Siberia as a Place of Imprisonment and Exile

Dr. Helen Hundley


Anne Applebaum, Gulag. A History.  2003.
    See her website,, for links to archival documents, etc.
Nicholas Werth, Steven Rendell, Origins of the GULAG: The Soviet Prison Camp system 1917-1934. Princeton, 2007.

An interesting recent event which evokes the history of Siberia as a place of exile is the case of the former head of Yukos, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Although he was originally sent to hard labor in Siberia, he was later sent to prison in the Russian Far North and is able to write and communicate with the outside world (like exiles during the tsarist period).

How did Siberia become known as a place of imprisonment and exile?

pre-19th Century

The Russian and English Empires were the real Superpowers of this time, and Siberia was important for Russian identity in the eyes of other world powers. Both the Tsarist and Communist systems have the same basis for using Siberia as a place of imprisonment and exile- and it was both cost effective and they served political ends. The role of Siberia as a place of exile prior to WWI as incredibly important. When did Siberia become a place of exile? Less than a decade after Siberia became part of the empire.

Ivan IV (also known as Ivan Grozny, which is translated as Ivan the Terrible or Ivan the Formidable) signed off on the Stroganov family's right to go to war with the khanate of Sibir, so colonization was a monarch sanctioned activity. Therefore the land added belonged to the state, not the family.

After Ivan IV, Boris Godunov was the interim tsar (he was regent to Ivan IV's older son and was later appointed tsar). When Ivan IV's younger son was found dead under suspicious circumstances in the village of Uglich where he and his mother were sent by Godunov, a riot broke out. Godunov sent the instigators to exile to Siberia, which was the first time Siberia was used for exile. The Uglich bell was publicly flogged and sent into exile for its role in summoning the towns people to the riot-- it remained in Tobolsk until 1892 when it was finally returned.

From the very beginning of the Russian control of Siberia it was used for exile. The next phase was when members of schismatic sects sent into exile. The Patriarch Alexis removed people who were political problems and sent them to Siberia (it was the tsar who declared and enforced changes in the church, so these schismatics were actually defying the tsar).

The Russian government wanted more people in Siberia to hold the territory against potential invaders, but also for economic development. Exiles were encouraged to invest in trade, build up defenses, make a footprint for government.

In the 18th century, the exiles sent to Siberia were often prisoners of war-- during the Second Hundred Years War (beginning in 1638 with King William the 3rd of England until the end of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars in 1815 click here for timeline). These were a series of wars of empire, often against Ottoman Empire and Sweden.

The use of Siberia as a warehouse- so many prisoners of war became a problem because they didn't have a modern prison systems, at the time there was not much space in prisons, so it was cheaper to make people support themselves and to simply move them a great distance away from the capitol.

For all of Europe at the time the wars for the balance of power, but there were also conflicts over the generational transfer of power. For example, Peter the Great changed the law so that each tsar could choose their own successor, but then he died before he appointed his own successor. The challenges for succession that followed led to a number of people being sent to Siberia. Tsar Alexis who emerged from this period was part of the schism and author of the law of serfdom-- Russia didn't get serfdom until it was being done away with elsewhere, it came late to Russia and was closer to slavery. Beginning in 1649 problematical serfs could be sent to Siberia, and landowners would get tax credit for sending people to Siberia. Sending serfs who were unfree to Siberia where they essentially became free and were given land was an interesting twist. Peasants were sent to hold the land, provide agriculture, and build up urban populations.

19th Century

During the 19th century things became more organized, and a whole bureaucracy was put in place to deal with the prison and exile system. You were sent to court first and then if found guilty of a crime (charged with murder, thieves, white collar crime-- garden variety criminals) you could be sent to Siberia.

But there was another way-- administrative exile, which did not require a legal process. This resulted in a two tier system-- prison for limited amount of time, but could move to specific places in exile. They had to report to police in a probation system, they had to support themselves, and were limited in where could move- many wanted to go to larger settlements for better services.
  • no legal process
  • could be held in prison up to 2 yrs
  • up to 10 yrs exile after release from prison
  • family members, friends, targeted segments of the society also went along
  • from 1827 to 1846 there were 79,909 people sent to Siberia

For example, Staniukovich was exiled to Tomsk. He was a liberal and was in written contact with Revo to discuss the publishing business. Staniukovich was wealthy and well connected, yet was sent to exile for simply contacting someone that the tsar was suspicious of (this story from George Kennan).

1887-1889 were very bad years-- for example, when Madame Tserbrikova pointed out mistakes being made in names that led to innocent people being sent to Siberia-- she was herself exiled.

