My first acquaintance with Russian prisons was made in Siberia. It was in 1862. I had then just arrived at Irkutsk--a young Lieutenant of Cossacks, not fully twenty years of age,--and a couple of months after my arrival I was appointed secretary to a committee for the reform of prisons. A few words of explanation are necessary, I suppose, for my English readers.
The education I had received was only what a military school could give. Much of our time had been devoted, of course, to mathematics and physical sciences; still more to the science of warfare, to the art of destroying men on battle-fields. But we were living, then, in Russia at the time of the great revival of thought which followed in our country the Crimean defeat; and even the education in military schools felt the influence of this great movement. Something superior to more militarism penetrated even the walls of the Corps des Pages.
The Press had received some freedom of expression since 1859, and it was eagerly discussing the political and economic reforms which had to shake off the sad results of twenty-five years of military rule under Nicholas I. ; and echoes of the intense intellectual activity which was agitating the outer world reached our class-room. Some of, us were reading a good deal to complete our education. We took a warm interest in the proposed rebuilding of our institutions, and lively discussions on the emancipation of Serfs, on the reforms in administration, were carried on between lessons on tactics and military history. The very next day after the long expected and often delayed emancipation of Serfs had been promulgated, several copies of the bulky and incoherently-worded Polozhenie (Emancipation Act) were busily studied and briskly commented upon in our small sunny library. The Italian Opera was forgotten for guesses as to the probable results and meaning of the emancipation. Our teachers, too, fell under the influences of the epoch. History, and especially the history of foreign literature, became, in the lectures of our professors, a history of the philosophical, political, and social growth of humanity. The dry principles of J. B. Say's "Political Economy," and the commentaries upon Russian civil and military law, which formerly were considered as a useless burden in the education of future officers, became endowed with new life in our classes, when applied to the present needs of Russia.
Serfdom, had been abolished, and a series of reforms which were to culminate in constitutional guarantees, preoccupied the minds. All had to be reformed at once. All had to be revised in our institutions, which are a strange mixture of legacies from the old Moscow period, with Peter I.'s attempts at creating a military State by orders from St. Petersburg, with the depravity bequeathed by the Courtiers of the Empresses, and Nicholas I.'s military despotism. Reviews and newspapers were fully devoted to these subjects, and we eagerly read them.
It is true that Reaction had already made its appearance on the horizon. On the very eve of the liberation of the Serfs, Alexander II. grew frightened at his own work, and the Reactionary Party gained some ground in the Winter Palace. Nicholas Milutine--the soul of the emancipation of the Serfs in bureaucratic circles--had been suddenly dismissed, a few months before the promulgation of the law, and the work of the Liberal Emancipation Committees - had been given over, for revision in a sense more favourable to the nobility, to new committees chiefly composed of Serf-proprietors of the old school,--the so-called kryepostniki. The Press began to be muzzled; free discussion of the Emancipation Act was prohibited; the paper of Aksakoff--he was Radical then and advocated the summons of a Zemskoye Sobranie, and was not opposed to the recall of Russian troops from Poland--was suppressed number after number. The small outbreak of peasants at Kazan, and the great conflagration at St. Petersburg in May, 1862 (it was attributed to Poles), still reinforced the reaction. The series of political trials which were hereafter to characterize the reign of Alexander II. was opened by sentencing our poet and publicist, Mikhailoff, to hard-labour.
The wave of reaction, however, bad not in 1862 yet reached Siberia. Mikhailoff, on his way to the Nertcbinsk mines, was fêted at a dinner by the Governor of Tobolsk. Herzen's Kolokol ("The Bell") was smuggled and read everywhere in Siberia; and at Irkutsk I found, in September, 1862, a society animated by the great expectations which were already beginning to fade at St. Petersburg. "Reforms" were on all lips, and among those which were most often alluded to, was that of a thorough reorganization of the system of exile.
I was nominated aide-de-camp to the Governor of Transbaikalia, General Kukel, a Lithuanian, strongly inspired with the Liberal ideas of the epoch; and next month we were at Tchita, a big village recently made capital of Transbaikalia.
Transbaikalia is the province where the well known Nertchinsk mines are situated. All hard-labour convicts are sent there from all parts of Russia; and therefore exile and hardlabour were frequently the subject of our conversations. Everybody there knew the abominable conditions under which the long footjourney from the Urals to Transbaikalia used to be made by the exiles. Everybody knew the abominable state of the prisons in Nertchinsk, as well as throughout Russia,. It was no sort of secret. Therefore, the Ministry of the Interior undertook a thorough reform of prisons in Russia and Siberia, together with a thorough revision of the penal law and the conditions of exile.
