Christmas with the convicts

At last the holidays arrived. On Christmas Eve very few convicts went out to work. A few went to the sewing sheds and the workshops; the rest of the men merely attended the work detail, and although they were assigned to various locations, almost all of them, either singly or in groups, went straight back to the prison, and after dinner no one left it at all. Even during the morning the majority of the convicts went about exclusively on their own business, and not on official tasks: some busied themselves with the illicit provision of vodka and the ordering of new supplies; others to see friends of both sexes, or to collect before the holiday the small amounts of money owing to them for work done earlier in the year. Baklushin and the men who were taking part in the stage show went to see certain acquaintances, mostly in the officers’ detachment, and to obtain necessary costumes. Some men walked around looking preoccupied and fussed simply because others did, and although some, for example, had no prospects of getting any money from anywhere, they non the less acted as though they were indeed about to get some; in short, everyone seemed to be expecting some sort of a change to take place on the following day, something out of the ordinary. Towards evening the veterans who had gone to the market to do the convicts’ errands came back laden with many different kinds of things to eat: beef, sucking-pigs, even geese. Many of the convicts, even the most plain-living and thrifty ones, who saved up their copecks all year round, considered it their duty to spare no expense on this occasion and to celebrate the end of the fast in a proper manner. The day that would come tomorrow was a real holiday, which the convicts could not be deprived of – it was formally recognized by law. A convict could not be sent out to work on this day; there were only three such days in the year.

And really, who can tell how many memories must have stirred in the souls of these outcasts as they rose to meet such a day! The days of the great feasts are sharply imprinted on the memory of the common people, beginning in childhood. These are the days when they rest from their strenuous labours, days when families gather together. In prison they must have been remembered with torment and anguish. Respect for the solemn feast even acquired a certain ritual majesty among the convicts; there was little merrymaking, everyone was serious and seemingly preoccupied with something, although many had practically nothing at all to do. But even the idlers and the merrymakers tried to preserve a certain air of importance … It was if laughter had been forbidden. The prevailing mood was one of a certain exaggerated puctiliousness and irritable impatience, and any man who did anything to disturb this general atmosphere, even accidentally, would be set upon with shouts and curses by the others, as if he had aroused their anger by not having sufficient respect for the holy feast. This mood of the convicts was remarkable, and could even be quite moving. In addition to his inborn sense of reverence for the great day, each convict had an unconcious feeling that by observing this feast he was in some way coming into contact with the whole world, that consequently he ws not altogether an outcast, a lost man, a severed limb, and that as it was in the world of men, so it was in prison. They felt this; it was obvious and understandable.

Akim Akimych too was very busy preparing for the holiday, He had no family memories, for he had grown up as an orphan in a house belonging to strangers and had begun an arduous military service from the age of fifteen: there had been no particular happiness in his life, because he had always lived it with such regularity and monotony, afraid to stray even by a hair’s breadth from the particularly religious, either, since probity had apparently swallowed up all his other human endowments and attributes, his passions and desires, good and bad. Consequently he was preparing to greet the solemn day without fuss or agitation, without being troubled by any anguished and entirely futile memories, but with a quiet, methodical probity which was exactly as great as was necessary for the execution of his duties and the performance of a ritual that had been established for once and for all. In general, he was not one to give matters much reflection. It seemed that he never bothered his head about the meaning of any fact; but once rules were explained to him, he would carry them out with religious exactitude. If tomorrow he had been required to do the exact opposite, he would have done it with precisely the same obedience and thoroughness. Once, once only in his life had he attempted to live according to his own perceptions – and had ended up in prison. The lesson had not been lost on him. And although fate had decreed that he should not have even the slightest understanding of what it was he had been found guilty of, he had none the less deduced from his adventure one saving maxin: never under any circumstances to use his reason, since this was ‘no business of his mind’, as the convicts expressed it among themselves. In his blind devotion to ritual, he even regarded his Christmas sucking-pig, which he had stuffed with buckwheat porridge and roasted (with his own hands, for he knew how it was done), with a kind of anticipatory respect, as if this were no ordinary sucking-pig, which one could buy and roast any time one liked, but a special, Christmas one. It is possible that he had been used from childhood onwards to seeing a sucking-pig on the table when Christmad Day came round, and I am convinced that if even once he had missed his taste of sucking-pig on that day he would have been left for the rest of his life with a nagging sense of quilt at not having done his duty. Until the holiday arrived he went around in an old jacket and a pair of old trousers, which although they were quite respectably darned were none the less threadbare. It now transpired that he had carefully preserved in his locked box the new suit of jacket and trousers which had been issued to him about four months previously, and had not touched it, smiling at the thought of how he would put it on for the first time when it was Christmas. And that was what he did. On Christmas Eve he took out the new suit, unfolded it, examined it, gave it a brush, blew the dust off it and, when he had attended to all this, tried it on. The suit fitted him perfectly, it turned out; everything was as it should be, the jacket buttoned all the way to the top, the collar, as if it were made of cardboard, propped his chin up high; the jacket was even drawn in at the waist, reminding one of a military uniform, and Akim Akimych fairly beamed with pleasure, turning from side to side, not without a certain dash and swagger, in front of his tiny looking-glass, the rim of which he had once, long ago, in a moment of idlenes, decorated with a border of gold paper. There was only one little hook on the jacket collar which did not seem to be in quite the right position. Taking note of this, Akim Akimych decided to move the hook; this he did, tried the jacket on again, and this time everything seemed fine. Then he folded the garments once more and hid them in his locked box with his mind at ease until the next day. His head was shaven in the approved manner; but as he viewed himself attentively in the looking-glass, he noticed that his head did not appear to be entirely smooth on top; a few little tufts of hair were just visible, and he went straight of to ‘the major’ to have himself shaved properly and according to the regulations. Although noone was going to inspect him the following day, he had himself shaved, purely in order to satisfy his conscience, so as to have carried out all his Christmas duties. A reverence for buttons, epaulettes and stripes had been indelibly impressed upon his mind from childhood onwards as a kind of unquestionable obligation, and upon his heart as an image of the highest degree of beauty a decent man could attain to. When he had set everything to rights, as the head convict in the barrack he gave orders for hay to be brought in, and carefully supervised the spreading of it over the floor. The same was done in the other barrcks. For some unknown reason hay was always spread on the barrack floors at Christmas. Then, when he had completed his labours, Akim Akimych said his prayers, lay down on his camp bed and immediately fell into a peaceful slumber like that of a young infant; so as to wake up as early as possible in the morning. All the convicts acted in exactly the same manner, however. In all the barracks the men went to bed far earlier than they usually did. Their usual evening occupations were neglected; no one even mentioned maydans. Everyone was waiting for the morning that followed.

At last it arrived. Early, before it was light, as soon as reveille had been sounded on the drum, the barracks were unlocked and the duty sergeant wished them all a merry Christmas. The men did likewise, replying in a friendly, affectionate tone. After hurriedly saying their prayers, Akim Akimych and a lot of other men whose geese and sucking-pigs were cooking in the kitchen rushed off to see what was being done to them, how they were being roasted, where they were being put, and so on. Through the small, snow-and-ice-encrusted windows of our hut we could see out across the darkness to where in all six ovens of both kitchens brights fires were burning, having been kindled well before dawn. Convicts were already poking about the courtyard in the dark, wearing their sheepskin coats aither arm-in-sleese or thrown carelessly over their shoulders; they were all swiftly heading for the kitched. There were some, however, only a very few, it must be admitted, who had already managed to pay a visit to the ‘barmen’. These were the most impatient ones. In general, all the men behaved in a decent manner, peaceably and with a decorum that was somehow unusual for them. None of their usual quarrels and bad language were to be heard. They all knew that it was a day of great importance, a religious holiday of the first magnitude. There were some who went round the other barracks to give their greetings to men from their part of the country. Something akin to friendliness made its appearance. I will observe in passing that friendliness was something one hardly ever saw among the convicts: I allude not to any general spirit of friendliness – that was even less in evidence – but simply to the private friendship of one convict with another. This was something almost completely absent in the prison, and it was a remarkable feature of our life: things are different in freedom. All the men in the prison, with very few exceptions, were callous and sour in their dealings with each other, and this was a form of behaviour that had been accepted and established once and for all. I also left the barrack; it was just beginning to get lights; the stars were growing faint; a thin, frosty mist was rising into the air. The kitchen chimneys were emitting columns of smoke. Some of the convicts I met as I walked withed me a merry Christmas spontaneously and with real affection. I thanked them and responded in kind. Some of them were men who until now had not said a work to me all during the past month.

Right outside the kitched I was accosted by a convict from the military barrack, his sheepskin coat thrown over his shoulders. He saw me from halfway across the yard, and shouted to me: ‘Aleksandr Petrovich! Aleksandr Petrovich!’ He was on his way to the kitchen and in a hurry. I stopped and waited for him. He was a round-faced lad with a quiet expression in his eyes, he was very untalkative with everyone, and had not said a single word to me or paid me the slightest attention since I had entered the prison; I did not even know his name. He ran up to me breathlessly and stood right in from of me, staring at me with a meanngless, yet somehow blissful smile on his face.

‘What do you want?’ I asked him, not without astonishment, in view of the fact that he was standing and staring, smiling at me with all his might, yet not having started up any sort of conversation with me.

‘Well, I mean, it’s Christmas…’ He muttered and, having surmised that there was nothing more to talk about, he left me and rapidly set off for the kitchen.

I will observe, incidentally, that we never had any close of dealings with one another after this, and hardly said a word to one another for all the rest of my time in the prison.

