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Siberian Exile in Tsarist Russia

Alan Wood writes that the wastelands of Siberia have provided Russia with 'a vast roofless prison' for criminals and political prisoners banished into exile. 

Russia’s huge Asiatic hinterland of Siberia has always figured in the Western popular imagination as a limitless frozen wilderness, a place of punishment and exile for the unfortunate victims of Tsarist and Soviet authorities. Dostoevsky languished there for several years and afterwards described it as The House of the Dead , while an official government report of 1900 referred to, but dismissed, the concept of Siberia as ‘a vast roofless prison’. More recently Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago has reinforced this sombre and inhospitable image, which, while being an essential, though sinister, aspect of Siberia’s history, is by no means the whole story.

Ever since its early discovery and penetration in the sixteenth century, the region has attracted merchants, miners, trappers, hunters, peasants and explorers in their millions who have struggled to tap her vast natural resources. In the seventeenth century the lure was in the highly-prized sable and other furs; in the nineteenth century it was land; today it is oil, natural gas and a treasury of valuable mineral deposits buried beneath the dense forests and deep permafrost of northern Asia. Though Siberia’s fabulous resources have not been fully appreciated by all of Russia’s rulers, nevertheless from the time of the Muscovite Tsars to the present day Siberia has played, and will continue to play, an increasingly vital role in the nation’s economy. However, despite these and other positive aspects of the region’s environment, Siberia is still, in many people’s minds, synonymous with suffering and banishment, though in fact very little has been written outside Russia about the pre-revolutionary exile system since the American journalist George Kennan’s first-hand experiences of it were published in 1891.

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