Imperial Russia’s Penal Colonies

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 239-264:

The Tobolsk Central Penal Labour Prison continued to serve as a penal institution until 1989, when the authorities finally shut it down. Like many of the tsarist-era prisons, it had been refurbished after 1917 and eventually become part of what Alexander Solzhenitsyn would call the “archipelago” of penal facilities that formed the Stalinist Gulag. Both in Russia and abroad, the Gulag has overlaid memories of the tsars’ use of Siberia as a place of punishment. Long before the Soviet state erected its camps, however, Siberia was already a vast open prison with a history spanning more than three centuries.

Siberia—the Russian name Сибирь is pronounced Seebeer—dwarfs European Russia. At 15,500,000 square kilometres, it is one and a half times larger than the continent of Europe. Siberia has never had an independent political existence; it has no clear borders and no binding ethnic identity. Its modern history is inseparable from Russia’s. The easily surmountable Ural Mountains have acted less as a physical boundary than as the imaginative and political frontier of a European Russia beyond which lay a giant Asiatic colony and a sprawling penal realm. Siberia was both Russia’s heart of darkness and a world of opportunity and prosperity. The continent’s bleak and unforgiving present was to give way to a brighter future, and Siberia’s exiles were intended to play a key role in this vaunted transition.

For the imperial state sought to do more than cage social and political disorder within its continental prison. By purging the old world of its undesirables, it would also populate the new. The exile system promised to harness a growing army of exiles in the service of a wider project to colonize Siberia. In theory, Russia’s criminals would toil to harvest Siberia’s natural riches and settle its remote territories and, in so doing, they would discover the virtues of self-reliance, abstinence and hard work. In practice, however, the exile system dispatched into the Siberian hinterland an army not of enterprising settlers but of destitute and desperate vagabonds. They survived not by their own industry but by stealing and begging from the real colonists, the Siberian peasantry. The tensions embedded in this dual status of “prison colony” were never reconciled over the more than three centuries separating the banishment of the Uglichan insurgents and the implosion of the tsarist empire in 1917. Contrary to the ambitions of Russia’s rulers, penal colonization never became a driving force behind Siberia’s development. Rather, as the numbers of exiles grew, it became an ever greater obstacle to it.

Over the nineteenth century, the scale and intensity of Siberian exile increased so significantly that it easily surpassed the exile systems of the British and French empires. The British transported around 160,000 convicts to Australia in the eight decades between 1787 and 1868; the French state meanwhile had a penal population of about 5,500 in its overseas colonies between 1860 and 1900. By contrast, between 1801 and 1917, more than 1 million tsarist subjects were banished to Siberia.

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Filed under labor, migration, military, nationalism, Russia, slavery

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