This text was taken from In Russian and French Prisons, London: Ward and Downey; 1887.

In Russian and French Prisons

by P. Kropotkin



     There is in the Northern Pacific, close by the coasts of Russian Manchuria, a wide island--one of the largest in the world,--but so out of the way of seafarers, so wild and barren, and so difficult of access, that until the last century it was quite ignored and considered as a mere appendix to the continent. Few places in the Russian Empire are worse than this island; therefore, it is to Sakhalin that the Russian Government sends now its hard-labour common-law exiles.

     A treble aim has always been prosecuted by exile to Siberia: to get rid of criminals in Russia at the lowest expense to the Central Government; to provide the mines which were the private property of the Emperors with cheap labour; and to colonize Siberia. For many years it was supposed that this treble aim was achieved; as long as the Siberians could not make their voice heard otherwise than through the medium of governors nominated by Russia, the illusion could be maintained. But during the last twenty years it has become more and more difficult to stifle the voices both of the Siberians and of those who know the conditions of exile, and a whole literature has grown up of late which has destroyed all the above illusions. The St. Petersburg Government was compelled to order inquiries into the present condition and results of exile; and the inquiries fully confirmed the opinions expressed by private explorers.

     It appeared, first, that if the Imperial Cabinet really gets cheap labourers in the hard-labour convicts, who extract silver and gold from its mines, it gets them at too heavy a sacrifice of human life. The scandalous manslaughter which was going on at these mines revolted the public conscience. If hundreds of men could be slaughtered twenty years ago at Kara, in order to raise gold to the amount prescribed from St. Petersburg; if they could be over-worked and underfed so as to die by hundreds in the course of one summer, and nobody dared to utter a word about it, it became impossible to do the same when the facts were brought to public knowledge. After the opening of the navigation on the Amur, the Imperial gold mines at Kara and the Imperial silver-works on the Gasimur were no longer at the end of the world. As to the supposed cheapness of labour, it appeared that, while the Imperial Cabinet really had the convicts for a few pence a day, their transport from Russia, their terrible mortality, and the maintenance of a large administration, as also of soldiers and , Cossacks, and the incredible number of runaways--all this implied so heavy a charge on Russia and Siberia, that the country would certainly be able to present the Imperial family with twice the amount of gold and silver extracted by the convicts at a much lower cost.

     As to the benefits derived by Siberia from colonization by exiles, this fallacy could not be easily got rid of. There stood the figures showing that from 1754 to 1885 nearly 1,200,000 exiles had been transported to Siberia, and, whatever the number of runaways and premature deaths, still many hundred thousands had been added in this way to the population of the country. It was even argued that if Siberia has now a population of 4,100,000 souls, it has been chiefly indebted for this population to the exiles.

     The figures given, in the preceding chapter, and many others of the same kind, have weakened, however, this fallacy too. The official inquiries made in 1875 have shown that, though there is a notable percentage of descendants from exiles in the 4,000,000 inhabitants of Siberia, nevertheless the free immigration has contributed much more towards the colonization of the country, and introduced much better elements, than the batches of exiles demoralized by protracted detention in prisons, emasculated by hard labour, and settled without having the slightest intention of beginning a new life in Siberia. If statistics do not entirely support the extreme view of some Siberians, who are inclined to deny that almost any part has been played by exiles in the increase of the population of their country, it must be recognized, at least, that this increase is achieved by too great an amount of human suffering, because far less than one-half of those who cross the Urals in convict-parties become permanent settlers.  With regard to the other half, it is a mere burden upon the colony?1

     The poor results obtained in Siberia from colonization by exiles would certainly not have been accepted as an inducement to extend the practice if the lives of the convicts had been taken into any account.  Nevertheless, the desire of having a settled Russian population on Sakhalin--backed by the desire of the Governor-Generals of Siberia, anxious to get rid of the yearly increasing numbers of hard-labour convicts brought to the Nertchinsk mines--inclined the Government to make a new experiment in the hard-labour colonization of this wild island.  Such being the views held at St. Petersburg, the Governor-General of Siberia found no lack of complacent officials to represent the island as a most appropriate place for such experiments, and to describe its coal-mines as so many hidden treasures. The voices of honest explorers--scientific people, mining engineers, and officers who represented the island for what it was worth--were stifled; and since 1869 the stream of hard-labour convicts has been directed thither.

