Siberian Notebook
How Dostoyevsky’s prison experiences found their way into his novels
Fyodor Dostoyevsky




I have brought back from the camps so many folk figures, characters! [...] So many stories of vagabonds and brigands, stories of dark and bitter life. I could fill volumes.
—from Dostoyevsky's first letter to his brother after his release from the prison camp.

Dostoyevsky secretly wrote the Siberian Notebook in his early thirties, sometime between 1850 and 1854, while he was a political prisoner in a Siberian labor camp in Omsk. Pens, pencils, and paper were dangerous possessions in the camps, and the authorities had their eyes on Dostoyevsky, who was already the celebrated author of Poor Folk and The Double. They interrogated him on many occasions to find where he might be hiding his writing. His invariable answer was: "In my head."

When Dostoyevsky did put pen to paper, it was to record the snippets of dialogue he overheard in the camps—the cryptic and colorful peasant speech, slang and criminal cant of the Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, and Jews with whom he was interned. Dostoyevsky wrote these entries on scraps of cardboard and paper which he had sewn together firmly with coarse string. He numbered every entry (486 in all).

As a new inmate, Dostoyevsky would have had to learn the extreme and often unintelligible prison-camp patois. "To walk down a green road," for instance, meant to be flogged with many lashes [entry no. 35]. The "iron-beaks" [no. 59] were the inmates from the ranks of the nobility, as Dostoyevsky was. The prisoners who had "killed the death of the cow" [no. 70] had killed a villager who, they believed, had caused the death of a cow by placing a spell on it.

In an important way, the Siberian Notebook is a distilled prison autobiography. Although Dostoyevsky left absolutely no trace of himself in the entries (he never mentions himself or expresses any personal opinions), he mapped out his experience through the disconnected statements of the many characters he encountered. It would have been dangerous for him to write more personally—the notebook was written in such a way that had it been discovered, there would have been no clues as to the identity of the author.

Among Dostoyevsky's notebooks, the Siberian Notebook had a particularly strong influence on his writing. The real, living speech of his characters was very important to him, and he used these entries extensively in his novels. In the first chapter of Memoirs from the House of the Dead, the narrator sums up the "moral precepts" of the camp by quoting entry no. 5: "You didn't listen to your father and mother, so now you can listen to the hide of the drum." Entry no. 4—"Stop aping foolish pranks"— reappears in the mouth of an enraged monk in The Brothers Karamazov. As the monks are wrangling over Father Zossima's rotting corpse, Father Ferapont falls into a religious frenzy, and a battle of words is unleashed:

                    'Ha! So this is our Saint! This is our Holy
          Man!' they shouted, no longer afraid. 'He
          should be summoned as an Elder?'
'                    He'd never serve as an Elder... he'd turn
          them down right away... he'd never bow his
          head to accursed novelty... he'd never ape
          their foolish pranks!'

Throughout Memoirs from the House of the Dead, characters who escape the camps quote entry no. 38—"I changed my fate," which was prison camp jargon for "I managed to escape"—in various configurations. It also reappears in Demons, when Nikolai Vsevolodovich asks Fedka the Convict, "Are you a fugitive from hard labor?"

Fedka's answer: "I changed my fate."

This selection of seventy-five entries from the Siberian Notebook is published here in English for the first time.

Peter Constantine



1. Hey, you! You have money, and you're sleeping!

2. No one sows fools of our kind, we spawn ourselves.

3. And I am thankful to you for watching over me.

4. Stop aping foolish pranks.

5. You didn't listen to your father and mother, so now you can listen to the hide of the drum.

6. Have mercy upon me, O Lord, in your great mercifulness, and so on. Order me to go to the police in your great mercifulness, and so on.

7. He went out onto the road, slit a passing peasant's throat, but all there was on him was an onion. "Damn, father, you sent me out hunting; I slit a peasant's throat, and all I found was an onion!"—"You idiot! An onion, as the saying goes, comes to a kopeck. A hundred souls is a hundred onions—and there you have a ruble!"

8. In the house there's so much bounty that there's nothing that could lure a cat outside. "Kat" is Ukrainian for hangman.* He threw me down and punched me out so that the whole world burst into flames.

9. In the guts—Ivan the whore, Marya the slut.

10. Hi! You're still alive! But I held a wake for you! I threw some two dozen stones at the dogs.

11. The devil wore out three pairs of straw shoes before he managed to round them all up. What scum!

12. The cheat. I carved him up.

13. Our people are ardent—fighters! We seven are not afraid of one!

14. (The Old Believer) At the end of the world there will be a river of fire engulfing the sinners, cleansing the righteous. All crags and mountains will be leveled. Mountains were created by the devils, God created evenness.

15. Hey, you! A goat's death to you!

16. No one steals nothing from me. Me, what I'm worried about, brother, is that I will steal.

17. May the Bendersky plague come down on you! May a virulent anthrax strike you! May a Turkish saber sing to you! Like it struck you (hacked you). There, let it strike you (hack you) again!

