Daniel Beer is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has published extensively on crime, terrorism and punishment in nineteenth century Russia. He is the author of Renovating Russia: The Human Sciences and the Fate of Liberal Modernity, 1880-1930 (Cornell UP: 2008). We spoke to him about his new book, The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars (Penguin, 2016), the product of several years of research, including a year and a half in archives across Russia and Siberia.
Theodora Clarke: Daniel, why did you decide to write a book on this subject?
Daniel Beer: I suppose it grew out of my research interests from earlier work. My first book was a study of Russian psychiatry and criminology at the end of the 19th century. I have always had probably an unhealthy preoccupation with things related to crime and misery, as well as relationships between ideas of justice and right on the one hand, and then the experience of prisoners on the other. I noticed that there was actually very little done on the Siberian exile system. There are a couple of people in the United States who have produced a few academic studies, but there was certainly nothing really aimed at a broader audience.
Studies of the exile system specifically tended to get subsumed into broader studies about Siberia, that is why I thought it deserved its own space. I also felt that if you stop most Anglo-American-German-French readers and you say the word ‘Siberia’ to them, it still has this very strong resonance with the idea of punishment and suffering that has been handed down since Dostoevsky. It is lodged very strongly in the Western literary imagination, but it is something I thought had not really been subjected to a properly archive-based study that was nevertheless aimed at a broad audience.
TC: Why was Siberia selected as this major penal colony and place of punishment?
DB: Right from the origins of the Russian conquest of Siberia at the end of the 16th century the Russians had been drawn there by fur, by ‘soft gold’. It was an astonishingly rapid project of expansion over the course of the 17th century. Bands of trappers, mercenaries and soldiers gradually travelled all the way from the Urals to the Pacific, claiming the territory for the Tsar. Right from the earliest recorded episodes of Russia’s conquest of the continent, Siberia was also used as a place where the Tsar banishes troublesome subjects. Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries there were these two policies of punishment and colonisation developing in tandem. I do not think it is fair to say that there was any systematic approach to this at the time. It really started to be systematised in the beginning of the 19th century under the auspices of Russian statesman Mikhail Speransky, who thought that Siberia should not just be used as a kind of remote colony and place of banishment but instead ultimately integrated into the Russian Empire and treated as a fully fledged part of it. That was the point when attempts were made to systemise and bring under control the rather haphazard localised forms of government in Siberia while getting the exile system into shape so that it could fulfill colonial ambitions.
TC: How did they actually get there? I presume a lot of people would not have even made it as far as walking thousands of miles.
DB: That is right, exiles would set off in the beginning of the 19th century in relay convoys. You have a set of convoy soldiers who were responsible for transferring a group (anywhere between two and four hundred exiles) from one stage to the next, where they were handed over to the next exile command at a way station. Penal laborers walked in chains. If you were sentenced to penal labor it was for the most serious of crimes (political crimes or murder). If you were convicted of lesser crimes or if you had been banished by your own village commune, you were exiled to settlement. This means you were not sentenced to hard labor but were assigned to a particular district in a particular Siberian province. At the back of the column came the women and children who were following husbands and fathers. They were not in prison but effectively share the fate of the convicts.
The Romanov dynasty’s paternalism rested on the idea that the Tsar was a benevolent father, but of course what was happening was that the autocracy was consigning hundreds of thousands of women and children to appalling conditions in Siberia where they are forced into poverty and prostitution. Children were being raised in the criminal culture of the convicts and families torn up. By one estimate in the 1870s half of all children making the journey to Siberia did not survive. This whole process was presided over by a Tsar who was supposedly father to his children and for whom the sanctity of marriage and the responsibilities of the patriarchal family was a cornerstone of the regime.
One of the things that struck me about the marching convoys was that part of the reason why the system was so horrendous was because the state was so weak and inept. On the ground many things that Speransky called for were simply not the case. It was underfunded, hopelessly mismanaged and completely undermined by the astonishing levels of corruption within the Siberian administration. The convoy commanders operated these very harsh monopolies, massively inflating the price of bread, clothing and shoes. Therefore, within a few hundred miles of setting out from Moscow or Saint Petersburg, most exiles had chewed their way through all of their savings and were absolutely destitute. Senior officials understood what was going on; they were not blind to it. They reported back to the capital that the colonial ambitions of the state relied on the state’s ability to transfer healthy people from one point in the empire to another and that these colonial ambitions are effectively turning to ashes in the marching convoys. By the time they actually reached their destination they were sickly, ragged mockeries of the idea of the hardy penal colonists envisaged by Speransky.
TC: How did they survive the winter?
DB: Hundreds don’t. They freeze to death in the marching convoys. Many other exiles, who escaped, joined what was called at the time “General Cuckoo’s army”. They would flee at the bird’s call each spring, which heralds the beginning of warmer weather and increased food and vegetation in the summer. After roaming the Taiga for months they would turn themselves back to the authorities, knowing that they could not survive the winter. It was the cold and the winter that prevented the vast majority from returning to European Russia. One exile official said to a journalist at the end of the nineteenth century, ‘Siberia is for us an enormous prison. In which of its particular cells a convict resides is of no real consequence. The main thing is he cannot get over the walls.’ The walls were the winter.
TC: What was the worst punishment as a political prisoner? Where would you have actually been sent when you got there?
DB: It varies. The Decembrists ended up east of Lake Baikal. The fort they were initially sent to was Fort Chita and then from there to a prison Petrovsk Zavod. Both of those are in or adjacent to the Nerchinsk mining region, and that area really becomes the default destination for political prisoners. A later generation of populists, revolutionaries from the 1860s and 1870s, were sent there as well. Up until the 1880s if were are a political prisoner you would be sent to prison, where you would be subject to a policy of containment, not really hard labor.
The problem they find is that these political prisoners, unlike common criminals, are bound together by strong bonds of solidarity. They shared a common ideology, a visceral hatred for the state, and saw themselves as having committed no crimes at all. If the Decembrists had been content to act out their own republican ideals in their small exile communities in Transbaikal, by the 1880s, a new generation of political exiles were staging symbolic acts of defiance in order to provoke the authorities. The men would refuse to remove hats, refuse to stand up in the presence of a senior official, or refuse to leave their cells at roll call etc. Many had been exiled extra-judicially and had never had their day in court but they now set about trying to convert Siberia’s waystations, prisons and penal settlements into a gigantic courtroom in which they could indict what they saw as the tyranny of the state. The exile authorities were now struggling to win popular support for their repression of the revolutionary movement in an age of a rapidly expanding, if still censored, popular press. You could see very clearly now that the state was succeeding in isolating and punishing individuals, but it was losing a wider war for hearts and minds across the Russian Empire. It was in response to that problem that the state ended up banishing individuals (like Lenin) to distant locations in Siberia, trying to keep them out of the public eye. Part of my story is about the way in which Siberia actually came to play a central role in the development of the Russian revolutionary movement. It was a place in which enemies of the regime forged alliances, won new recruits, and, by crafting compelling narratives of defiance and martyrdom, succeeded in blackening the reputation of the regime (not just in Russia but abroad as well).
TC: How did you go about researching this topic and approaching such a vast subject?
DB: The book relies on a combination of published sources. From the 1860s onwards a lot of memoirs started to be published and what started as a trickle really surged into a torrent of publications in the wake of the collapse of censorship in 1905. Also, after 1917 the Bolsheviks, ironically, invested a great deal of money and time into publicising the horrors of exiles under the Tsar just at the same time when they were expanding their own system of camps. There was a lot of published material but I really wanted to write a book that was based, first and foremost, on archival evidence.
