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In a new kind of prison rehabilitation, the Kolpino juvenile penal colony is putting on a play that strikes close to home -- a compilation of scenes from Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Notes From the House of the Dead."

By Galina Stolyarova

Pale, shaven-headed teenage boys shuffle around in circles, their hands bent behind their backs, their faces cheerless.

"Listen, guys, come on. You make it look as if you're having stomach cramps," says the man standing in front of them. "Think about your emotional burden and the fierce cold wind you are walking against -- and make us feel it."

The man is director Yevgeny Zimin, and the boys are prisoners at the juvenile penal colony in Kolpino, 30 kilometers south of St. Petersburg. They are rehearsing a theatrical performance loosely based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Notes From the House of the Dead," which premieres at the colony on March 7 and performs again before the public at the Dostoevsky Memorial Museum in St. Petersburg on March 15.

Of the 20 or so actors, ages 14 to 19, most are serving time for theft, robbery and racketeering. There are also several murderers and a rapist. Not one of them has ever read Dostoevsky, nor feels that he has missed anything.

"Few of them ever get to read a book at all," said Svetlana Demicheva, the colony's deputy director of educational issues. "We even have some boys who are completely illiterate, who can't even write. Dostoevsky is like higher mathematics for them."

Dostoevsky based his novel on his own prison experiences, having spent four years in a Siberian camp. But "Notes From the House of the Dead" had to be adapted for the show, with many scenes of violence and drinking omitted so that the inmates would not react rashly.

"Strong scenes of hostility and physical abuse have been deliberately left out to minimize the chance of disorder," said Vera Biron, director of the Dostoevsky Memorial Museum and the initiator of the project. In addition to "Notes From the House of the Dead," organizers also took sections from Dostoevsky's story, "A Boy at Christ's Christmas Party."

The idea for the project came to Biron when a visitor to the apartment museum suggested that they design a memorial cell. "Naturally, a cell wouldn't work in a museum like ours, but soon afterwards I started thinking about the imprisonment theme, and the idea emerged," she said.

Written in the form of memoirs by the fictional murderer Alexander Goryanchikov, the novel follows the tragic transformation of the main character from human being to automaton. Biron said the material is bound to have an effect on the young prisoners.

"Naturally, the story will not be the same as it was written by Dostoevsky," Zimin said. "In many senses, the boys will be playing themselves."

The inmates will perform alongside two professional actors, Sergei Byzgu and Valery Kukhareshin, who are reading the author's text. Watching them rehearse, Kukhareshin smiled.

"When they huddled together, I suddenly saw that they look so childish, and they have small pink ears like kids," Kukhareshin said. "I am aware of who they are and why they are in jail, but for me they are still children."

Despite the discrepancy in their onstage experience, however, Demicheva said that the boys get along well with the actors.

"They don't have much trust for people in uniforms, whether we are kind to them or not," she said. "But the actors do help the boys to start communicating in a much better, more honest way."

Each prisoner had his own reasons for joining the play.

"I've never been keen on reading," said 16-year-old Ivan Krylov, who was sentenced to 3 1/2 years for theft. The last two books he remembers reading before going to prison were detective novels -- "A Thief Called Moscow" and "The Cell."

"On the outside, I was too busy to read. Here, I am too exhausted," he said. "When I get to the cell in the evening, reading is the last thing on my mind." Instead, he signed up for the show "just to spice up my life a bit."

A day at the prison colony starts at 6:30 a.m. with a shift at a workshop in the morning and school lessons in the afternoon. The workshop doesn't get many orders, so the colony authorities have to take on almost anything they are offered. Several years ago the young inmates were making coffins. Now they make children's toys.

Dmitry Gordin, 19, was sentenced to eight years for murder. He joined the project because he was moved by Dostoevsky's writing.

"It might seem that a more cheerful plot would have been more appropriate but that isn't true," Gordin said. "It's quite the opposite. It is easier for us to play the drama because it is so much closer to our life than anything jolly. A funny plot, or even anything normal, would be very hard to perform."

Zimin, the show's director, said that he doesn't have any artistic goals in mind. The most important thing, he said, is to help the inmates-turned-actors to wake up emotionally.

"I just want them to forget about hierarchy, to stop showing muscles and playing games," Zimin said. "If they start seeing each other as human beings, then our project will succeed."

Demicheva, the deputy education director, said that the performers are already acting differently.

"As someone who observes them every day, I can tell that many of them have changed," she said. "During rehearsals, they joke and laugh, and there is no sign of aggression. The boys are warming up and becoming more open."

  Jean Paul Sartre. A french philosopher of the 20th century.
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