18. Will you tell me from what year you have been serving?

19. A soldier's tie is an oath, a greatcoat, an enchantress.

20. What? No guts? Can't you hold out?

21. I look, I see a man completely changed (totally pale).

22. May you be damned in seven taverns!

23. You want a handout from us? Go talk to a rich peasant!

24. For you, you old bastard, someone in the Beyond has already been gathering rations for three years!

25. We got tied up for good! She and I are fighting for good!

26. "Don't show them respect, Vanya, don't show them respect."—"Brother, I'm not a respecter!"

27. I'll have to gnaw my belt.

28. So, boys, what's going on?

29. Give everything away, and even that's not enough (whatever you desire!)

30. So, what do you have to tell me?

31. We got a whiff of whip.

32. Ugh! Not a pretty sight, girls!

33. Girls, clever girls! Tell me what you know!

34. "So how much do you charge for dishonor, clever girl?"—"A silver fifty-kopeck coin."

35. Once I had to walk down a green road.

36. "So they gave me two hundred there and then..."—"What, rubles?"—"No, blows."

37. I, brother, am from Andrei-the-peasant stock. I eat soup with my shoe.

38. I changed my fate.

39. Convict of the salt mines, son of a convict of the salt mines, hard labor for life.

40. You poor alms-head, you. They banged your head in Tyumen.

41. Solved, absolved, your mind dissolved, by your mind destroyed. (Executioner)

42. Two thousand was my lot, but I got fifteen lashes.

43.I have brothers in Moscow who sell wind.

44. With found money and burgled happiness. (A money lender).

45. Godfather! Murderer! Hangman!

46. "So who gave the order?"—"He who isn't frightened of us!"

47. Empty-handed they turned round and walked off.

48. I said to her: "To whom do you swear, him or me? Then I gave her a real beating, a real beating. Her name was Ovdotya.

49. Brother, I'll give you a turn till all you see is smoke and soot.

50. I cursed him for a thousand years.

51. And there I was walking along when I started feeling hot. I gave Vanka my sheepskin and my frock coats and my coin pouch, and that's how I appeared before the master.

52. Nicknameless Efim. He grabs me by the ear—"Write!" I think to myself, what's he acting up for! (And he kept asking me, wasn't I a clerk.)

53.I changed my fate.

54. It's not important.

55. "What's your name?"—"He-made-a-run-for-it."—"And yours?"—"And-me-at-his-heels."—"Where did you live?"—"In the woods."—"You know your mother and father?"—"I know nothing."—"What about winter?"—"Never saw winter, sir."—"And you?"—"Ax-man, sir."—"And you?"—"Grind-and-be-quick-about-it."—"And you?”—"Take-your- time-grinding."

56.I served with General Cuckoo-in-the-woods and made a run for it.

57. "What're you carrying there?"—"Firewood."—"What do you mean firewood, you idiot, that's hay!"—"If you know, then what're you asking for?"—"How dare you speak to me like that! Where do you belong?"—"To my wife, father."—"You idiot, I said where do you belong? Who's your superior? Who's the head?"—"Nikita's superior, father, his head's the biggest."—"You idiot, I'm asking you who's senior here! What're you afraid of? —"Mikhail next door has a real nasty mastiff bitch! Without a stick, no one can go near!"

58. Drink down the rotgut! Bring a beaker of it!

59. The iron-beaks pecked us to pieces.

60. What're you lemoning me for! What're you oranging me for!

61. Bread buns, bread buns! I'd eat them all myself, but I need the money! Moscow bread buns! Nice and hot! They're going fast! Which of you her had a mother?

62. I wasn't home, but I know everything!

63. You should have whipped me when I was lying on the whipping bench, not now.

64. Go on, work! Work! We gave you the money!

65. All poverty cries its eyes out. Gather the tears, sell them in bulk.

66."Well, what's all the racket for? Didn't you know how to live when you were free?"—"You sold yourself for a pound of bread, and you sold your hide."—"You're glad you got your paws on the good prison bread."—"You came here to make money! See that, boys? Grab him! Blockhead! Monument! You damn telescope!"

67. Look how much food's in him! The devil's been feeding him cannonballs!

68. He made a run for the sour milk of freedom, and got a good whipping for it! Clay whore!

69. So, my friends, this is the tenth year now I'm wandering.

70. Me and Big Uncle Vanya killed the death of the cow!

71. Ha, so they brought in the tomfooling pig!

72. You with your dirty mug dare stand in the breadline?

73. Poor me, I don't even have an aunt, so screw her.

74. And I, brother, with the Lord's help have become a major.

75. "Hey! You with the branded forehead!"—"You, you're not Siberian?"—"Yeah, well, I'm getting there! What about it?—"No, nothing!"

Translated from the Russian by Peter Constantine

* Dostoyevsky points out here the play on words between cat, kot in Russian, and kat, which as he mentions in the notebook, is the Ukranian term for hangman.