Interview with Daniel Beer, author of Pushkin Prize 2017 shortlisted book 'The House of the Dead'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

Why did you become interested in Russia?

At school I was good at languages and I studied German and Russian at university in 1991. I got bitten by the Russian bug. It was a very romantic, exotic place that not many people had been to. I came to it through Russian literature. As a teenager I read my way through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and identified with these romantic anti-heroes. I first went to St Petersburg in 1993. It was a very bleak time and felt like another planet not another country. For all the frustrations and desperate shortages and a general lack of civility back then I fell in love with the place. I have had a bit of a love-hate relationship with it ever since. It felt like a place where there weren’t many rules, the shape of everyday life was up for grabs, everything was negotiable.

Why did you decide to write this book?

My first book – Renovating Russia - dealt with psychiatry and criminology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I was interested in how liberal reformers thought about coping with social disorder. The penal system in Russia remained pre-modern right up to the first world war. For my next project I thought I would like to go beyond that body of ideas and examine the social and economic nuts and bolts of the system of exile. It’s very under-studied. Most of our understanding of the Tsarist period has been focused on European Russia. My book is part of a turn towards an examination of the role of colonialism as a central part of the Russian empire’s raison d’etre.

How easy was the research?

I did far more in the archives than I ever hope to repeat: 15 months in St Petersburg, Moscow, and Tobolsk and Irkutsk in Siberia. It takes a good couple of months before you start to crack the handwriting and your reading speed starts to approximate to anything productive. I never encountered any difficulties as a foreigner. On the contrary, the archivists especially in the provinces were generally very pleased to see a crazy guy coming to western Siberia from London. But the archives are not very user friendly, and very badly catalogued. Some are closed because they are chronically under-funded. Many of the files are in poor condition because of fires and floods. They are so fragile that some can only be seen on microfilm. You sit for days, sticking your head inside a box to look at illuminated scripts. It’s terribly unhealthy for your eyes, and you emerge blinking into the sunlight.

Did you find anything surprising?

It’s like panning for gold. There are days when you have chew your way through endless dusty files with excruciating details on the logistics of delivering pairs of shoes across to Siberia.  Occasionally you stumble across a nugget.  Some saw Siberia for the Russians as a penal colony, a snow-bound hellhole that should be kept inaccessible, a dumping ground for criminals and exiles. But in the mid nineteenth century another camp argued it was a vast continent of extraordinary untapped resources, and using it as an open air prison was a tremendously stupid thing. Their views collided in 1878 with a Rbs 14,000 prize I discovered for anyone who could sail a ship through eastern Siberia, across the Arctic seas to St Petersburg and open up a sea route to European Russia. A party did it, overcoming starvation, some eaten by wolves and fending off ice floes with oars. Then they discovered one of the crew was a fugitive exile with no right to have left Siberia. The minister of interior wanted him exiled but there was a public campaign led by the sponsor of the voyage to have him pardoned and rewarded as a hero.

What was the experience of Siberian exile?

Exiles were abandoned, thrown on the mercy of already impoverished, intolerant rural communities and corrupt officials. It was a failed project of penal colonisation, which radically undermined the standing of the autocracy at home and abroad. Prisons were expensive and exile was understood as punishment on the cheap. A modern system of European-style prisons was constantly discussed by the administration but they could not afford it. Exile was seen as more humane than execution, and an expedient way to cleanse Russian society of sedition without spilling too much blood. I have been criticised for not paying attention to fact that regimes elsewhere are brutal. My argument is not that Russia was uniquely horrid to its prisoners but the paradox is that in other countries while the state was relatively liberal at home, it was extremely brutal with colonised people. In Russia, there wasn’t really that kind of divide.

What are the parallels with the Soviet gulag?

There is an obvious similarity with the imperial period: the system of punishment is one which destroys the moral authority and legitimacy of the state and casts very long shadows over its other achievements. The Soviet regime inherited the penal imagination of the Tsars and grappled with a similar set of problems. They were trying to merge the demands of punishment and colonisation. The main difference is that the Stalinist state was much more powerful. The number who escaped was much smaller, whereas by the end of the nineteenth century a third of all exiles banished were on the run.

What is your next project?

This book covers a century, a continent. It’s a huge baggy monster that took a long time to wrestle to the floor. So I want a tighter theme with a narrative arc. I’m looking at the rise of the revolutionary movement in the 1860s and 1870s, the campaign to assassinate Alexander II and the treatment of the revolutionaries in its aftermath. That fundamentally changed the course of Russian history. They had understandable if not necessarily appealing motives. I’m off to Moscow at the end of June, so I’ll see then whether these ideas survive contact with the sources in the archives.