     For several years nothing was heard about this foolish attempt.  But finally the truth began to leak out, and we now know sufficient to have, at least, a broad idea of the experiment.

     Although its superficial area entitles it to occupy the first rank amidst the islands of the globe, Sakhalin ranks amidst the last in suitability for habitation. Novaya Zemlya and New Siberia certainly lay behind it; but not many islands besides.  It is, properly speaking, a link between the Japanese archipelago and the Kurilians, and Japan considered it as a part of its territory until the Russians established there, in 1853, their first military post in the southern part of the island. Three years later another post was settled at the Due coal-mines, opposite the mouth of the Amur.  Russia thus took possession of the island, and it was explored by a series of scientific expeditions in the course of 1860 to 1867. The military stations were reinforced; some attempts were made to raise coal from the Jurassic coal-layers at Due, and in 1875 Japan, which continued to consider South Sakhalin as its own territory, abandoned it to Russia in exchange for the Kurilian islands.

     In fact, there is nothing attractive on the island, and although it is 670 miles in length, and from 20 to 150 miles in width, its population hardly numbers 5000 inhabitants. Some 2000 Ghilaks carry on a wretched existence by hunting in the north; some 2500 Ainos--a bearded people akin to the Kurilians--are scattered in a few settlements in the south; and a few hundred of Oroks, i.e. Tunguses, lead a nomadic life in the mountains.  The Ainos are real serfs to a few Japanese merchants who supply them with corn, salt, and other necessaries, and in exchange make this wretched people work hard for them:  they take all the fish they can catch in the gulfs and at the mouths of a few rivers, and leave the Ainos just what is strictly necessary to maintain their poor existence.  Throughout its history, that is, under the Chinese dominion, and later on, under the Japanese, nobody except poverty-stricken hunters and fishers would settle on Sakhalin.

     In fact, only hunters and fishermen could find there the means of living. Not that the island is situated in very uncongenial latitudes. lts southern extremity reaches the 46th degree, and its northern point does not extend farther than the 54th degree. But the warm sea-current, which might bring it some of the warmth of the Chinese waters, does not reach it; while the ice-bound cold current issuing from the 'great cellar' of the Pacific--the sea of Okhotsk-- washes its eastern coast. In the midst of the summer Russian explorers found the east coast-bound with ice-fields and heaps of floating ice which were brought by northeast winds. And to the west, the narrow elongated island has that immense refrigerator--the cold and high mountain tracts of Siberia--separated from it only by a narrow and shallow channel.  The rays of the sun are concealed by heavy clouds and dense fogs. When M. Polyakoff landed at Due (in Middle Sakhalin), at the end of June, he found the neighboring hills covered with patches of snow, and the soil was frozen at a depth of twenty-one inches. The summer crops were hardly germinating, and vegetables could not be bedded out before June 20th. June was drawing to a close, and still the thermometer had never risen above 64° Fahr. Nor had there yet been a single fine day, while thick fogs enveloped coast and hills for eight days in the course of the month.

     Several chains of mountains, from 2000 to 5000 feet high, intersect the island. Their damp or stony slopes are covered from top to bottom with thick forests--poor forests, consisting of species characteristic of the sub-arctic region; and between the hills one finds but narrow, damp, marshy valleys, quite unfit, as a whole, for agriculture. The steep slopes of the mountains run down to the waters of the channel, so that no road could be laid out along the sea-coast, unless by piercing the stony crags; and, in fact, there are but two larger valleys which intersect the mountains: that of the Due river, continued to the north-east by the Tym; and that of the Poronai in the south of the island.

