George Kennan on the Siberian Exile System
(from Robinson and Beard)

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George Kennan 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. 354-57, citing Kennan, Siberia and the Exile System (1891), vol. 1, p. 245+.

George Kennan (1845-1924) traveled widely in Russia. In 1891 he published his critical comments about the Russian government and its arbitrary use of Siberian exile to punish criminals and political dissenters.

The two things that are most exasperating to a liberal and warm-hearted young Russian are, first, official lawlessness, and second, the suffering brought by such lawlessness upon near relatives and dear friends. The suffering of a loved wife or the loss of an affectionate child is hard enough to bear when it comes in the ordinary course of nature and seems to be inevitable; but when it comes as the direct result of unnecessary causes, such as injustice, tyranny, and official caprice, it has more than the bitterness of death, and it arouses fiercer passions than those that carry men into the storm of battle.

In the year 1879 there was living in the town of Ivangorod a skillful young surgeon named Dr. Bieli. Although he was a man of liberal views, he was not an agitator nor a revolutionist, and had taken no active part in political affairs. Sometime in the late winter or early spring of 1879 there came to him, with letters of introduction, two young women who had been studying in one of the medical schools for women in St. Petersburg, and had been expelled and ordered to return to their homes in central Russia on account of their alleged political "untrustworthiness." They were very anxious to complete their education and to fit themselves for useful work among the peasants; and they begged Dr. Bieli to aid them in their studies.

As they were both in an "illegal" position, that is, were living in a place where, without permission from the authorities, they had no right to be, it was Dr. Bieli's duty as a loyal subject to hand them over to the police, regardless of the fact that they had come to him with letters of introduction and a petition for help. He happened, however, to be a man of courage, independence, and generous instincts; and, instead of betraying 'them, he listened with sympathy to their story, promised them his aid, introduced them to his wife, and began to give them lessons.

On the 10th of May, 1879, both they and the young surgeon were arrested and exiled by administrative process to Siberia. Dr. Bieli eventually was sent to the Arctic village of Verhoyansk, latitude 67.30°, in the province of Yakutsk. At the time of Dr. Bieli's banishment, his wife, a beautiful young woman twenty-four or twenty-five years of age, was expecting confinement, and was therefore unable to go to Siberia with him. As soon as possible, however, after the birth of her child, and before she had fully recovered her strength, she left her nursing baby with relatives and started on a journey of more than six thousand miles to join her husband in a village situated north of the Arctic Circle and near the Asiatic pole of cold. She had not the necessary means to make such a journey by rail, steamer, and post, and was therefore forced to ask permission of the Minister of the Interior to travel with a party of exiles.

As far as the city of Tomsk in western Siberia both political and common-criminal exiles are transported in convict trains or barges. Beyond that point the common criminals walk, and the politicals are carried in telegas, at the rate of about sixty miles a week. At this rate of progress Mrs. Bieli would have reached her husband's place of exile only after sixteen months of incessant hardship, privation, and suffering. But she did not reach it.

For many weeks her hope, courage, and love sustained her, and enabled her to endure without complaint the jolting, the suffocating dust, the scorching heat, and the cold autumnal rains on the road, the bad food, the plank sleeping benches, the vermin, and the pestilential air of the stations where they stopped,‑ but human endurance has its limits. Three or four months of this unrelieved misery, with constant anxiety about her husband and the baby that, for her husband's sake, she had abandoned in Russia, broke down her health and her spirit. She sank into deep despondency and eventually, began to show signs of mental aberration. After passing Krasnoyarsk her condition became such that any sudden shock was likely completely to overthrow her reason,‑and the shock soon came.

There are two villages in eastern Siberia whose names are almost alike, Verholensk and Verhoyansk. The former is situated only 180 miles from Irkutsk, while the latter is nearly 2700 miles. As the party with which she was traveling approached the capital of eastern Siberia, her hope, strength, and courage seemed to revive. Her husband, she thought, was only a few hundred miles away, and in a few more weeks she would be in his arms. She talked of him constantly, counted the verst posts which measured her slow progress towards him, and literally lived upon the expectation of speedy reunion with him.

A few stations west of Irkutsk she accidentally became aware, for the first time, that her husband was not in Verholensk, but in Verhoyansk; that she was still separated from him by nearly three thousand miles of mountain, steppe, and forest; and that in order to reach his place of banishment that year she would have to travel many weeks on dog or reindeer sledges, in terrible cold, through the arctic solitudes of north eastern Asia. The sudden shock of this discovery was almost immediately fatal. She became violently insane, and died insane a few months later in the Irkutsk prison hospital, without ever seeing again her husband for whose sake she had endured such mental and physical agonies.