Almost as soon as Siberia was first colonised by Cossack conquistadors in the 17th century, it became a place of banishment and punishment. As early as the 1690s the Russian state began to use Siberia as a dumping ground for its criminals, as though its vastness could quarantine evil. Katorga — from the Greek word for galley — was the judicial term for a penal sentence where inmates performed hard labour in the service of the state. The sentence was commonly imposed in place of death from the reign of Peter the Great onwards. And in many ways Siberia truly was a House of the Dead — as Daniel Beer, who borrows the title of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s prison novel for his masterful new study, recounts in horrific and gripping detail.
In a letter to his brother, Dostoevsky described his own five years as a political prisoner in Siberia as a ‘ceaseless, merciless assault on my soul… eternal hostility and bickering all around, cursing, cries, din, uproar’. Dostoevsky had initially been sentenced to death and was reprieved only as he and his fellow members of the liberal Petrashevsky Circle stood before a firing squad. The experience was to shape his life — not least because katorga had shown Dostoevsky the beast in man.
‘Whoever has experienced the power and the unrestrained ability to humiliate another human being automatically loses his own sensations,’ he wrote in The House of the Dead. ‘Tyranny is a habit; it has its own organic life; it develops finally into a disease… Blood and power intoxicate.’
But for every banished high-profile radical like Dostoevsky, thousands of unknown common criminals and their families were marched off to Siberia and into oblivion. Beer uses police reports, petitions, court records and official correspondence ‘stitched into bundles and filed away in rough cardboard folders’ to tell their story.
Exile, like transportation, its British judicial equivalent, was a deliberate act of expulsion of poison from the body politic. ‘In the same way that we have to remove harmful agents from the body so that the body does not expire, so it is in the community of citizens,’ declared the Bishop of Tobolsk and Siberia, Ioann Maksimovich, in 1708. ‘All healthy and harmless objects can abide within it, but that which is harmful must be cut out.’
But the scale of Russia’s penal migration dwarfed that of western European nations. ‘In the eight decades between 1787 and 1868 Britain transported around 160,000 convicts to Australia,’ writes Beer, a historian at Royal Holloway University of London. ‘By contrast, between 1801 and 1917, more than one million Tsarist subjects were banished to Siberia.’
The crimes for which a man could be exiled included fortune-telling, vagrancy, ‘begging with false distress’, prizefighting, wife-beating, illicit tree-felling and ‘recklessly driving a cart without use of reins’. Until the mid-18th century these exiles were always branded, usually on the face or right hand, to prevent them ever making their way back to the world. In later years half a prisoner’s head was shaven — to distinguish them from soldiers, who were often shaven-headed to avoid lice — and fettered for the initial part of their journey.
Before the Trans-Siberian railway was completed in 1916, the convicts walked to their place of punishment. The journey was supposed to take 30 weeks — but some men spent up to two years shuffling in columns along the great Siberian trunk road known as the Trakt. The jingle of their chains and the ritual cries of ‘Fathers, have pity on us!’ as the condemned men held out their caps for food was, for all the travellers who passed them in their high-wheeled carriages, the sound of Siberia. By tradition at Tobolsk 1,100 miles from Moscow, the prisoners’ leg irons were removed — a mercy, but also a sign that they had gone too far into the wilderness to survive escape. Their sentences began only once they had arrived at their designated place of exile.
Authority and discipline died over Siberia’s vast distances. If detached from European Russia, Siberia would still be the largest country in the world — it is bigger than the United States and Europe combined. Feudal Russia’s institutions — serfdom, aristocracy and the authority of the Church — all dissolved in the rough egalitarianism of the frontier. Like America’s Wild West, the empty land filled with a mismatched population of God-fearing schismatics and violent criminals. By 1897 more than 300,000 out of a total Siberian population of 5.7 million were convicts and exiles. Every spring the roads of Siberia filled with escaping prisoners, known as General Cuckoo’s Army. When recaptured, so many of them pretended to have forgotten their names that the commonest moniker in the police records was ‘Ivan Nepomnushchy,’ Ivan I-don’t-remember. Desperate for money and food, Beer tells us, the escapees terrorised the local population, butchering impoverished peasants for the smallest of sums.
Conditions varied widely. For the aristocratic rebels sent to Siberia for backing the failed Decembrist rebellion against Nicholas I in 1825, the punishment was simply never to see civilisation again — the comfortable mansions where they lived with the wives who voluntarily followed them into exile still stand in Irkutsk. For common criminals sent to the mines at Nerchinsk, conditions were so horrific that they would insert finely chopped horsehair into self-inflicted wounds on the penis to mimic the symptoms of syphilis to escape from work.
‘We have let millions of people rot in jail, and let them rot to no purpose, treating them with an indifference that is little short of barbaric,’ wrote Anton Chekhov to his editor Aleksei Suvorin, during a visit to Russia’s newest labour camps on Sakhalin Island in 1893. ‘We have forced them to drag themselves in chains across tens of thousands of kilometers in freezing conditions, infected them with syphilis, debauched them and hugely increased the criminal population.’ Chekhov’s blistering report into the inhuman conditions of prisoners shocked liberal society in Russia and abroad — and the American journalist and explorer George Kennan’s reports on the terrible condition of political prisoners helped make Siberia, says Beer, ‘a byword for the despotism of the Tsars’.
Beer’s fascinating book teems with human detail — mercifully not all of it grim. There’s the remarkable story of Andrei Tsybulenko, an escaped convict who served as a crewman on a famously daring voyage along the north coast of Siberia in 1877. When he arrived in St Petersburg he was rearrested — but the Tsar was so impressed by his feat of navigation that he was pardoned and given a medal. We meet ‘a vagabond juggler called Tumanov’ who organised entertainments for the guards at Tobolsk prison, with a teetering human pyramid as the star turn. Climbing to the top of the pyramid, Tumanov promptly leapt over the wall and escaped.
The most famous Tsarist-era political prisoners were of course the socialist revolutionaries who would take power in 1917. Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky all served time in Siberian exile — though none was forced to perform hard labour and all escaped easily and often — as did the future architects of the Soviet terror-state Felix Dzherzhinsky and Genrich Yagoda.
In an important sense, 20th-century Russia was a creation of the Tsarist penal system. The October Revolution itself was the exiles’ revenge on their old captors. And the Soviet machinery of state repression that Alexander Solzhenitsyn called the Gulag Archipelago was a crueller, vaster and more inhuman version of pre-Revolutionary katorga.
Because of its far greater scale and brutality, the Soviet gulag has eclipsed the memory of the Tsarist penal system in the popular imagination. Beer redresses that imbalance by bringing the voices of the million-plus victims of katorga vividly to life. The House of the Dead tells the story of how ‘the Tsarist regime collided violently with the political forces of the modern world’ — and how modern Russia was born among the squalor, the cockroaches and the casual violence of the world’s largest open-air prison.