For the tsarist regime, Siberia was a ‘vast prison without a roof’, where thousands of revolutionaries and political opponents were exiled. It became, as Daniel Beer explains, a laboratory of the Russian Revolution.
On a May morning in 1864, a bespectacled man, dressed in the sort of dark frock-coat beloved of Russian intellectuals, prepared for his civil execution on St Petersburg’s Mytnaya Square. Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the editor of the radical journal, the Contemporary, had been found guilty of ‘plotting to overthrow the existing order’. As he knelt before a crowd of between 1,000 and 2,000 spectators, a sword was ceremoniously broken over his head and his sentence was read out. He was to be ‘stripped of all rights of estate and sent to 14 years of penal labour in the mines followed by settlement in Siberia forever’. In many respects, the authorities judged quite accurately the dangers this mild-mannered journalist posed through his steady stream of publications. His ideas were an intellectual broadside against the ideological foundations of the tsarist order and an inspiration to successive generations of radicals, who would conduct an ultimately successful struggle against the state for the next half century. Chernyshevsky’s demands for reform chimed with the ‘repentant noblemen’ of the 1860s and 1870s, who felt a great moral responsibility to the impoverished and downtrodden peasantry. Guilt would prove a psychological inspiration for the coming revolution.