Political Prisoners of Siberia, part 1: Tsarist Russia

Oct 7, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in April 2012, as part of the GeoCurrents series on Siberia.]


Any discussion of Siberia is incomplete without an examination of its role in the history of Russia as a penal colony. Russian Tsars exiled many political opponents, as well as common criminals, to prison camps and remote villages in the Siberian vastness. Such exiles, many of whom were highly educated, helped transform Siberia itself. After the establishment of the Soviet Union, the use of Siberia as a dumping ground for dissidents vastly increased. Today’s post examines this phenomenon during the Tsarist period, whereas the following post turns to the Gulag of the communist era.

The Law Code of 1649 gave Russia’s tsars the authority to condemn fugitive serfs, rebels, robbers, thieves, religious dissenters, counterfeiters, beggars, and “anyone who drove his horses into a pregnant woman and caused her to miscarry” to “eternal exile” in Siberia. Such exile served a double purpose: to remove those deemed unfit from European Russia and to populate the distant lands and incorporate them into the Empire. While several Western European settlements, such as Australia and Georgia also started as penal colonies, they typically outgrew those functions within a few decades; Siberia, on the other hand, retained that role for hundreds of years. In certain respects, it still serves as a place of punishment and exile.

While common criminals, escaped serfs, prisoners of war, and entire ethnic groups were at one time or another deported beyond the Ural Mountains, political prisoners occupy a special place in the roster of inmates of Siberian prisons and camps. Under the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725), many who opposed the Tsar’s modernization program found themselves exiled to Siberia for reasons of state. During the Era of Palace Revolutions that followed Peter’s death, dozens of courtiers instantly fell from favor and hence suffered banishment. Among those early political exiles was Peter the Great’s onetime comrade in arms, Prince Aleksandr Menshikov. Menshikov’s official titles include Generalissimus, Prince of the Russian Empire, Duke of Ingria, Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, and Duke of Cosel. During the brief reign of Peter’s second wife Catherine I from 1725 to 1727, Menshikov was a de facto ruler of Russia; Alexander Pushkin referred to him in a poem as “half-tsar”. But none of this prevented him from being deprived of his wealth, stripped of the titles, and banished with his whole family to Beryozovo on the Ob River in what is now Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, where he died two years later.

The group that looms largest among the early political exiles to Siberia is the Decembrists (in Russian, Dekabristy), young officers who in December 1825 attempted to change the course of Russian history. Having returned from fighting the armies of Napoleon to the gates of Paris, the Decembrists dreamed of making Russia more like the countries they had seen in Western Europe. Despite being the crème de la crème of the Russian elite, these aristocrats were prepared to sacrifice their personal wealth and status for the good of their country. Two groups of conspirators were formed: a Southern Society, based in Ukraine and headed by Pavel Pestel, and a Northern Society, based at Saint Petersburg and led by Guard officer Nikita Muraviev, Prince Sergei Trubetskoy, and poet Kondraty Ryleyev. The political aims of the more moderate Northern Society were the establishment of a British-style constitutional monarchy with a limited franchise, the abolition of serfdom, and equality before the law. The more radical Southern Society, under Pestel’s influence, aimed to abolish the monarchy, establish a republic, and redistribute land, taking half into state ownership and dividing the rest among the peasants. In order to implement those reforms, the two societies plotted to assassinate Emperor Alexander I in the spring 1826.


But this plan never came to fruition, as events took a dramatically different course when the childless Alexander died unexpectedly in late November 1825, provoking a succession crisis. The heir presumptive was Alexander’s brother Grand Duke Constantine, Governor of Poland, but unbeknownst to most Russian he had renounced his rights of succession three years earlier in order to marry Polish Countess Joanna Grudzińska, who was not of royal blood. After Constantine’s abdication was finally confirmed weeks later, the title passed to the third brother, Nicholas I, in a fashion customary to Russian fairy tales. Seizing the opportunity, the Decembrists scrambled to change of regime, under the pretense of defending Constantine’s rights to the throne. A largely bloodless stand-off between the 3,000 rebels – conspiring officers and soldiers under their command – and the 9,000 troops who remained loyal to the new Tsar, took place at the Senate Square in Saint Petersburg, as hundreds of passers-by gawked (see image on the left). By the end of that day, the troops supporting Nicholas I had defeated the Decembrists; as a result, many of the conspirators were arrested, interrogated, and later convicted. Five of them – Pyotr Kakhovsky, Pavel Pestel, Kondraty Ryleyev, Sergei Muravyov-Apostol, and Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin – were executed by hanging. Ninety six others were stripped of their titles and possessions and exiled to Siberia.