     It is to the former, close by the spot where coal-layers are found, that the hard-labour convicts have been directed. M. Polyakoff, who visited Sakhalin in 1881-2, on a scientific mission from the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, describes thus the valley which in the fallacies of the Russian rulers was to become a centre for Russian civilization on the island. The hills which enclose the narrow valley are mostly barren, and their slopes are too steep to be adorned with corn-fields. As to the bottom of the valley, it is covered with a thick layer of heavy clay, coated but with a thin sheet of arable soil. The whole is exceedingly marshy. "One can walk on it without sinking very deeply in the mud; but it is intersected by peat-moors and deep marshes. . . Nowhere is the ground fit for agriculture. . . . It mostly resembles that of the worst parts of Olonets, with this difference, that it is often covered with pools of water, even in the forests, and that even the kind of cultivation which is carried on in Olonets by means of clearing and burning the forests is rendered impossible by the marshy ground of the forests themselves." "These conditions render both agriculture and gardening impossible in the vicinity of Due." Only a very few patches higher up the valley, and on the upper Tym can be utilized for agricultural and gardening purposes. But these few patches which are met with sporadically, are already mostly under cultivation.2

     It is, however, precisely there, that is, in the vicinity of the Due coal-mines, that the hard labour convicts are settled after having finished their terms of imprisonment at the hard-labour prison of Alexandrovsk. The settlement around this prison is exceedingly gloomy. There are two big barracks which bear the mime of prisons; a few houses are scatteredround about; and beyond them begins the wilderness. Only Little Alexandrovsk, higher up the valley, and the few houses of Korsakova have the aspect of a more prosperous settlement; but there again all land available for gardening is already under cultivation. It was, however, precisely with the aim of having permanent agricultural settlements that the convicts were sent to Sakhalin. It was supposed that after having passed one part of their terms at work in the coal-mines they would be settled around the mines, and raise corn sufficient to support themselves and to provide the penal colony with supplies of food.

     Further up the valley which--according to the concocted reports of the Administration-- was to become a granary for Sakhalin, the soil is the same; and the small settlements of Rykovo and Malo-Tymovskaya--"the most appropriate spot for agriculture on all the island" --have to support the same struggle against Nature.   Oats do not ripen there, and only barley can be grown.  As to the roads which connect these settlements, they are simply impassable. Tracks have been cut through the forests, but horses sink in the marshes. Much hope had been placed also in the valley of the Tym, which continues the Alexandrovsk valley to the north-east, and reaches the Sea of Okhotsk. But its marshy soil, and still more the cold and fogs of the Sea of Okhotsk, render agriculture quite impossible in this valley, except at its top.  Its vegetation is sub-polar; and on the sea-coast it has all the characters of the tundra. "If latter on," M. Polyakoff writes in an official report, "a few spots available for orchards and corn-fields can be found in the valley of the Tym, after a careful search, it would be advisable to await the results obtained in the already existing settlements before creating new ones; and all the more as great difficulty is already experienced in supplying these settlements with food, and as there is already now a serious lack of provisions in the colony. As to the hope entertained of creating villages at the mouth of the Tym, it would be a delusion to entertain it, the region being a region of tundras and polar-birch."

     These conclusions, most cautiously expressed--too cautiously perhaps--are fully supported by those arrived at by Dr. Petri in 1883, with the difference that the Italian Doctor is less cautious than the Russian scientist. The whole "colonization of Sakhalin," he wrote to the Jahresbericht of the Bern Geographical Society for 1883-84, is a big lie circulated by the authorities.  While the local authorities show on paper that there are already 2700 acres under cultivation, the survey of M. Karaulovski has shown that only 1375 are cultivated; the 700 families of hard-labour convicts who were promised to have twenty acres of arable soil per male soul, have succeeded in clearing less than two acres per family.3 Dr. Petri's conclusion is that the island is quite unfit for agriculture, and that the Government has been induced to take this false step by the false reports of people interested in the undertaking.