Who went?
  • criminals- all the way from hardened criminals to first offense, white collar, the whole range
  • until 1861 uppity serfs, prisoners of war
  • Polish, Lithuania, Latvian uprisings, nationalists
  • intellectuals, students who questioned the policies of the tsar (often about serfdom, later getting rid of monarchy and creating legislature)
  • family members, friends, acquaintances of exiles, guilt by association

it got complex-
  • those sent for hard labor (katorzhniks) convicts
  • penal colonists (not laborers)
  • those who were deported
  • families

How did they travel to Siberia before the train was built?
Etape system-- prisoners and families were moved along the road in the summer, they literally walked to Siberia. They were given an allowance to buy meals. An entire system of peasants was created to sell soup and bread. Birch bark shoes were given to the prisoners.There were scandals about housing, supplies, transfer of disease between exhausted travelers (cholera, TB, leprosy).

By the later 19th century steam ships built by British for Russian penal system-- especially for those destined for Sakhalin Island.

Finally the train was built and used for transport.

Many ministers took tours and traveled along system, then wrote books. It was an open system, not secret. Many missionaries in China, European and American missionaries traveled along the Siberian railroad to Moscow and would hand out religious materials to prisoners.

  • Tobolsk bureau of exile administration
  • walked- non noble (nobility in sleds)
  • 5c a day to buy food
  • shoes issued often fell apart
  • shaved 1/2 head, also pranding, later tatoos
  • series of stations, wooden sheds with sleeping platforms
  • 15-25 versts/day (10-16 miles) apart
  • families of prisoners and all types of prisoners
  • officially 60-100 conflicts more often 450+ In 1884  1217 of 7865 on way to west Siberia died
  • finally case was made that this system was economically harmful to Siberian towns because so many of the dangerous criminals escaped and preyed on the towns.

Why so many?
Political unrest associated with 1863-1872, which although technically the end of serfdom, resulted in the serfs being forced to make redemption payment to obtain title to their land (they were very unhappy about it). Also, there was an increasing intellectual movement for Russian college students from the growing middle class advocating for better treatment of peasants; France was becoming more democratic; the British were passing bills for increasing franchise; all this resulted in young people wanting to do something for society. Russian women were statistically more likely to become doctors than in any other part of Europe as part of this push for improvement and desire to do service to benefit society. There was the industrial revolution in Europe. A lot of young people were sent to Siberia just for questioning. Nicholas II resisted change. There was so much change in Europe,but  Nicholas II wanted to retain full monarchical power.

Once in Siberia--
  • prison- hard labor- especially mining (economic argument)
Prison labor was used for mining. American and French mining engineers were brought out to study the situation and declared that the mines were unsafe and said that the system not effective. Saving money because didn't pay prisoners, miners weren't trained, cut corners on structure, but in the end they were not efficient.
  • actual prisons- Irkutsk, etc.
  • exile- settlement in villages w/ or w/o prior prison terms
The exiles had to check in with police constantly-- political prisoners especially.

Decembrists were the most famous of the exiles-- 1815-1825 discussed what they wanted their government to become. The uprising was not well planned. Sets off 19th century reputation of Siberia as political exile. They spent only a limited amount of time in hard labor, then were told that they must stay in Siberia for life. Their wives and children were told that they would not be held responsible, that they could hold onto their titles and their children would have education, etc. But all of the wives followed their husbands to Siberia. children born in Siberia were not noble. they lived a very different life than if they had stayed. helped to solidify Siberia's image. their homes became known as centers of culture, got They had an international reputation for their choice. They painted, were involved in scientific exploration, taught music-- a whole range of activities that developed the intellectual and artistic lives of Siberians.

Why was system created?
George Kennan was given access to many officials for interviews-- he discovered that sending people to Siberia was just simply considered cheaper than jailing so many people who opposed the government in European Russia. However, there were so many extraneous people caught up in the system that it became too unwieldy and expensive to be efficient. What it did, however, was serve the purpose of holding Siberia by populating it.

Throughout the 19th century this system built up the population in Siberia and helped to make the point to the British, Chinese, French, and Japanese that Siberia was Russian. The majority of exiles did not return to European Russia, but remained in Siberia. There was a lot of entrepreneurial behavior-- for example the tsar allowed the creation of regional newspapers (somewhat ironically, the editors were political exiles). Political exiles were important in developing the statistical records,

At the end of the 19th century the exile system was deeply entrenched in Siberia, and left an incredible mark on governance, science, culture and patterns of settlement.