"Here is a circular from the Ministry," the Governor once said to me. "They ask us to collect all possible information about the state of prisons and to express our opinions as to the reforms to be made. There is no one here to undertake the work: you know how fully we are all occupied. We have asked for information in the usual way, but receive nothing in reply. Will you take up the work ? " I objected, of course, that I was too young and knew nothing about it. But the answer was: "Study! In the Journal of the Ministry of Justice you will find, to guide you, elaborate reports on all possible systems of prisons. As to the practical part of the work, let us gather, first, reliable information as to where we stand. Then we all, Colonel P., Mr. A., and Ya., and the mining authorities also--will help you. We will discuss everything in detail with people having practical knowledge of the matter; but gather, first, the data--prepare material for discussion."
So I became secretary to the local committee for the reform of prisons. Needless to say how happy I was to accept the task: I set to work with all the energy of youth. The circular of the Ministry filled me with joy. It was couched in the most elegant style, and the Ministry incisively pointed out the chief defects of Russian prisons. The Government was ready to undertake the most thorough reform of the whole system in a most humane spirit. The circular went on to mention the penitentiary systems in use in Western Europe; but none of them satisfied the Ministry, and it advocated a return "to the great principles laid down by the illustrious grandmother and grandfather of the now happily reigning Emperor." For a Russian mind this allusion to the famous instructions of Catherine II., written under the influence of the Encyclopedists, and to the humanitarian tendencies professed during the earlier years of Alexander I.'s reign, conveyed a whole programme. My enthusiasm was simply doubled by the reading of the circular.
Things did not go, however, so smoothly. The mining authorities under whom the exiles are working in the Nertchinsk mines did not care so much about the great principles of Catherine II. and were, I am afraid, of the opinion that the less things were reformed, the better. The repeated demands for information issued by the Governor left them quite unmoved--they depend directly upon the Cabinet of the Emperor at St. Petersburg, not upon the Governor. Obstinate silence, was their answer until they finally sent in a pile of papers, covered with figures, from which nothing could be obtained, not even the cost of maintenance of convicts, nor the value of their labour.
Still, at Tchita there were plenty of men thoroughly acquainted with the hard-labour prisons, and some information was gladly supplied by several mining officers. It appeared that none of the silver-mines where exiles were kept could be worked with any semblance of profit. So also with many gold-mines. The Mining authorities were anxious to abandon most of them. The arbitrary despotism of the directors of prisons had no limits, and the dreadful tales which circulated in Transbaikalia about one of them--Razghildeeff--were fully confirmed. Terrible epidemics of scurvy swept away the prisoners by hundreds each year, that a more active extraction of gold was ordered from St. Petersburg, and the underfed convicts were compelled to overwork. As to the buildings and their rotten condition, the overcrowding therein, and the filth accumulated by generations of overcrowded prisoners, the reports were really heartbreaking. No repairs would do, the whole had to undergo a thorough reform. I visited a few prisons, and could but confirm the reports. The Transbaikalian authorities insisted, therefore, on limiting the number of convicts sent to the province; they pointed out the material impossibility of providing them not only with work, but even with shelter.
Things were no better with regard to the transport of exiles. This service was in the most deplorable condition. An engineer, a honest young man, was sent to visit all étapes--the prisons where the convicts stop to rest during the journey--and reported that all ought to be rebuilt; many were rotten to the foundation; none could afford shelter for the mass of convicts sometimes gathered there. I visited several of them, saw the parties of convicts on their journeys, and could but warmly advocate the complete suppression of this terrific punishment inflicted on thousands of men, women, and children.
As to the local prisons, destinated to be lock-ups, or houses of detention for the local prisoners, we found them overcrowded to the last extent in ordinary times, and still more so when parties of convicts were stopped on the journey by inundations or frosts--Siberian frosts. They all answered literally to the wellknown description of Dostoievsky in his "Buried Alive."
A small committee, composed of well-intentioned men whom the Governor convoked from time to time at his house, busily discussed what could be done to improve affairs without imposing a new and heavy burden on the budget of the State and the province. The conclusions unanimously arrived at were: that exile, as it is, is a disgrace to humanity; that it is a quite needless burden for Siberia; and that Russia herself must take care of her own prisoners, instead of sending them thither. For that purpose not only the penal code and the judicial procedure ought to be revised at once, as promised in the Ministerial circulars, but also within Russia herself some new system of penal organization ought to be introduced.
The committee sketched such a system where cellular imprisonment was utterly condemned, and the subdivision of the prisoners into groups of from ten to twenty in each room, short sentences, and productive and well-paid work in common were advocated. An appeal was to be made to the best energies of Russia in order to transform her prisons into reformatories. Transbaikalia was declared ready to transform her own prisons on these lines without imposing any fresh expenses upon the budget of the Empire. The kinds of work which could be done by prisoners were indicated, and the conclusion was that prisons ought to, and might, support themselves if properly organized. As to the new men and women necessary for such a reorganization of penal institutions on new principles, the Committee was sure of finding them; and while an honest jailer under the present system is very rare, there was no doubt that a new departure in the penal system would find no lack of new honest men.
