Siberian prison and exile: two studies

I’m currently working on revisions to an article on nineteenth-century narratives of prison and exile (see my previous posts on an earlier stage of work on this and on the conference where I presented it), and in the process of completing my reading, two works have stood out in different ways: Sergei Maksimov’s Sibir’ i katorga (Siberia and Hard Labour,1871) and Nikolai Iadrintsev’s Sibir’ kak koloniia (Siberia as a Colony, 1882).

Sergei Vasil'evich Maksimov (1831-1901)

Maksimov’s book, which he wrote following an ethnographic expedition to Siberia in 1860-1861, was probably the first major work on the use Siberia for punishing criminals after Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead, and it’s a very wide-ranging study. Part 1 is called ‘The Unfortunates’ (Neschastnyie — the word popularly used to describe criminals in imperial Russia), and as the title suggests, it is mostly focused on the prison/exile population, with lots of individual portraits used to illustrate different aspects of the system, in chapters on prisoner transport, hard labour, escape, subsistence, settlements, prison songs and prison language. Part 2, ‘The Guilty and the Accused’, deals with different types of criminals, and has chapters covering murderers, thieves and swindlers, vagrants and escapees, arsonists, and those who have committed crimes against faith, the public purse, and family law. Part 3 is titled ‘Political and State Criminals’, and includes, among other things, a study of the Decembrists and a history of hard labour and exile.

For me the most interesting chapter was that addressing language, and it’s significant not so much because of the wealth of detail Maksimov incorporates, but because of his perception that it is a crucial element of prison/exile life. He even discusses ‘wall language’, a system of tapping out letters, and describes the Decembrists working out  an efficient system for this form of inter-cell communication during their imprisonment in the Alexeevsky Ravelin at the Peter and Paul Fortress in Petersburg (pp. 159-160). Not only is the use of wall language a recurring feature of Russian narratives of imprisonment, but it’s always learnt from a book — I can’t recall off hand whether Vera Figner remembers it from reading one of the Decembrists’ memoirs, or if it was a work like Maximov’s, so I’ll check that next time I’m in the office, but then Evgeniia Ginzburg, in her famous memoir Into the Whirlwind, remembers reading about the wall-tapping system in Figner’s memoirs, and soon becomes fully involved in conversations from cell to cell. So communication becomes doubly important. For survival in prison, developing a means of communication was essential, but equally, the production of memoirs that passed on knowledge of the prison system and life played an important role in educating and preparing subsequent generations. I suspect Maksimov’s book became part of that tradition as well.

Maksimov is clearly captivated by the humour and playfulness of prison language, and provides seemingly endless lists of expressions, for everything from numbers (p. 167) to terms for mourning a friend (p. 170). It’s an interesting resource from this point of view, but for the general reader, he does rather over-do it, and it becomes very heavy going. On the other hand there is a perceptive discussion of why such a rich linguistic culture developed, as he explains it in terms, for example, of the need to obscure meaning from outsiders, and to find, invent or perfect forms of expression which will convey one’s understanding of prison life and experience in the briefest of terms — the convicts’ linguistic creativity in House of the Dead is a good example of what Maksimov is talking about.

Nikolai Mikhailovich Iadrintsev (1842-1894)

Iadrintsev’s Siberia as a Colony is, as the title suggests, a more general study that covers geography, climate and economics, as well as having a strong ethnographic and sociological focus. There is only one chapter that directly addresses exile and punishment, but it’s very interesting and evocative, and with every word you get an even stronger sense of the author’s outrage at the cost of using Siberia as a ‘colossal prison’ (p. 298), in human, economic, and ecological terms. He steadily dismantles arguments that the exile system is beneficial for anyone involved, demonstrating, for example, its failure to increase the size of the settler population (pp. 244-254), its negative economic impact (pp. 294-298), and its contribution to crime, debauchery and immorality (pp. 272-278).

