The Great October Revolution: Prison And Punishment

PKT3207 - 225418 PETROGRAD: Soldiers of the Keksgolm Regiment in 1917.

Russia’s tsar regent Boris Godunov exiled, as punishment, a 300-kilogram copper bell to the Siberian town of Tobolsk, in the east, from Uglich in 1591. The exiled bell had to cover a distance of 2,200 kilometers. The bell’s crime: to the tsar regent, the bell appeared as a symbol of political unity of the rebel residents of Uglich. The bell, before its journey to exile, was punished with 12 lashes, and its “tongue” was also tore down. The insurgent Uglich people were ordered to pull the bell across the Ural Mountains to Tobolsk. The military governor of Tobolsk registered the bell as “the first inanimate exile”. The Uglich Bell, by the mid-nineteenth century, emerged as the sovereign’s symbol of supreme authority and vindictive power. Lede of Daniel Beer’s The House of the Dead, Siberian Exile under the Tsars (Allen Lane, London, 2016) describes the incident cited here.

Punishment was awarded not only to symbols of rebellion in the empire. “Nor were noblewomen exempt from brutal treatment when they dabbled in political intrigue: Empress Elizabeth ordered Countess Natalia Lopukhina to have her tongue cut out and then exiled to Siberia when she indulged in subversive gossip.” (The Memoirs of Catherine the Great, trans. Moura Budberg, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1955 & E Anisimov, Elizaveta Petrovna, Molodaia gvardia, Moscow, 1999, cited in Dominic Lieven, ed., The Cambridge History of Russia, vol. II: Imperial Russia, 1689-1917, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2006)

Everyone insecure

Endless trail of repression by the tsarist empire had far-reaching and deep implication. “[I]ncessant repression […] had a deep impact on Russian society. It made everyone feel insecure about their future, because anyone could be banished to Siberia at any moment, regardless of their privileges.” The 1760-Elizabeth episode is an illustration of this arbitrariness. It was told that the indolent and extravagant Elizabeth was envious of “Madame Lapoukin, a woman of rare beauty”. So, the Czarina condemned the “Madame” to the knout and transportation to Siberia although the nobility had the privilege of never suffering the punishment. (Germain de Lagny, The Knout and the Russians; or the Muscovite Empire, the Czar, and His People, London, 1854, cited in Erika Kriukelytė, The Creation of Modern Prisons in the Russian Empire, research report, IISH-Research Paper 48, 2012, International Institute of Social History)

And, the knout, one of the corporal punishments used by the tsars to terrorize and penalize people, consisted of a thong of thick leather, cut in a triangular form, from four to five yards long, and an inch wide, was more painful and dangerous than whipping or beating with rods.

Never inside a courtroom

And, Siberia, the dreaded penal colony of the empire, dwarfed European Russia with its 15,500,000 square kilometer size, which is one and half time larger than the continent of Europe. “Over the nineteenth century, the scale and intensity of Siberian exile increased so significantly that it easily surpassed the exile systems of the British and French empires. The British transported around 160,000 convicts to Australia in the eight decades between 1787 and 1868; the French state meanwhile had a penal population of about 5,500 in its overseas colonies between 1860 and 1900. By contrast, between 1801 and 1917, more than 1 million tsarist subjects were banished to Siberia. [….] Successive tsars saw religion as an ideological bulwark of political legitimacy. Catherine the Great exiled thousands of Old Believers […] and the members of utopian sects such as Flagellants and the Milk Drinkers. These deportations set a pattern for the persecution and exile of religious dissenters that would continue until the beginning of the twentieth century. [….] The tsarist regime went on to use both judicial and extra-judicial mechanisms to banish subjects whose behavior, religious and political beliefs were considered harmful to the public good. [….] People were arrested quietly and, with no right of appeal, were removed from Russian society. [….] In 1736, the private owners of factories, mines and smelteries and the managers of state-owned factories received the right to exile workers ‘who show themselves to be intemperate’.” Following a 1760-decree “landowners could draw […] a lists […] [of persons] for removal to Siberia […] labelled ‘indecent’, ‘obscene’, or ‘guilty of immoral conduct’. [….] The legislation sought to rid European Russia of troublesome peasants while providing the expanding industrial sites of Eastern Siberia with a pool of cheap labour. [….] For serf owners, factory owners, village assemblies and merchant guilds, administrative exile […] provided a useful tool for both policing and removing troublemakers and unproductive. The scope of abuse was almost limitless. Everyone from thieves, murderers and rapists to the victims of slander, superstition and noxious cauldron of village politics could find themselves fettered in convoys marching eastward. [….] From 1830s onwards, more than half of the exiles who set off for Siberia had never seen the inside of a courtroom or heard the rulings of a judge. [….] The exclusion of the overwhelming majority of the empire’s population of peasants and merchants from any meaningful legal protections supplied a steady stream of recruits for Siberia’s exile settlements and penal colonies.” (Daniel Beer, op. cit.)

