Life in a Penal Battalion of the Imperial Russian Army: The Tolstoyan N. T. Iziumchenko's Story

Article excerpt

Peter Brock and John L. Keep, eds. Life in a Penal Battalion of the Imperial Russian Army: The Tolstoyan N. T. Iziumchenko's Story. York, England: William Sessions Limited, 2001. Distributed in North America by Syracuse University Press. xiv, 63 pp. Notes. $15.95, paper.

Nikolai Trofimovich Iziumchenko was a semi-educated peasant from Kursk province who, under the influence of his school teacher, Yevdokim Nikitich Drozhzhin, became a follower of Leo Tolstoy's philosophy of non-resistance to evil. In 1899, at the age of twenty-two, Iziumchenko was conscripted into the Russian Army. Two years later, in accordance with his Tolstoyan beliefs, he deserted his unit and openly refused to serve further in the army. In consequence, he was arrested and sentenced to two years in a penal battalion. There he once again met his mentor, Drozhzhin, who had also been arrested for refusing to undertake military service. Iziumchenko's memoirs of his time in the penal battalion have now been published in English for the first time, with an introduction by Peter Brock and John Keep (both retired from the University of Toronto).

Only sixty-three pages long, Iziumchenko's memoirs are short and often engrossing to read, written in a light and colloquial fashion. Much of the content is a fairly standard description of the brutality and mindlessness of military life, made worse by the fact that the author was in prison. Of itself, this description is unremarkable. The treatment of prisoners in the penal battalion was often brutal, and by modern standards seems shocking, but given the time and place, the conditions that Iziumchenko describes are not particularly harsh. …