MOSCOW -- Russian legislators, making a historic update to the Criminal Code, have revoked the law that let czars and Communists alike sentence many of Russia's illustrious sons and daughters -- from Fyodor Dostoevsky to Soviet-era dissidents -- to Siberian exile or banishment.
"This is especially pleasant for me because if events had developed otherwise, I would still have been imprisoned in exile," said Lev Timofeyev, a Moscow human rights activist released in 1987. "Thank God, all my friends are free."
Humanizing the Criminal Code, the Supreme Soviet abolished four types of punishment often used in Russia for cruel ends: exile within the country, banishment from cities like Moscow, forced labor in lieu of incarceration and parole conditioned on fulfilling mandatory, often backbreaking or hazardous jobs.
Asked why, Interior Minister Viktor F. Yerin replied, "Because this is outdated practice."
"We must look real facts in the face," he told reporters. "If a person has served his sentence or part of his sentence and has demonstrated that he has repented and is going to reform, and has drawn conclusions, let us release him and let him go back home and take up a job without the intermediate stage of exile, of living in the backwoods. It is hard on his family, his wife and his children often to go to the place of exile to join him. Who needs all this?"
L Traditionally, the answer was simple -- Russian authorities.
Many of the czar's subjects, and then uncounted numbers of citizens of the Soviet Union, were sent eastward to Siberia or the frigid northern climes of Komi or other wilderness regions as exiles after release from prison.
In the Stalin-era gulag system and later, convicts by the hundreds of thousands were also forced to work in harsh conditions at menial, extremely hazardous jobs, from uranium- or lead-mining to tree felling in the frozen taiga.
To Russians, the system became known as khimia, or "chemistry," since chemical plants producing highly deadly substances like industrial poisons traditionally employed armies of these hapless, unprotected parolees.
Ironically, the lawmakers' decision ending khimia and the other practices including banishment, or not allowing convicts to reside in certain areas after their release, comes as Russia is being overrun by a crime wave of such scale that President Boris N. Yeltsin has called it the No. 1 threat to the interests of the state.