Daily Archives: 9 April 2017

Devolving the Power to Exile

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 615-643:

Peasant and merchant communities were granted more than simply the right to reject returning convicts. A decree from 1763 empowered them to administratively exile their own members to Siberia, even if their guilt had not been proven but they simply fell under suspicion. In the absence of an effective rural police force, the tsarist state relied on these devolved punitive practices to maintain law and order in European Russia. In 1857 in the central Russian province of Yaroslavl, a territory that stretched across 36,000 square kilometres with a population of 950,000, the Ministry of the Interior could rely on just 244 policemen to keep the peace. Across the whole empire by 1900, the government employed a total of only 1,600 constables and 6,900 sergeants to police a widely dispersed rural population approaching 90 million. Unable to entrust its own agencies with upholding the law, the tsarist state effectively farmed out legal responsibility for investigating crimes, apprehending malefactors and determining guilt to a host of communes, guilds and institutions. Hapless individuals would find themselves summarily pronounced guilty and turned over to the authorities for deportation to Siberia. Exile was never simply a tool of repressive government but also a punishment wielded by peasant and merchant communities against their own members.

For serf owners, factory owners, village assemblies and merchant guilds, administrative exile thus provided a useful tool for both policing and removing troublemakers and the unproductive. The scope for abuse was almost limitless. Everyone from thieves, murderers and rapists to the victims of slander, superstition and the noxious cauldron of village politics could find themselves fettered in convoys marching eastwards. The use and abuse of administrative exile fed a surge in exile numbers in the first half of the nineteenth century. From the 1830s onwards, more than half the exiles who set off for Siberia had never seen the inside of a courtroom or heard the rulings of a judge. Many of those sentenced by Georgian England to deportation to the colonies might have been guilty of shockingly petty crimes, but they had at least been convicted by a magistrate or a jury of their peers. The exclusion of the overwhelming majority of the empire’s population of peasants and merchants from any meaningful legal protections supplied a steady stream of recruits for Siberia’s exile settlements and penal colonies.

By the late eighteenth century, Catherine the Great’s absolutist regime had expanded exile into a full-blown state-led project to colonize the Siberian landmass. The first two decades of Catherine’s reign alone saw the deportation to Siberia of around 60,000 insurrectionists, religious dissenters and political prisoners, together with the usual colourful collection of criminals, prostitutes, administrative exiles and their families. The empress’s concern with the productivity of her involuntary colonists led her to attempt to reform the exile system. The corporal punishments often meted out to Siberia’s exiles were thus prohibited from being so brutal as to incapacitate them because they had to remain capable of work. For the same reason, Catherine attempted to block the deportation of the elderly and the infirm but, in a reflection of the limited power the autocrat wielded in territories thousands of kilometres distant from St. Petersburg, her instructions had little apparent effect. The powers of exile granted to serf owners, peasants and merchants still ensured the selection of Siberian recruits not for their potential productivity, but precisely for their lack of it.

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