A Year In Hell

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...The room was about 35 feet in length by 25 in width and 12 feet high; its walls of hewn logs were covered with dirty whitewash; its rough plank floor was black with dried mud and hard-trodden filth: and it was lighted by three grated windows looking out into the prison yard. Down the center of the room, and occupying about half its width, ran the sleeping bench....Each longitudinal half of this low platform sloped a little, roof-wise, from the center, so that when the prisoners slept upon it in two closely packed transverse rows, their heads in the middle were a few inches higher than their feet at the edges. These sleeping-platforms are known as nari, and a Siberian prison cell contains no other furniture except a large wooden tub for excrement. The prisoners have neither pillows, blankets, nor bed clothing, and must lie on these hard plank nari with no covering but their overcoats.... 

This particular cell, the prison warden informed Kennan, had air space for perhaps 40 men; at the moment, it contained 160. “There was practically no ventilation whatever,” Kennan remembered, “and the air was so poisoned and foul that I could hardly force myself to breathe it.” Conditions were the same in every other kamera he visited.

The main building was, if anything, worse: a place so foul that one of the prison officials refused to accompany the Americans. Cells that varied in size from 8 by 10 feet to 10 by 15 feet held from half a dozen to thirty prisoners each. Every cubic foot of air, Kennan wrote, had apparently been respired over and over again until it did not contain an atom of oxygen; it was laden with fever germs from the uventilated hospital wards, fetid odors from diseased human lungs and unclean human bodies, and the stench rising from unemptied excrement buckets at the ends of the corridors. I breathed as little as I possibly could, but every respiration seemed to pollute me to the very soul …

Still Kennan insisted on seeing everything. He tasted greasy soup in the filthy prison kitchen and inspected the fever-ridden corridors of the hospital wards, where the stench was again overpowering and the sight of white, haggard, and hopeless faces lying on filthy gray pillows almost too much to bear. Finally Kennan and Frost could stand no more; they were conducted to a dispensary on the ground floor, where the warden offered them alcoholic stimulants and had them sprayed with a mixture of carbolic acid and water as a precaution against disease. When Kennan questioned the warden about the terrible conditions they had just witnessed, he admitted them freely. Everyone, including the government in St. Petersburg, seemed to be aware of them—and, in fact, the Tiumen prison was probably no worse than many others, if not somewhat better. But apparently, for all the urging of well-intentioned local administrators, the higher authorities were unwilling to sanction much-needed prison reforms, from lack of funds, simple inertia, or a combination of both.

So began Kennan’s year in hell, an experience that was no less shattering because he was a mere observer and not a sentenced sufferer.

Forsaking the great Siberian highway—the most direct passage eastward—Kennan and Frost turned toward the less familiar south. This route would not only take them through a picturesque part of Asia but also through districts heavily populated with exiles. They had, however, another and far more important reason for keeping away from the more traveled roads. During their stay in Tiumen, they had become aware of a faintly ominous circumstance: it appeared that the Minister of the Interior had alerted local authorities along the great highway—presumably Kennan’s route—to the imminent arrival of the American journalists. Thus, by taking an unexpected detour, Kennan hoped to avoid official surveillance and interference with his investigations.

On the morning of June 30, Kennan and Frost resumed their journey, once more traveling in the clumsy, springless tarantass. Jounced, jolted, and shaken, hardly pausing for rest, they pushed on across the muddy, gutted roads of the steppes. Over one stretch of 280 miles, they were able to catch only four hours’ sleep out of sixty; as Kennan later commented, “No one who has not experienced it can fully realize the actual physical suffering that is involved in posting night and day at high speed over bad Siberian roads.” Each town passed was indistinguishable from the next: an inevitable cluster of weather-beaten log houses scattered along one central street that was little more than a stream of dark, shallow mud. It was always with a feeling of relief that they left these dreary settlements, riding out again upon the wide, breezy steppe where the air was filled with the clean fragrance of clover and wild roses. Now and then the travelers would come upon a column of heavily guarded exiles, their leg fetters jangling as they trudged through the mud.