Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin

The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
Sakhalin Island, Alexandrovsk settlement, Novo-Mikhaylovka settlement, Krasny Yar and

SUMMARY: The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin is Anton Chekhov’s first-person documentation of the prison settlements on the Siberian island of Sakhalin. In it, he travels from settlement to settlement, often in the company of a prison guard. He gives a brief history of the island’s history, from Japanese colonization to the establishment of the Russian prison regime there. He also describes the experiences he had on the island, which begin with his arrival at the town of Nikolayevsk. He describes the town of Alexandrovsk, inhabited by the island’s commandant, and which he takes to be one of the island’s key centers. He routinely uses contrasts to off put the reader, for example the contrast between his description of the town as
“pretty” with the reality that a prison is right next to the main street. He resides with the doctor, who is unfriendly with the general, in part due to the doctor’s dislike of corporal punishment. The doctor, in contrast to the general, is described as speaking “of truth and humanity.”


     Chekhov describes the procedure for his census, which he understands to be inaccurate as it was conducted by him alone over the course of only three months. The census records twelve attributes, from religion to literacy to trade to marital status. Chekhov then begins to move among the Alexandrovsk valley and Duyka river settlements, and also describes in detail what the streets of the Alexandrovsk port resemble, paying particular attention to their cleanliness and order. He then enters a prison in Alexandrovsk and examines it, remarking at the behavior and words of the prisoners. After some more time, he travels to the Novo-Mikhaylovka, Krasny Yar, Butakovo, Arkay-vo, and Dué settlements. Dué is the former capital penal colony of the island, a place described as eerily quiet, and where two prisons are located near the mines so that prisoners can labor there. The conditions at these prisons are harsh and seem to Chekhov to pervert the prisoners themselves into committing heinous crimes while there.

ANALYSIS: In a number of ways, The Island stands thoroughly in line with a number of other Russian prison texts. Throughout the book, Chekhov describes the nature around the prison as a vital contrast to the brutality inside. Beauty, found in that which had not been touched by men, intrudes on the violence humans enact upon one another. His criticisms of Russian systems of punishment are clear, and he does not hold back in his indictment of the conditions to which prisoners are subjected. Though in one sense he is matter of fact as he collects a sort of unbiased data about the lives and attributes of the prisoners, his alignments are made clear and it is at times unclear what the research standard is there to do, whether it be to provide an objective grounding in his findings, or to demonstrate a sort of futility to reducing these people anymore to their attributes than to their crimes. The futility he sees in prisons writ large is also evident. What compels crime, he seems to argue, are the conditions which humans live under - whether it be the conditions of the prison which further pervert the moral psychologies of the inmates or anything else. It is man, rather than God or anything in the natural world, which has created a social world of crime and harm and punishment.


     Chekhov’s language thus alternates between his observations and descriptions of place, and between his more abstract and theoretical musings, which are often placed right between his more matter of fact observations. His positionality in the text is somewhat unique, largely by virtue of his circumstance. He is not a prisoner, nor a guard, nor writing a
story about what it might be like inside these settlements. Instead, he is an outside agent on the inside, whilе also himself truly there, not imagining, but instead documenting and convincing. And ultimately, what it seems he is attempting to convince the reader is that the answer to the question of who is to blame for what he witnesses and others endure is man, and man alone.




“Not more than twenty-five or thirty years ago our Russian people, while exploring Sakhalin, performed wonderful exploits, for which one could believe men were gods, but we have no use for this sort of thing, we don't want to know what kind of people they were, and so we sit comfortably surrounded by our four walls and complain that God created man to no good purpose. Sakhalin is a place of intolerable sufferings, and man alone, whether free or enslaved, is capable of making such a place” (8)


“We are the prisoners, not the convicts," said the captain. "It is calm here now, but you should see it in the fall: wind, snow, storms, cold, the waves dash over the side of the ship-and that's the end of you!" (17)


“Penal servitude for an indefinite period is limited to twenty years. Convict hard labor is not onerous. Forced labor gives no personal gain to the workers; herein lies its burden, and not in physical oppression. There are no chains, no guards, no shaved heads.” (28)


BIOGRAPHY: Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born on January 29, 1960, in the seaport town of Taganrog, Russia. His physically abusive father was the son of a serf, a grocer, and devout Orthodox Christian, and his mother was the Ukrainian daughter of a merchant who had a knack for storytelling. He attended the local grammar school, where he is said to have written a play called Fatherless, which he later destroyed but nonetheless demonstrated his early sentiments towards his hypocritical father. In 1876, his father’s business failed and he left for Moscow, leaving the younger Chekhov behind with his mother. Later his mother and siblings joined his father in Moscow, and by 1879 Chekhov had gained admittance to Moscow University to study medicine on a scholarship. During his time as a medical student, he wrote a number of short sketches, cartoons, and colorings for local newspapers, and also financially supported his whole family. By 1884, he was a licensed physician, but he deemed this the necessary profession for economic reasons, not for intellectual ones. In 1886 was offered to write for the popular newspaper New Times (Novoye Vremya), and also became close friends with the Alexei Suorovin, the owner of the newspaper.  It was under Suorovin’s patronage that in 1888 Chekhov’s first important story, “The Steppe,” was published. “The Steppe” was based on the trip to Ukraine which Chekhov had taken in 1887 in order to heal from his ill health (in 1884 he had begun to cough up blood, and he suspected tuberculosis). In a letter to his sister Masha from the trip, he wrote, “There is a scent of the steppe and one hears the birds sing. I see my old friends the ravens flying over the steppe.” That autumn, he was commissioned to write a play, which he later described as his “literary abortion.” The resulting play, Ivanov, divided critics.


     In 1890, after criticism from urban intellectuals for his lack of clear political or ideological beliefs, he retreated to the penal settlement island of Sakhalin which was located 6,000 miles east of Moscow on the other side of Siberia. Over the course of three months interviewing thousands of its residents for a census. He would later return in 1893-1894 to publish his research findings.


     In 1892 he bought a country estate in Melikhovo, a town south of Moscow, and continued writing over the course of the six years he spent there. Documenting both village life and the lives of Russian intellectuals, his works served as near sociological accounts of Russian life during the period. His only play of the period, The Seagull, was so poorly received in St. Petersburg that Chekhov himself left the auditorium during the second act and vowed to never write drama again. However, it was staged again to great success two years later at the Moscow Art Theatre, and he was graciously re-welcomed as a dramatist.


In 1897 he sold the Melikhovo estate and moved to Yalta, a town on the Crimean coast. While there, he wrote the short story “The Lady with the Dog” as well as his last plays, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard. In 1901 he married Olga Knipper, an actress from the Moscow Art Theatre. The Cherry Orchard was performed in Moscow on January 17, 1904, and six months later, on July 15, 1904, he died of tuberculosis.

This page has tags: