Russia Abolishes Internal Exile

April 24, 1993

It is impossible for most Westerners to grasp the full significance of Russian legislators' decision to abolish the practice of internal exile, along with such other cruel and unusual penalties as banishment from cities like Moscow, forced labor in lieu of incarceration and parole conditioned on performance of hazardous and life-threatening jobs.

Over the centuries, millions of suspected troublemakers have been isolated from society, friends and relatives this way. They have been banished to slave work in Siberia and other faraway places where multitudes died of hunger and diseases.

"Strangely enough, the first Siberian exile was neither a common criminal nor an enemy of the state," Benson Bobrick writes in "East of the Sun," his recent book about Siberia.

It was a 700-pound bell, which had sounded the alarm at a political assassination in 1581. "Those who participated in the brief uprising. . . were whipped and had their tongues cut out. The bell was likewise flogged, its 'tongue' wrenched from its socket and (to complete the superstitious elaboration of its chastisement) it was ignominiously dragged across the Urals to Tobolsk, where it was banned forever from being rung again."

By the 1880s, when George Kennan (an ancestor of the famous American diplomat and Sovietologist) surveyed prison conditions in Siberia, he estimated that 500,000 Russians had been banished to that inhospitable environment from the beginning of that century alone.

Ordinary offenders often "were compelled to walk from their places of arrest to the places of their banishment [and] they reached the Siberian post only after months of toilsome marching along muddy or dusty roads, over forest-clad mountains, through rainstorms or snowstorms, or in bitter cold," Kennan reported.

More privileged offenders -- including the "Decembrist" military officers who in 1825 tried to overthrow czarist autocracy -- made the trek by classier means, accompanied by their families and servants. They brought culture to new villages and towns of Siberia. So did writers like Dostoevski, the author of "Crime and Punishment," who first was condemned to die for his radical views and then sent to a prison labor camp in Siberia and then to exile on the barren steps of Kazakhstan.

In the waning years of czarist rule, many Bolsheviks were isolated through exile. After they came to power in 1917, these disciples of Lenin in turn began sending government critics and dissidents to Siberia. Under Stalin, a vast network of prisons and forced labor camps known as Gulag spanned the vastness of the Arctic land mass.

The end of this cruel and peculiar penalty is another sign of Russia's striving to become a normal society.

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