Around the blazing ovens in the kitchen there was a great deal of bustle and jostling, quite a crowd. Each man was looking after what was his; the cooks were getting on with the preparation of the prison food, for dinner would be eaten earlier than usual today. No one had begun to eatyet, however; although some would have liked to, they disisted out of a sense of decorum in the presence of others. A priest was expected, and only after his visit would the breaking of the fast begin. In the meanwhile it was sstill not quite lights, when outside the prison gate the corporal’s summoning cry began to ring out: ‘Cooks!’ These cries rang out practically every minute and continued for almost two hours. The cooks were needed to receive the gifts of food which had been broughts to the prison from every quarter of the town. The food arrived in enormous quantities in the form of kalatches, bread, curd tarts, pastried, buns, blintzes and other fancy confections. I don’t believe there was one merchant or artisan housewife in all the town who had not sent some of her baking as a Christmas present for the ‘unfortunates’, the convicts. Some of this charity was extremely generous – there were fancy loaves made of the finest flour, sent in large quantities. Some of it was very meagre – a half-copeck kalatch and two rye buns with a thin smearing of sour cream on them: this was the gift of pauper to pauper, from the last there was to spare. Everything was accepted with equal gratitude, without respect of gifts and donors. As they accepted the gifts, the convicts took off their hats, bowed, wished the donor a merry Christmas and took the offering back to the kitchen. When heaps of bakeries had accumulated, the head convicts from each barrack were sent for, and they distributed all the items equally among the barracks. There was no quarrelling, no bad language; the distribution was done fairly and equitably. Our barrack’s share was divided up in the barack itself by Akim Akimych and another convict, who made the division and distributed the bakeries to each convict personally. There was not the slightest objection, not the slightest envy; everyone was pleased with what he got; there was not even any suspicion that the offerings might have been hidden or unevenly distributed. When he had seen to his business in the kitchen, Akim Akimych proceeded to his investiture; he dressed with the greatest of decorum and solemnity, not leaving one hook unfastened, and when he had finished he at once began to pray in earnest. He spent quite a long time in prayer. Many convicts, the elderly ones for the most part, were already standing in prayer. The younger convicts did not pray much: some of them might cross themselves when they got up in the morning, but that was all, even on a feast day. When he had finished praying, Akim Akimych came up to me and rather solemnly wished me a merry Christmas. I at once invited him to have tea with me, and he offered to share his sucking-pig with me. After a bit Petrov, too, came running up to me to wish me season’s greetings. It seemed he had had a few drinks already, and though he was out of breath when he came running up to me, he did not say much, but merely stood in front of me for a short while and soon went off in the diretion of the kitchen. In the military barrack the men were making preparations to receive the priest. This barrack was designed differntly from the rest: in it the plank bed extended around the walls, and not into the middle of the room, as in all the other barracks, so that it was the only room in the prison that was not cluttered up in the middle. It had probably been designed in this way so that all the convicts could be mustered here if necessary. A small table, covered with a clean towel, had been placed in the centre of the room; an icon had been placed on the table, and a lamp lit. At last the priest arrived with the cross and the holy water. After he had prayed and sung the liturgy in front of the icon, he stood before the convicts, and they came forward to kiss the cross with genuine reverence. Then the priest went round all the barracks, sprinkling them with holy water. In the kitched he praised our prison bread, which was renowned for its fine taste in the town, and the convicts immediately expressed a desire to have two freshly baked loaves sent to him; a veteren was immediately charged with this task. The convicts escourted the cross out of the prison as reverently as they had received in among them. Almost immediately aftarwards, the Major and the prison governor arrived. The governor was liked and even respected by the men. He made the rounds of all the barracks accompanied by the Major, wished each man a merry Christmas, went into the kitchen and tried the prison soup. The soup was delicious; almost a pound of beef per convict had been added to it. In addition, millet porridge had been prepared and the men could have as much butter as they wanted. Thwn he had seen the governor off, the Major gave orders for the meal to begin…

We began to eat. Akim Akimych’s sucking-pig was done to a turn. I don’t know how it was, but immediately after the Major’s departure, about five minutes after he had gone, there suddenly seemed to be an unusually large number of drunken convicts. Yet only five minutes earlier, nearly all the men had been completely sober. There were a lot of glowing, beaming faces. Balalaikas were produced. The little Pole with the violin was already following around some reveller who had hired him for the whole day to saw out lively dance-tunes for him. The conversation was growing noisier and more drunken. But the meal passed off without any serious desturbances. Everyone was full. Many of the older and moore sedate concicts went away to sleep, as did Akim Akimych, in the apparent assumption that this was what one always did after dinner on a major holiday.

Meanwhile it had begun to get dark. Sadness, depression and stupor began to show painfully through the drunkenness and merrymaking. A man who had been laughing an hour ago was now sobbing to himself somewhere, having drunk more than he could manage. Others had already contrived to get into a couple of fights. Yet others, pale and hardly able to stand, staggered about the barracks, picking quarrels with anybody they met. The very same men whose initial intoxication had been of the least provicative kind now looked in vain for friends in order to lay bare their souls to them and sob out their drunken misery. All this pathetic crowd had wanted to have a good time, to spend the holiday in high spirits and good humour. Yet God, how dreary and dismal the day was for nearly everyone. Everyone spent it looking as though they had been disappointed in some hope.

At last the claustrophobic day was at an end. The convicts fell asleep heavily on the plank bed. They talked and raved in their sleep even more than on other nights. Here and there men still sat at maydans. The long-awaited holiday was over. Tomorrow would be an ordinary day, with work again…

Fyodor Dostoevsky. The House of the Dead


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