Of particular significance is Iadrintsev’s focus on the brodiaga (vagabond). He saw vagrancy as characteristic of Siberia, and used the brodiaga to show how the exile system institutes a cycle of degeneration that leads from vagrancy to crime (pp. 263-273).  Brodiagi were among those sent to exile in Siberia in the first place, alongside people convicted of public order offences or just considered a nuisance in their local communities. But even those who were not brodiagi to begin with, according to Iadrintsev, ended up becoming so, as exiles (both those simply sent into exile as their punishment, and those released from terms of imprisonment or hard labour following more serious crimes) were left with no means of support or skills with which to earn a living. Poverty left no alternative but escape, and having become brodiagi, not only the hardened criminals, but also the petty criminals and drunks, ended up turning to more serious crime — and the inevitable result was either prison, flogging or death. Iadrintsev’s subversion of the frequently romanticized image of the brodiaga reveals the injustice of a system which does nothing to reform, but rather creates, criminals, and although his indictment of the bureaucracy that supports this situation is largely indirect, it still has enormous power.

Unlike Maksimov, who mainly focused on historical cases, particularly where political crimes were concerned, Iadrintsev mostly addressed the contemporary situation — the bulk of his statistics are from the 1870s — and this may explains his lack of reference to political and administrative exiles, who generally tend to attract more attention in other texts. I would suggest he was not only trying to avoid the censorship, but was also aware, in the early 1880s, following the assassination of Alexander II, that there was unlikely to be much sympathy in government circles for the politicals’ cause. He evidently viewed his intervention on the subject as part of the campaign to reform or abolish exile altogether, and his main concern was for the much larger numbers of ordinary exiles whose lives were blighted by the system, and who in turn blighted the lives of ordinary settlers.

Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead and Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island remain, for me, the two high points of prison discourse in Russian literature (would the tradition even have developed if Dostoevsky had not written his book?), but they were part of a significant larger debate, in which Maksimov’s and Iadrintsev’s texts also stand out. Another essential contribution, Vlas Doroshevich’s highly popular and very readable, if slightly sensationalist, account, Sakhalin (Katorga) (Sakhalin: Hard Labour, 1903), has recently been translated by Andrew A. Gentes, under the title Russia’s Penal Colony in the Far East: A Translation of Vlas Doroshevich’s “Sakhalin” (London and New York: Anthem, 2009).

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  1. Ben Phillips

     /  December 16, 2014


    sorry for necrobumping this post, but something I read today reminded me of it and I thought it might be interesting / relevant for your writing at some stage (apologies if you know some/most of this). George Kennan refers to a ‘Mr X’ in the footnotes to volume one of Siberia and the Exile System (pp. 141-142). The reference is to someone described in more detail in the Century articles which preceded the book’s publication – specifically ‘Russian Provincial Prisons’, Century 35 (January 1888), pp. 403-404. ‘Mr X’, Kennan’s LOC papers reveal, was Vladimir Korolenko, whom Kennan met in Nizhnii Novgorod in 1885.

    Korolenko appears to have described the same wall-knocking system Maksimov writes about to Kennan during this meeting (I say appears to because there are known instances of Kennan attributing stuff he’d taken from secondary sources to his own contacts, presumably for dramatic effect: without having checked how similar the two accounts are, we know Kennan had read Maksimov’s Sibir’ i katorga before setting out on his trip, so at the very least Korolenko’s story won’t have been news to him). What’s interesting is the fact that Kennan relates it at considerable length and in great detail, to the point of replicating the alphabetic cipher that Korolenko apparently used. Given that Kennan was proactive not only in disseminating his writing illegally in Russia but expressly sending his Century articles to his Siberian acquaintances in the guise of regular post, I have to wonder if his inclusion of Mr X/Korolenko’s story was purely for the benefit of his American readership. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that by this stage (1887) Kennan had a Russian audience in mind as much as a Western one. Also, given the reverence in which his writing was held by former katorzhan’e and political dissidents long into the Soviet period – and, judging by references to him in publications like Katorga i ssylka, how widely it continued to circulate – you wonder whether his was another account from which future inmates learned how to survive in prison, a la Ginzburg and the Decembrist memoirs.

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