- 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
The penal colony of Kara presented a dreary sight indeed to the travel-worn Americans. Along a small mountain stream, rich gold deposits had been discovered, and the ugly refuse of open placer diggings could be seen everywhere. Entering this cheerless valley, Kennan and Frost passed through straggling congeries of barracks; low, whitewashed cabins; tin-roofed officers’ quarters with yards enclosed by wattle fences; and the inevitable weather-beaten log stockades where prisoners were housed. Since no lodginghouses existed at Kara, the travelers were obliged to stay with the camp commandant, Major Potulof—exactly what they had wished to avoid, for at his house they would be under such constant surveillance that there might be no opportunity to make contact with the political convicts, the very people whom they had come so far to seek out. Thus they could only bide their time and hope for a favorable moment to escape the ever-watchful eye of the Major.
On the sixth day of his visit, Kennan’s long-awaited opportunity finally arrived. It seemed that in the valley there was a small colony of political exiles who had finished their “term of probation” in the stockade and now lived in a supervised shantytown known as the “free command.” Exiles in other parts of Siberia had even supplied Kennan with an accurate map of this place, and a letter of introduction to one of its unwilling inhabitants, Miss Nathalie Armfeldt, a young woman who had been active in the revolutionary movement. Now, with Major Potulof absent to attend a meeting of a court of inquiry in an outlying village, Kennan left Frost to entertain Madame Potulof and hurried off to pay a visit to Miss Armfeldt. But first he spent much of the day allaying the suspicions of Captain Nikolin, who commanded the men’s and women’s political prisons, and had an unpleasant reputation for informing on his fellow officers. After innumerable cups of tea, the conversation turned upon the subject of the political prisoners at Kara.
Their condition, the Captain allowed, was better than one might imagine—in fact, better than any of them deserved. On the whole, they lived contentedly, in large, airy, and well-lighted rooms; they were not required to work in the mines; they were allowed to write and receive letters from home; they occasionally put on theatricals; and they had a library which even had some English books in it. When Kennan remarked that this indeed sounded like a pleasant place to see and describe for his American public, Nikolin hesitated. It seemed, he explained, that he did not exactly have the authority to allow outsiders a view of the prison interior. But he could at least show Kennan some of the books from the library—would he be interested in seeing the English works? A few moments later, a soldier appeared, bearing an edition of Shelley’s poems and a recent copy of Punch.
After several hours of the unsavory Nikolin’s boastful conversation, Kennan finally felt that it was safe to proceed, and late in the afternoon, he arrived at the miserable cabin where Miss Armfeldt lived. She admitted him fearfully, and the moment he stepped inside, barred the door and shuttered the windows—apparently spies lurked everywhere. After a brief and anxious conversation, she asked him to return later in the evening, at which time he might meet some of the other political exiles in the colony.
Strained, subdued, and faintly conspiratorial, this sad gathering in the dimly lit cabin was like something out of the pages of Dostoevsky. Pale-faced men and women crowded around Kennan “with intense, wondering interest, as if I were a man that had just risen from the dead”; for a moment, he had the feeling that he had somehow walked into a kind of twisted dream world. Until well into the middle of the night, Kennan listened as these most dedicated of revolutionaries spoke of the horror of life in the Kara penal colony, relating a darker side of the political convict’s existence which Captain Nikolin had somehow neglected to detail. They described to him their own experiences in the political prison, a veritable “house of the living dead” where inmates rotted their lives away and suicide and madness were commonplace.
Once, Kennan was told, there had been an attempt at a mass jail break. Carefully-made dummies were placed on the sleeping-benches, and when the officer on duty made his nightly count, they passed as men. So, over a period of weeks, eight convicts managed to escape. All were eventually recaptured. As punishment, every inmate in the men’s prison, including the sick and insane, was brutally beaten and thrown into confinement under dungeon conditions for two months; the more unmanageable among them were returned to Russia, to be confined for life in the dungeons known as the “stone bags” of St. Petersburg’s Schlusselburg castle. Occasionally, conditions grew so terrible that the convicts resorted to hunger strikes, and there were instances in which prisoners deliberately struck officers in the hope of being court-martialed and shot. (Some time after Kennan’s departure from Kara, a female political was flogged to death for a minor offense; in protest, mass suicides were attempted in both prisons. Three women and two men died by taking poison.)
For Kennan, one incident seemed to epitomize that strange evening. During the long discussion, his attention was attracted to a man of some thirty-odd years with a vacant face and large, protruding eyes: