Administrative Exile and the Criminals’ Commune in Siberia

  • Alan Wood


Exile to Siberia, either by judicial or administrative process, was for over three centuries the central and most widely implemented punishment in the Tsarist penal system. Popular conceptions of Siberia are inextricably bound up with its gloomy image as a huge ice-locked prison, a ‘land of damnation and chains’, or, as Dostoevskii called it, The House of the Dead. Literary hyperbole aside, there is no gainsaying that Siberia’s sinister reputation is firmly rooted in grim historical reality and the often unspeakable sufferings of its exile population. Given this notoriety, it is surprising that western historiography has until recently failed to elaborate or expand on the first-hand investigations of the nineteenth-century American journalist, George Kennan, contained in his classic, but now dated, study, Siberia and the Exile System. 1 What is consequently less surprising is that little or no attention has been focused in recent scholarship, Western or Soviet, on the role of popular communal forms of organisation in both the official operation of the system and the unofficial activities of the exiles themselves. From the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 until the revolutions of 1917 the Russian peasant community and certain other collective organisations played a major part in the business of annually expelling tens of thousands of their defaulting members to Siberia by administrative order (v administrativnom poriadke). And, once swallowed into the capacious maw of the exile world, a large part of the unfortunate victims’ lives was thereafter dominated, not only by official regulations and procedures, but also by the unofficial practices of the criminals’ and exiles’ artel’ or obshchina. This chapter attempts to help fill the gap in the historiography, first, by examining the way in which the communities’ powers of administrative banishment were implemented and abused; and, secondly, by analysing the functions and organisation of the exiles’ and criminals’ commune in Siberia itself.2


Administrative Process Female Prisoner Factory Owner Prison Staff Peasant Community 
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    The first section of this chapter is based in part on a paper by the present author, ‘The Use and Abuse of Administrative Exile to Siberia’, Irish Slavonic Studies, 6 (1985), 65–81. The author is grateful to the editor of ISS for permission to draw on that material for the present work.Google Scholar
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© School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alan Wood

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