Goodbye forever

The tsar empowered self with the Law Code of 1649 to condemn rebels, and others considered “dangerous” to the rule to “eternal exile” in Siberia. Many of them had to languish and die in mines. By the 1840s, the number of political exiles to Siberia increased to the hundreds, and to the thousands by the 1860s. And, ultimately, the number stood hundreds of thousands, and, later, more than a million.

George Kennan, the American explorer, described the Siberia-solitude as he traversed the punishment-colony in the later part of the nineteenth century:

“Here hundreds of thousands of exiled human beings – men, women, and children; princes, nobles, and peasants – have bidden goodbye forever to friends, country and home. Here […] they have, for the last time, looked backward with love and grief at their land, and then, with tear-blurred eyes and heavy hearts, they have marched away into Siberia to meet the unknown hardships and privations of a new life.

“No other boundary post [the boundary post of Siberia] in the world has witnessed so much human suffering, or been passed by such a multitude of heart-broken people. More than 170,000 exiles have traveled this road since 1878, and more than half a million since the beginning of the present century. [….] Some gave way to unrestrained grief; some comforted the weeping; some knelt and pressed their faces to the loved soil of their native country, and collected a little earth to take with them into exile […]” (Siberia and the Exile System, vol. I, ch. II: “Across the Siberian frontier”, The Century Co., New York, 1891)

Banishment to remote penal camps/settlements, appalling prisons, deadly mines and villages in the extreme Siberian weather was a regular part of dissenting life and punishment; and Siberia was part of the ruling system’s vast network of prison and punishment. Horrific punishments were “awarded” to the multitude chained in the prison system and exiled to Siberia.

In the last paragraph of the 2nd volume of his book George Kennan designated the Siberian exile system as “one of the darkest blots upon the civilization of the nineteenth century.”

Nine square yards

The brutal and dehumanizing conditions the tsarocracy imposed there in Siberia led Dostoevsky to describe his four years in a Siberian prison camp as like being in “a world all of its own […] a house of the living dead”.  The punished persons in the prison in south-western Siberia were made to work in a brick kiln, had to sleep in decrepit wooden barracks: 120 “criminals” in rooms as “big” as only nine square yards. Dostoevsky writes: We were packed in like herrings in a barrel. All the floors were rotting through and we slept on bare planks and shivered all night. There were fleas, lice and cockroaches, and we were not allowed to leave the barracks to relieve ourselves from dusk till dawn because they were locked.

The banished included generations of revolutionaries; a number of them were fighting for a liberal constitution while others fought for independence or socialism. “By the end of the nineteenth century, the tsarist government was deporting thousands of dedicated revolutionaries to prisons, mines and far-flung settlements in Siberia.” (Daniel Beer, op. cit.)

“Exile soon in fact became established as the tsarist government’s most common form of punishment for a wide variety of criminal offences and acts of political, civil and religious disobedience.” (Alan Wood, “Russia’s ‘Wild East’: Exile, Vagrancy and Crime in Nineteenth-century Siberia,” in Alan Wood, ed., The History of Siberia: From Russian Conquest to Revolution, London, 1991, cited in Erika Kriukelytė, op. cit.)

Sack with social sins

And, tsar Nicholas I’s minister for foreign affairs identified Siberia in the following way: “remote Siberia had been for us a deep sack into which we tossed our social sins in the form of exiles and penal labourers and so on.” (Cited in Daniel Beer, op. cit.)

Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Kalinin, Sverdlov, Kamenev, Dzerzhinsky, Frunze, Molotov, Voroshilov, Pyatakov, Rykov and Tomskiy were among the thousands of political prisoners in the system. The prisoners ranged from common criminals and communists to drunkards, Duma deputies, judges and soldiers. People’s Will-terrorists, Maximalists, Socialist Revolutionaries, Armenians, Azeris, Fins, Jews, Latvians, Poles were there among the prison population. All of them were part of “social sins” of the tsarist system (!?).

Anyone has the right, if the person likes, to ignore the fact of exile-days of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and their “gang” – the disruptors in the tsardom. The mainstream “human” rights voices also have the right to reignite their “conscience” to ignore the fact as the exiled revolutionaries stand against the interests of the propertied classes.

But, can they cut Chernyshevsky? Can they dismiss Dostoyevsky? Can the “great scruples” snub Shchedrin? Wasn’t it Shchedrin, who wrote, “The sole object of my literary work was unfailingly to protest against the greed, hypocrisy, falsehood, theft, treachery, and stupidity of modern Russians”?

