Chapter 2 : Russian Prisons
(1842 - 1921) ~ Russian Father of Anarcho-Communism : As anarchism's most important philosophers he was in great demand as a writer and contributed to the journals edited by Benjamin Tucker (Liberty), Albert Parsons (Alarm) and Johann Most (Freiheit). Tucker praised Kropotkin's publication as "the most scholarly anarchist journal in existence." (From : Spartacus Educational Bio.)
• "As to parliamentary rule, and representative government altogether... It is becoming evident that it is merely stupid to elect a few men, and to entrust them with the task of making laws on all possible subjects, of which subject most of them are utterly ignorant." (From : "Process Under Socialism," by Peter Kropotkin, 188....)
• "...let us remember that if exasperation often drives men to revolt, it is always hope, the hope of victory, which makes revolutions." (From : "The Spirit of Revolution," by Peter Kropotkin, fi....)
• "ANARCHISM, the name given to a principle or theory of life and conduct under which society is conceived without government - harmony in such a society being obtained, not by submission to law, or by obedience to any authority, but by free agreements concluded between the various groups, territorial and professional, freely constituted for the sake of production and consumption, as also for the satisfaction of the infinite variety of needs and aspirations of a civilized being." (From : "Anarchism," by Peter Kropotkin, from the Encyclop....)
It is pretty generally recognized in Europe that altogether our penal institutions are very far from being what they ought, and no better indeed than so many contradictions in action of the modern theory of the treatment of criminals. The principle of the lex talionis--of the right of the community to avenge itself on the criminal--is no longer admissible. We have come to an understanding that society at large is responsible for the vises that grow in it, as well as it has its share in the glory of its heroes; and we generally admit, at least in theory, that when we deprive a criminal of his liberty, it is to purify and improve him. But we know how hideously at variance with the ideal the reality is. The murderer is simply handed over to the hangman; and the man who is shut up in a prison is so far from being bettered by the change, that he comes out more resolutely the foe of society than he was when he went in. Subjection, on disgraceful terms, to humiliating work gives him an antipathy to allkinds of labor. After suffering every sort of humiliation at the instance of those whose lives are lived in immunity from the peculiar conditions which bring man to crime--or to such sorts of it as are punishable by the operations of the law--he learns to hate the section of society to which his humiliation belongs, and proves his hatred by new offenses against it.
If the penal institutions of Western Europe have failed thus completely to realize the ambitious aim on which they justify their existence what shall we say of the penal institutions of Russia? The incredible duration of preliminary detention; the disgusting circumstances of prison life; the congregation of hundreds of prisoners into small and dirty chambers; the flagrant immorality of a corps of jailers who are practically omnipotent, whose whole function is to terrorize and oppress, and who rob their charges of the few coppers doled out to them by the State; the want of labor and the total absence of all that contributes to the moral welfare of man; the cynical contempt for human dignity, and the physical degradation of prisoners--these are the elements of prison life in Russia. Not that the principles of Russian penal institutions are worse than those applied to the same institutions in Western Europe. I am rather inclined to hold the contrary. Surely, it is less degrading for the convict to be employed in useful work in Siberia, than to spend his life in picking oakum, or in climbing the steps of a wheel; and--to compare two evils--it is more humane to employ the assassin as a laborer in a gold-mine and, after a few years, make a free settler of him, than quietly to turn him over to a hangman. In Russia, however, principles are always ruined in application. And if we consider the Russian prisons and penal settlements, not as they ought to be according to the law, but as they are in reality, we can do no less than recognize, with all efficient Russian explorers of our prisons, that they are an outrage on humanity.
