt so much compassion for Fedka that I had to hide it. In the meantime, Fedka told other prisoners what I said about punishment for murder in countries other than Russia. I was repeatedly being asked by convicts to confirm my statement that “elsewhere,” “in faraway countries,” when one kills by accident, one is hanged from the gallows or one’s head is cut off. Many times, I repeated that this was the case. And repeatedly I heard:

“Well, to hell with them! Russia is better!”

Having lived with the common criminals for many years, I had an opportunity to ascertain numerous times that they were maniacally afraid of death. A criminal laughs at being beaten with a knout, he is much more afraid of rods, and he trembles like a contemptible creature before death. He knows full well that for a few rubles, the soldier beating him will beat less severely, that the soldier himself is his brother, that he himself was probably beaten and now he beats others. The rods are more frightening, because they are usually supervised by an officer. But even an officer would ease up for a few rubles. He would walk around and say to the soldiers, Legche, rebiata, legche! [Ease up, boys! Ease up!]

But every criminal trembles before death. I collected numerous proofs of this while talking about “riding a mare” or “plowing the noncommissioned officers” (two criminal expressions meaning “lashes with a knout” and “beating with a rod”). Whenever I told them how they executed criminals in other countries, they repeated:“Our brothers are treated much worse over there! What’s the point of acquiring money by killing someone, if I myself am killed rather than allowed to do penance for my deed. It is definitely better in Russia. Hard labor is difficult and frightening, but while suffering it, there remains hope that one will let oneself go and have a good time after getting out of here.”

The Old Believer

We greatly liked and respected a certain Old Believer, a white-haired man of about sixty. He was imprisoned for setting fire to an Orthodox church that was built on the outskirts of an Old Believer village. He bore his fate with the calmness and patience of a true martyr. He never complained but prayed ardently, and he used to say that he was not in the least worried about the fate of his wife and children, because “the Highest Power” was taking care of them better than he possibly could. His face was branded and wasted, yet it was serene. Josef Boguslawski and I felt great pity for him. He never spoke about his religious beliefs, but he expressed no regrets regarding the arson which landed him in prison. “When it comes to the defense of the Faith, I am always ready. I am ready to suffer and [even] burn [Orthodox] churches,” he once whispered to us while his gentle, blue eyes shot fire and his tiny body seemed to acquire extraordinary strength. Apart from this Old Believer and Fedka, and the Caucasian mountaineers with whom we eventually made friends, we did not fraternize with the convicts.

Fyodor Dostoevky

In January 1850 two new political prisoners were brought to our prison: Sergei Fyodorovich Durov and Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky. Both had been sentenced to four years of hard labor, and then to being drafted into the army. Both were extraordinarily weak, nervous, and overmedicated with iodine and mercury.(4) During the very first meeting with us, Durov said that his mother was a direct descendant of Bohdan Khmelnitsky, while his uncle was a governor. He repeated this over and over, with and without reason, as if he wanted us to remember his genealogy forever. Otherwise, he adapted rather well to hard labor, even though he posed as a learned man and a bon-vivant. He loved to tell stories about high life in Petersburg. His stories usually took place in coffee shops or bars. From time to time he aimed higher and told stories from the lives of well-known personalities: from that we gathered that he served in a government office and spent his free time collecting gossip. He bored us to death telling us the same stories many times over, especially when they included him as the main actor. We called him “varnished” because of the following story he told:

“Once I attended a ball. As you can see, I am good-looking, and my silk stockings and Parisian coat attracted attention. Ladies devoured me with their eyes, especially Anna Dmitrievna who looked only at me and wanted to dance with me only. I swear it was so! The music started to play, the floor was slippery like a frozen lake, and I approached Anna Dmitrievna like this (here Durov showed how he waltzed toward her). At the same time, Andrei Nikolaevich moved toward her. I bowed like this (again Durov showed us how), and Andrei Nikolaevich did the same. I extended my hand to Anna Dmitrievna, and so did he. Well, I thought, a general’s daughter is not for you, Andrei Nikolaevich.”

I was bored and interrupted him:

“So what did you do?”

“I slapped Andrei Nikolaevich in the face,” Durov exclaimed while looking at us triumphantly, as if he expected approval and admiration.

We found the story distasteful. Since that time we called him “varnished,” because his social polish and elegance were only a coverup for brutality and cruelty. But while Durov was usually boring and ridiculous, on occasion he could make a pleasant interlocutor, even though one could not reveal to him one’s inner self.

The other man, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, was the acclaimed novelist and author of Poor Folk [1845]. But we felt that this “ornament of the northern capital”(5) did not measure up to his fame. Certainly, he was talented. But it was not his talent but his personality that we encountered. How on earth could this man have ever entered any conspiracy? How could he have participated in any democratic movement? He was the vainest of the vain, and his vanity had to do with belonging to the privileged caste. How could he possibly desire freedom for the people if he accepted only one caste-the nobility, and regarded it as the only class that could lead the nation forward?

“Nobility,” “nobleman,” “I am a nobleman,” “we noblemen” were constantly on his lips. Whenever he addressed us Poles and said “we noblemen,” I interrupted him: “Excuse me, but I think that here in prison there are no noblemen, but only people deprived of rights, prisoners in a hard labor camp.”

