The Road to Siberia

Daniel Beer looks at how much Soviet labour camps owed to the theories of Russian liberals on crime, its causes and how to treat it.

After attending the premiere of Lev Tolstoi’s play The Power of Darkness in 1887, the poet Vladimir Giliarovskii penned a short verse which declared that liberal Russian society was ‘imperilled by attacks on two fronts – beneath there is the power of darkness and above there is the darkness of power.’ Posterity has largely endorsed Giliarovskii’s quip. The liberal reformers in the period between the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and the revolutions of 1917 are cast as trapped between an intransigent autocracy and the violent radicalism of the Russian masses.

Yet if Russian liberalism was condemned to extinction by its own unpopularity and the war and revolutions of 1914-17, its contribution to the revolutionary future of Russia proved more resilient – and disturbing – than historians have hitherto acknowledged. 1917 was not a radical break in Russian intellectual history. Late imperial Russia from the 1880s to the 1910s was a form of cultural laboratory in which liberals experimented with some decidedly ‘illiberal’ ideas and policies that ultimately came to shape the Stalinist regime’s violent transformative programme.

Pre-revolutionary Russian liberalism was not recognizable primarily in terms of membership of a particular political party nor in subscription to particular practical policies. Rather, it was an attitude. Its adherents strove for gradual and controlled reform of the social, political and economic order in accordance with the secular prescriptions of empiricism and rationality. The scientific study of society would, they believed, provide a panacea for social ills, identifying both the obstacles to progress and the means to overcome them.

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