Chernyshevsky, the author of the What is to be Done, was confined to the Peter-and-Paul Fortress in 1862. That was tsar-time, the time the accusers of the Bolsheviks love to forget. After confining there for two years for investigation, the eminent scholar was subjected to “civil execution”, a humiliating procedure, in 1864, and was exiled to Siberia. One of the central figures in Russia’s democratic movement had to spend 19 years at hard labor in Siberia.

Shchedrin was sent to isolation cells at the Schlisselburg castle after he was recaptured. Before to that, the political prisoner was sent to the Kara gold mines. He escaped in April 1882. He was permanently chained to wheelbarrows after getting “caught” and before sending to the Schlisselburg castle.

Communists struggling for equity and equality had to “pay dearly” as they were building up their organization and political struggle in Russia. Trotsky refers to “[s]ome […] data on the condition in which the party of the proletariat in Russia pursues its activities”. (1905, ch. 28: “Instead of a preface to the second part”, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2016) The data “were published at the congress of the social-democratic party held in Stockholm”. Trotsky’s 1905 says:

“The 140 members of the congress had spent, in all, 138 years and 3 ½ months in jail.

“They had spent 148 years and 6 ½ months in exile.


“If we take into account the fact that the 140 members had spent a total of 942 years in the social-democratic movement, we shall see that the periods spent in prison and exile represented about one-third of the time spent actively in the party. [….] [P]eriod spent in prison or exile were […]: the congress members had spent more than 50,000 days and nights behind bars and still a longer period in remote barbaric regions of the country.”

Siberia found Prince Kropotkin, who was arrested first time in 1858, for having in possession a copy of Emerson’s Self-Reliance and refusing to say where he obtained it. “I am” said Kropotkin, “not a nihilist nor a revolutionist, and never have been. I was exiled simply because I dared to think, and to say what I thought, about the things that happened around me, and because I was the brother of a man whom the Russian Government hated.” (George Kennan, op. cit.)

Reckless driving

To the ruling system, as records show, activities including felling oak trees, “begging with false distress”, prize-fighting, “recklessly driving a cart without the use of reins” appeared “criminal offence”. No evidence was required. Consequently the scope for abuse of power was unlimited. Between 1801 and 1917, more than a million had to face this “fate”; and a fifth of them were women. Their “fate” sent them to Siberia.

Persons accused with crimes such as murder and rape were flogged in public places before their exile-journey to Siberia. Sometimes, the male felons had the cartilage that divides the nostrils ripped out with hot pincers as a deterrent to others.

The men had half their head shaven. Their faces were branded with iron stamps, and gunpowder was applied into the wound so that the mark on face turns permanent. The purpose of these acts: identify them if they attempt to escape, and prevent them from blending back into society.

Walk thousands of miles

Before completing the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1916, the exiled “herd” had to walk to Siberia; and the distance from St Petersburg to the remotest points of exile was 4,500 miles. The exile-convoys walked all year round. Rest was never for more than a day. Soldiers guarding the “criminals’” column forced them ever onward. For the weakest of the exiles, it was a three years-walk. Counting of their sentence began only after their arrival at the place of exile. Many were exiled for life.

How many prisoner-miles were walked by the Siberia-“travelers”? [One prisoner walks 4,500 miles. 100,000 prisoners? If the number is more?] Was it millions of prisoner-miles?

-200c & -300c

Wearing coarse grey smocks, both hands and feet manacled, at -200c, breath froze onto the exiled persons’ beards and formed chunks of ice; at -300c, the freezing air burned their lungs. Sheepskin coats the convicts were given could protect them little.  The too-poor punished persons could not replace their worn-out clothing and footwear in the towns they passed through; and consequently, they had to walk barefoot and in rags if they were not visited by death. Ulcers their manacles made increased their pain “only”. With a stingy daily allowance for food, they starved frequently. Typhus and TB spread in the stations they were housed at night. Their increasing death compelled peasants charged with disposing of the corpses to protest the arrangement.

The women in the “marc”, many of them innocent, were treated as prostitutes, auctioning them off to the highest bidder. The woman rejecting the winning “bidder” had to face terrible reprisals: frequent rapes and other assaults. The convoy guards led male captives in the “trade”.

In the silver mines, the prisoners had to work 12-hour shifts, and hammers weighing 20-pound to hack at the rock had to carry out by hand. Crumbling roof supports in the mines claimed many lives.

Some of the prisoners deliberately inflicted frostbite on their hands, even to the point of having fingers amputated. Others simulated the symptoms of syphilis by inserting horse hair into their genitals, which produced sores. This was used to persuade prison doctors to certify that they were unfit to work.

