- Historic Sites
A Year In Hell
An American journalist, George Kennan, was the first to reveal the full horrors of Siberian exile and the brutal, studied inhumanity of czarist “justice”
August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
It was in the city of Semipalatinsk, 900 miles from Tiumen, 2,600 from St. Petersburg, and close to the Mongolian border, that Kennan and Frost had their first meeting with political exiles in Siberia—and then only by a fortunate accident. Situated in flat semidesert inhabited mainly by nomadic tribes of Kirghiz and Tatars, Semipalatinsk was an ugly and dispiriting place which Russian officers called derisively “the Devil’s Sand-box.” Together with certain outlying settlements, it had become a favored dumping ground for political exiles. But exactly how, Kennan wondered, could he get in touch with these people?
The answer came from a most unexpected source—a sympathetic Russian official who, once he had divined that the Americans were not government informers, introduced them to the colony of exiles dwelling in the city. Kennan was hardly prepared for what he found: “I know I was prejudiced against them,” he admitted later, “and that I expected them to be wholly unlike the rational, cultivated men and women whom one meets in civilized society; but I cannot, by any exercise of will, bring back the unreal, fantastic conception of them that I had when I crossed the Siberian frontier …” Were these the sullen, wild-eyed fanatics of the popular imagination, filled with anarchistic schemes and ready to denounce all governmental restraint as brutal tyranny? Hardly. For the most part, they proved to be well-educated, gentle, and often highborn people—students, lawyers, doctors, anthropologists, writers, and landed proprietors—who had been exiled not for crimes against the state, but simply because they had been considered untrustworthy.
Their terms of exile varied from two to five years, and while deprived of all civil rights, they were allowed a certain amount of personal freedom, depending on the whim of the local authorities. Though their present lot was comparatively easy, some had undergone terrible suffering at the hands of the czarist police. In a conversation with Kennan, one intelligent-looking woman with a thin, worn face that must at one time have been pretty apologized for the unfeminine shortness of her hair: it had been shorn off in prison. She proceeded to relate in an uncomplaining way how she had been arrested and seen all her clothing and personal effects stolen by the police. After more than a year of solitary confinement in a Moscow jail, she had been banished, without trial, to a penal colony in a remote part of Siberia, presumably traveling much of the way on foot; later, she had been marched across the steppes in the middle of winter to her present place of confinement.
Shortly afterward, Kennan met two girls, no older than seventeen or eighteen, who had been exiled on some apparently trivial pretext. For what possible reason, he asked himself, could they be regarded as a menace to the existing social order? “As I shook hands with them and noticed their shy, embarrassed behavior, and the quick flushes of color which came to their cheeks when I spoke to them, I experienced for the first time something like a feeling of contempt for the Russian Government.”
Most of the political exiles whom Kennan met during his long journey through Siberia were victims of the reign of terror that had followed the assassination of Alexander II. As yet, he had not encountered any of the true revolutionary activists—those who had advocated and, in some cases, actually practiced violence—and it seemed doubtful that he would, for most of them had been dealt with far more harshly than the mere “untrustworthies.” If they were not dead, prison walls probably kept them well beyond the ken of the American journalists—though Kennan did not give up hope of somehow making contact with them, if it meant seeking them out in the impossibly remote penal colonies of far eastern Asia. Nevertheless, even the milder revolutionaries whom Kennan befriended gave him a fair sampling of the mood of social protest and the widespread radical sentiment that had existed in Russia for many years.
Up to this time, however, the Russian radical movement had been little more than a loosely connected assortment of clandestine groups subscribing to generally similar doctrines, semisocialistic and vaguely Utopian in nature, which they tried to spread among the common people of Russia. Differ as these groups might on the particulars of their various programs of social reform, they did agree on one thing—namely, that the existing regime was a moral and political monstrosity which must be either totally reformed or else destroyed. The majority of the radical leaders were essentially moderates who deplored violence; and even the terrorists among them viewed their campaign of murder and sabotage as a merely temporary expedient. “Every one of them,” a Semipalatinsk exile said to Kennan, speaking of the terrorists, “every one of them, I think, would lay down his arms, if the Czar would grant Russia a constitutional form of government and guarantee free speech, a free press, and freedom from arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, and exile …”