The European empires all struggled with the formidable logistical problems of penal migration. Britain’s transports to its Australian penal colonies in the late eighteenth century were dreadful ordeals for the convict passengers. Prisoners languished in the ships’ holds, “chilled to the bone on soaked bedding, unexercised, crusted with salt, shit and vomit, festering with scurvy and boils.” Of the 1,006 convicts who sailed on the Second Fleet in 1790, 267 died at sea and at least another 150 after landing. The British government took swift and decisive action to curb the lethal excesses in transportation because the organized and efficient transfer of healthy convicts was understood to be necessary to the wider project of penal colonization. It bombarded the private contractors responsible for transportation with demands for improvements in conditions, and deferred payment for each convict until he or she disembarked in decent health. A naval surgeon was placed on board each vessel and was answerable to the government, not to the contractors. Negligence and abuse still continued on some ships but, by 1815, the death rate in the transports had fallen to one in eighty-five. By the end of transportation in 1868, it was only one in 180.
The deportation of convicts to Siberia presented logistical difficulties not less (and possibly even more) daunting than those of the roiling waters of the Atlantic and Indian oceans. The annual deportation of thousands of unruly and sometimes violent convicts several thousands of kilometres across the most inhospitable territory would have taxed the resources of any contemporary European state. The Siberian continent boasted only the sketchiest network of roads, and rivers that flowed unhelpfully south to north and north to south, rather than west to east, and turned each winter into a hazardous ocean of snow.
When compared with its European rivals, the tsarist empire’s state machinery was primitive and already creaking under the weight of its administrative burdens. St. Petersburg’s remit did not run as deep as that of London or Paris. Even within European Russia, the state had little direct contact with its own population. It devolved governance onto the landed nobility, the Church, merchant guilds and village assemblies. The Imperial Army was the only direct and sustained confrontation with state power that most Russian subjects—the peasantry—ever experienced. The enormous distances separating Siberia’s administrators from their masters in the capital amplified the effects of this bureaucratic weakness. Under-resourced and virtually unaccountable, officials manoeuvred within the deportation system for private gain, neglecting, exploiting and robbing the convicts in their charge.
After several months, sometimes years on the road, convicts who had departed hale and hearty from European Russia finally reached their destinations in Eastern Siberia as ragged, sickly, half-starving mockeries of the robust penal colonists envisioned by officials in St. Petersburg. The deportation process itself thus frustrated the state’s wider strategic ambitions for the penal colonization of Siberia. The downcast and desperate figures trudging eastwards in marching convoys were indictments of the imperial state’s weakness and incompetence. The boundary post was not so much a symbol of the sovereign’s power as a marker of its limitations.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, exiles almost all made the journey to Siberia on foot. They would set out from one of five cities in the empire: St. Petersburg, Białystok in the Kingdom of Poland, Kamenets-Podolsk and Kherson in Ukraine, and Tiflis in Georgia. Most were funnelled through the Central Forwarding Prison in Moscow, from where they and their families would march eastwards through the town of Vladimir that gave its name to the road that wound its way eastwards. Synonymous with Siberian exile, the Vladimirka gained such notoriety over the nineteenth century that Isaak Levitan’s eponymous landscape painting from 1892, which today hangs in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, seemed to echo to the clumping steps of exiles marching eastwards.
08 April 2017
Logistics of Penal Migration
From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 715-748: