Siberian Prison System



My project is dedicated to description of the history of Siberia as a place to where send prisoners--from the days of Ivan the Terrible until today. I will tell about the reasons for choosing Siberia as place of exile, the system of prisons and conditions in Siberian prisons.

Choosing Siberia as a Place of Exile

As with other Western powers that gained colonies overseas, the acquisition of Siberia led to making it a place of exile. Criminal and political prisoners had been sent to Siberia for more than three centuries; millions of people, in total, were deported there. Due to its remoteness and severe weather conditions 'Russian Australia' was one huge prison, escape from where was almost impossible and very dangerous not only because of the chase, but because of the Siberian killing frosts, unimaginably long distances, bounty-hunting natives, deep forests and wild animals. Another reason for establishing punishment by exile was the desire of society to banish still cruel and barbarous criminal code of XVII century according to which criminals had been punished by amputation of their limbs, being bastionadoed, and being branded with hot iron. Exile was quick and easy method of getting them out of the way. The punishments, however, didn't become more humane. They just began to happen far away from where most of the people could see them. Before making Siberia place of exile criminals died from being tortured in Moscow; after they died from the hard, exhausting work, cold winters, and diseases in Siberia.

Although originally applied as a corporal punishment, exile can be viewed as a means of population and developing the colony. Government needed people to work in Siberian mines and to build roads, and penal servitude began to replace long prison terms, while list of offences meriting exile steadily lengthened to include even vagrancy, fortune-telling, wife-beating, debts, accidentally starting a fire or drunkenness. In 1754 death penalty was abolished for some years and replaced with exile at hard labour.

Convoy to Siberia

Until the middle of the XIX century, most of the convicts had to walk to the place of their exile from their homes. Often the journey took years--the distances walked measured thousands of kilometres. They walked from etape (transit prison) to etape. Until the beginning of XVIII century there was almost no long-range planning and even supervision of exiles was extremely negligent. Convicts had to beg their way because there was almost no food provided for them. Doctors accompanied the exile parties very seldom and there were very few prison hospitals. The lack of record keeping was such that officials often didn't know where the exiles had come from, what crime they had committed, and what their proper destination should have been.

To bring order in this chaos, since 1811 all exiles received identifying documents, and after 1817 etapes were erected at interval along the principle roads. In 1823 a Bureau of Exile Administration was found in Tobolsk.

From Tobolsk the convicts were sent to various towns or villages of Siberia or continued by barge to Tomsk. At Tomsk prisoners began a march to Eastern Siberia in guarded convoys. Marching parties, that often included women and children, were expected to walk over five hundred kilometres per month, stopping every third day for twenty-four-hour rest. Due to terrible conditions ten to fifteen percent of exiles died en route.

Types of Exiles

Exiles were divided into four classes: hard-labour convicts (katorzhniks), penal colonists, the merely deported, and volunteer followers such as wife and children. The first two were banished for life, deprived of all civil rights, branded or tattooed. Originally hot iron was used to brand exiles with letters to indicate their crime and status. Later the branding was replaced by deep tattoos. The prisoners were used as a forced labour, mostly in Siberian mines. Those who tried to escape were severely tortured.

On the other hand, about third of exiles were allowed to settle free, a number of others were assigned to a particular towns or farms, but not imprisoned. Many exiles were followed by their families as in case with Decembrists--group of nobles who rebelled in 1825 demanding abolishing of serfdom and Constitution with civil rights and freedoms guaranteed.

The Conditions in Penal Colonies

The conditions in the colonies were not much better than those during the marching. Many convicts lived outside the prisons in barracks or in their families in little cabins that weren't very different from dog