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THE CONVICT SYSTEM IN SIBERIA.
BY STEPHEN BONSAL.
o write about Siberia the steady influx of convicts may have
and not speak of the been to the development of the country
ly, I think—and I be- the popular errors which prevail upon the lieve that within five years the traveller subject-errors begotten of ignorance and by the Trans-Siberian across Asia will pass of prejudice—which have laid such strong from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific hold upon the public mind as to make without seeing a convict station or meet- it most difficult to extirpate them altoing with a convoy of exiles. Whatever gether. its uses may have been, or its abuses, “But is it not a horrible and an inpublic opinion, both in Russia and in human institution? Think of those men Siberia, demands that the system be abol- and women, cut off, year in and year out, ished in the near future, at least as far from the blessed sunlight, down in the as the mainland of Siberia is concerned, gold-mines of Kara!" more than a dozen and even now there awaits the pleasure people have said to me since my return of the Czar and his action a memorial from the land in which they claimed to from the Governor-General of Eastern be interested; and when I told them that Siberia, which, if approved, will change the mining for gold in Kara was all surthe system materially, and banish the face work, and in the sunlight whenever convict settlements from the mainland the sun chose to sbine, I have generally to the island of Sakhalin. The reasons noticed an expression of incredulity, and which Count Duhofskoi adduces in sup- not seldom one of disappointment, come port of his proposal are not strictly hu- over the face of my listener. It seems to manitarian; he views the question as an me that a plain statement of the truth in administrator, and condemns the system regard to the transportation of those who as a policy. The history of the movement have been adjudged as owing a debt to for the abolition of the penal colonies in society, across Asia or around the world Australia is repeating itself in this dis- to a new land, is terrible enough, and tant part of the world, where, however, must always remain so as long as this almost identical conditions prevail. The medieval system of punishment survives Siberians are wellnigh unanimously of in Russia or in any other country, withthe opinion that, however advantageous out seeking to invest it with the horrors
Copyright, 1899, by Harper and Brothers. All rights reserved.
which we owe originally to the imagina are to-day in the larger cities of Siberia tive genius of Dostoievsky and Gogol; very many of the most prominent citibut there are others who have thought zens, leading men in the professions of differently — others who have borrowed law and medicine, and even in the civil the fine feathers of fiction to cover the administration, who would be indeed surbaldness of their narrative.
prised to read in the police records the “But the quicksilver - mines? Those reasons why they were banished, as an horrible underground shafts, where, per- act of self-defence, from that society into meated by the poisonous exhalations, the which they were born. In the new land bones of the convicts rot and the flesh these men liave, in a very great mawastes away in atrophy! What about jority of cases, begun new lives, and have this?" Well, to this there is a simple an- proved themselves good citizens and most swer; and yet, possibly because of its very desirable acquisitions to the civilization simplicity, I have found it not seldom an of the rough frontier life. Indeed, as unsatisfactory one. There are simply the happy results were illustrated time no quicksilver-mines in Siberia, and the and again by the lives of men with scenes with which in this connection we whom I came in personal contact, I could have been made familiar by both pen not but think that a system which proand pencil to a nauseating degree, are duced such encouraging and altogether simply products of the imagination. satisfactory results was more worthy of Those who for years have suffered sym- unstinted praise than of wholesale conpathetically with the exiles in Siberia demnation. may, I think, be reassured. Whatever There are of course several classes or the system may have been in the past, it categories among the convicts banished is certainly not to-day the terrible, un- across the Urals; in the first and most speakable thing it is generally believed numerous class are the idle and dissolute to be, and particularly in America. To ne'er-do-wells of their communities, who,
men, of course, exile to Siberia having become a nuisance and an expense means a banishment from home, with to the Mir, or, as we would say, a charge to all its ties and associations, and from the parish, are sent to Siberia, not as conall that has hitherto made bearable the victs, but as colonists, upon whom the posharp edge of existence. These men, I lice is expected to keep an eye. This class am sure, form an infinitely small but is over forty per cent of the whole numnever sufficiently to be pitied minority ber of exiles. Then in point of numbers of the exiles. A very much larger class come the purely criminal prisoners, who is composed of peasants who, through must be divided into two divisions—first, want of sobriety or steady work, have those who have forfeited all civil rights, failed in their efforts to lay by sufficient and secondly, those who, though condemnmoney to transport them to the land of ed and undergoing long sentence, are algold, as they call Siberia, and who, in lowed to retain the hope of paying their their disappointment, commit some slight debt to society and of regaining their lost offence, and yet one of sufficient gravity position in the world at some future time. to secure a passage to their El Dorado at The convict of the first category is indeed the expense of the government. It is a dead to the world: his property goes to broad statement, and one that will prove his heirs; his wife can remarry without a surprise to many, but I am well within going through the formality even of a the truth, I am sure, when I say that for divorce. The passage across the Urals at least fifty per cent. of the convicts severs all ties.