One of the best results of the Liberal movement of 1859--1862 was the judicial reform. The old law-courts, in which the procedure was in writing, and which were real sinks of corruption and bribery, were done away with. Trial by jury, which was an institution of old Russia, but had disappeared under the Czars of Moscow, was reintroduced. Peasant-courts, to judge small offenses and disputes in villages according to the unwritten customary law, had already been established by the Emancipation Act of 1861. The new law of Judicial Procedure, promulgated in 1864 introduced the institution of justices of peace, elected in Russia, but nominated by Government in the Lithuanian provinces and in Poland. They had to dispose of smaller criminal offenses, and of all civil disputes about matters not exceeding 30£. in value. Appeal against their decisions could be made to the District Gathering of Justices of the Peace, and eventually to the Senate.
All cases implying a privation of civil rights were placed under the jurisdiction of Courts of Justice, sitting with open doors, and supported by a jury. Their decisions could be carried to Courts of Appeal, and cases decided by verdicts of jurors couId be brought before Courts of Cassation. The preliminary investigation, however, still remained private, that is (in conformity with the French system, as opposed to the English), no counsel was admitted to the prisoner during the preliminary examination; but provisions were made to guarantee the independence of the examining magistrates. Such were, in a few words, the leading features of the new organization of justice under the law of 1864. As to its general spirit it is only fair to say that--apart from the preliminary inquiry--it was conceived in accordance with the most Liberal ideas now current in the judicial world of Europe.
Two years after the promulgation of this law, the most shameful feature of the old Russian penal code--punishment by the knut and branding-iron--was abolished. It was high time. Public opinion was revolted by the use of these relics of a barbarous past, and it was so powerful at that time that governors of provinces refused to confirm sentences that enjoined the use of the knut; while others--as I have known in Siberia--would intimate to the executioner that unless he merely cracked the terrible instrument of torture in the air, barely touching his victim (an art well known and very profitable to executioners), " his own skin should be torn to pieces." Corporal punishment was thus abolished, but not completely. It remained in the villages (the peasnnt-courts being still empowered to administer flogging), in the army, and in the convict-prisons. Only women could no longer be submitted to flogging as long as not deprived of their civil rights.
But, like all other reforms of that period, the benefits of these two great changes were to a great extent paralyzed by subsequent modifications, or by leaving them uncomplete. The old penal code, containing a scale of punishments in flagrant disagreement with the state of prisons, was still maintained. Twenty years have elapsed since a thorough revision of the code was promised; committee has succeeded committee; last year again tile newspapers reported that tile revision of the code had been terminated, that tile sentences would be shortened, and that the barbarous provisions introduced in 1845 would be abolished. But the code remains still what it was when it issued from tile hands of Nicholas I.'s committees; and we may still read in tile revised edition of 1857, S 799 that convicts can be punished by five to six thousand strokes of the whip, and by being riveted to a wheel-barrow for terms varying from one to three years.
As to the judicial reform, it had hardly become law ere it was ruined by ministerial circulars. First of all, years passed and in thirty-nine provinces out of seventy-two the old courts were maintained and progress in any suit, as well as the fina1 decision, could be obtained only by vzyatki, that is, by bribery. Until 1885, the old system remained in operation over the whole of Siberia. And when the law of 1864 was extended to three Siberian provinces, it was so mutilated as to lose precisely its best features. A jury is still a desideratum beyond the Urals. The Lithuanian provinces, Poland, and the Baltic provinces, as also several provinces in the north and in the south-east (Arkhangelsk included) remain still under the old jurisdiction; while Wilno and Minsk received the new law quite mutilated by the reactionary proclivities of the present rulers.
As to the Russian provinces where the law has been in force since 1864, all that could be devised to attenuate its good effects--short of actual repeal, has been done. The examining magistrates (juges d'instruction) have never enjoyed the independence bestowed on them by the new law; and this was managed by means of a very simple stratagem: no examining magistrates were nominated, and those to whom their work was entrusted were nominated merely ad interim. So the Ministry could displace and discharge them at will. The judges have been made more and more dependent upon the Minister of Justice, whose nominees they are, and who has the right to transfer them from one province to another--from St. Petersburg, for instance, to Siberia The institution of sworn advocates, uncontrolled by criticism, has degenerated; and the peasant whose case is not likely to become a cause celebre, has not the benefits of a counsel, and is completely in the hands of a creature like the procureur-imperial in Zola's novel. Freedom of defense was trampled under foot, and the few advocates, like Urusoff, who have indulged in anything approaching to free speech in the trial of political prisoners, have been exiled merely by order of the Third Section.