Among the latter group was Prince Sergei Volkonsky, a major-general of the infantry and a decorated hero of Russia’s Napoleonic wars. After the war, Volkonsky continued his military career in the Caucasus before returning to Saint Petersburg in 1824. There, at the age of 37, he met the beautiful Maria Raevskaya, who was not yet quite twenty. She was the youngest daughter of General Nikolay Raevsky, a celebrated hero of the Patriotic War of 1812 whose 7th Infantry Corps – better known as Raevsky Redoubt – played a crucial role in the Battle of Borodino. Maria’s maternal great grandfather was Mikhail Lomonosov, eighteenth century Russia’s greatest scientist and poet. The salon of Raevskaya’s parents attracted the leading lights of Russian art and literature, including such as poets Vasily Zhukovsky and Alexander Pushkin. Several months before the December uprising, Maria Raevskaya, knowing nothing of the brewing plot, married her handsome Prince. On the day of the revolt, she still did not know what was going on, as she was then staying at her parents’ country estate getting ready to give birth to their son, who arrived a fortnight after the revolt. When she learned of her husband’s impending exile to Siberia, Maria Volkonskaya decided to follow him there, despite the Tsar’ threat that she could never return to European Russia and the fact that she had to leave her baby son with her sister-in-law in Saint Petersburg. In explaining the agonizing choice she had to make, Volkonskaya wrote: “My son is fortunate, my husband is unfortunate. Hence, my place is to be with my husband” (quoted in Anatole G. Mazour, Women in Exile, p 63).

Nine other wives, one fiancée, and one sister also followed their men into Siberia. The fiancée was Pauline Gueble, a French milliner who worked in a Parisian fashion house in Moscow. A Catholic, she spoke virtually no Russian. When her beloved Ivan Annenkov was exiled to Siberia, she pled with Nicholas I to allow her to be exiled with her fiancé and the father of her illegitimate daughter (whom she would ultimately leave with her future mother-in-law):

“You Majesty! Allow a mother to throw herself at your feet and to ask your permission to share exile with her unlawful husband. … From all my heart, I sacrifice myself to the man without whom I can no longer live… I renounce my nationality and am prepared to submit to all your laws. At the bottom of your throne, I beg you on my knees to bestow your mercy on me. …”

Two years later Pauline, now known as Praskovia Annenkova, joined her fiancé in Chita, where they were finally married. Only for the wedding itself were Annenkov’s shackles removed.

Of the nine other Decembrists’ wives I will mention only three. Ekaterina Trubetskaya (née Laval), the wife of one of the leaders of the Northern Society, Prince Sergei Trubetskoy, she was one of the first wives who decided to join her husband in Siberia. In exile, her inquisitive mind, learning, and cordiality made her the center of the Decembrists’ colony. Alexandra Muravyova followed her husband Nikita Muravyov, one of the main ideologists of the Decembrist movement. She left behind three small children, one of them a newborn. Elizaveta Naryshkina was a lady-in-waiting for Empress Maria Feodorovna, the mother of Nicholas I. At court she met Mikhail Naryshkin, a future member of the Northern society, whom she later married. Traveling by coach and peasant carts, these women could carry no money or valuables beyond Irkutsk, nor could they keep any of their servants (ibid, pp. 99-105). But these losses were mere nuisances compared to what waited for them in the Trans-Baikal region of exile.

Sergei Volkonsky’s first destination was the Nikolaevsky saltworks. Many other Decembrists served at the silver mines at Akatui, Blagodatsk, and Nerchinsk. After a few months, Volkonsky and other Decembrists were transferred to Chita, at the time a tiny settlement of fewer than 50 huts at the confluence of the Chita and Ingoda rivers. These former aristocrats had to build their own prison, repair roads, tend the prison garden, and maintain the prison compound. But they also took the opportunity to share their learning, to teach each other mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, history, literature, and languages. In the meantime, the wives had to survive on meager government rations and wait for the precious moments twice a week when they could visit their husbands for two hours. After three years in Chita, Volkonsky and others were transferred to Petrovsky Zavod, some 400 miles southwest of Chita, where each prisoner was to live in solitary confinement in a tiny windowless cell of a prison that Nicholas I himself helped design.

