Book review: Daniel Beer’s The House of the Dead tells a history of Siberian exile
The news is all too familiar. A small country on the edge of Europe revolts against Russian authoritarianism, its young, pro-western leaders quickly becoming the toast of liberal cocktail parties from London to New York. The British press calls for military intervention to shore up the rebels: “How long will Russia be permitted”, thunders The Times, to act with “impunity” against its neighbours?
A writer is arrested on flimsy charges of political extremism. His account of the horrors of Russian prison life, published to international acclaim, mobilises public opinion against an increasingly despotic regime. Yet these events are not from a recent Twitter news feed, but The House of the Dead, Daniel Beer’s history of Siberian exile in the 19th century. The first vignette depicts the Polish insurrection of 1830 (rather than the 2014 uprising in Ukraine); the second, talks of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who narrated his experiences in the book from which Beer borrows his title (and not Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of 1973’s The Gulag Archipelago).
The history of Siberian exile during the tsars is one of authoritarianism, corruption, brutality and inefficiency. The use of the enormous territory east of the Ural Mountains as a “vast prison without a roof” began under the otherwise progressive reign of Peter the Great, in the first quarter of the 18th century. Prisoners of war and political enemies were used as forced labour to harvest the continent’s abundant natural wealth as well as to populate the expanding reaches of the empire.
Among the landed classes, a prisoner’s journey to Siberia began with a “political death”. Once a specially-adapted sword was ceremonially broken over his head, he became stripped of his citizenship, titles and estate. As with a real death, his children received his inheritance and his wife could remarry.
For commoners, the procedure was altogether simpler: they had their faces branded and their nostrils slit before being marched 3,500 kilometres, the equivalent distance between the east and west coasts of the United States, in 30 weeks – an average distance of 27km per day. Each prisoner was allowed to bring a maximum of 12 kilograms of possessions.
In theory, exile was designed to populate, Christianise and develop Siberia while ridding the state of its more troublesome subjects. But, by the middle of the 1800s, Siberian towns had become choked by a mixture of hardened criminals, victims of judicial miscarriage, political radicals and runaway serfs.
Given Russia’s vast distances and understaffed government, officials looking to deport undesirables across the country relied on lists prepared by unaccountable mine owners, factory managers and village elders in cahoots with landowners. As a result, writes Beer, from the 1830s onwards, more than half of those exiled to Siberia “had never seen the inside of a courtroom or heard the rulings of a judge”.
Despite hopes that the labour of hundreds of thousands of Siberian exiles would gild state coffers, the work proved to be vastly inefficient and unprofitable. Mine tunnels were frequently dug in such a haphazard manner that they did not lend themselves to mechanisation. In one gold mine in Irkutsk province in 1851, a single man produced 200kg of soil a day that could be sifted for gold; in an adjacent mine that used free labour, the average was 1,370kg.
Mostly, however, this is history as déjà vu, with wave after wave of westernised idealists dispatched to remote prisons on flimsy charges, exploited by corrupt officials, fascinated and repulsed by fellow prisoners, feted by Russophobes and bien pensants abroad, and ultimately upheld as examples by future rebels who will themselves go on to meet the same fate.
Though informative and diligently researched, The House of the Dead is let down by a linear structure and dry, academic prose. Nor does it make enough effort to weave the history of Siberian exile into contemporary Russian politics and society. Which is a shame, as Beer’s excerpts of contemporary western press articles sympathetic to each rebellion against Russian authority are uncanny reading.
Siberia was a finishing school for several waves of radicals, from early 19th century Decembrists fighting for an Enlightenment-based constitutionalism, to Polish nationalists and Communist revolutionaries including Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin (more than half of the leading figures of the 1917 October Revolution had spent time in Siberia). All came away from their experience with a messianic belief in the righteousness of their cause. As a Decembrist leader wrote in his memoirs, Siberian exile “gave us the right to see ourselves as the purifying agents of a future transformation of Russia”.
That may have been true up to a point. After all, while ordinary prisoners regularly toiled 12 hour shifts in mine shafts no more than 4 metres in diameter, one Decembrist described how he and his comrades would hire prison guards to labour on their behalf while they played chess. But even as such privileges came to be stripped by successive waves of tsarist repression, there remained what Beer describes as an “unbridgeable gulf” between the ordinary exiles and the aristocratic and highly-educated political prisoners. Ironically, for all their romantic zeal, these revolutionaries remained largely ignorant and wary both of the country that they sought so ardently to remake, and of its inhabitants.
“All of us who love the common people look at them as if at a theory and, it seems, not one of us loves them as they really are but only as each of us imagines them to be,” Dostoyevsky wrote in his journal after being set free.
More than a century on, it is a suspicion that continues to hound Russia’s current opposition leaders: Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny have all spent time in prison. Yet they too struggle to dispel the image of out of touch, westernised elitists whose professed love for democracy is belied by contempt for their average countryman and his backward ways.
Eventually, they may well triumph. But if Russia’s circular past offers any guide, liberal principles are no guarantee against a future reincarnation of the house of the dead. After all, one of the first things the Bolsheviks did on seizing power was to abolish Siberian exile and proclaim a mass amnesty of the prisoners.
We all know what happened next. As the Decembrists – who preferred French to the peasant language of Russian – might have said, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Vadim Nikitin is a journalist and Russian analyst based in London.
Updated: August 3, 2016 04:00 AM