Reading Blog: January 2022
The start of another year of over-sharing books that I’m reading. In 2021 I wrote two ‘Pandemic Reads’ posts before starting a monthly ‘Reading List’ series in June. I feel good about this, but there’s room for improvement — making a daily habit, instead of stops and starts.
I’m glad for these posts, because I can link back to ‘that other book that I read about smallpox’ or search ‘soybeans’ to recall what I was thinking when the book was fresh in mind.
As I move into a longterm place, I’m considering books which are longer or expensive or keepsakes, maybe doing video reviews. I don’t know yet.
I got through one book this month, but peeked ahead at a few (on the Chicago lakefront, equitable access to museums, and Chinese history) which I am looking forward to.
Sakhalin Island (Anton Chekhov, 1895; 2019 edition)
This is the oldest book which I’ve reviewed. A 2015 New Yorker article calls it “the greatest work of journalism from the nineteenth century”.
Shortly before the Trans-Siberian Railway was approved by the Tsar, legendary writer and starship ensign Chekhov traveled by stagecoach and ship to Sakhalin Island, a labor camp and colonization project north of Japan. Gulag Archipelago is a future reading goal, so when this book got a mention in The Tsar’s Last Armada, I decided to take this on as a prequel.
This edition includes 120 pages of notes from Chekhov and the modern translator (Brian Reeve) explaining old Russian houses and prisons, who’s who, cultural references and other subtext, some reforms which happened around the time of the journey and publication, and so on. I recommend using a boarding pass or other paper slip to double-bookmark your position in the text and in the notes.
On the journey across Siberia, Chekhov finds a strict hierarchy of work camp laborers, migrants walking east for promised plots of land, various classes of people punished with exile, vagabonds (prisoners who left their posts and branded if caught), and freemen. He quickly decides that lifelong exile, with its permanence and alienation, is not much better than a death sentence.
Once on Sakhalin, Chekhov conducts a census to meet everyone and describe the towns’ strengths and weaknesses. This had the potential to be tedious and repetitive, but luckily he has a talent for finding and questioning local characters about why they are on Sakhalin and how their village make a living.
The government and management of the prison island is profiting while the goals of reform or agricultural colonization remain totally unachievable. Freemen and prisoners are thrown together, officially married or not. Dozens are crowded into villages arbitrarily placed or with no more farmable land. In the mines, the wealthy can hire others to work through their punishment. Hard labor camps have filthy, communal bunks. Some plead innocence, or that they are not allowed to leave after their prison and exile terms.
Chekhov makes a case for cleaner, individual cabins for prisoners, noting that 1/4 of the prisoners are in cabins already and many are trusted to watch children or carry axes. They cannot be useful colonists if they spend their vital years in camps, then at the end of their sentence are left to build a home from scraps on poorly chosen land. From the earliest trips (whose surviving members are celebrities among the colonists — reminds me of similar ‘old-timers’ in Svalbard or Dubai), Russia did not provide enough resources for even their voluntary colonists.
Though this book did gather sympathy for desperate prisoners, the author is mostly chummy with fellow members of the elite: managers, ship captains, traders, travelers, even exiled white-collar criminals and torturers. He never quite gets inside the head of anyone else. He finds Siberian villagers to be humorously provincial and backward, and describes many Sakhalin families as ‘idle’ (there was some staging around these interviews, so likely some were waiting for him..?). He discusses the indigenous Nivkh people in the north and Ainu in the south, but they are not included in the census and his descriptions are (typical of the time) full of condescension and rumors. Some stuff online credits Chekhov for making an ethnographic record so I ought to stress, these sections are short and heavily invested in ‘race science’.
This isn’t to say that Chekhov was detached or unsympathetic. A GoodReads reviewer familiar with Russian literature writes:
Chekhov has changed after this trip and this book. He never wrote short funny stories again and all his great plays (except Ivanov) were written after that. What he saw there and what he described in this book angered him and clearly haunted to the end of his days
This travelogue may be foundational activist journalism and reduced the penalty of Siberian prisons, but I did not learn much about Russian-style manifest destiny, or the experience of an average person caught in this system.
Chekhov was pessimistic for the sustainability of voluntary life on Sakhalin, but almost 500,000 people are there today thanks to better heating technology, oil reserves, faster food trade, and strategic access to the Pacific.
Follow-ups on previous reads
- Plessy got his pardon! Follow the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation set up by their descendants in New Orleans.
On international courts:
- I am late to a documentary and report from 2018, but a citizen group created The North Carolina Commission of Inquiry on Torture to collect testimony and discuss CIA flights at a local airport.
- A Syrian colonel who sought asylum in Germany was held accountable and convicted of crimes against humanity.