Category Archives: Russia

Soviet Reinvention of Siberian Exile

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 7532-7558:

It is one of the ironies of 1917 that the revolution should have overwhelmed the exile system that the autocracy had for so long wielded as a weapon against subversion. Warders, exile officials and guards suddenly found themselves stripped of their authority and vulnerable to the vengeful retribution of their former captives. What little semblance of order remained in Siberia’s exile and prison system by the end of 1917 was torn up by the civil war that engulfed the continent between 1918 and 1920. Exiles, prisoners, their families and officials were sucked into a maelstrom of battles, refugee columns, famine and epidemics. It was a fittingly ignominious end to a system that had achieved so little at such a colossal expense.

Yet Siberia surrendered its prisoners only temporarily. After 1917, exile and penal labour would be reinvented and punishments would be revamped for an age of science, rationality and industrialization. The Bolsheviks did not inherit a functioning penal system from their tsarist predecessors, but they did inherit a very similar set of practical dilemmas: how to extract the vast and valuable mineral resources from the far-flung frozen expanses of the taiga and tundra and, also, how to contain crime and subversion within the Soviet state. After 1917, the Bolsheviks rose to meet these challenges with a zeal and a brutality all their own.

No longer would deportation to Siberia be primarily about the enforced isolation and penal settlement of criminals and dissenters, with forced labour reserved for a particularly dangerous minority. It would now involve the ruthless exploitation of convict labour on an industrial scale justified by the need for a “purification of society” and by the prospect of “individual rehabilitation.” Far-flung tsarist-era exile settlements such as Sredne-Kolymsk and prisons like Omsk were expanded into major centres of forced labour. The Gulag was celebrated in the press as a workshop of the new citizenry, and its camps were hailed as “curative labour camps.”

As part of the Bolshevik Party’s cultural campaigns to consolidate its own legitimacy and to sanctify the October Revolution, state publishing houses in the 1920s and 1930s produced a stream of hagiographical texts commemorating the martyrdom of pre-revolutionary political prisoners. Memoirs, historical studies and archival documents established an inspiring genealogy of tsarist oppression and revolutionary heroism—a genealogy that stretched back in time, linking the Bolsheviks with their revolutionary forebears and representing the victory of Soviet power as the culmination of a century-old struggle with tyranny. The experience of Siberian exile formed an important thread of continuity linking the new rulers of the lands of the Russian Empire with cohorts of illustrious radicals from the 1860s like Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and, ultimately, with the Decembrists of the 1820s. The Society of Former Political Penal Labourers was established in 1921 and began to publish a journal, Penal Labour and Exile, devoted to recording the experiences of political exiles and penal labourers. Yet ironically, at the very moment when the Bolsheviks were emphasizing the martyrdom of Siberian exiles and the cruel tyranny of the tsarist state, they were casting their own rivals, dissenters, and the human detritus of the ancien régime into forced labour camps on a scale that would have defied the imagination of tsarist penal administrators.

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Siberian Exile Pioneer Hero Tsybulenko

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 6436-6460:

On the afternoon of 19 November 1877, an undistinguished-looking 17-metre schooner named Dawn dropped anchor alongside the Customs House on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg. An excited crowd of onlookers had gathered to catch a glimpse of the ship. The Dawn had just completed the first successful maritime voyage from the Yenisei River in Eastern Siberia to St. Petersburg. It had crossed the Kara and Barents seas, before circumnavigating Scandinavia by way of Vardø, Christiania (Oslo), Stockholm and Helsingfors (Helsinki) to finally reach the Russian capital. By common consensus both in Russia and abroad, this was a prodigious feat of seamanship: a half-decked sailing boat without a keel and with a crew of only five had navigated the ice floes and storms of the barely charted, and notoriously dangerous, Arctic seas. The ship had already enjoyed a triumphal passage through the coastal towns and cities of Norway, Sweden and the Grand Duchy of Finland, where it had been enthusiastically received by crowds of well-wishers; its crew had been celebrated in the national press and treated to feasts in its honour.