He foamed with anger:

“You are of course pleased that you are a prisoner in a labor camp,” he shouted with malice and irony.

“I am glad that I am who I am,” I answered trying not to show my emotions.

So how did Dostoevsky become a conspirator? Probably he allowed himself to be carried away by a momentary impulse, just as sometimes, and also on impulse, he showed his deep regret that the waves of conspiracy carried him to the prison in Omsk. He hated us Poles, perhaps because his features and name betrayed a Polish ancestry. He used to say that if he learned that in his veins there flowed even one drop of Polish blood, he would immediately order it to be let out. It was painful to hear this conspirator and sufferer for liberty and progress exclaim that he would be happy only when all countries surrender to the Russian tsar. He did not seem to understand that Ukraine, Volhynia, Podolia, Lithuania, and Poland were forcibly annexed by the Russian empire; on the contrary, he maintained that all these lands belonged to Russia from time immemorial, and God’s justice handed them to the Russian tsar because they could not possibly exist on their own, or rise from their backwardness, barbarism, and destitution without Russia’s help. According to Dostoevsky, the Baltic countries were also Russia, and so were Siberia and the Caucasus. While listening to these ravings we concluded that Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was mentally challenged concerning Russia’s properties. But he repeated his absurdities with great pleasure. He also maintained that Constantinople should belong to Russia, not to speak of the European part of Turkey which, in his opinion, would soon become a jewel of the Russian empire. On one occasion, he read to us his ode commemorating the eventual conquest of Constantinople by the Russian army! The ode was indeed beautiful, but none of us was in a hurry to congratulate the author. Instead, I asked him:

A na vozvratnyi put’ u vas ody net?” [Have you written an ode to commemorate the return of the Russian army back to Russia?]

This made him mad. He sprang up and called me an ignoramus and a barbarian. He shouted so loudly that ordinary criminals began to murmur that “the politicals are fighting.” We all left the building and went to the courtyard to end this scandalous scene. Dostoevsky kept saying that there exists only one great nation in the world, namely, the Russian nation, and that it is destined for a great mission. According to him, the French were barely acceptable, while the English, Germans, Spaniards were simply human caricatures. By comparison to Russian literature, all world literatures were trivial. I remember I told him that in 1844 in Poland a subscription was issued for The Wandering Jew.(6) First he did not believe me, and then said that I was lying. Finally Durov interrupted him and confirmed my statement. Even then he did not quite believe me. He was always poised to belittle any nation, not just the Poles whom he hated with all his heart, but also everyone else but the Russians. He tried to deny that anyone produced anything beautiful, great, or noble, as if wishing to destroy, wipe out, cover up all human achievement in order to prove that Russians were superior to everybody in the world. The style of his disputations was hard to bear. He was conceited and brutal, and he finally made us avoid not only the disputes with him but also ordinary conversations. Thus we had to “conceal our joys and sorrows/And become impenetrable like an abyss.”(7)

It is very likely that this inability to control his temper was a sign of mental illness; as mentioned above, both Durov and Dostoevsky were nervous and sickly types. So how was it possible that a graduate of the Russian military school became a Russian political prisoner? Judging by what he told us, he was an avid reader. It is possible that images of the French Revolution inflamed his imagination. Or perhaps he found lofty ideas in the works of the great thinkers, and these ideas overpowered his mind and heart and led him onto the road which he soon wished to exit at any price. When Dostoevsky and Durov came to Omsk to live in the same barrack with me, it seemed at first that they were two glittering lights on the dark northern sky. But it was a momentary impression that soon passed, and both I and my companions stopped conversing with Dostoevsky because of his temper.

After serving his term, Dostoevsky was drafted to the battalion billeted on the town of Semipalyatinsk. While serving there as a private and on the occasion of the Crimean War, he wrote a poem about Tsar Nicholas I in which he presented the Tsar as residing above all the Olympian gods. He wanted to publish the poem, perhaps hoping that flattery would lead to the shortening of his sentence or maybe even to a monetary reward. On this basis and on the basis of our conversations with him, we concluded that Dostoevsky was a man of weak and unattractive character. One could forgive him his hatred of Poles-we bore greater hatreds and succeeded in forgiving them. But it appears that the reason he got to jail was not worthy of respect. I say that even though I was already in prison, in fact on my way to a hard labor camp (and thus outside the realm of the civilized world, where an informed opinion could have been acquired) at the time when [the Petrashevsky affair] was playing out in Petersburg. I know nothing about other members of the Petrashevsky Circle, but I do know this: among the few honest and educated Russians whom I met in Siberia, the Petrashevsky affair did not generate either sympathy or interest-quite unlike the Decembrist uprising.(8)

Final remarks

I wrote my Memoirs in Velikii Uchastok [in 1857?](9) in two copies. One of them I gave to the Polish students in Moscow [on my way back to Poland from my first hard labor term]. The other one I gave to my co-exile, Mrs. Teresa Bulhakov. This last copy was returned to me in 1882, and I am adding to it some more details. I thank my wife Halina, the daughter of my fellow [political] prisoner in Modlin, Mr. Josef Belima-Leszczyński, for her help in copying my notes and putting them in proper order.(10)

Szymon Tokarzewski, Siedem lat katorgi. 1846-1857. 2nd ed. Warsaw: Gebethner and Wolff, 1918. 240 pages. Pages translated: 137-173, 230-231.