He has no name, conseexile simply means that after several quently his signature is legally worthless. months of not over-luxurious travel they The second class, those who are not deare given a fair opportunity, under new prived of their civil rights by sentence of and encouraging circumstances, to begin court, however heavy the sentence may life anew. Should the convict, the “ un- be that is imposed upon them, have really fortunate one," as he is charitably called, nothing to complain of except the lot of prove obedient to the not oppressive penal a colonist in a new land. If they behave regulations, he is almost immediately pa- well, they too are almost immediately paroled, and very little thought is ever paid roled; they become free colonists in every to the incident of his life in old Russia respect save one: they cannot return to for which he was sent to Siberia. There Russia until the expiration of the sentence to which they were originally condemned. as is generally represented, they neither In this way many of them are probably work in mines nor perform manual labor saved from renewing the degrading asso- anywhere else; that is to say, they are not ciations into which they had fallen. Such compelled to work ; but in the case where a convict-colonist is given a piece of land, the prisoners of this category are without an outfit, and some money. The veil of the means to purchase the luxuries which charity is drawn over his past, for the they are permitted to enjoy, the prison great majority of his neighbors are men authorities endeavor to procure for them with unfortunate antecedents similar to remunerative work of one kind or another; his own. They shift for themselves, and so that they may with their savings eke out generally make good citizens. Wives are the rude fare of the prison table. When permitted to accompany their husbands I went to Siberia I believed, and I think when exiled to Siberia, and are treated the belief is still quite common in Amerwith great kindness. They avail them- ica, that the political prisoners, of whom a selves of this permission in very many large percentage are men of gentle birth, instances. They have only to submit to were compelled to walk a greater part of the prison regulations. Husbands are also the way, if not the whole distance, from the allowed to accompany their wives when Urals to their prison in Siberia. Owing the latter are exiled to Siberia, but I never to the fact that the greater number of the saw a husband doing so; I never met a convicts, whether of the criminal or poprison official who had seen an instance of litical class, are now transported by sea, this faithful attachment, though several this question is of less importance than told me they had heard of it being done. formerly, but I feel it my duty to say that
But the most conclusive evidence as to every "political ” to whom I spoke upon what the life of the average convict really this subject stated frankly that he had is is furnished upon the best of evidence never taken a step of the journey on foot, by the convicts themselves, who certainly except now and again for exercise, and ought to know when and where they are that telegas and tarantasses are always well off. Not more than one-fourth of provided in sufficient numbers. the exiles, when their time has expired, elect to return to Russia, whither they A very sudden change had come over are attracted by that love and attach- my social position in Siberia, and it was ment to home so strong in every human all the more painful because it was selfbreast, so particularly strong in the Slav. inflicted. In twenty-four hours I had deThe fact is that they have found life in scended in the social scale from being the Siberia pleasanter, the road to ease, a com- guest of Admiral A– on board the flagpetency, and even to wealth less rugged, ship in Vladivostok Harbor to the condiless crowded with competitors; so they be- tion of an outcast, with no friends, no letcome colonists, and of their own free will ters, and trying to get something to eat and choice remain in Siberia, throwing in the town of Nikolsky, one hundred their fortunes in with the destiny of the miles in the interior. It happened in new land; and I, knowing something of this wise: I had decided that in Vladithe conditions of life which obtain in vostok I had obtained all the information Russia, think they do well.