By the time the Dawn reached the Customs House on Vasilevsky Island, however, it bore only four of the five crew members who had set out from the Yenisei on 9 August. Andrei Tsybulenko was absent, as the daily St. Petersburg News drily noted, “for reasons beyond his control.” Tsybulenko had been arrested that morning when the ship docked in the naval base of Kronstadt, following a tip-off from the Russian consul in Christiania. Tsybulenko was, it had emerged, an exile from Yenisei province who had illegally made the passage from Siberia back to European Russian and was, therefore, a fugitive from justice. On orders from the minister of the interior, Aleksandr Timashev, he had been taken into custody and detained in the Kronstadt fortress. The authorities intended to deport Tsybulenko back to Yenisei province, where he would remain in exile for the rest of his life, but by January 1878, Tsybulenko had been released from custody and had received an official pardon from Alexander II and even awards and commendations from both the influential Imperial Society for the Advancement of Russian Merchant Shipping and the Ministry of Trade.

Tsybulenko’s remarkable reversals in fortune—from exile in Eastern Siberia, to member of a celebrity crew of intrepid seamen, to prisoner of the state in Kronstadt, and finally to pardoned fugitive—reflect mounting public opposition to the use of Siberia as a penal colony. From the 1850s, leading figures in Russia’s scientific, commercial and political elites began to challenge the established view of Siberia as a frozen, inhospitable wasteland, suitable only as a place of banishment for the empire’s criminals. They argued for a re-imagining of Siberia as a rich economic colony, one which had been neglected by the state and crippled by the exile system but which harboured, in fact, a wealth of natural resources awaiting exploration and development. These strategic criticisms of the government’s use of Siberia as a continental prison joined the rising tide of moral opposition to a system characterized by brutal floggings, by destitution and degradation of the blameless wives and children of convicts and by the martyrdom of revolutionaries.

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Vagabonds of Siberia, 1800s

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4293-4327:

A bird’s eye view of the Siberian taiga in the nineteenth century would have revealed a steady trickle of figures, stooped under heavy bundles, trudging westwards either alone or in small groups. The “hunchbacks,” as the peasants called them, were escaped convicts who had fled the marching convoys, the mines, the prisons and the penal settlements and were making their way across the forests in the direction of European Russia. Answering the spring call of the migrant cuckoo and taking advantage of the warmer weather, thawed waterways and thickening vegetation that provided them with camouflage and with food, the fugitives set forth. These were the foot soldiers of what became known as “General Cuckoo’s Army.”

The numbers of fugitives told a sobering tale. Abandoned and imprisoned in penury and squalor and with quite literally nothing to lose, Siberia’s convicts absconded from every single prison, factory, settlement and mine in their thousands. Between 1838 and 1846, the authorities apprehended almost 14,000 male and 3,500 female fugitives in Siberia (figures that probably represented just half of those convicts who were at large). In the second half of the nineteenth century, the numbers of escapes only increased as the overall exile population expanded. One government report on the state of exile in Eastern Siberia in 1877 recorded that, in three districts surveyed in Irkutsk province, half of the more than 20,000 prisoners had run away, their “whereabouts unknown.” By 1898, a quarter of the exiles assigned to Yenisei province, 40 per cent of those assigned to Irkutsk province and 70 per cent of those assigned to Primorsk province in Eastern Siberia were unaccounted for. Purpose-built penal labour sites witnessed a similar exodus. Such figures would suggest that, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, anywhere up to a third of Siberia’s 300,000 exiles were on the run in what ethnographer Nikolai Yadrintsev termed “an endless perpetuum mobile from Eastern Siberia to the Urals.”

The tsarist government was populating Siberia not with industrious colonists but with hordes of destitute and desperate exiles who roamed Siberia as beggars, at best, and petty thieves and violent brigands, at worst. Their victims were the Siberians themselves, both the indigenes and the migrant peasant settlers from Russia. Brutalized by the conditions of their captivity, fugitives visited a plague of theft, arson, kidnapping, violent robbery, rape and murder on Siberia’s real colonists. Seeking strength and protection in numbers, they sometimes formed armed gangs capable of terrorizing not just isolated villages but entire towns and cities. The exile system had transformed Siberia into Russia’s “Wild East.”