Independent jurors are, of course, impossible in a country where the peasant-juror knows that he may be beaten by anything in uniform at the very doors of the court. As for the verdicts of the juries, they are not respected at all if they are in contradiction with the opinions of the governor of the province; and the acquitted may be seized as they leave the dock, and imprisoned anew, on a simple order of the Administrative. Such, for in stance, was the case of the peasant Borunoff. He came to St. Petersburg on behalf of his fellow-villagers to bring a complaint to the Czar against the authorities, and he was tried as a "rebel." He was acquitted by the court; but he was re-arrested on the very flight of steps outside, and exiled to the peninsula of Kola. Such, too, was the case of the raskolnik (nonconformist) Tetenoff, and several more. As to Vera Zassoulitch, who also was acquitted by the jury, the Government ordered her re-arrest at the very doors of the court, and re-arrested she would have been if her comrades had not rescued her, leaving one dead in the riot which ensued.
The Third Section, the courtiers, and the governors of provinces look on the new courts as mere nuisances, and act accordingly. A great many cases are disposed of by the Executive a huis clots, away from examining magistrates, judges, and jurors alike. The preliminary inquiry, in all cases in which a "political meaning" is discovered, is simply made by gendarmerie-officers, sometimes in the presence of a procureur who accompanies them in their raids. This procureur--an official in civil dress, attached to the blue uniforms of the gendarmes--is a black sheep to his colleagues; his function is to assist, or appear to assist, at the examination of those arrested by the secret police, and thus give an aspect of lawfulness to its proceedings. Sentence and punishment are often awarded by the Department of States' Police (which is but another name for the Third Section) or the Executive; and a punishment as terrible as exile--may be for life--within the Arctic circle in Siberia is pronounced on mere reports of the gendarmerie officers. In fact, Administrative Exile is resorted to in all cases when there is not the slightest indication which could lead to condemnation, even by a packed court. "You are exiled to Siberia, because it is impossible to commit you for trial, there being no proofs against you,"--such is the cynical form in which the announcement is made to the prisoner. " Be happy that gou have escaped so cheap "--they add; and people are sent for five, ten, fifteen years to some small borough of 500 inhabitants within or in the vicinity of the Arctic circle. In this category are included not only the cases of political offenders who are supposed to belong to some secret society, but also those of religious dissenters; of people who frankly speak out their opinions on Government; writers whose romances are considered "dangerous;" almost all persons accused of "disobedience" and "turbulent character;" workmen who have been most active in strikes; those accused of verbal "offenees against the Sacred Person of his Majesty the Emperor," under which head 2500 people were arrested in 1881 in the course of six months; in short, all those cases which might tend--to use the official language--"to the production of excitement in the public mind" were they brought before a court.
As to political trials, only the early revolutionary societies were tried under the law of 1864. Afterwards, when the Government perceived that the judges would not send to hard labor those political offenders who were brought before them, merely because they were suspected of being acquainted with revolutionists, the political cases were tried by packed courts, that is, by judges nominated especially for that purpose. To this rule the case of Vera Zassoulitch was a memorable exception. She was tried by a jury, and acquitted. But, to quote Professor Gradovsky's words in the Golos (supressed since)-"It is an open secret in St. Petersburg that the case would never have been brought before a jury but for certain 'quarrels' between the Prefect of the Police on the one side, and the Third Section and the Ministers of Justice and the Interior on the other,--but for certain of those jalousies de metier without which, in our disordered state of existence, it would often be impossible for us so much as to breathe." In plain words, tbe courtiers quarreled, some of them considered that it would be advantageous to discredit Trepoff, who was then omnipotent in the counsels of Alexander II., and the Minister of Justice succeeded in obtaining permission from the Emperor that Vera Zassoulitch should be sent before a jury: he surely did not expect that she would be acquitted, but he knew that the trial would render it impossible for Trepoff to remain Prefect of the Police at St. Petersburg.
