Lev Deutsch on the Siberian Exile System

Source:  Readings in Modern European History, edited by James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1909), vol. 2, pp. 357-59, citing Leo Deutsch, Sixteen Years in Siberia (London, 1903), pp. 95-97+.

Lev Deutsch (1855-1941) was an active populist in Russia in the 1870s and husband of Vera Zasulich (1851-1919).  In this short passage, he writes about his introduction to the Siberian exile system.

A fortnight after my arrest I was informed that a party of convicts would start for Moscow that evening. I was to accompany them, and accordingly must assume the convict garb. After eighteen years I think of that day with a shudder.

First of all, I was taken into a room where was stored everything necessary to the equipment of a convict under sentence. On the floor lay piles of chains ; and clothes, boots, etc., were heaped on shelves. From among them some were selected that were supposed to fit me; and I was then conducted to a second room. Here the right side of my head was shaved, and the hair on the left side cut short. I had seen people in the prison who had been treated in this fashion, and the sight had always made a painful impression on me, as indeed it does on every one. But when I saw my own face in the glass a cold shudder ran down my spine, and I experienced a sensation of personal degradation to something less than human. I thought of the days‑in Russia not so long ago‑when criminals were branded with hot irons. A convict was waiting ready to fasten on my fetters. I was placed on a stool, and had to put my foot on an anvil. The blacksmith fitted an iron ring round each ankle, and welded it together. Every stroke of the hammer made my heart sink, as I realized that a new existence was beginning for me.

The mental depression into which I now fell was soon accompanied by physical discomfort. The fetters at first caused me intolerable pain in walking, and even disturbed my sleep. It also requires considerable practice before one can easily manage to dress and undress. The heavy chains, about thirteen pounds in weight, are not only an encumbrance, but are very painful, as they chafe the skin round the ankles; and the leather lining is but little protection to those unaccustomed to these adornments. Another great torment is the continual clinking of the chains. It is indescribably irritating to the nervous, and reminds the prisoner at every turn that he is "deprived of all rights." I hardly knew myself. as I looked in the glass and beheld a fully attired convict . . . .

My own clothes I gave away to the warders, and any possessions of value ‑ watch, ring, cigarette case ‑ I sent by post to relations. I kept only my books. I had been given a bag in which to keep a change of linen; and into it I also put a few volumes of Shakespeare, Goethe, Heine, Moliere and Rousseau, thus completing my preparations for traveling . . . .

We were taken straight to the railway carriage engaged for us by the organizers of the convoy. I asked my companions the reason of their banishment, and learned from them that as in many other instances described to me by people who had similarly been exiled to Siberia ‑ they had simply been accused by the police of being " untrustworthy." This word has become classical in Russian police affairs, and has a conveniently vague signification. Literally it means " of whom nothing good can be expected." A young man or girl associates, with So‑and‑so, reads such and such looks; this is enough to awaken suspicion that the said young man or girl is "untrustworthy." The police or the gendarmerie pay a domiciliary visit, find a suspicious letter or a prohibited book, and then the course of events is certain,‑arrest, imprisonment, Siberia. It may be scarcely credible that people languish for years in prison without any pretense of legal procedure against them, simply by decree of an officer of the gendarmerie ; and that at the good pleasure of these officers--most of them fabulously ignorant men--people are banished to the wilds of Siberia. Even those familiar with Russian affairs are often shocked and staggered by some fresh case of this kind.

As we were nearing a large station the officer informed us that we should be joined here by some more political exiles; and when the train came to a standstill, two quite young girls--at the most eighteen to twenty years of age--and two youths were brought into our carriage. We three who came from Kiev were by no means aged, but we might almost have been called old folks by these children. We received the newcomers cordially, and of course begged for their story, which was as follows:

In the district of Poltava the chief town is a small place called Romny, and in this little town there is a girls' school. Two or three of the scholars hit upon the idea of lending one another books, and making notes on them, not books that were in any way forbidden, but that were accessible to all. Soon a few young men joined them; and thus a small reading society was formed, such as might help to pass away the long winter evenings in the dull little provincial town. As these young people had no idea that they were committing any offense, they naturally never dreamed of keeping their proceedings secret. But the eye of the law is sleepless! The officer commanding the gendarmerie in that place saw and triumphed.

For years he had been vegetating in this obscure corner of the empire, and had never unearthed the least little conspiracy nor brought to light a secret society; now was his chance. He could at last make manifest his burning zeal, his devotion to his country and his Tsar; and recognition by his superiors, perhaps an order or promotion, shone before him. One night the gendarmerie paid domiciliary visits to the dwellings of the young ladies of the school. Certainly nothing suspicious was found, but the frightened girls "confessed" that they had "held meetings," and that they read books in a "society." This was enough for the brave sergeant ; here were grounds for the State to take action against the " secret society of Romny." The girls and their friends were arrested and imprisoned; a report was sent to St. Petersburg about the discovery of a secret society, in which such and such persons had taken part, and discussed " social questions " together ; the officer was of the opinion that these evil doers should be sent to Siberia, and the thing was done.



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