1. This episode was described in Tokarzewski’s short story “On the Irtysh River,” in which Fyodor Dostoevsky figures prominently. Tokarzewski and Dostoevsky were both born in 1821, and they served their sentences in the same camp and at the same time.

2. In Notes from the House of the Dead (1862), Dostoevsky says that the camp had 250 inmates. He also says that prisoner barracks were divided into sections, each of them containing approximately 30 inmates.

3. But not of Dostoevsky who describes him in the House of the Dead as “shallow.”

4. An indication that Dostoevsky and Durov suffered from syphilis.

5. A paraphrase of Pushkin’s line in The Bronze Horseman.

6. An edition of the legend of the Wandering Jew popular in the Gentile and Jewish folklore.

7. A quote from Juliusz Słowacki.

8. The first political rising in Russia that took place in 1825 and resulted in several executions and many prison sentences.

9. An unidentified settlement near Omsk.

10. In the 1907 edition, information about the Polish students and Mrs. Bulhakov did not appear. The editor of the 1918 edition states that portions of the earlier editions were deleted by censorship. The final passage of the 1907 edition runs as follows:

I wrote my Memoirs in Velikii Uchastok. Upon return from my second Siberian term which lasted nineteen years (I returned on 15 August 1883), I am adding details which were omitted earlier [in 1857?]. What I wished for at that time, I wish today as well, with no less strength and dedication of heart. My personal wishes can be comprised in the words of a peasant lyre player from Mazovia:

I wish to see a quiet morning
As a repayment for all that life could have given me, but didn’t,
Please, Holy Maiden, beg God for a sleep-like death,
And be so kind as to close my eyes yourself.

The end of the Memoirs of my first imprisonment in Siberia and first hard labor term. Signed, Simon Tokarzewski.

Translator's Note

Simon Tokarzewski’s Memoirs are remarkable for several reasons. First, even though they are related to (and probably precede) Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, they have hardly ever been mentioned as a possible stimulus for Dostoevsky’s work. Second, they contain notable comments about Dostoevsky. The details and insights Tokarzewski provides fit well with Dostoevsky’s enigmatic personality. Critics have maintained that Dostoevsky changed radically in prison from a “revolutionary” to a “reactionary.” Tokarzewski demonstrates that this is inaccurate and that Dostoevsky went to prison through one of those systemic quirks (common in autocratic Russia) that sent people to prison for brushing shoulders with revolutionaries. Tokarzewski shows that Dostoevsky was already an ardent patriot upon his arrival in Omsk, rather than changing as a result of his imprisonment. The format and style of Tokarzewski’s Memoirs bear a striking resemblance to Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead (1862). Did Dostoevsky read Tokarzewski’s Memoirs?

It is interesting to note that in one of the editions of Tokarzewski’s Memoirs the Editor’s note states that a copy of these Memoirs was kept by a canon of the Wawel Cathedral in Kraków. After his death, it was discovered that some fifteen pages of the manuscript were missing. The Editor does not say which pages were missing. Could they have referred to Dostoevsky and what he did in Siberia? Was this disappearance a work of the tsarist agents or was it a simple accident?

There are other unanswered questions. Did Dostoevsky have syphilis and was he cured by the “mercury” mentioned by Tokarzewski? Dostoevsky’s biographers stress his interest in criminal police stories, but perhaps it was also personal experience that led him to conjure up so many interesting prostitutes in his novels.

Tokarzewski is repetitive on occasion: his arrival at Omsk is mentioned several times, and so is the ill health of Josef Boguslawski and Durov’s vanity. This repetitiveness testifies to the authenticity of his testimony: a good editor would have eliminated these obvious lapses.

Tokarzewski’s comment quoted in the 1907 edition of his Memoirs (seventeen years after his death) indicates that the original version was written in 1857 upon his release from his first imprisonment in Siberia. If, as he says, he left a copy of these Memoirs with the Polish students in Moscow, it is possible that Dostoevsky read it and drew on it for House of the Dead.

In the nineteenth century Russian empire, many unpublished works were being read, to mention only Tolstoy’s late stories or Pushkin’s rebellious poems. The size of the reading public was small: hundreds rather than thousands, as indicated by the number of subscribers to Dostoevsky’s Diary (900: see SR Index, p. 1087). Since Tokarzewski’s Memoirs circulated in manuscript, and they were written by a former prisoner and a member of a nationality suppressed by the official circles in Russia, Dostoevsky did not acknowledge the borrowings. It is also possible that the two authors wrote their accounts independently of each other and did not read each other’s works. If that was the case, the similarity is remarkable, and the comparison between the same persons and episodes described by both writers becomes even more compelling. Tokarzewski’s Memoirs offers rich rewards to readers and scholars.∆

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