Land of exiles and convicts By Grigory Pasko, journalist REPORTING FROM CHITA, SIBERIA “Dismal marshy bogs” is how one guidebook describes the natural landscape around Chita. I got to see some of these bogs when I travelled a bit beyond the city boundary, in the direction of Darasun. It was morning, and it was freezing outside – you could feel the cold right down to your bones. So there was no desire whatsoever to step out of the taxi if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. It is known that the climate in these parts is what is known as “severely continental” – winters are sunny, dry, and very cold. The average temperature in January is 30 below zero Celsius. And the summers are very brief and not very warm. A “dismal marshy bog” in Chita (Photo by Grigory Pasko) I had another chance to see these “marshy bogs” through the window of the «Moskva-Vladivostok» train. But I’m getting ahead of myself here; let’s get back to Chita for now. In the book “Siberia and the Exile System” (1885-1886), the American explorer George Kennan writes the following about Chita: “…A large provincial city spread out in a haphazard way, with a population of around four thousand residents. This is a famous city in the history of the exile system. Between the years 1825 and 1827, the majority of those brave young noblemen who had unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the Russian autocracy and establish a constitutional form of government were banished here.” The Russian authorities continue to use Chita as a place of banishment to this day. And although there are only a dozen or so places here for the punishment of those deprived of liberty, the conditions of detention of prisoners largely remain severe, which even correctional system workers will admit. Within the administration of the federal service for the execution of punishments (UFSIN) of Chita Oblast are: an investigative isolator in Chita (where Platon Lebedev and Mikhail Khodorkovsky are currently being held), a colony-settlement, 2 general regime correctional institutions (including the one in Krasnokamensk, where Khodorkovsky was serving his sentence until this past December), 3 strict regime correctional institutions, an oblast hospital and “facility functioning in the regime of an investigative isolator” and 2 special regime correctional institutions, a therapeutic-correctional institution for tuberculosis patients and an educational colony [juvenile detention facility—Trans.] The penal colonies are situated in the same places where the hard labor penal servitude prisons were located in tsarist times: Karymsky Rayon, Nerchinsk, the Oginsky Tract… Here is what Kennan wrote about the Kariysky penal mining camps of the Trans-Baikal region:
“…The most prevalent illnesses are scurvy, spotted fever, typhus, anemia, and consumption. The greater part of these illnesses are the direct result of the fact that the arrestees are constrained to live in dirty and overcrowded cells”.
(It is noteworthy that they haven’t been able to get rid of consumption – which we now call tuberculosis – in these places for over a hundred years). According to George Kennan’s testimony and calculations, the state spent less than half a dollar a day – 37 cents – on maintaining the hard labor prisoners. Today – 120 years later – the state is spending a bit over 80 cents a day – 22 rubles – per prisoner. And the purchasing power of money back then was much higher than today. In the times of the tsars in Russia, politically unreliable citizens were hastily tried and sentenced by military courts and then sent away to the far corners of Siberia and the Trans-Baikal region for katorga – penal servitude at hard labor, which included being deprived of all civil rights. The Times of London wrote in 1880: “Western observers do not see anything in these trials besides a disgraceful parody of justice…” I still remember the following story told by an American journalist in his book about Siberia and the exiles: Maria Kovalevskaya, daughter of the landowner Vorontsov, was sentenced in 1879 as a revolutionary to 13 years of katorga labor followed by lifelong exile in Siberia. Her husband was sent to Minusinsk, while their young daughter Galya remained in Kiev in the care of Kovalevskaya’s sister. Kovalevskaya ultimately lost her mind. Kennan cites an excerpt from a letter written by daughter Galya to her mother in the Trans-Baikal region: “My dearest, beloved mommy! How I wish that you could see what wonderful weather we’re having here… I’m doing well in school. I have an A in history, an A in grammar, but there is also sad news. I could not solve an arithmetic problem and got a C…” Kennan writes that at this time Kovalevskaya was in the Kariysky mines, her health shattered, with no hope of ever returning to European Russia and even without hope of surviving her 13 years in the Trans-Baikal mines. “I often thought”, wrote Kennan, “about what an abyss lies between what a child calls ‘sad news’ and the horrible tragedy in the life of her mother… If you can imagine Kovalevskaya in the Kariysky mines, separated forever from her only child and together with this getting such letters, you will perhaps understand what it was that she lost her mind from in the end”. A typical village in the Chita area (photo by Grigory Pasko) It so happens that I am somewhat acquainted with the family of a political prisoner of contemporary Russia, Igor Sutyagin, who was sentenced to 15 years of deprivation of liberty supposedly for espionage for parties that were not established by the court and the investigation (a “disgraceful parody of justice”, as Kennan wrote). Igor’s two daughters essentially grew up without him. I don’t know what Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s children write in their letters to their father. His daughter Nastya recalls that during her visit with her father, she at first didn’t even believe that she was finally seeing him. What can I say? It’s a good thing that 120 years after tsarism, the children of exiles in Russia have the opportunity to meet with their parents at least sometimes. As I recall Kennan’s “Siberia and the Exile System”, I can’t help but remember an episode associated with the great Russian writer, count Leo Tolstoy. Kennan describes an incident when he met with Tolstoy:
“However, he did not find the inclination to hear out reports about the sufferings of political hard labor prisoners in Eastern Siberia… and let me know clearly that even though he does have pity for many politicals, he can not help them in any way and furthermore does not approve of their methods”.
It is known that many of Khodorkovsky’s contemporaries have rushed to declare the rectitude of the decision of the court to convict him (recall the famous “letter of the fifty”, when leading Russian cultural and political figures spoke out in support of Khodorkovsky’s conviction). Of course, none of the people who signed this letter could hold a candle to count Leo Tolstoy. But to see the return of this readiness to score points with the power at any cost, at a time when it would seem that the grovelling of the Soviet people before the Soviet Party bosses had finally and irrevocably disappeared, can not but be depressing.