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  • Penal Deportation to Siberia and the Limits of State Power, 1801–81
  • Daniel Beer (bio)

In February 1839, having been sentenced to 20 years of penal labor in the mines of Nerchinsk in eastern Siberia, the Polish revolutionary Justynian Ruciński found himself clapped in irons and tramping eastward in a marching convoy of exiles:

A life began for us that is difficult to name, let alone adequately to describe. It seemed there can be no harsher existence on earth. It comprised daily marches of 18 to 25 versts in chains, overnighting in prisons on filthy wooden benches …, lacking undergarments, clothes and boots, a starvation diet, extreme hunger, icy slush, heat, frosts, and all the time we had to keep marching onward and onward. There was the unceasing surveillance of the convicts, whose lives were full of the most cynical kinds of depravity, usually encouraged by corrupt convoy commanders. … Our bodies were terribly exhausted through physical exertion and our minds through anxiety and homesickness. That is but a pale rendering of our bitter fate.1

Like many Siberian exiles before him and after him, Ruciński would look back on the 13-month-long journey as the most torturous aspect of his Siberian exile. Yet Ruciński’s formal punishment—his term of penal servitude—began only when he finally reached Nerchinsk. As far as the authorities were concerned, the torments of the marching convoys were an incidental preamble to Ruciński’s actual sentence. The yawning gulf between [End Page 621] the state’s own conception of deportation as a strictly logistical operation, on the one hand, and the convicts’ experience of it as a brutal ordeal, on the other, reflected the weaknesses and limitations of the autocracy.

By the beginning of the 19th century, exile to settlement and, for more serious crimes, exile to penal labor (katorga) in Siberia had come to represent different conceptions of penality. At its most fundamental, exile was an expression of sovereign power. The autocrat could move his subjects around the vast territories of his empire at will, to move them, as the 1649 Penal Code stipulated, “to wherever the sovereign shall direct.”2 The journey into exile was thus a measure of autocratic power; each footstep eastward a homage to the dominance of the state. From the mid-18th century on, the rituals of civil execution that presaged expulsion into the Siberian penal realm were a performance of the might of a patrimonial Russian statehood.3 Penal labor replaced the gallows in an act of imperial clemency that underlined the power of the ruler. Exiles were deported beyond the frontiers of the metropole to sites at the periphery (or indeed beyond the imaginative frontiers) of the state.4 From its earliest origins, however, Siberian exile further served an important economic function. The deployment of forced laborers to harvest raw materials at discrete labor sites under Peter the Great expanded over the course of the 18th century into a full-blown state-led project to colonize the Siberian landmass under Catherine the Great.5

The demands of colonization implied some measure of disciplining, even rehabilitating, exiles. The eventual release of penal laborers to settlement assumed some level of readjustment of their “role as state subjects.”6 Over the course of the reign of Alexander I and Nicholas I, concern with social discipline supplemented the established colonial priorities of population transfer and [End Page 622] resource extraction across Siberia.7 As Abby Schrader and Andrew Gentes have shown, the state encouraged women to follow their husbands into exile, believing their presence would exert a pacifying, reforming influence over the men. Through the establishment of stable and productive family units, individual regeneration neatly dovetailed with the state’s colonial agenda.8 By the era of the Great Reforms, rehabilitation was an explicit justification for the exile system as a whole.9

Exile embraced then overlapping modes of penality: sovereign, economic, colonial, and disciplinary. Central to each one was deportation, in Gentes’s phrase, “the transmission belt linking the sovereign’s punitive vengeance to the state’s utilitarian exploitation.”10 Writing about later waves of deportations in the 20th century, Judith Pallot has argued that coerced...


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