Siberian Prison System

Siberian Prison System

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Siberian Prison System


My project is dedicated to description of the history of Siberia as a place to where send prisoners--from the days of Ivan the Terrible until today. I will tell about the reasons for choosing Siberia as place of exile, the system of prisons and conditions in Siberian prisons.

Choosing Siberia as a Place of Exile As with other Western powers that gained colonies overseas, the acquisition of Siberia led to making it a place of exile. Criminal and political prisoners had been sent to Siberia for more than three centuries; millions of people, in total, were deported there. Due to its remoteness and severe weather conditions 'Russian Australia' was one huge prison, escape from where was almost impossible and very dangerous not only because of the chase, but because of the Siberian killing frosts, unimaginably long distances, bounty-hunting natives, deep forests and wild animals. Another reason for establishing punishment by exile was the desire of society to banish still cruel and barbarous criminal code of XVII century according to which criminals had been punished by amputation of their limbs, being bastionadoed, and being branded with hot iron. Exile was quick and easy method of getting them out of the way. The punishments, however, didn't become more humane. They just began to happen far away from where most of the people could see them. Before making Siberia place of exile criminals died from being tortured in Moscow; after they died from the hard, exhausting work, cold winters, and diseases in Siberia.

Although originally applied as a corporal punishment, exile can be viewed as a means of population and developing the colony. Government needed people to work in Siberian mines and to build roads, and penal servitude began to replace long prison terms, while list of offences meriting exile steadily lengthened to include even vagrancy, fortune-telling, wife-beating, debts, accidentally starting a fire or drunkenness. In 1754 death penalty was abolished for some years and replaced with exile at hard labour.

Convoy to Siberia Until the middle of the XIX century, most of the convicts had to walk to the place of their exile from their homes. Often the journey took years--the distances walked measured thousands of kilometres. They walked from etape (transit prison) to etape. Until the beginning of XVIII century there was almost no long-range planning and even supervision of exiles was extremely negligent. Convicts had to beg their way because there was almost no food provided for them.

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Doctors accompanied the exile parties very seldom and there were very few prison hospitals. The lack of record keeping was such that officials often didn't know where the exiles had come from, what crime they had committed, and what their proper destination should have been.

To bring order in this chaos, since 1811 all exiles received identifying documents, and after 1817 etapes were erected at interval along the principle roads. In 1823 a Bureau of Exile Administration was found in Tobolsk.

From Tobolsk the convicts were sent to various towns or villages of Siberia or continued by barge to Tomsk. At Tomsk prisoners began a march to Eastern Siberia in guarded convoys. Marching parties, that often included women and children, were expected to walk over five hundred kilometres per month, stopping every third day for twenty-four-hour rest. Due to terrible conditions ten to fifteen percent of exiles died en route.
Types of Exiles Exiles were divided into four classes: hard-labour convicts (katorzhniks), penal colonists, the merely deported, and volunteer followers such as wife and children. The first two were banished for life, deprived of all civil rights, branded or tattooed. Originally hot iron was used to brand exiles with letters to indicate their crime and status. Later the branding was replaced by deep tattoos. The prisoners were used as a forced labour, mostly in Siberian mines. Those who tried to escape were severely tortured.

On the other hand, about third of exiles were allowed to settle free, a number of others were assigned to a particular towns or farms, but not imprisoned. Many exiles were followed by their families as in case with Decembrists--group of nobles who rebelled in 1825 demanding abolishing of serfdom and Constitution with civil rights and freedoms guaranteed.

The Conditions in Penal Colonies The conditions in the colonies were not much better than those during the marching. Many convicts lived outside the prisons in barracks or in their families in little cabins that weren't very different from dog kennels. More serious offenders lived in the prison, often with iron shackles that they could have been forced to wear for years. Most of the hard-labour convicts worked in mines. Often they couldn't see daylight for months. The only things they did were working and sleeping. The daily ration consisted of about a kilogram of brown bread, half a pound of boiled meat, and some tea with rare appearances of cabbage soup. Almost nothing was done to protect prisoners' health--those with infectious diseases often were not separated from others. Some prison hospitals didn't even have beds--people had to lie on the cold, filthy floor receiving no medical help due to frequent lack of doctors, nurses, and medicines.

Siberia Under The Communists Even though Siberia remained a place to where prisoners were sent after the Revolution of 1917, some significant changes had occurred. The first thing to change was the crimes of people who served sentences in Siberia. During the tsarist regime people who were exiled were guilty in committing serious or minor criminal and civil offences--murder or fortune-telling, rape or cutting down trees where prohibited, robbery or drunkenness. The punishment very often didn't match the seriousness of the offence, but most (even though not all) of the people sent to Siberia at that time were guilty of some--even very minor--offence. When Communists came to power, most of Siberian prisoners were political prisoners who were accused in treason, espionage, sabotage, or anti-Soviet propaganda. Ninety nine percent of them were innocent.

Millions of people went through Stalin's GULAG. They served their ten- and twenty-five-year sentences in Siberian camps for nothing. The purpose of arresting innocent people was to destroy not only the opposition, but the idea of the rebellion itself. Not only those who tried to resist and people neutral to the regime were arrested--many prisoners were dedicated Communists who helped to expose 'enemies of the Soviet people' truly believing that they were doing right thing until they were arrested themselves and realized that large proportion of the fellow prisoners was not guilty of any crime.
Another thing to change since the time of tsarist Russia was the prison system itself. Under Communists, there were no prisons or etapes in Siberia, but the labour camps. As before, prisoners' labour was used for building canals, bridges, and cities, cutting the trees and other physically demanding work. Gulag prisoners constructed the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the Moscow-Volga canal, the Baikal-Amur main railroad line, numerous hydroelectric stations, and strategic roads in remote regions. Three types of camps were developed: factory and agricultural colonies, camps for work like lumbering and mining, and "punitive" compounds for special punishment of prisoners from other camps. The Soviet system of forced labour camps was first established in 1919, but it was not until the early 1930s that the camps' population reached significant numbers. By 1934 Gulag had several millions of inmates.

Conditions in the camps were extremely harsh. Descriptions of the camps by former Gulag prisoners often remind the descriptions of Nazi's concentration camps. The daily ration reduced drastically as compared to the ration received by exiles during the tsarist rule (that weren't huge either). Inmates were often physically abused by the guards or by fellow prisoners. There were cases when people froze to death as they were transported to the camps or died from hunger, severe beating or various diseases. Guards didn't view them as human beings and didn't think prisoners had any rights, including right to life.
After Stalin's death in 1953 many of the prisoners were granted amnesty. Most of those, however, were not political prisoners, but ordinary criminals. As a result, there was a significant increase of criminal activity in the middle 1950's in Soviet Union, while many innocent people remained imprisoned. Even though the conditions in the camps somewhat improved, nobody would find them satisfactory in Canada today. The forced labour camps continued to exist for decades. There still were some camps during the Gorbachev period, but some of them were even opened to journalists and human rights activists. With the advance of democratization political prisoners disappeared from camps. Today Siberian prisons are not different from any other Russian prison (that aren't that great either, but it's a different topic.)
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