I spent about a year and a half in archives in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Tobolsk, and Irkutsk. The administrative apparatus of the Tsarist state was very centralised, so quite a lot of great material worked its way up the food-chain all the way back to the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of Justice. I think the most moving document I found in the archives was a letter written in the Tobolsk prison (which still stands today) by an obscure revolutionary by the name of Sergei Vilkov. He was sentenced to death for his alleged involvement in the murder of a guard in 1910. He sits down to write a note saying ‘You’ve sentenced me to death but you bloodsuckers are in no position to judge the people…’ He has this wonderful line where he says, ‘At the moment you rule over the people with the dark masses of soldiers but there will come a time when they will see you for the murderers, debauchees and frauds that you are, and at that moment the people will show you no mercy.’ And that was his suicide note… He then hanged himself in his cell.
There were these kind of moments where you would stop and realise that these were people who did not necessarily think like we do, but they were fundamentally grappling with the same questions. What is just and what is not? What is legitimate and where does sovereignty lie? Is the government entitled to rule over the people? Is violence legitimate? These are questions that we still deal with in society today.
TC: You mentioned Dostoevsky and I was interested in any other cultural references. I was giving a lecture on Peredvizhniki the other day and I was really interested in Levitan’s painting of Vladimirka.
DB: It is one of the paintings that I have reproduced in the book. By the time Levitan paints it in 1892, it is already an iconic road in the Russian imagination. When you look at the painting you can almost hear the convicts’ footsteps as they tramp eastwards. Dostoevsky underwent a mock execution in 1849 and then had his death sentence commuted to four years of penal labour, which he served in the prison fort in Omsk. After his release, he wrote Notes from the House of the Dead, from which I obviously borrow my own title. It’s a supposedly fictional account but his descriptions of life in the prison barracks in the company of common criminals are clearly based on his own experience and everything he says chimes with all the other sources that I looked at. Dostoevsky really puts Siberian exile on the map in Russian literature, but of course the story is then taken up by a host of other writers. Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, as well as Chekhov, who visits Sakhalin in 1892 and writes a kind of documentary-style travelogue about the appalling condition in which some 20,000 penal laborers are existing in the state’s newest penal colony. Then in 1899 Siberia is subject to a ferocious critique by Tolstoy in Resurrection. Basically, from the beginning of the 1860s right through to the last days of tsarism, Siberia is one of the most discussed topics in the Russian press, including the fate of political prisoners, the indiscriminate use of corporal punishment, the injustices of the system and the fact that people find themselves exiled to Siberia in great numbers without ever having seen the inside of a courtroom because they’re exiled extra-judicially by the state or they are denounced and banished by their own peasant communities, merchant guilds etc.
TC: We have many student readers who would be interested in how they might become a ‘future you’. For example if they want to become historians and they are doing their PhD at the moment, what advice would you give to them?
DB: I came to Russian history through literature; I did modern languages as an undergraduate. I would say study the language. It is so much easier to get through sources and tease out the more nuanced stuff if your Russian is good rather than just okay. You need a lot of patience and a sense of black humor to work in those kind of Russian archives, as some of them are pretty chaotic. But there is also something really thrilling about it. Exile is one of many topics in Russian history that have not been very intensively studied. It was often the case that I was the first person to sign those files out of the archive, since they’d been deposited 150 years ago. They have just sat there gathering dust until I stumbled upon them, and that sense of discovery was a real thrill. It is a lot of effort, but the upsides are huge. To move from note collection to writing, I would number each source (thousands in the end) and the page number. I would have a little quote or a point from it and stick underneath it 512: page #. From there I could cut and paste that bit of text from the original source, so when it came to footnotes I could always find it later. You have to have a provisional set of topics, of course. I spent months probably just reading through all of my notes and arranging them into chapters.
TC: What is your next project after this?
DB: I have not yet decided, but I am quite interested in revolutionary movements. I am thinking about doing a book on what was called the ‘Emperor Hunt’ on the campaign to assassinate Alexander II in 1881. It would be great to do something more focused!
TC: Thank you, Daniel!
The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars By Daniel Beer Published by Allen Lane