Category Archives: labor

Russian Elites Ride into Exile, 1820s

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1518-1547:

The Decembrists’ spirits began … to lift after they left the Urals behind. They discovered not the frozen wasteland of the Russian imagination but a beautiful and varied landscape, one in which the peasants were not oppressed by the slavery of serfdom. Basargin noted that “the further we travelled into Siberia, the more fetching it seemed in my eyes. The common people seemed freer, more lively and more educated than our Russian peasants, especially the serfs.” Such observations would feed into a growing Romantic perception among reform-minded Russians of Siberia as a democratic alternative to the rigid and suffocating hierarchies of European Russia.

Nevertheless, for all their moral torments and physical discomfort, the manner in which most Decembrists were deported to Siberia marked them out as men of exceptional status. First, they rode in wagons, rather than walked, something quite unimaginable for the thousands of exiles who made the arduous journey over the Urals every year in the 1820s. Officials and convoy soldiers were also unsure of how to treat their eminent charges. Even if they had been “deprived of all rights and privileges,” the Decembrists were still identical in language, bearing and manners to their superiors. As Zavalishin observed, “everywhere we went, we were called princes and generals … many, wishing to satisfy both the rules of our current status and their desire to show us respect, addressed themselves to us as ‘Your former Highness, Your former Excellency.’” The guards’ hesitant enforcement of the strict rules meticulously laid out by government ministers was rendered all the more confused by favours the Decembrists themselves purchased through bribes. Alexander Benckendorff, the head of Nicholas I’s Third Section, which had been established to combat sedition in the wake of the Decembrist Revolt, learned that the initial two groups of exiles “were wining and dining” en route and plying their convoy soldiers and gendarmes with food and drink. Obolensky was permitted to write to his wife and Davydov was allowed to shave. The Decembrists were expressly forbidden from riding in their own carriages but, armed with 1,000 roubles from his wife, Fonvizin did just that and managed to obtain warm blankets for himself and his travelling companions into the bargain. During the course of their journey, he and his comrades were “waited on” by their gendarmes.

As they rode into exile, the Decembrists encountered not the baying mob of which Rozen, the Baltic German, had been warned, but curiosity, sympathy and generosity from both officials and the wider Siberian population. Fonvizin wrote to his wife from the route that the governor of Tobolsk, Dmitry Bantysh-Kamensky, and his family “received me warmly and generously—I am obliged to them that our convoy officer treated us very well and even agreed to forward you this letter.” Basargin recalled how the elderly governor of the small town of Kainsk, a certain Stepanov, approached them “accompanied by two men dragging an enormous basket with wine and foods of every kind. He made us eat as much as we could and then take the leftovers with us. He also offered us money with words that surprised us: ‘I acquired this money’—he said pulling out a large packet of notes—‘not entirely cleanly, in bribes. Take it with you; my conscience will rest easier.’” In Krasnoyarsk, the inhabitants argued over who should have the honour of accommodating the exiles as they took a day’s rest in the town. Merchants entertained the Decembrists in the best rooms of their houses, sparing no expense on the food and drink they lavished upon their guests.

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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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Logistics of Penal Migration

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 715-748:

The European empires all struggled with the formidable logistical problems of penal migration. Britain’s transports to its Australian penal colonies in the late eighteenth century were dreadful ordeals for the convict passengers. Prisoners languished in the ships’ holds, “chilled to the bone on soaked bedding, unexercised, crusted with salt, shit and vomit, festering with scurvy and boils.” Of the 1,006 convicts who sailed on the Second Fleet in 1790, 267 died at sea and at least another 150 after landing. The British government took swift and decisive action to curb the lethal excesses in transportation because the organized and efficient transfer of healthy convicts was understood to be necessary to the wider project of penal colonization. It bombarded the private contractors responsible for transportation with demands for improvements in conditions, and deferred payment for each convict until he or she disembarked in decent health. A naval surgeon was placed on board each vessel and was answerable to the government, not to the contractors. Negligence and abuse still continued on some ships but, by 1815, the death rate in the transports had fallen to one in eighty-five. By the end of transportation in 1868, it was only one in 180.

The deportation of convicts to Siberia presented logistical difficulties not less (and possibly even more) daunting than those of the roiling waters of the Atlantic and Indian oceans. The annual deportation of thousands of unruly and sometimes violent convicts several thousands of kilometres across the most inhospitable territory would have taxed the resources of any contemporary European state. The Siberian continent boasted only the sketchiest network of roads, and rivers that flowed unhelpfully south to north and north to south, rather than west to east, and turned each winter into a hazardous ocean of snow.