Sleep on left side

Floggings used as punishments sent prisoners on the verge of death. After healing of wounds, the lashing was resumed.

One Major Krivtsov, heading the prison Dostoevsky was incarcerated, was with a habit of bursting into the barracks at night and ordering that anyone found sleeping on his right side should be whipped. His rational, as he used to say, for the order: Christ always slept on his left side and everyone was required to follow his example.

Other common punishments in Siberia included chaining convicts to the wall of a cell or to a wheelbarrow for up to ten years at a time.

Another punishment was “running the gauntlet”: the punished person stripped to the waist had to pass between two lines of soldiers, and the soldiers delivered him blows with birch rods. Sometimes such blows totaled 6,000.


There was the prison-island Sakhalin, hundreds of miles to the east. Between 1868 and 1905, more than 30,000 political prisoners and other offenders served their terms in the island. The number of languages in use among the exiles was more than 25. Prisoners were kept in steel cages below deck during their 9-month voyage, beginning from Odessa, passing through Suez Canal, touching Sri Lanka (then, Ceylon) Singapore and Nagasaki, to the prison-island. The overland journey was a 2-years-distance. Prisoners, 8-10, were shackled together while they marched. In Sakhalin, considered the most-dreaded prison, it was reported, starving convicts had to resort to cannibalism since their rations were cut off as a punishment for failing to meet assigned workloads.

Chekhov, among others, described the prison-island-life in his Sakhalin Island (tr. Brian Reeve, Alma Classics, London, 2013). He found flogging of prisoners, jail officials embezzling food of prisoners, women prisoners forced to prison, girls of 12-year had to work as sex-workers to survive.

In Sakhalin, the jail prisoners had to wear leg irons. Chekhov, on his first-morning in the prison island, awoke to “the rhythmical clanking of prisoners in iron passing down the street.” He “visited every settlement and went into every hut” as he was conducting census there. He wrote: “I got up at five each morning, and retired late at night, and all day I was driven by the thought that I was not doing enough.”

Chekhov penned: “Sakhalin is a place of the most unbearable suffering that can befall a man, free or shackled. It’s clear that we have let millions of people rot in prisons. Our country has forced people to walk in fetters in the cold for thousands of miles, infected them with syphilis, and dumped them all into the hands of red-nosed prison wardens.” He described: “Sakhalin […] is hell.”

Monopoly of violence           

The empire, actually policedom, organized a vast punishment-arrangement with surveillance apparatus, police, courts including rural courts, prison. More than a dozen types of prisons including hard-labor prisons, special prisons, debtors’ prison were there. There was the infamous Peter-and-Paul Fortress. More than a dozen officials censored prisoners’ correspondence. These were an arrangement for violence against an entire people in the empire, which – the arrangement – is also present today with different forms and appearances in other capitalist, etc. types of states organized to secure and operate exploitative relationship between humans and with nature. The arrangement is part of state machine, and the machine has a monopoly of violence with a façade of legitimacy and full force of law and legality it bestows itself with logic, argument and reason it constructs. In the entire line of work the class character is kept hidden, which is benevolently overlooked by a group of theoreticians – a malevolent attitude to the exploited.

The entire arrangement of punishment was, as is also now, part of the ruling machine; and the machine was owned by the propertied classes. This class character is ignored by a group of theoreticians while they evaluate the Great October Revolution, which was a class act, having complete class biasness. The exploited classes have no reason to ignore the class question as ignoring the question will perform a single task: demolish interest of the exploited classes. However, the middle class, and the theoreticians having a working class posture but dwelling in an imaginary world having no class conflict indulge in class-neutral imagination, and prescribe class-neutral measures although imaginations – at individual and social levels – are not free from class point of view. Their indulgence with class-neutralism withers away the moment their class interest faces danger. The reality of class struggle never considers a single word from fancy-prescription made by these noble neutrals. Rather, the propertied classes take advantage of the false prescription only to assault the working classes. In defense of their fanciful ideas, these theoreticians can never cite a single example from a world having antagonistic class interests. The Great October Revolution smashed these false and imaginary ideas, traces of which still regularly get ignited, and stood on its class position unwaveringly.

The article is the 3nd section of the 5th part, in abridged form, of a series composed on the occasion of the Great October Revolution Centenary. The 1st – 4th and 6th parts and the 1st and 2nd sections of the 5th part of the series were originally carried by, and the series is now being carried by the web site of Frontier, an independent, radical weekly from Kolkata. Many references have been omitted in this article.

Farooque Chowdhury, a Dhaka-based freelancer, has not authored/edited any book in English other than Micro Credit, Myth Manufactured (ed.), The Age of Crisis and What Next, The Great Financial Crisis (ed.), and he does neither operate any blog/web site nor any facebook and/or similar account.

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