A Year In Hell

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By the first week of August, the brief season of passable roads and fair weather was beginning to wane, and Kennan and Frost’s ultimate destination—the convict mines of Kara where, supposedly, the worst political offenders were held—was still 2,500 miles away. Leaving their friends in the exile colonies around Semipalatinsk, they headed north toward the prosperous river town and convict way station of Tomsk, on the great Siberian highway. The roads, as usual, were unspeakable, the inns filthy and swarming with vermin, and Kennan soon found himself nearly sick from sleeplessness. In one town where the Americans remained for several days, the hotel was so infested with bedbugs that Kennan was forced to sleep on a table in the middle of his room: “Owing to the fact that I generally rolled off or capsized the table as soon as I lost consciousness, my sleep was neither prolonged nor refreshing, and … I was reduced to a state bordering on frenzy.” Finally, on August 20, they reached Tomsk. There, for the first time in almost two months, they were able to enjoy the luxury of “civilized” beds.

Kennan and Frost no longer had any difficulty in making contact with political exiles, for their friends in Semipalatinsk had supplied them with letters of introduction and a list of nearly 700 “untrustworthies” in all parts of Siberia—a virtual underground directory. Their concern now was how to avoid the suspicions of the local authorities, for a wrong step could mean summary expulsion from the empire. And so, they devised elaborate means of disguising the real purpose of their investigations:

… It seemed to me that to avoid the police, as if we were afraid of them or had something to conceal from them, would be a fatal error. Safety lay rather in a policy of extreme boldness. … We made it a rule to call in evening dress upon every official, as a means of showing him our respectful appreciation of his rank and position; we drank vodka and bitter cordial with him—if necessary, up to the limit of double vision; we made ourselves agreeable to his wife, and Mr. Frost drew portraits of his children; and, in nine cases out of ten, we thus succeeded in making ourselves “solid with the administration” before we had been in a town or village forty-eight hours …

But frequently, such subterfuges were unnecessary, for the Americans found many officials openly hostile to the exile system. As one high prison officer in Tomsk complained to Kennan, “It is disastrous to Siberia, it is ruinous to the criminal, and it causes an immense amount of misery; but what can be done? If we say anything to our superiors in St. Petersburg, they strike us in the face; and they strike hard—it hurts!” And when Kennan asked the acting governor of the province of Tomsk for permission to view the city’s forwarding prison, the official told him matter-of-factly, “I think you will find it the worst prison in Siberia.” He was right. Later, the prison surgeon related how, in one typical epidemic, there were 450 patients in the hospital, with beds for only 150:

… Three hundred men and women dangerously sick lay on the floor in rows, most of them without pillows or bedclothing; and in order to find even floor space for them, we had to put them so close together that I could not walk between them, and a patient could not cough or vomit without coughing or vomiting into his own face or into the face of the man lying beside him. The atmosphere in the wards became so terribly polluted that I fainted repeatedly upon coming into the hospital in the morning, and my assistants had to revive me by dashing water into my face. … More than 25 per cent, of the whole prison population were constantly sick, and more than 10 per cent, of the sick died …

In Tomsk, Kennan became well-acquainted with another large colony of political exiles, men and women who, like those he had met in Semipalatinsk, impressed him with their courage, intelligence, and moderation. The stories they had to tell did nothing to sweeten his opinion of the czarist regime:

… I was struck by the composure with which these exiles would sometimes talk of intolerable injustice and frightful sufferings. The men and women who had been sent to the province of Yakutsk for refusing to take the oath of allegiance to Alexander III., and who had suffered in that arctic wilderness all that human beings can suffer from hunger, cold, sickness, and bereavement, did not seem to be conscious that there was anything very extraordinary in their experience. Now and then some man whose wife had committed suicide in exile would flush a little and clinch his hands as he spoke of her; or some heart-broken woman whose baby had frozen to death in her arms on the road would sob at intervals as she tried to tell me her story; but, as a rule, both men and women referred to injustice and suffering with perfect composure, as if they were nothing more than the ordinary accidents of life …