Some exiles known as brodiagi, or vagabonds, made for themselves a life of escape, recapture, spells in prison and then escape again. Overwhelmingly male, the brodiagi embraced a semi-nomadic existence in Russia, fuelled by a combination of charity and criminality. Like most pre-industrial societies, the Russian Empire had a rich variety of migratory traditions and a large diaspora encompassing fugitive peasants, Cossacks, peddlers, gypsies, migrant hunters, pilgrims, peripatetic sectarians, travelling merchants and the nomadic tribes of the taiga, steppe and tundra. These migratory peoples had played a significant role in Russia’s expansion across Siberia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1823, the state criminalized vagrancy in European Russia, a fact which accounted for a large part of the sudden upsurge in the numbers exiled to Siberia over subsequent decades. Between 1827 and 1846, the almost 50,000 vagrants constituted 30 per cent of all those exiled. Most of those convicted of vagabondage in Russia in this period were deserters from the army and fugitive serfs, and they presented in either case a direct challenge to Nicholas I’s cherished vision of a disciplined society. The numbers arrested for vagabondage declined in European Russia after the abolition of serfdom effectively decriminalized the unauthorized movement of people. In Siberia, however, the exile system gave vagabondage a new lease on life.

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Polish Rebels Exiled to Siberia

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2746-2776:

The Polish rebels shared the republican ideas of the Decembrists; theirs was a political and cultural nationalism that saw itself working in concert with the progressive nations of Europe, especially France and Italy. They sought to replace the autocratic “Holy Alliance of Monarchs” born of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 with a “Holy Alliance of Peoples.” Wysocki and his comrades rebelled under the slogan “For our freedom, and yours!”—making clear that their enemy was the Russian Empire, not its people. In Warsaw, the ceremonial dethronement of the Romanovs was preceded by a ceremony in honour of the Decembrists, organized by the Polish Patriotic Society. Five empty coffins, symbolizing the five executed ringleaders of 14 December 1825, were paraded through the streets of the Polish capital, and a religious service was held in the Orthodox Church, after which Wysocki addressed the crowd in front of the Royal Castle.

If the Poles had looked abroad for inspiration, their own insurrection catapulted them to the forefront of the European republican movement. There was an outpouring of support in the European press for the “French of the North” and calls (resisted by Louis Philippe I) for France to intervene in support of the rebels. French republicans, such as Godefroi Cavaignac and his fellow members of the Society of the Rights of Man, acknowledged their own debt to the Poles for having deflected Nicholas’s armies from intervention in France itself. The French general and hero of both the American War of Independence and the July Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, pushed unsuccessfully for France to recognize Poland. In Britain, there was a surge of indignation, followed by meetings and rallies in support of Poland, denouncing Russia and pushing for British intervention in the conflict. In July 1831, The Times fulminated: “How long will Russia be permitted, with impunity, to make war upon the ancient and noble nation of the Poles, the allies of France, the friends of England, the natural, and, centuries ago, the tried and victorious protectors of civilized Europe against the Turkish and Muscovite barbarians?” Across the Atlantic, there was also a tide of American public sympathy for the Polish rebels.

The November Insurrection, as it became known, quickly erupted into a full-scale military confrontation between the Poles and the Russians, with both sides fielding the largest armies Europe had witnessed since the Napoleonic Wars. The insurgents had, however, overplayed their hand. They faced the might of the Imperial Russian Army while they were internally divided and commanded by hesitant men who could not decide whether to fight the Russians or negotiate with them. On 25 February 1831, a Polish force of 40,000 repelled 60,000 Russians on the Vistula to save Warsaw but managed to secure not a decisive victory but only a postponement of defeat. As Russian reinforcements poured into Poland, the rebels found themselves outnumbered and overwhelmed. After months of stubborn Polish resistance, tsarist troops ground their way back towards Warsaw and finally retook the city in October 1831.

Russian retribution fell heavily on the prostrate Polish provinces. A government edict of 15 March 1833 reassigned 11,700 Polish officers and soldiers to penal battalions and fortress labour at a variety of remote and unattractive locations throughout the Russian Empire. Several thousand more were sentenced to penal labour and settlement in Siberia. The tsar was especially vengeful in the Western Borderlands of Russia, in today’s Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, which were better integrated into the empire than the Kingdom of Poland. The insurgents there, many of them Polish noblemen, were tried by field courts martial and summarily shot. Russian allies of the Poles were singled out for especially brutal treatment.

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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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