When compared with its European rivals, the tsarist empire’s state machinery was primitive and already creaking under the weight of its administrative burdens. St. Petersburg’s remit did not run as deep as that of London or Paris. Even within European Russia, the state had little direct contact with its own population. It devolved governance onto the landed nobility, the Church, merchant guilds and village assemblies. The Imperial Army was the only direct and sustained confrontation with state power that most Russian subjects—the peasantry—ever experienced. The enormous distances separating Siberia’s administrators from their masters in the capital amplified the effects of this bureaucratic weakness. Under-resourced and virtually unaccountable, officials manoeuvred within the deportation system for private gain, neglecting, exploiting and robbing the convicts in their charge.

After several months, sometimes years on the road, convicts who had departed hale and hearty from European Russia finally reached their destinations in Eastern Siberia as ragged, sickly, half-starving mockeries of the robust penal colonists envisioned by officials in St. Petersburg. The deportation process itself thus frustrated the state’s wider strategic ambitions for the penal colonization of Siberia. The downcast and desperate figures trudging eastwards in marching convoys were indictments of the imperial state’s weakness and incompetence. The boundary post was not so much a symbol of the sovereign’s power as a marker of its limitations.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, exiles almost all made the journey to Siberia on foot. They would set out from one of five cities in the empire: St. Petersburg, Białystok in the Kingdom of Poland, Kamenets-Podolsk and Kherson in Ukraine, and Tiflis in Georgia. Most were funnelled through the Central Forwarding Prison in Moscow, from where they and their families would march eastwards through the town of Vladimir that gave its name to the road that wound its way eastwards. Synonymous with Siberian exile, the Vladimirka gained such notoriety over the nineteenth century that Isaak Levitan’s eponymous landscape painting from 1892, which today hangs in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, seemed to echo to the clumping steps of exiles marching eastwards.

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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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U.S. Army Decline, 1870s

From The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, by Peter Cozzens (Knopf, 2016), Kindle Loc. 1154-1167:

Even as the Indian Wars intensified, Congress—intent on paying down the massive national debt incurred during the Civil War—repeatedly reduced the rolls of the regular army. From an authorized strength of fifty-four thousand men in 1869, the army would plummet to just twenty-five thousand by 1874. Reconstruction duties siphoned off a third of the army and sucked the institution into partisan politics. As Southern states were readmitted to the Union, their representatives made common cause with the budget balancers in order to emasculate their blue-coated former oppressors, and the frontier army became a skeleton force.

Declining numbers were not the army’s only problem. Gone were the sober and purposeful volunteers who had restored the Union. In their place was a decidedly inferior brand of soldier. Not all were “bummers and loafers,” as the New York Sun alleged. There were also a disproportionately large number of urban poor, criminals, drunkards, and perverts. Few soldiers were well educated, and many were illiterate. Unskilled laborers in search of a steady job flocked to recruiting depots, usually to desert when better-paying work became available. One-third of the frontier army consisted of recent immigrants, mostly German and Irish, some of whom had seen service in European armies and proved an asset, and sprinkled among the American undesirables were good men who had fallen on hard times. Nevertheless, as one general observed, while the army had a greatly improved rifle, “I rather think we have a much less intelligent soldier to use it.”

Incentives to enlist were few. By the 1870s, regulars earned just ten dollars a month, three dollars less than had Civil War volunteers a decade earlier.

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China’s Agricultural Revolutionaries

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 5314-5338:

The transformation of agriculture in 1978 and 1979 proceeded with little instigation from the top. The peasants sensed the opportunities provided by the loosening of the party’s political control and pushed ahead. It was a process marked by wide regional variation; there seem to have been as many different names for agricultural reform experiments during this period as there are counties in China. It was also very much a matter of trial and error. When the politicians learned what the peasants were up to, they usually waited for evidence of success before they committed themselves unambiguously. Wan Li and Zhao Ziyang could claim credit for letting the farmers do what came naturally. When the experiments of the peasants bore fruit, Deng publicized their success, recognizing a good thing when he saw it. But he certainly could not take credit for giving farmers the idea.

The irony, as American anthropologist Stephen Mosher realized, was that Western scholars at the time regarded the Chinese as incorrigible collectivists. “Group thinking” was considered an indelible part of traditional culture that predisposed the Chinese to Communist ways. As a result, Mosher had come to the countryside expecting to discover evidence that the peasants were fundamentally satisfied with the stability and predictability furnished by the regime. According to scholarly reasoning, the Communist Party had taken power in 1949 largely due to the support of the country dwellers. It had promised to improve the lot of the peasantry, and in this it had surely succeeded. After all, hadn’t the Communists brought schools and basic health care to even some of the most remote villages? Hadn’t they eliminated the corruption and tyranny of the old landlords? Upon his arrival, Mosher carefully noted all the characteristics of a traditional society that skewed visibly to collective ways of doing things.

