The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars

The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars

It was known as 'the vast prison without a roof'. From the beginning of the nineteenth century to the Russian Revolution, the tsarist regime exiled more than one million prisoners and their families beyond the Ural Mountains to Siberia. Daniel Beer's new book, The House of the Dead, brings to life both the brutal realities of an inhuman system and the tragic and inspiring...

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Title:The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars
Author:Daniel Beer
Rating:
ISBN:1846145376
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:592 pages

The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars Reviews

  • James
    Feb 20, 2017

    Chilling. The word gauntlet will never be the same.

  • Steve Cunningham
    Oct 24, 2016

    This is an extraordinary book in many ways. In documenting the colossal waste of human life and resources that the Romanov regime expended in banishing social and political undesirables to the farthest and most remote reaches of the Russian Empire, it serves in some respects as a pre-revolutionary companion piece to

    's

    , and demonstrates that while Tsarist exile lacked the industrial scale and bureaucracy of the Stalinist Gulag, it was every b

    This is an extraordinary book in many ways. In documenting the colossal waste of human life and resources that the Romanov regime expended in banishing social and political undesirables to the farthest and most remote reaches of the Russian Empire, it serves in some respects as a pre-revolutionary companion piece to

    's

    , and demonstrates that while Tsarist exile lacked the industrial scale and bureaucracy of the Stalinist Gulag, it was every bit as arbitrary, brutal and dehumanising, showing that the genesis of one of the greatest of humanity's scars upon the social and political landscape of the twentieth century was a seed planted in the period of Russian imperial expansion in the seventeenth century.

    But the book also utilises the institution of Siberian exile as a prism through which to view the development of the Russian Empire and Romanov autocracy, and the real and perceived internal threats thereto. We are introduced to Polish nationalists seeking the independence of their country from rule by Saint Petersburg, the Decembrist rebels with their aims of a constitutional monarchy and the abolition of serfdom, the reformist Petrashevsky Circle, whose most notable member was

    , a host of vagrants and recidivist petty criminals, and, latterly, the confirmed revolutionaries who would finally succeed in tearing down the Tsarist edifice in 1917. While the aims of each of these groups, where they had specific aims, were varied, all represented a challenge to the divinely ordained authority of the Romanov Tsars. It is hard to disagree with the books closing assertion, that it was a supreme historical irony that resulted in a system designed to eliminate opposition to the

    fomenting the very revolutionaries who would overthrow it, and that the last Tsar, Nicholas II would die an ignominious death at the hands of Bolshevik executioners in Yekaterinburg on the edge of Siberia.

  • Colby Coombs
    Nov 16, 2016

    Simply, a masterpiece of 'forensic scholarship'. (No point in regurgitating summaries posted; words fail - at least, my words fail. Yet another case of [human] 'good intentions' producing [human] unintended consequences, but on a tragically huge scale.)

  • Marks54
    Jan 06, 2017

    I first heard about this book while reading a couple of histories about the Romanov dynasty and its end in WWI and the Russian Revolutions of 1917. This is a book about the Romanov system of internal exile to Siberia, especially from 1800 until the beginning of WW1. Beer takes his title from Dostoevsky's autobiographical novel of his time in Siberian prisons. In terms of sources, Beer makes good use of a vast array of source materials that have been made available in Russia in recent decades. Th

    I first heard about this book while reading a couple of histories about the Romanov dynasty and its end in WWI and the Russian Revolutions of 1917. This is a book about the Romanov system of internal exile to Siberia, especially from 1800 until the beginning of WW1. Beer takes his title from Dostoevsky's autobiographical novel of his time in Siberian prisons. In terms of sources, Beer makes good use of a vast array of source materials that have been made available in Russia in recent decades. The book thus constitutes a general history of the exile program in its last century. For those who do not realize the continuity between the Tsarist prisons and the Gulag, readers might with to follow this book up with Anne Applebaum's superb history of the Gulag that was published a few years ago or Wachsmann's 2015 book on the Nazi concentration camp system.

    The book is generally well written and interesting, but the topic is a grim one. How to hold the reader through over a hundred years of brutality and grimness is no mean feat. Beer organizes the book around a set of focal points/events over the course of the period. The first is the experiences of the Decembrists (which is a highlight of the book). Later chapters focus on subsequent generations of exiles and how their experiences changed, including revolutionary periods after 1948, the Polish rebellion of 1863, the rebirth of revolutionary and anarchist movements in the 1880s and 1890s, the revolution of 1905, and the events leading up to 1914. Beer does discuss the continuity with the Bolshevik system, but that is really another story. Beer also makes good use of the accounts of some of the more famous visitors to Siberia, in particular Dostoevsky and Chekhov, who provided detailed notes of his visit to Sakhalin Island. It is hard to miss when making use of observers like that.