     As far as we can now judge, experience has fully confirmed the views held by M. Polyakoff and Dr. Petri. The raising of corn is subject to such difficulties and uncertainty, that the new settlers have had to be maintained until now on food brought from Russia, and there is no hope of improvement.  Food is transported from the valley of the Due to that of the Tym (Derbinskoye), across a chain of mountains, on foot, on the backs of the convicts, for distance of sixty miles;4 and one can easily guess what M. Polyakoff's words about a "lack of provisions" really mean.  As to the few free settlers who were induced by false promises to leave their homes in Tobolsk and to settle at Takoy, starting there a village of twenty-five houses; they were compelled to leave Sakhalin after a three years' desperate struggle against the inhospitable climate and soil. No subsidies of the Crown would help them. They were compelled to migrate again and to settle on the continent, on the Pacific coast.

     Surely, Sakhalin will never become an agricultural colony. If settlers are maintained there as they are in the lower Amur, they will remain a burden upon the State; the Government will be compelled, sooner or later, to permit most of them to emigrate elsewhere, or to provide them for years and years with food. Cattle-breeding might be more successful. But all that could be expected would be that a few colonists, living by means of their cattle and a little fishing, would remain there.

     Much ado was made in Russia about the Sakhalin coal-mines. But in this direction, too, there was much exaggeration. The Sakhalin coal is reputed in the East as preferable to the Australian; but it is considered as much inferior to the Newcastle or Cardiff coal. 5

     The extraction of coal on Sakhalin was already begun in 1858, and during the first ten years 30,000 tons were extracted. But mixed as it was with stone, it was of a bad quality, while the extraction (which was carried on by the light of stearine candles) 6cost in reality fabulous prices. But the coal in stock rapidly accumulated, while batches upon batches of convicts were sent every year; so that now they are occupied in laying down roads on the shore to bring Due into easy communication with Alexandrovsk.  A tunnel is therefore pierced in the rocks; but this famous tunnel which was to add to the fame of Sakhalin when its completion was announced in the Russian Press, was not yet terminated at all in 1886: it was a loop-hole through which. men could pass only creeping.

     The worst is, however, that on the whole circumference of Sakhalin there is not a single harbour, and that the approach to its coasts is always difficult owing to the fogs, the late arrival of summer, and the want of beacons in the Tartarian Strait.  At Due, the roadstead is open to all winds. The great bay of Patience is too shallow, the depth being only four fathoms at a distance of half a mile from the coast. The best bay--the Aniva--which freezes only for a few weeks, is also open to all winds and has no harbours.  Only the Mordvinoff Bay has a good anchorage.

     Decades and decades must elapse before the Sakhalin coal could compete with European coal in the Chinese ports; and in the meantime, a hundred and twenty men would fully supply the Siberian flotilla of the Russian navy with the 5000 tons which represent its annual consumption. Thousands of convicts have thus nothing to do on Sakhalin, and the coal they could raise would be years and years without finding any use.

     The first batch of eight hundred convicts was sent to Sakhalin seventeen years ago, in 1869. Following the established traditions, the Administration could invent nothing better than to send them across Siberia ; that is, those who were shipped from the Kara goldmines had to make a journey of 2000 miles down the Amur, and those who were brought from Russia had a journey of no less than 4700 miles to be done, before reaching Nikolaevsk at the mouth of the Aznur.

     The results of such a journey were really terrific. When the first party of 250 men reached Nikolaevsk, all, 250, except the dead, were suffering from scurvy; fifty were entirely laid up with the same disease;7 and these were the men who "were to begin the colonization of Sakhalin! No wonder that during the first years the mortality was 117 in the thousand, and that each man was taken to the hospital on an average of three times a year.8

     It was only after a series of like blunders which were loudly denounced even in the gagged Press, that the transport of convicts to Sakhalin via Siberia was abandoned, and they were sent via Odessa and the canal of Suez. It must be fresh in the memories of Englishmen in what conditions the transport was made on this new route, and what a cry of indignation was raised in the English Press. Things are a little better during the last few years, and we have before us reports of medical officers which state that the transport of convicts on ships from Odessa has latterly been made under reasonable conditions. But again, last month, the news came that the last transport sent out in 1886 was overtaken by an epidemic of small pox, and that the mortality was once more dreadful. The customary official denial will surely appear, but whom will it convince?

