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Sakhalin Island by Anton Chekhov

Sakhalin Island (1890)

by Anton Chekhov

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    Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison by Michel Foucault (peterbrown)
    peterbrown: The psychology behind punishment with esamples of French punishment & theprison system in the C18th & C19th.

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“Sakhalin is a place of unbearable sufferings, which only a human being, whether free or subjugated, is capable of causing and undergoing.”

In April 1890, the thirty-year old Chekhov left on a challenging trip across Siberia to the Island of Sakhalin, site of a penal colony established under Tsarist authority. Sakhalin Island is located east of Siberia and north of Japan. As Russia’s largest island, it is twice the size of Greece. From Siberia chronicles his two and a half months of travel by sledge, carriage and boat, followed by three months of documenting the island’s census, lifestyle, and penal system in Sakhalin Island.

Chekhov had early-stage tuberculosis and his motivation for making this trip has been the subject of much unresolved speculation. His stated goal was to visit all of the inhabited places on the island and in order to learn as much as possible about life in these communities, to conduct a census of all occupants associated with the prison population. The island is divided into three administrative districts, each with its own settlements, prisons and character. He began his survey of the island in what he refers to as the northern section, which is geographically the central third of the island, the top third being uninhabitable, and ended in the southern region.

The penal system Chekhov observed was a perplexing combination of harshness and leniency, governed by the Statutes of Exile. Prisoners were divided into three general categories: convict, settled exile and peasant- in- exile. A life sentence was considered equal to twenty (20) years, the death penalty was nonexistent, and the majority (62.5%) of convicts served short-term sentences of up to 12 years. Forced labor was considered to be the primary instrument of punishment, with concurrent exile considered as an effective means of permanently removing an individual from mainstream society. After having served their sentence, convicts transitioned to settled exile status. Following six to ten years, they became peasants-in-exile.

Local authorities exercised considerable discretion in implementation of the system’s governing statutes. An interesting example is found in the issue of living arrangements. Convicts were often allowed to live in free-persons’ lodgings, especially if they had been accompanied to the island by their families, or worked as artisans and providers of service (ex. cooks, nannies) to settlement inhabitants. In the Alexandrovsk District, home to the Governor of the Island, even convicts who spent the night in the prison were allowed to leave freely during the day. In January 1890, a total of 5,908 convicts lived in the three administrative districts of Sakhalin. Of these, 1332 (23%) lived outside of prison in their own cabins or other free-persons’ lodging. 424 were householders living on their own plot of land and 908 were wives, cohabitants, workmen or tenants. Further, under the statutes, settled exiles were required to establish or become a member of a household in the district, thus fulfilling a secondary purpose of populating the island. If a settled exile did not already have a household, they were assigned a plot to build on, ordered to become a member of another established household, or sent to start a new settlement site. Peasants- in- exile were allowed to leave Sakhalin Island and settle in Siberia, but remained in permanent exile, banned from returning to their original home area.

While some practices appear unusually humane, the system mostly presented a harsher side. The majority of prisons provided only the most primitive of living conditions. There was no bedding, food was scarce, and communal cells were overcrowded and filthy. Chekhov even comments on the inadequate volume of air that he calculates to be available to each prisoner. Forced labor was often harsh, although payment was expected to be provided to the convict, with a portion held back until settled exile status was achieved. Corporal punishment for infractions was the rule. Harshly and often arbitrarily applied by corrupt overseers, this included flogging with birch rods or lashes, and even such inventive approaches as being chained to a wheelbarrow.

Living conditions found in the settlements were often not much different than in the prisons. Most cabins were crowded and poorly furnished. Food was scarce, as weather and growing conditions on the island were poor, household land allotments were inadequate, crops suitable for productive farming were extremely limited, and livestock rarely owned. Health care and education are minimally available and of poor quality. Aside from the impoverished physical conditions, life in most of the settlements was marked by severe cultural deprivation, resulting in excessive drinking and card-playing, "flagrant depravity" and a suffocating boredom.

The plight of women on the island, whether prisoner or free, was appalling. Overall, there was a scarcity of women, who were looked upon as less than human. Within the exile community residing in cabins, there was a ratio of 53 women to every 100 men. With those men who spent the night in prison and unmarried soldiers added, the ratio fell to 25 women for every 100 men. Prostitution was a common means of resolving this problem, as well as a primary means of support for female residents. Female convicts, representing 11.5% of the total, were often lodged in brothels. When new unattached women arrived within settlements, men who were determined worthy were allowed to meet with them and negotiate domestic relationships, although permission to marry was generally withheld, resulting in nearly half of families lacking the permanency of being legalized.

Chekhov documented his journey and investigations in great detail, sometimes overwhelmingly so. He describes each settlement and prison visited and provides extensive demographic, geographical and historical background, while supplementing his observations with the stories of those he meets, both prisoner and free. The information to be absorbed is also not confined to Chekhov’s primary narrative. The edition I read, published by Alma Classics, includes extensive notes (often several per page), a biography, bibliography, excerpts from Chekhov’s letters, and even the first chapter in Russian.

Prior to stumbling upon this book, my familiarity with Anton Chekhov had been confined to his short stories and plays. Despite sections where I felt bogged down in detail, I found this book fascinating and revealing of the Russian perspective on the punishment and rights of criminals and their family members. It also provides an historical context that I expect will be useful in understanding the development of the Soviet gulag system.

Highly recommended.
9 vote Linda92007 | Jan 11, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Anton Chekhovprimary authorall editionscalculated
Reeve, BrianTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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