It is, again, to a like jalousie de metier, that we were indebted for a public trial on the most scandalous affair of Privy Councilor Tokareff, General-Lieutenant Loshkareff, and their accomplices: Sevastianoff, chief of the Administration of Domains in Minsk, and Kapger, chief of Police in the same province. These personages, of whom Tokareff was Governor of Minsk, and Loshkareff was a member of the Ministry of the Interior "for peasants' affairs," had contrived to simply steal an estate of 8000 acres belonging to the peasants of Logishino, a small town in Minsk. They managed to buy it from the Crown for the nominal sum of 14,000 rubles (1400£.) payable in twenty yearly installments of 700 rubles each. The peasants, robbed of land that belonged to them, applied to the Senate, and the Senate recognized their rights. It ordered the restoration of the land; but the ukaze of the Senate was "lost," and the chief of the Administration of Domains feigned ignorance of the decision of the Senate. In the meantime the gorernor of the province exacted from the peasants 5474 rubles as a year's rent, (for the estate which he had bought for twenty yearly payments of 700 rubles each). The peasants refused to pay, and sent their delegates to St. Petersburg. But as these delegates applied to the Ministry where General Loshkareff was powerful, they were directly exiled as "rebels." The peasants still refused to pay, and then Governor Tokareff asked for troops to exact the money. General Loshkareff, his friend, was immediately sent by the Ministry at the head of a military expedition, in order to "restore order" at Logishino. Supported by a battalion of infantry and 200 Cossacks, he flogged all the inhabitants of the village until they had paid, and then reported to St. Petersburg that he had crushed an outbreak in the Western provinces. He did better. He obtained the military cross of Vladimir to decorate his friend Tokareff and the Ispravnik Kapger.
Well, this abominable affair, widely known and spoken of in Russia, would never have been brought before a court but for the Winter Palace intrigues. When Alexander III. surrounded himself with new men, the new courtiers who came to power found it desirable to crush with a single blow the party of Potapoff, which was intriguing for a return to power. It was necessary to discredit this party, and the Loshkareff affair, more than five years old, was brought before the Senate in November, 1881. All publicity was given to it, and we could then read for several days in the St. Petersburg newspapers the horrible tale of spoliation and plunder, of old men flogged nearly to death, of Cossacks exacting money with their whips from the Logishino peasants, who were robbed of their own land by the governor of the province. But, for one Tokareff condemned by the Senate, how many other Tokareffs are still peacefully enjoying the fruits of their thieving in the Western and South-Eastern provinces,--sure that none of their deeds will ever see the light of a law court; that any affair which may arise in such a court in connection with their shameful deeds will be stifled in the same way as the Tokareff affair was stifled for five years by orders emanating from the Ministry of Justice?
As to political affairs they have been completely removed from the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts. A few special judges nominated for the purpose, are attached to the Senate for judging political offenders,--if Government does not dispose of them otherwise. Most of them are sent before a court-martial; but, while the law is explicit in ordering full publicity of the proceedings of the military courts, their judgments in political cases are pronounced in absolute secrecy.