The rampant cynicism and apathy that he encountered in China’s real-existing countryside thus came as something of a shock, and his account provides a fascinating chronicle of how a preconceived view can disintegrate upon contact with reality. But amid the ruins of Mao’s utopian edifice, Mosher also discovered intriguing evidence of a powerful source of transformative energy: individual initiative. Though they were far from the places where the most important experiments were under way, the people in Mosher’s remote Guangdong village had already picked up on the spread of the household-responsibility system, and he succeeded in capturing a nice snapshot of the spirit that, once unleashed, would soon lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The old entrepreneurial mind-set of the Chinese “flared anew once opportunity presented itself,” Mosher noted. When one woman heard that the party might soon allow a return to household farming, she immediately began making plans to start cultivating her own mulberry patch, planting the bushes between the rows of trees on the farm. “You can’t do that now because people are careless when they work,” she explained to the American. “They would step on them when they are spreading mud [as fertilizer] or picking mulberry leaves. But I’ll be careful because they’ll be mine.”

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Media Manipulation, Poland, 1979

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4181-4218:

The Polish secret police, the SB, and its Politburo masters created a special operation called LATO ’79. (Lato means “summer.”) As archbishop of Kraków, Wojtyła had already spent nearly twenty years as the focus of a considerable intelligence-gathering effort by the SB as well as, intermittently, the KGB, the East German Stasi, and other East-bloc secret services. LATO ’79 drew most of its operational intelligence from seven moles who had served in the archbishop’s immediate entourage over the years. They included both priests and laymen; one of them, code-named JUREK, was a member of the church organizing committee. Every possible measure to limit the effects of the pope’s visit was considered. Tens of thousands of police would be deployed in the course of the nine days. The SB informants who were involved in trip planning were advised, for example, to express worries about safety wherever possible (in the hope that this calculated disinformation would reduce the number of pilgrims). No effort was spared. In the event, 480 SB agents were deployed during the four days the pope spent in Kraków during the visit.

Presumably because a large number of East German Catholics also expressed a desire to see the pope, the East German secret police, the Stasi, deployed hundreds of its own agents to cover the event. The East Germans even set up a special headquarters post on the Polish border to coordinate their operations. The famous Stasi master spy Markus Wolf had planted his own mole inside the Vatican, a German Benedictine monk whose identity was not even known to the Stasi man in charge of the operation.

The apparatchiks were especially intent on managing the media coverage. In the weeks leading up to the visit, official media issued a stream of warnings. People should stay away from the pope’s events, the government urged: chaos and hysteria were sure to reign, and spectators could almost certainly count on being trampled to death. Foreign reporters were charged exorbitant accreditation fees, which excited a great deal of angry complaint and undoubtedly boosted the country’s desperately needed hard-currency reserves. But it doesn’t seem to have kept many journalists away. Domestic reporters were easier to deal with. The party issued reams of carefully considered guidelines and talking points. TV cameramen attended special training sessions. Their instructors told them to avoid shots of large crowds. Instead, they were supposed to point their cameras toward the sky while leaving a few people at the bottom of the frame. Shots of elderly people, nuns, and priests were to be preferred; young people, families, and laypeople should be avoided. The idea was to make it appear as though the pope’s supporters were a marginal, backward bunch, and certainly nothing like a cross-section of society.

Meanwhile, the party was taking no chances. In the weeks before John Paul II’s arrival, the Polish police arrested 150 dissidents—including Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron, one of the founders of KOR [Workers’ Defence Committee]. (A few weeks earlier a gang of toughs had attacked Kuron on the street and beaten him badly. No one was charged in the assault—a fact that suggested the complicity of the security services.) Another one of those detained was a Catholic activist named Kazimierz Switon, who was sentenced to a year in jail for the peculiar crime of attempting to set up an independent trade union. This was an intolerable offense in a country that claimed to be run with the interests of the workers at its heart. Surely, the dictatorship of the proletariat obviated the need for any new labor movements outside of the state.

But appearances were deceptive. In fact, by the end of the 1970s, the essential schizophrenia of life was firmly established. Publicly, officially, there was the Poland of Communist Party rule: a place of grandiose slogans, lockstep marches, and central planning. This nation coexisted with an alternative Poland defined by opposition-organized “flying universities,” underground publications from dissident groups like KOR, and the parallel moral universe embodied by the Catholic Church, long linked with the struggle to assert Polish nationhood. Poles of this era had grown up in a society were life was split into two parallel realms, the public and the private, each with its own versions of language and history. As in so many other authoritarian states, citizens of the People’s Republic of Poland learned from early on to parrot their allegiance to official ideology in public while keeping their real opinions to themselves and their families. Communist rule depended on ensuring that people persisted in paying public tribute to the official version of truth, thus preventing them from seeing how many of them actually rejected it. But what would happen when they were allowed to make their private feelings manifest, on a mass scale?

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