A sketch of Dostoevsky's mock execution before he was sentenced to a prison camp. Wikimedia Commons

It is now quite understandable why, as I already said earlier, my first question on entering prison was how to behave, on what footing to put myself wit these people. I sensed beforehand that I would often have such clashes with them as now, at work. But, despite any such clashes, I decided not to change my plan of action, which I had already partly thought out at the time; I knew it was right. Namely; I decided that I must behave as simply and independently as possible, by no means to betray any any effort to get closer with them; but not to reject them if they themselves wished to get closer. By no means to fear their threats and hatred and, as far as possible, to pretend I did not notice it. By no means to side with them on certain points, and not to cater to some of their habits and customs—in short, not to invite myself into their full friendship. I realized at first glance that they would be the first to despise me for it. However, by their way of thinking (and I later learned this for certain), I still had to maintain and even show respect for my noble origin before them, that is, to pamper myself, put on airs, disdain them, turn up my nose at everything, and keep my hands clean. That was precisely how they understood a nobleman to be. Naturally, they would abuse me for it, but deep down they would still respect me. Such a role was not for me; I had never been a nobleman according to their notions but instead I promised myself never to belittle my education or my way of thinking before them by any concession. If, to please them, I were to start fawning on them, agreeing with them, being familiar with them, entering into their various “qualities” in order to gain their sympathy—they would at once assume I was doing it out of fear and cowardice, and would treat me with contempt.

-From Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s new translation of Notes from A Dead House, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s fictionalized account of his time in a prison camp for participating in a utopian socialist discussion group. Often translated as The House of the Dead, Dostoevsky’s account is considered the first book to expose life inside Russia’s penal system. In order to get Notes from a Dead House published he reframed his experience as a political prisoner as that of a common-law criminal.

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