     Little is known about the condition of convicts on Sakhalin itself. In 1879, a report appeared in the Russian Press, signed by a Russian merchant, stating that the arbitrary conduct of the chief commander at Sakhalin knew no limits. The Prison Administration was accused of stealing the last coppers of the convicts. A doctor, Mr. A. A., wrote in October, 1880, from Alexandrovsk: "I am ordered to the Korsakoff hospital (on the south coast), but I cannot reach it before next June. My colleague abandons his post . . . he can no longer bear all that is going on there!" Significant words, which permit a Russian reader to guess the truth, especially when they are followed by these: "The chief of the settlement seldom visits the barracks; he does not appear otherwise than surrounded by armed warders. The governor of the prison dare not appear amongst the convicts."9 Later on, we saw in the Strana (a St. Petersburg newspaper),1 an account of the disorders discovered on Sakhalin by the Chief Commander of the Russian Pacific squadron. It appeared that while the poorer convicts were compelled to heaviest labour, in chains, rich scoundrels and thieves were kept in a quite privileged position; they lived free on the island, squandered money, and made festivals to the authorities.

     The above-mentioned revelations provoked an official inquiry. The newspapers announced it with great rejoicing, but what became of it nobody knows; and no news have penetrated since in the press, except those brought in by Dr. Petri. The overcrowding in the Alexandrovsk prison must be terrible. It has been built for 600 inmates, but it had 1103 men in 1881, and 2230 in 1882. Some provisional barracks must have been erected, I suppose. But I imagine what "provisional barracks " must be in Sakhalin!

     It is evident from what was said above that the greatest difficulty for the Sakhalin administration is to lodge the convicts, and to invent an occupation for those who are liberated. There being no place, either in Russia or in Siberia, where hard-labour convicts can be kept, more and more of them are sent every year to Sakhalin. In Siberia, after their liberation, they receive an allotment of land and agricultural implements, and then, after two years, the Government troubles no more about them. But, what is to be done for them on Sakbalin? Agriculture being almost impossible, people are literally starving in the new settlements, and food for them must be brought from Russia, subject to accidents of all kinds. So for instance, last summer, it appeared in the (semiofficial) paper, published at Vladivostok, that the shipment of flour destinated for Sakhalin arrived all damaged, and full of worms and beetles. An inquiry had been ordered; of course, it will be made, but people on Sakhalin will remain in the meantime without food.

     Sakbalin is merely a new edition of what I saw twenty years ago on the Amur and the Usuri, but in still worse conditions. As to buying food, they have to pay twenty roubles for a sack of five puds of rye flour of the worst quality (fifty shillings the 160 lbs.), and certainly double that price as soon as some accident has happened to the Crown stores. The agriculturists, who were supposed soon to supply the prison with all necessaries, and who surely would have done so in reasonable circumstances, must themselves be saved from starvation. It is not on two acres per family, cleared from beneath the marshy forests, that they can possibly subsist.

     One of the great inducements of Sakhalin in the eyes of the Administration was that escapes will be exceedingly difficult. This inducement surely exists. Not that escapes are impossible. In 1870, no less than sixteen percent of the prisoners escaped nevertheless. But most of them are taken by the indigenes, and either killed by them when they have been captured far away from the military posts, or returned to the post, if the natives find it worth while to make the journey. Each prisoner captured in Siberia by indigenes is valued at ten roubles when brought back alive, and five roubles when killed. Three roubles in the latter case and six roubles in the former do serve on Sakhalin to induce the Ghiliaks to hunt the runaways. They do so in the most barbarous way, especially since the Sakhalin authorities have distributed rifles among them. Dr. Petri writes that once they came across a party of nonconformists belonging to the sect of byeguny (runners), whom their religious beliefs prescribe to break completely with the present world--given up to the Anti-Christ--and to live a life of restless wanderers, who never have a house or any kind of property. They were twelve, they had infants in arms. All were killed by the Ghiliaks. The most remarkable thing is that these wretched creatures have no hatred against the runaway convicts: they keep on the best terms if the convict can give them something worth the three roubles. But if he cannot pay the redemption, they kill him pitilessly, in order to receive the three roubles from the prison administration. As soon as the premium was temporarily abolished, they were the first to help the escapes. "What will you"--our runaways say--"they are starving themselves, and three roubles and our cloth are a great temptation for a starving people."

