A Year In Hell

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The exile system, that barbaric, punitive phenomenon so characteristically Russian (though other countries had their harsh penal colonies), was instituted soon after the czarist conquest of Siberia at the beginning of the seventeenth century. At that time, however, exile was regarded less as a punishment in itself than as a convenient way of forever disposing of criminals who had already been punished. Major offenders were, of course, executed—impaled on sharp stakes, hanged, beheaded, or suspended in the air by hooks passed under two of their ribs until they eventually perished—for a variety of crimes, few of which would today be regarded as capital. Lesser criminals were hardly more fortunate. Flogged, branded with red-hot irons, mutilated by amputation of their tongues or limbs, they were then removed to Siberia.

Later, as the vast mineral and agricultural resources of Siberia began to be realized, exile became an ingenious means of forced colonization. By the eighteenth century, it was even customary to allow exiles to bring their families with them. As the severity of corporal punishments diminished—in 1753, the death penalty itself was abolished in favor of perpetual banishment to the mines and hard-labor camps of Russian Asia—the penalty of exile was extended to a large number of crimes that had formerly been dealt with in other ways. Bad conduct of almost any kind could mean expulsion—and such offenses as fortunetelling, prize fighting, vagrancy, and setting fire to property by accident, as well as the practice of such typically Western innovations as snuff-taking or driving with reins, were so punished.

The police bureaucracy of nineteenth-century Russia succeeded in making the exile system, if not more humane, at least more organized. Where once droves of exiles had wandered like starving cattle across the Siberian plain, without lodging or provision for subsistence, now étapes, or exile station houses, were erected, and pittances of food money allowed each prisoner. For the first time, reasonably accurate records were kept. During the sixty-two year period from 1823 to 1885, Kennan discovered in his researches, some 719,000 had been exiled to Siberia; by the 1880’s—a time of unusually harsh repression—an average of close to 18,000 souls were banished annually. Kennan uncovered still more startling figures. To begin with, the largest single class of exiles—sometimes as many as a third—were women and children who voluntarily accompanied their husbands or fathers (though if a prisoner’s wife chose not to go, she was free to marry again, just as if her husband were dead). Secondly, a great percentage of involuntary exiles were sent to Siberia not by the government but by their village communes—for every settlement had the right to banish troublemakers, actual or potential. Finally—and to an American, this was perhaps the most shocking fact of all—less than half of those exiled on criminal charges had been tried in court, the majority being banished by “administrative process”—that is, by the mere order of the Minister of the Interior.

Kennan and Frost’s first stop in Siberia, as well as that of every person banished from Russia, was the river town of Tiumen, 1,700 miles east of St. Petersburg. Here was situated the prison from which all exiles were forwarded to their various destinations in the interior of Russian Asia. In summer, the town itself was not an unpleasant spot, rising from plains so thickly strewn with blue forget-me-nots that they almost seemed a watery reflection of the sky. As one approached along the great Siberian highway, the birches bordering the roadside in carefully planted rows formed mile after mile of leafy arcade. Thus Kennan was ill-prepared for the rude contrast of the scenes that were about to confront him in the forwarding prison at Tiumen, the beginning of an experiment in misery that would once and for all demolish any illusions he might ever have entertained about the humane administration of the exile system.

After their arrest at Perm for merely looking at the outside of the local jail, Kennan and Frost had grave doubts whether they would be allowed so much as a single glimpse of the interior of the Tiumen prison. But much to their surprise, they were received cordially by the chief police officer of the district. Though he readily granted their request, he warned with unexpected frankness that it would not be a pleasant experience, for the prison was greatly overcrowded and sanitary conditions poor.

Viewed from the outside, the prison was a large, stolid, and unremarkable building surrounded by a high, whitewashed brick wall. Originally built to house a maximum of 550 prisoners, it had been enlarged by means of detached barracks to hold another 300; on the day of Kennan’s visit, the number 1,741 was chalked up on a blackboard hanging near the main gate. His first actual sight of convicts was the desultory clusters of men idling in the courtyard, all identically clad in long, gray overcoats and visorless Scotch caps. Their legs were fettered, and the air was filled with the sound of clinking chains. Kennan and Frost were led first to a kamera, or cell, in one of the log barracks that had been built to receive the overflow from the main building: