Exile to Siberia, 1590-1822
Being “sent to Siberia” is practically a synonym for exile even in English-speaking countries. Why is this? In his fascinating new book Exile to Siberia, 1590-1822 (Palgrave, 2008), Andrew Gentes explains. And it’s quite a story indeed. The tsars began to dispatch people to Siberia almost as soon as they “conquered” it in the sixteenth century (an interesting story in itself). Some of the exiles were criminals. Others were simply political enemies. But as Gentes demonstrates, Russian rulers sent them to this frozen vastness not only for the purposes of punishment, but also to populate Russia’s new territories and make them productive, mostly via fur and mineral extraction. Long before the Soviet’s founded the notrious GULag, Siberia was as much a work camp as a penal repository. And though the tsarist settlements were perhaps not as harsh (and certainly not as large) as their Soviet successors, they were still very nasty places. If tsarist-era exiles didn’t die on the way to Siberia, they would very likely end their days there. America had a “Wild West.” Russia had what we might call a “Deadly East.” We should thank Andrew Gentes for showing it to us.
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