I must confess that at that time I still believed that prisons could be reformatories, and that the privation of liberty is compatible with moral amelioration... but I was only twenty years old.
All this work took several months. And by this time Reaction became more and more in favour at the Winter Palace. The Polish insurrection gave to Reactionaries the long-expected opportunity for throwing off their masks and for openly advocating a return to the old principles of the time of Serfdom. The good intentions of 1859-62 were forgotten at the Court; new men came into favour with Alexander II. and were admirably successful in working upon his feeble character and his fears. New circulars were sent out by the Ministries; but these circulars--couched in a far less elegant and far more bureaucratic style--mentioned no more reforms, and insisted, instead, on the necessity of strong rule and discipline.
One day the Governor of Transbaikalia received an order to leave his post at once and return to Irkutsk, where he was left en disponibilité. He had been denounced: he had treated the exiled Mikhailoff too well; he had permitted him to stay on a private mine in the district of Nertchinsk; he sympathized too much with the Poles. A new Governor came to Transbaikalia, and our report on prisons had to be revised again. The new Governor would not sign it. We fought as much as we could to maintain its conclusions. We made concessions as to the style, but we insisted on the general conclusions of the report, and we did this so firmly that finally the Governor signed it and sent it to St. Petersburg.
What has become of it since? Surely it is still lying in some portfolios at the Ministry. For the next ten years the reform of prisons was completely forgotten. In 1872, however, new committees were nominated for the same purpose at St. Petersburg, and again in 1877-78, and on several succeeding occasions. New men elaborated new schemes; new reports were written criticizing again and again the old system. But the old system remains untouched. Nay, the attempts at making a new departure have been, by some fatality, mere returns to the old-fashioned type of a Russian ostrog.
True, several central prisons have since been erected in Russia, and hard-labour convicts are kept there before being sent to Siberia, for terms varying, from four to six years. To what purpose? Probably to reduce their numbers by the awful mortality in these places. Seven such prisons have been erected of late--at Wilno, Simbirsk, Pskov, Tobolsk, Perm, and two in the province of Kharkoff. But--official reports say so--they have been modelled on the very same type as the prisons of old. "The same filth, the same idleness of the prisoners, the same contempt for the most primary notions of hygiene," says a semi-official report. All together they contained an aggregate of 2464 men in 1880--too much for their capacity, too little to noticeably diminish the numbers of hard-labour convicts transported to Siberia. A new and terrible punishment inflicted on the convicts to no purpose,--that is all that they have accomplished after having swallowed millions from the budget.
Exile, in the meantime, remains very much what it was in 1862. Only one important modification has been introduced. It proved cheaper to transport the nearly 20,000 people yearly sent to Siberia (two-thirds of them without trial) on horses between Perm and Tumen1 --that is from the Kama to the basin of the Obi--and thence on barges towed by steamers to Tomsk, instead of sending them on foot. And so they are transported now. Besides, the extraction of silver from the Nertchinsk mines having been nearly abandoned, no exiles are sent to these most unhealthy mines, some of which, like Akatui, were in the worst repute. But a scheme is now afloat for reopening these mines; and in the meantime a new hell, worse than Akatui, has been devised. Hardlabour convicts are sent now to die on the Sakhalin island.
Finally, I must mention that new étapes have been built on the route, 2000 miles long, between Tomsk and Sryetensk, on the Shilka,--this space being still traversed on foot by the exiles. The old étapes were falling to pieces; it was impossible to repair these heaps of rotten logs, and new étapes have been erected. They are wider than the old ones, but the parties of convicts being also more numerous, the overcrowding and the filth in these étapes are the same as of old.What further "improvements" can I mention in glancing over these five-and-twenty years? I was nearly going to forget the House of Detention at St. Petersburg, the showprison for foreigners, with 317 cells and several rooms for keeping an aggregate of 600 men and 100 women awaiting trial. But that is all. The same old, dark and damp, and filthy lockups--the ostrogs--may be seen at the entrance of each provincial town in Russia; and all has remained in these ostrogs as it was twenty-five years ago. Some new prisons have been erected here and there, some old ones have been repaired; but the system, and the treatment of prisoners, have remained unaltered; the old spirit has been transported in full in the new buildings; and to see a new departure in the Russian penal institutions we must wait for some new departure in Russian life as a whole. At present, if there is some change, it is not for the best. Whatever the defects of the old prisons, there was still a breath of humanitarianism in 1862, which penetrated in a thousand ways, even into the jails. But now, the openly-avowed ideal of Alexander III. being his grandfather Nicholas, the Administration, too, seek their ideals in the old drunken soldiers patronized by the "Gendarme of Europe." "Keep Russia in urchin-gloves!" they say at the Gatchina Palace; "Keep them in urchin-gloves!" they repeat in the prisons.
1 The Siberian railway being now opened along the whole of this distance, they will be transported by rail.