In 1835 Volkonsky’s term of katorga (penal servitude) was commuted to ssylka (exile). A former aristocrat, Volkonsky took to wearing peasant dress and sporting an untrimmed beard; he also socialized with the peasants with whom he worked the land. Maria established schools, a foundling hospital, and a theater for the local population. Many other Decembrists exiled to Siberia likewise contributed to improving the lives of the locals. For example, the brothers Wilhelm and Michael Küchelbecker opened a hospital and a school for the locals in the village of Barguzin in present-day Buryatia. The home-in-exile of the Naryshkin family in Kurgan was a center of charitable works of the region, as the couple bought medications for the poor, gave out money and clothing, and provided consolation for the dying. Mikhail Fonvizin and other Decembrists were known for taking care of the sick during a cholera epidemic. Only a handful of the Decembrists ever returned to European Russia. The Volkonskys were able to do so only after an imperial amnesty at the end of the Crimean War, but most Decembrists forever remained in Siberia.

The Decembrists were by no means the only dissidents sent to Siberia during the nineteenth century. By the 1840s, the ranks of political exiles to Siberia had risen into the hundreds and, by the 1860s, into the thousands. During this time, many “politicals” had to serve their time among hardened common criminals. One of the worst convict prisons at the time was “the house of the dead” in Omsk where the great novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky endured four years of suffering that would forever color his writings. His book Notes from a House of the Dead described the pain inflicted by a Siberian prison upon a person who lived in the world of ideas and high-minded political beliefs.

But not all political prisoners served in harsh conditions of forced labor. Because of the desperate shortage of educated people in Siberia, those who were sentenced to terms of ssylka rather than katorga were sometimes appointed to official posts in which they spoke in the name of the sovereign who had banished them. For example, Mikhail Bakunin, revolutionary theorist of collectivist anarchism, exiled initially to the western Siberian city of Tomsk, was able to get an appointment as a minor official with the Amur Development Agency, which enabled him to move with his wife to Irkutsk, the capital of Eastern Siberia. There he promoted the ideas of his patron, General Count Nikolay Muravyov-Amursky, governor of Eastern Siberia, who resented the use of Siberia as a dumping ground for malcontents and proposed the formation of a United States of Siberia, independent of Russia and federated into a new United States of Siberia and America.

Many other revolutionaries who plotted to overthrow the monarchy – Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Josef Stalin among them – were sent to Siberian katorga or ssylka. For many, especially those in ssylka, the conditions were fairly comfortable, and some – notably Stalin – managed to escape. Lenin was born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov and adopted his alias from Siberia’s Lena River, although his actual place of Siberian exile, the village of Shushenskoye, was in the drainage basin of a different river. While in exile, Lenin was allowed to continue to read and write: in Shushenskoye Lenin wrote over 30 works, including The Development of Capitalism in Russia. He also consulted the local peasants on matters of law and even wrote legal documents for them. Lenin was released at the end of his term in 1900. In that same year, Leon Trotsky was sentenced to four years in exile in Ust-Kut and Verkholensk in the Irkutsk region of Siberia. Later, he was to experience a very different kind of exile: when he lost out in a power struggle with Josef Stalin, Trotsky was sent to Almaty in Kazakhstan in January 1928 (he was subsequently expelled from the Soviet Union to Turkey in February 1929). Stalin’s first Siberian exile, to the Irkutsk region in 1902, lasted about a month, after which he escaped and returned to Tiflis (Tbilisi) in his native Georgia. He was subsequently arrested again and exiled to several locations in European Russia, but again he managed to escape. Stalin’s second Siberian exile began in May 1912 when he was sent to Narym, a village in the Tomsk oblast. A fifth escape followed, but Stalin was quickly re-arrested and exiled to Kureika, a village just south of the Arctic Circle near Turukhansk in Krasnoyarsk Krai, where he spent four years before the October Revolution. Some years later, this area became a center of one of the worst prison camp systems ever implemented, the Soviet Gulag, more on which in the next post.

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