     And still escapes are numerous. The runaways make their way to the south-east with the greatest difficulties, across hills and forests, and wait till they sight from the coast an American whaler. Some of them cross the Tartarian Strait, six miles in width at Cape Pogobi, when an ice-bridge connects Sakhalin with the continent; whilst others, again, make a raft of three or four trees, and entrust themselves to the rough sea. The schooner "Vostok" recently, met with such a raft in the channel. A black point having been sighted from the schooner, she approached it, and found two men on a raft of four logs. They had with them a pail of soft water, some black bread biscuits, two pieces of brick-tea, and so they floated along without having any idea where the current would land them. When asked where they were going--There, to Russia!" they answered, pointing towards the West. Most of them perish from the squalls, others during the dreadful snowstorms-- Amur snowstorms, which sometimes bury Nikolaevsk for several days under the snow. And when on the continent, they endure the most terrible sufferings before reaching the inhabited parts of the Amur. Cannibalism has been spoken of.

     And yet some runaways succeed to return to Russia. A few years ago, one of them, Kamoloff, who had reached his native village, but was betrayed by some personal enemy, was brought before a Court; and his simple speech moved the hearts through Russia. He had wandered for two years across lakes and rivers, through the forests and over the Steppes, before reaching his house. He found his wife waiting for his return. He was happy for a few weeks. "The streams, the stormy Baikal, the terrible snowstorms did me no harm," he said; " beasts pitied me. Men--my own villagers--were pitiless; they betrayed me! "

     "There, to Russia!" that is the idea which haunts every exile. They may send him to Sakhalin--his thoughts will always draw him westward, and even from Sakhalin he will try to return to his native village, to find out his abandoned house, The system of exile has served its time if the exiles must be sent to the lonely island in order to prevent escapes.

     We hope the days are not far distant when it will be definitely done away with. The sooner the better; because Siberia is large, and administrative fancies have no bounds. Who knows if tomorrow the whim will not seize them to create new agricultural colonies in the Land of the Tchuktchis, or on Novaya Zemlya, and sacrifice new hecatombs of sufferers for no other purpose than to provide a few officials with lucrative appointments?

     At any rate, the ignoramuses of St. Petersburg seem to have abandoned their fantastical schemes of making a penal colony of Sakhalin. The last news is that they are planning to enlarge the Kara prisons, and to send there one thousand more convicts; while the abandoned silver-mines of Nertchinsk are to be reopened. In the matter of exile, as in so many others, we are reverting to the very same point where we were thirty-five years ago, on the eve of the Crimean War.

1 See Yadrintseff's Siberia, and Vostochnoye Obozrenie.

2 I. Polyakoff, Reise nach der Insel Sakhalin in den Jahren 1881-82. A us dem Russischen übersetzt von Dr. Arzruni. Berlin, 1884.--Russian original in the Inveztia of the Russian Geographical Society, 1883.

3 "Jahresbericht der Geographischen Gesellschaft von Bern," 1883-84, pp. 129 and 39. See also St. Petersburg's Herold, NN. 353ñ-356. 1884.

4  Dr. Petri, l.c.

5 According to Dr. Petri the Sakhalin coal costs from seven to seven and a half dollars per ton, while the Japanese and Australian are paid only five dollars.

6 Köppen's "Sakhalin; its Coal Mines and Coal Industry," St. Petersburg, 1875. A most reliable work.

7 Tahlberg, "Exile to Sakhalin," in Vyestnik Evropy, May, 1879.

8 Köppen, l.c.

9 The Poryadok, published by Professor Stasulevitch (suppressed since), September 8 (20), 1881.

10 January 31, 1882. Dr. Petri, l.c.

Go to Chapter 7
Return to Table of Contents.
Return to Anarchy Archives.