Book review: The House of the Dead

While Siberian gulags will forever be associated with the Soviet era, Neil Robinson finds that the Tsars were the first to send their people on the long march across the Steppes.

Siberian Exile under the Tsars

Daniel Beer,

Allen Lane, £30

ISAAK LEVITAN was a nineteenth century Russian landscape painter. Levitan’s work is soulful and soothing, typically featuring contemplations of the country’s landscape that convey a very Russian spirituality.

One of Levitan’s paintings in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery stands apart from the rest of his work. ‘The Vladimirka Road’ is haunting rather than soothing. 

The road stretches out into the empty steppe under leaden skies. This is the road taken to Siberian exile under the Tsars. 

The insignificant post at one side of the road marks the point where exiles crossed from European Russia into Siberia.

Walking this road will not bring respite or spiritual ease, but isolation in the depths of an empty land. 

To be sent to Siberia was to be cut off from the world, probably forever, to be imprisoned and then to suffer permanent exile.

Levitan’s audience was well aware of what ‘The Vladimirka Road’ meant, but the Siberian exile system under the Tsars has largely been forgotten and Siberia is synonymous with the later horrors of the Soviet gulag. 

Daniel Beer’s The House of the Dead is a detailed, rich and powerful account of the inhumane system of imprisonment and exile in Tsarist Siberia that shows how little changed between Tsarism and Stalinism. Both were built on the bones of ordinary Russians.

Beer takes his title from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s book about his experience of Siberian prisons. The title is apt. Exiles were often sent to Siberia by the Tsars instead of being executed. 

Dostoevsky was even subject to a mock execution before being informed that his sentence was being commuted to exile. 

Exile was a civil death. Exiles had their rights and social standing removed. They became non-people, and as non-people their treatment was appalling.

Tsarist Russia pushed into Siberia in the late sixteenth century. The Russians wanted to capture and exploit the Siberian fur trade. 

The Mongol Khanate of Siberia was weak and easily toppled by a small force of Cossacks and the territory of Siberia incorporated into the Tsarist empire. 

Within fifty years Russian forces had reached the Pacific coast and created an intercontinental empire.

The prize was a rich one. Today the Russian state is kept financially afloat by barrels of oil. In the seventeenth century Tsarism was kept afloat by what Alexander Etkind has called ‘barrels of fur’. 

The Siberian fur trade paid for the luxury goods consumed at the imperial court and financed Tsarist armies.

This wealth came at a great cost to the local population of native peoples. 

Economic exploitation, massacres and disease wiped out the majority of local populations in the same way that they did the native populations of north and south America.

The native people’s decline meant that further economic exploitation of Siberia required that people be moved east from European Russia.

The bulk of Russia’s working population before 1865 was not free to move since they were serfs, owned by the nobility or the Tsar. 

People could not be encouraged to move to Siberia freely as this would mean a loss of income to their owner.

People could, however, be exiled. Landowners, local communities and the state all had the right to send troublemakers to Siberia. 

The Tsarist state saw this as a win-win scenario. 

Siberia would be populated with workers, who would be compelled to work for the Tsarist state and its local economic agents in the initial period of their imprisonment, and then settled permanently there after release as exiles. 

European Russia would be rid of socially disruptive elements.

The exile system was a human disaster from the onset and soon become a symbol of the Tsarist autocracy’s repression.

Exile was organised shambolically. Exiles died in their thousands as there was no adequate system of transportation, accommodation, or healthcare.

Unscrupulous guards and warders robbed their charges and abused them, sexually as well as physically. 

The harsh conditions of transportation brutalised the exiles. It could take many months for prisoners to walk the thousands of miles from European Russia to their places of confinement. 

Exiles robbed each other, escaped and terrorised local populations, swapped identities with each other, and organised into bands to try to protect themselves.

The harshness of the exile system and its many injustices undermined the Tsars’ efforts to use exile labour to exploit Siberian resources. 

Workers were often unfit for work by the time they had made the harrowing journey to the East. 

Alternatively, exiles shirked work as much as they could. 

Exile labour was never as productive as free labour so the Tsars never saw as great a return from Siberia as they hoped for. 

Rampant criminality made Siberia an unattractive destination for many free labourers until very late in the nineteenth century.

The problems that the exile system created grew in the nineteenth century as political exiles were added to the mix.

Political prisoners before the 19th century were mostly peasant rebels who were socially indistinguishable from other exiles.

The revolt of the Decembrists, noble proponents of constitutionalism and reform, in December 1825 changed this. The Decembrists came from the upper echelons of society. 

They were able to publicise their conditions and created sympathy for the exiles’ plight from polite society. Many of the Decembrist rebels were followed into exile by their wives, who also lost their status and rights as a result.

The suffering of the Decembrists, and the selflessness of their wives, created a model of self-sacrifice that later generations of Russian rebels were to copy, and made the Siberian exile system a target of social criticism.

The Decembrists were followed by Polish nationalists sent to Siberia as their liberation struggles against Tsarism failed. 

Populists (Russian agrarian socialists) swelled the number of political prisoners from the 1860s onwards. The end of the nineteenth century saw the arrival of the Russian Marxists, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin included.

The growth of revolutionary movements meant that exile was suffered by a much broader spectrum of Russian society. 

Exile for politicals was easier than for most ordinary prisoners. Those from well-to-do families were sent money and the politicals organised to support one another and protect their rights.

The growing number of political prisoners raised awareness of the brutality of Tsarist repression internationally as well as domestically. Siberian exile became a literary topic. Tolstoy and Chekhov joined Dostoevsky in describing the horrors of exile. 

Chekhov’s investigation of conditions on the island of Sakhalin, just off the Pacific coast of Siberia, provided a particularly harrowing account of the failings of the exile system that shocked Russian society.

Accounts of the horrors of exile should have prompted reform of the exile system but the Tsarist state never had the capacity to make reform stick. As reform failed Siberia became a festering sore of criminality and revolutionary anger, and an economic burden on Tsarism.

Some political prisoners sent to Siberia by the Tsars were also imprisoned by the Soviets. They often claimed the Soviet regime had made exile even more hellish that it had been under the Tsars.

Beer’s book shows this was not the case. The Soviet system was worse for politicals but for the majority of ordinary people imprisonment, forced labour and exile in Siberia was always a hell on earth.

  • Neil Robinson is professor of politics at the University of Limerick


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