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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
Except for a few groups, revolution was hardly more than a vague ideal, something that rarely developed beyond the realm of abstract discussion into concrete action. But unfortunately, the beautiful dreams of the radicals foundered on the stony apathy of the Russian peasant masses, without whose support no revolution—nor for that matter, even significant and far-reaching reform of the existing system—could possibly succeed. As one disillusioned revolutionary commented, “Socialism bounced off the people like peas from a wall.”
Among the intelligentsia, the mood that prevailed was one of overwhelming frustration. To them (in the pathetic words of an earlier radical), life “had given desires and not the means to realize them, and so they built up Utopias without knowing how to lead people to them.” Thus they sought other outlets, and one of them was terror. (Though Russian radicals of this period were conversant with the doctrines of Marx, it remained for a later generation to exploit them: in 1885, Lenin and Stalin were still schoolboys.)
Kennan was not predisposed to condone violence, but he came to view the violence of the revolutionaries as a direct result of the iniquities of police terror—most particularly, that odious form of punishment known as “exile by administrative process.” This was the system under which a person deemed in any way obnoxious to the state, whether guilty of a crime or not, could be banished without so much as the pretense of a trial. In his notebooks, Kennan recorded instance after instance of the injustice of administrative exile and the hardship it caused. There was, for example, the case of a young and well-known magazine editor who was arrested, held incommunicado for weeks, banished for three years, and financially ruined as a result—all for merely corresponding with a Russian revolutionary who lived in Switzerland. Often there was a nightmarish, almost Kafkaesque unreason to the treatment of the administrative exiles:
… Another exile of my acquaintance, Mr. Y—, was banished merely because he was a friend of Mr. Z—, who was awaiting trial on the charge of political conspiracy. When Mr. Z—’s case came to a judicial investigation he was found to be innocent and was acquitted; but in the meantime Mr. Y—, merely for being a friend of this innocent man, had gone to Siberia by administrative process …
But the sinister irrationality of the administrative process was demonstrated even more starkly in the tale of one Egor Lazaref, whom Kennan met in a town near the borders of the Chinese empire. In the year 1874, when Lazaref was a student, he had been arrested for supposedly spreading secret revolutionary propaganda. After four years in solitary confinement, he was brought to trial with 192 other political suspects and acquitted. But the government was not done with him: as there was a faint possibility that he might be guilty on some future date, he was punished in advance with compulsory military service in Asia Minor. After all this, Lazaref quietly returned home, resumed his studies, and eventually began the practice of law. Then, one day in 1884, he was suddenly arrested again. Months passed before he was even informed of what crime he was charged with: it seemed that he was being exiled a second time for not abandoning the previous criminal activity of which he had already been found innocent!
“In the light of such facts,” Kennan wrote, after enumerating dozens of such incidents, “terrorism ceases to be an unnatural or an inexplicable phenomenon. Wrong a man in that way, deny him all redress, exile him again if he complains, gag him if he cries out, strike him in the face if he struggles, and at last he will stab and throw bombs.” The wonder of it was that exile by administrative process had not made a whole nation of terrorists.
For all the truth of this, one cannot help but feel that Kennan had perhaps been too affected by the suffering he had witnessed to be altogether objective. To be sure, police repression did drive some Russians to violence; but at the same time, many others were indeed dangerous fanatics with a pathological streak that went beyond mere idealism. Moreover—and this Kennan had to admit—far from improving conditions, the pattern of terror organized by the extremists only provoked the government to further excesses and diminished the prospect of eventual democratization. The overwhelming tragedy of the assassination of Alexander II was that his death came hours after he had signed a plan for a constitution that might have been the first step toward representative government. With his demise, the one truly great hope of the liberal and moderate elements in Russia—as well as the majority of revolutionaries—had ended.