Book Review: House of the Dead, Exile in Tsarist Russia

HERE was a world all its own, unlike anything else,” wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky. Like hundreds of thousands of Russians before him, and much more after, Dostoevsky had been in Siberian exile, banished in 1850 to the “vast prison without a roof” that stretched out beyond the Ural mountains for thousands of miles to the Pacific Ocean.

The experience marked him forever. Siberia, he wrote later, is a “house of the living dead”. It was no metaphor. In 19th-century Russia, to be sentenced to penal labor in the prisons, factories, and mines of Siberia was a “pronouncement of absolute annihilation,” writes Daniel Beer in his masterly new history of the tsarist exile system, “The House of the Dead”.

For minor criminals, being cast into one of Siberia’s lonely village settlements was a  kind of death sentence. On a post of plastered bricks in a forest marking the boundary between Siberia and European Russia, exiles trudging by would carve inscriptions. “Farewell life!” read one.

Some, like Dostoevsky, eventually returned to European Russia. Most did not.

Later, as Enlightenment ideas of penal reform gained prominence, rehabilitation jostled with retribution for primacy. But the penal bureaucracy could not cope. The number of exiles exploded over the course of the 19th century, as an ever greater number of activities were criminalized.  From the Decembrist uprising in 1825 to the Revolution of1905, there were so many political insurrections that a steady supply of political dissidents was carted across the Urals by a progressively more paranoid state. The ideals of enlightened despotism—always somewhat illusory—were swept away.

Exiles reemerged—if they ever did—sickly, brutalized and often violently criminal. In the Russian imagination, the land beyond the Urals was not just a site of damnation, but a terra nullius for cultivation and annexation to the needs of the imperial state. Siberia, Mr. Beer writes, was both “Russia’s heart of darkness and a world of opportunity and prosperity.”

Exile was from the outset a colonial as much as a penal project. Women—idealised as “frontier domesticators”—were coerced into following their husbands into exile to establish a stable population of penal colonists. Mines, factories, and later grand infrastructure projects such as the trans-Siberian railway were to be manned by productive, hardy laborers, harvesting Siberia’s natural riches while rehabilitating themselves. But in this, too, the system failed utterly. Unlike Britain’s comparable system of penal colonization in Australia, the tsars’ Siberia never saw great growth — perhaps it was the constant cold.

Fugitives and vagabonds ravaged the countryside, visiting terror on the free peasantry, Siberia’s real colonists. A continental prison became Russia’s “Wild East.” In the end, the open-air prison of the tsarist autocracy collapsed under the weight of its contradictions. The exiled and indigenous populations were engaged in low-level civil war:  resentful Siberian townsfolk up in arms protesting the presence of political refugees thrust on them as they fight for few resources with outcasts.

A land intended as political quarantine became a crucible of revolution. And modernisation—above all the arrival of the railway—ultimately turned the whole concept of banishment into an absurd anachronism. With the revolution in 1917, the system simply imploded. But it never actually disappeared. The tsars’ successors, the Soviets, proclaimed lofty ideals but in governing such a vast land they, too, became consumed by the tyrannic paranoia that plagued their forebears.

Out of the ashes of the old system rose a new one, the gulag, even more, fearsome than what it replaced. MrBeer’sbook makes a compelling case for placing Siberia right at the center of 19th-century Russian—and, indeed, European—history. But for students of Soviet and even post-Soviet Russia it holds lessons, too. Many of the country’s modern pathologies can be traced back to this grand tsarist experiment—to its tensions, its traumas, and its abject failures.