the prisoners of siberia - 01/17/17

Today's selection -- from The House of the Dead by Daniel Beer. During the nineteenth century, the Russian tsars exiled over one million people -- many of whom were political dissidents -- to its prisons in Siberia. Those exiles helped foment the revolution that overthrew the tsars in 1917.

"Siberia -- the Russian name Cubupb is pronounced Seebeer -- dwarfs European Russia. At 15,500,000 square kilometres, it is one and a half times larger than the continent of Europe. Siberia has never had an independent political existence; it has no clear borders and no binding ethnic identity. Its modern history is inseparable from Russia's. ... [Siberia's] exile system promised to harness a growing army of exiles in the service of a wider project to colonize Siberia. In theory, Russia's criminals would toil to harvest Siberia's natural riches and settle its remote territories and, in so doing, they would discover the virtues of self-reliance, abstinence and hard work. In practice, however, the exile system dispatched into the Siberian hinterland an army not of enterprising settlers but of desti­tute and desperate vagabonds. ...

"Over the nineteenth century, the scale and intensity of Siberian exile increased so significantly that it easily surpassed the exile sys­tems of the British and French empires. The British transported around 160,000 convicts to Australia in the eight decades between 1787 and 1868; the French state meanwhile had a penal population of about 5,500 in its overseas colonies between 1860 and 1900. By contrast, between 1801 and 1917, more than 1 million tsarist subjects were banished to Siberia. ...

"Their dreams of impending revolution, undiluted by the compromises of practical politics, filled the yawning Siberian skies. Siberia had become a gigantic laboratory of revolution and exile, a rite of passage for the men and women who would one day rule Russia. When revolution finally erupted in 1905, these exiled radicals transformed Siberia's towns and villages into crucibles of violent strug­gle against the autocracy. Scaffolds were erected in the courtyards of prisons while, beyond their walls, warders were assassinated in the streets. No longer a quarantine against the contagions of revolution, Siberia had become a source of the infection.

Unexpected Return -- Ilya Efimovich Repin

"The biographies and writings of a few luminaries dominate his­torical memory of Siberian exile before the Russian Revolution. Some, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Lenin, were themselves exiles; others, like Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, penned vivid portraits of convict life in Siberia in their reportage and fiction. ...

"In Chekhov's story In Exile (1892), the long years of banishment in Siberia have stripped an ageing ferryman of all compassion, hope and desire. The former exile is, his young compan­ion exclaims, 'no longer alive, a stone, clay.' By the time Ilya Repin painted his Unexpected Return in 1884, the hollowed-out stare of the gaunt young man entering his family's dining room and the confused and shocked reaction of his relatives needed no explanation. ...

"The American journalist and explorer George Kennan ... received permission [in the late 1880s] from the Ministry of the Interior to travel unimpeded throughout Siberia and to report on what he found. What he discov­ered were thousands of men and women who were not, he argued, deranged and dangerous radicals, but rather martyrs to the cause of freedom. Across the world, Siberia was fast becoming a byword for the despotism of the tsars."


Daniel Beer


The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars


Borzi published by Alfred A. Knopf


Copyright 2016 by Daniel Beer


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