that was available or desirable to receive During my stay in Siberia I personally from official sources, and had decided to saw no political prisoners while they were make the further investigations which in confinement. I met many and saw were to prove or disprove the official asmuch of those political prisoners who sertions without the aid of letters from were at liberty, having undergone the the authorities, which had been promised period of probation to the satisfaction of me so kindly. It was in the service, then, the penal authorities. They were follow- of my readers that I suffered so much ing their various professions in perfect lib- discomfort in the interior of Siberia, and erty, and were apparently exempt from it is only fair that they should experience even the loosest kind of surveillance. a few sympathetic twinges from the reThe short period of close confinement cital of what I went through. I left all before the ticket of leave is granted to my letters and credentials with my heavy the “politicals” is generally spent in the luggage and trunks at the Hôtel de Mosprison at Nertschinsk. So far from the kowa, and started out upon my voyage political prisoners being worked to death, of discovery into a new world with little
luggage and a light heart. I was alto- ner, but I counted without allowance for gether much lighter in every way when our surly host. When he saw me comI returned. I was at a loss to know what' ing, and read upon my face doubtless an yarn I should tell as to the purpose of my expression of ravenous hunger, he turned trip, because it seemed to me that in such on a music - box, which this as well as a suspicious country as Siberia is sup- every other rest-house in Siberia possessposed to be it would be necessary to have es, and as its wheezing tones and false some'well-connected story to explain the notes filled the air with discord, he looked purpose of my unusual trip; but it was defiantly towards us, as much as to say quite unnecessary. Never have I'met peo- that if we wanted any further entertainple, official or unofficial, with as little of ment than this we couldn't have it. My that natural curiosity in regard to the colleague was very patient. He told me pursuits of their fellow-travellers as these he had learned this lesson from his dumb Siberians exhibited; nobody seemed to patients, who suffer and are still. He care what I was doing in Siberia, or why said he was grateful for the box-stall, and I was travelling towards the Amur, and assured me that when I had been in Siso my invention was never subjected to beria a few years I would not think so the strain of narration.
much about my dinner; but I insisted, Upon the train I made the acquaint- pleading my recent arrival as an ance of a very genial cattle-doctor, who cuse, and finally the innkeeper consenthad learned what he knew about phys- ed to serve me in the course of a few icking horses and dogs— for this latter hours, when he had more time, with a branch was really his specialty-during a beefsteak the like of which I had never stay of three months at a German uni- seen before; and this is probably true, versity He was a Siberian by birth, though, as I never succeeded in getting a and displayed in this character all the plain view of this steak, I cannot make the hopefulness of the children of a statement positively. About ten o'clock country who are as yet untrammelled by the steak, or rather huge soup-tureen filled routine or convention.
“In a year or
to the brim with a mess of axle-grease, was two, Herr Kollege," he said, “ when I am a produced. Our host then withdrew in little older”(he must have been forty)“and sullen silence to the kitchen, where we a little more steady, I am going to Irkutsk heard him complaining of the airs which to read law; for an ambitious man, one travellers assume, especially “ little peowho expects to rise, I think this is better ple," and their fastidiousness in regard to than doctoring dogs and cattle."
food, when they should be grateful for As we came into the inn at Nikolskoye, what they get; and I for one am sure I the town some seventy miles from the would have been, if I had ever found that sea on the Trans-Siberian where we were steak. For twenty minutes we dived and to rest, or rather spend the night, and dug in the floating island of grease with gazed about upon all its squalor and pov- our forks, but never found the steak. We erty-stricken appointments, it was hard concluded it was best to say nothing, and indeed to believe that only twenty-four quietly retired to our stalls. The travelhours before I had dined with admirals lers along the Trans-Siberian are hereby and post-captains all glittering in gold warned against the keeper of the inn in braid upon the brilliantly lighted flag- Nikolskoye, for I have always thought ship, while an excellent orchestra dis- that his steak was a myth, and that he coursed music, and dishes were served imposed upon my faith in the existence that would have done credit to the chef of things unseen. of the English Club in St. Petersburg, or, I had not been in Khabarovka more indeed, to the signature of any cook, how- than an hour before all doubt vanished ever famous. The innkeeper seemed at as to the nature of the errand that had first disinclined to entertain us at any brought me to the Amur. It was simprice; but after a long parley, during ply a wild goose chase. I knew no one which the amiable dog-doctor went down in the town, and no one showed any in.on his knees in a way that would have clination to know me. By the exhibimelted any but a heart of stone, we were tion of the most engaging and friendly shown to a box stall in the stable. Hav- manner I could command I had only ing washed and shaken down here, we re- secured for myself a one-fifth share of a turned to the hotel, as I thought, for din- very small room in Mr. Tai Phoon-Tai's