Peter Brock and John LH Keep (eds), 'Life in a Penal Battalion of the Imperial Russian Army: The Tolstoyan NT Iziumchenko's Story'

IssueDecember 2001 - February 2002
Review by Simon Dixon

Appearing in English for the first time, this fascinating little book tells the story of Nikolai Trofimovich Iziumchenko (1867-1927), a peasant conscript to the Imperial Russian Army whose Tolstoyan beliefs led to his two-year imprisonment in a penal battalion.

Following a short, and informative, introduction from the book's editors, Iziumchenko's story is reproduced in translation with minimal annotation, making the account both accessible and readable for those with no prior knowledge of nineteenth-century Russian history or the writings of Tolstoy. The prison life Iziumchenko depicts is one of a monotonous day-to-day existence spent carrying out menial and often pointless tasks, punctuated by moments of extreme brutality brought to bear against prisoners by Officers for various trivial offences. On occasion the violence of this system would manifest itself in attacks on prison officers, and there are two instances described in grisly detail of NCOs being murdered by prisoners.

The descriptions of the daily routines of life in the penal battalion are enlivened by Iziumchenko’s accounts of conversations with other prisoners, and one comrade with whom he spends a great deal of time was Yevdokim Nikitich Drozhzhin (1866-94). Drozhzhin was a socialist revolutionary whose refusal to co-operate with the military authorities in any circumstances brought him severe punishment and ultimately led to his death in a civilian infirmary. The conversations between Drozhzhin and Iziumchenko raise many issues relating to resistance to military service that will be familiar to readers of Peace News.

While this book is essentially an account of one individual's sufferings at the hands of the military establishment in Imperial Russia, it raises wider issues regarding the relationship between systems of government and attitudes towards imprisonment.

In many respects the hierarchical nature of the prison regime described by Iziumchenko reflects the autocratic nature of Russian society in the late nineteenth-century. Moreover, as the editors observe in their introduction, the legacy of the acts of official violence perpetrated under the Tsarist regime help to account for the violent acts perpetrated in the revolutions of 1905-6 and 1917. Brock and Keep have done us a great service by making this story available to a new audience.

Topics: Prison, Russia
See more of: Review