Category Archives: Russia

Decembrists as European Celebrities

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1667-1683:

Nicholas and his ministers had sought, if not the physical, then the political annihilation of the Decembrists as representatives of constitutional reform within the Russian elite. But in these terms they failed, for the story of the Decembrists’ exile to Siberia is the story of a victory snatched from defeat. Lionized by their supporters, their moral authority only grew over the course of Nicholas I’s reign and would inspire a subsequent generation of radicals after his death. In exile in London, Herzen became the leading draughtsman of the inspiring legend of the Decembrists and their wives. His journal, The Polar Star, took its name from an almanac published by the executed Decembrist poet Ryleyev, and boasted a masthead adorned with the faces of the five hanged ringleaders of the rebellion. Herzen established himself as the most influential radical intellectual of the first half of the nineteenth century and was one of the leading architects of the Russian revolutionary movement in the 1860s and 1870s. The tale he crafted of the revolutionary martyrs of 1825 went on to inspire a later generation of the autocracy’s enemies.

The Decembrists’ uprising and their exile also resonated far beyond Russia itself. In the Italian peninsula, Giuseppe Mazzini and his republican movement, Young Italy, saluted the memory of the men “who gave their lives for the liberation of the Slavic peoples, thus becoming citizens and brothers of all who struggle for the cause of Justice and Truth on earth.” The Decembrists had also blazed a trail for Polish patriots. By the end of the 1820s, republicanism in Poland, buoyed by developments elsewhere in Europe, was very much in the ascendancy. Polish rebels would look to the Decembrists’ attempt to restore “ancient Russian freedom” as a source of inspiration. The next armed challenge to Nicholas I would come not in the streets of the imperial capital, but on the westernmost periphery of his empire, in Warsaw. Siberia would beckon for the Polish rebels as it had for the Decembrists.

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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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Origins of Elite Russian Patriotism

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1165-1188:

The uprising on Senate Square had intellectual roots that stretched back into the European Enlightenment and Romanticism, but the Decembrist movement had taken shape a decade earlier in the Imperial Army. The future Decembrists had discovered the Russian nation while fighting Napoleon and the invading French in 1812. The conflict had forged new bonds of fraternity and loyalty between the officers and their men. Russian peasants, many of whom were serfs, had shown themselves capable of loyalty, dependability and devotion to the motherland. Upon their return to Russia at the end of the conflict, the young noblemen struggled to reconcile their inspiring experiences of fighting alongside men who remained their legal property as serfs. The institution of serfdom became for them a shameful reminder of the empire’s backwardness and of the yawning gulf between the educated and wealthy elite and the desperately impoverished peasantry. Forged in the crucible of 1812, the officers’ patriotic loyalties to the Russian people began to eclipse their dynastic loyalty to the tsar.

Many Russian officers also returned from the Napoleonic Wars with their heads full of new political ideas. One officer observed that “if we took France by force of arms, she conquered us with her customs.” Many leaders of the Decembrist movement, such as Sergei Volkonsky, Ivan Yakushkin and Mikhail Fonvizin, had returned triumphantly in 1815 only to chafe at the strict hierarchies and stifling parade-ground discipline of military life. Having fought against “Napoleonic despotism” in Europe, they struggled to reconcile themselves to a Russia that was essentially the personal fiefdom of the tsar. Nikolai Bestuzhev attempted to explain his participation in the rebellion in a letter to Nicholas after his arrest:

We delivered our homeland from tyranny but we are tyrannised once again by our own sovereign…Why did we free Europe, only to be placed in chains ourselves? Did we grant a constitution to France only to not dare to speak of one for ourselves? Did we pay with our blood for primacy among nations only to be oppressed at home?

Others, such as Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin and Dmitry Zavalishin, too young to have fought Napoleon, were nevertheless driven by the ideas of Voltaire, Adam Smith, Concordet [sic] and Rousseau. In the wake of Russia’s victory over Napoleon, they found inspiration in the rebellions led by liberal officers in other countries demanding constitutionalism and independence.

From 1816 onwards, these young patriotic idealists began to gather in informal groups and “secret societies” to discuss reform.

But they spoke mostly French among themselves, and Russian with their servants.

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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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A Cossack Mercenary in North America

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1464-1476:

As was often the case, Ewald was aware that Patriot politicians had labeled his Hessian comrades as “mercenaries,” or soldiers of fortune. For this reason many Americans despised the German auxiliaries that fought alongside him. It was no secret that the Hessians had no real practical issue with the American rebels, and Ewald was only serving the British king under the wishes of his own Landgraf Frederick II. A mercenary, in contrast, fought for his own material gain and epitomized opportunistic soldiering in this period. Yet Diwizow was quite different as he was not German, Irish, or British. He asserted that he was a Cossack from the Don River valley in southern Russia. Ewald’s interest was piqued at this development. Diwizow explained that he was already well into his fifties, and the thought of retirement was simply not tenable. He had battled in one way or another for his entire life and as war was his primary income he was looking for a fight. At Ewald’s inquiry, the Cossack explained how his travels brought him to America. He had spent twenty-four years as an officer with the Don Cossacks, and had battled the Prussians in the Seven Years’ War. Ewald first saw action in that same conflict and his curiosity grew. Diwizow continued by claiming that his mercenary travels took him far and wide, from the jagged lands of Ottoman Turkey to the rich valleys of Poland. He fought for no flag and no country, merely for raw economic gain. Twenty years earlier Diwizow battled against the Polish, and as recently as 1774 alongside Yemelyan Pugachev, the royal pretender who led a massive revolt in Russia against Catherine the Great. If there was ever a mercenary in North America, it was this hardened Cossack.

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