    Several themes are noteworthy in the book. The first is the tension between an imperial/colonial view of Siberia as a potential zone for economic development and its use as a prison without a roof. A related issue is the role of technology and evolving media, which made Siberia less remote and more connected and thus made the Siberian system seem anachronistic and helped to alienate the educated classes both in Russia and in Europe and America. Perhaps the major theme is the corruption inherent in the foundation of the system of autocratic control and which was made much worse but the extended bureaucratic nature of the Tsarist regime. Beer is most effective in showing how the system not only failed to stem political unrest and revolution but actually ended up serving as a laboratory for revolution that provided training, hardening, and stature for the Bolsheviks.

    It is really fascinating to read this with the internet handy. Beer makes a number a points by referencing paintings from the period that diepict the plight of the exiles or by discussing the particular towns in which various exiles served their time. The paintings can be looked up on the web. You can even book a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad or see a trip advisor page for where Lenin was exiled. (There are still only a few sights to see there.)

    Overall, this was a good book and a fine supporting history for the Romanovs.

  • Vanessa Bittner
    Feb 05, 2017

    Full of research about famous and little known exiles, the tsarist penal system and the Siberian landscape, this book contributes to a broader understanding of Russian literature and history.

  • Steven Lee
    Jan 06, 2017

    My review in The New York Times.

  • Paulo Reimann
    Jan 06, 2017

    I was looking for a post script which would describe post czarist period. My bad. The title is clear, history stops by 1917. Thoroughly written, I will or would anxiously wait the sequel.

  • Kusaimamekirai
    Jan 27, 2017

    This is an amazingly detailed and exhaustively researched look at the system of Siberian exile from the early 19th century up until the Bolshevik revolution. The author tackles this immense topic by separating each chapter into different periods of time as well as different aspects of exile. He makes the important distinction between those sentenced to penal labor and exile and the physical and emotional punishments they endured.

    Throughout the book, I couldn't help reflecting on how shortsight

    This is an amazingly detailed and exhaustively researched look at the system of Siberian exile from the early 19th century up until the Bolshevik revolution. The author tackles this immense topic by separating each chapter into different periods of time as well as different aspects of exile. He makes the important distinction between those sentenced to penal labor and exile and the physical and emotional punishments they endured.

    Throughout the book, I couldn't help reflecting on how shortsighted, vindictive, and ineffective this system was. There was very little record keeping to speak of (hardened criminals would often bully, coerce, or kill a fellow traveller to assume their identity and a lesser sentence), hardened criminals were often housed with simple vagrants, women were encouraged to join their husbands and then were often raped or forced into prostitution, and political prisoners were often housed together which only served to spread revolutionary ideas deeper into the countries interior among its peasants.

    If all this sounds haphazard and senseless, its because it was. Siberian exile became a tool of repression for a series of increasingly paranoid Tsars, as well as local communities who had the power to condemn their fellow citizens to exile due to the national government's inability to adequately police all of its vast territory and thus ceded such powers to local authorities. When the revolution arrived in 1917 and the jails were opened, the revolution had ready access to a large number of hardened political prisoners ready to be loosed on the old order.

    This is certainly not an easy read. It is filled with grim statistics and anecdotes that are at best, unsettling. But it remains an important book nonetheless.

  • Shainna
    Feb 22, 2017

    3.5 stars would be more accurate.

    My only real criticism are: 1)Sometimes it could be repetitive (the quotation from Sieroszewski gave me deja vu) and sometimes the background of those exiled seemed too long. It was useful and important information, but I felt it could have been conveyed more quickly.

    2) I wish he'd gone into more detail about the peasants' response to the exiles. At certain points he mentions attitudes towards the prisoners in general and the hatred for the vagabonds. I wouldn'

    3.5 stars would be more accurate.

    My only real criticism are: 1)Sometimes it could be repetitive (the quotation from Sieroszewski gave me deja vu) and sometimes the background of those exiled seemed too long. It was useful and important information, but I felt it could have been conveyed more quickly.

    2) I wish he'd gone into more detail about the peasants' response to the exiles. At certain points he mentions attitudes towards the prisoners in general and the hatred for the vagabonds. I wouldn't have minded a chapter devoted to peasant/prison interaction. If they were responsible for maintaining roads, did they ever try to sabotage paths to prevent having exiles in their territory? The throwaway reference to the Buryats and Gilyaks as being exceptional bounty hunters also piqued my interest. I have been wondering for years how the indigenous Siberians responded to the Russians using Siberia as a container for their unwanted peoples. I'm disappointed at how little they were mentioned, but not all together surprised.

    It was very detailed and easy to follow. Over all, I'd recommend it.