An elucidating study of how Russia’s east was won—by hard labor.
Since the 16th century, Siberia has served as Russia’s repository for undesirables, much as the New World and Australia served for Britain. In this engaging study of Russia’s far-flung penal system, British academic Beer (History/Royal Holloway, Univ. of London; Renovating Russia: The Human Sciences and the Fate of Liberal Modernity, 1880-1930, 2008) reveals how the vast area east of the Ural Mountains was gradually settled by fur trappers, soldiers, fugitive serfs, mercenaries, and exiles, pacifying nomadic tribes already sparsely inhabiting the taiga to the north and the steppe to the south. Imperial banishment to Siberia for criminality served both to purge European Russia of “mutinous populations” and to populate the vast eastern expanse and harvest raw materials at key labor sites like the mines of Nerchinsk. Exile was severe and final, especially in the early centuries, with the victim given a “civil death” by a public ceremonial breaking of the sword over his head, flogging, facial scarring, and shaving of one side of the skull; malefactors were fettered together and marched over thousands of miles on primitive roads and many miserable months to reach labor camps. Wives and children were encouraged to accompany the men, although little did the women know of the harsh and dangerous conditions that awaited them (return was barred to them as well). Beer concentrates on political exiles, specifically the Decembrists, who, inspired by ideals of national liberalism, attempted to overthrow Czar Nicholas I in 1825. Many of them were educated aristocrats who used exile for fomenting republicanism, becoming martyrs to the causes of freedom and reform. Beer ably shows how these educated dissidents—including Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose House of the Dead lends its title to this work—transformed Siberia from a political wasteland into a crucible of the nascent Russian revolutionary movement.
An eye-opening, haunting work that delineates how a vast imperial penal system crumbled from its rotten core.