It need hardly be said that true reports of political trials in the press have never been permitted. Formerly the journals were bound to reproduce the "cooked" report published by the Official Messenger; but now the Government has perceived that even such reports produce a profound impression on the public mind, which is always favorable to the accused; and now the work is done in complete darkness. By the law of September, 1881, the governor general and the governors of provinces are enabled to request "that all those cases be heard in camera which might produce a 'disturbance of minds' (sic) or disturb the public peace." To prevent the speeches of the accused, or such facts which might compromise the Government, from being divulged, nobody is admitted to the court, not even members of the Ministry of Justice--"only the wife or the husband of the accused (mostly in custody also), or the father, mother, or one of the children; but no more than one relative for each accused person." At the trial of twenty-one Terrorists at St. Petersburg, when ten people were condemned to death, the mother of Sukhanoff was the one person who enjoyed this privilege. Many cases are got rid of in such a way that nobody knows when the trials take place. Thus, for instance, we remained in ignorance of the fate of an officer of the army, son of the governor of a jail in the St. Petersburg fortress, who had been condemned to hard labor for connection with revolutionists, until we learned it casually from an accusation read at a trial a long while posterior to his own. The public learns from the Official Messenger that the Czar has commuted sentences of death pronounced on revolutionists to hard labor for life; but nothing transpires either of the trial, or of the crimes imputed to the condemned. Nay, even the last consolation of those condemned to death, the consolation of dying publicly, was taken away. Hanging will now be done secretly within the walls of the fortress, in the presence of none from the world without. The reason is, that when Rysakoff was brought out to the gallows he showed the crowd his mutilated hands, and shouted, louder than the drums, that he had been tortured after trial. His words were heard by a group of "Liberals," who, repudiating any sympathy with the Terrorists, yet held it their duty to publish the facts of the case in a clandestine proclamation, and to call attention to this flagrant offense against the laws of humanity. Now nothing will be known of what happens in the casemates of the fortress of Paul and Peter after the trial and before the execution.
The trial of the fourteen Terrorists, among whom were Vera Figner and Ludmila Volkenstein, and which terminated in eight condemnations to death, was conducted in such privacy that--as an English correspondent wrote--nobody knew anything about it, even in the houses close by that in which the court martial was sitting. Nine persons only--all courtiers anxious to see the reputed beauty of one of the accused heroines--were admitted to the court; and it was again from the correspondent of an English newspaper that the public learned that two of the condemned, namely Stromberg and Rogatchoff, were executed in greatest secrecy. The news has been since confirmed from an official source. The Official Messenger announced that out of eight condemnations to death six had been commuted, and that Stromberg and Rogatchoff were hanged. But that was all which transpired of this trial. Nobody could even say where the execution took place. As to those whose sentence was commuted to hard labor, all we can say is, that they have never been sent to hard labor; they have disappeared. It is supposed that they are confined in the new State prison at Schlusselburg. But what has become of them there--remains a secret. It transpired that several were shot for supposed, or real, "disciplinary offenses." But, what has become of the remainder? None can say, not even their mothers, who make unceasing but useless efforts to discover the fate of their sons and daughters....
Like atrocities being possible under the "reformed" Judicial Procedure, it is easy to foresee what may be expected from the "unreformed" prisons.
In 1861, the governors of our provinces were ordered to institute a general inquiry into the state of prisons. The inquiry was fairly made, and its results determined what was generally known: namely, that the prisons in Russia and Siberia were in the worst state imaginable. The number of prisoners in each was very often twice and thrice in excess of the maximum allowed by law. The buildings were so old and dilapidated, and in such a shocking state of filth, as to be for the most part not only uninhabitable, but beyond the scope of any theory of reform that stopped short of reconstruction.
Within, affairs were even worse than without. The system was found corrupt to the core, and the officials were yet more in need of improvement than the jails. In the Transbaikal province where, at that time, almost all hard labor convicts were kept, the committee of inquiry reported that the prison buildings were mostly in ruins, and that the whole system of exile had followed suit. Throughout the Empire it was recognized that theory and practice stood equally in need of light and air; that everything must be changed, alike in matter and in spirit; and that we must not only rebuild our prisons, but completely reform our prison system, and reconstitute the prison staff from the first man to the last. The Government, however, elected to do nothing. It built a few new prisons which proved insufficient to accommodate the yearly increasing numbers of prisoners; convicts were farmed out to proprietors of private gold-mines in Siberia; a new penal colony was settled on Sakhalin, to colonize an island where nobody was willing to settle freely; a new Central Board of Prisons was nominated; and that was all. The old order remained unchanged, the old mischief unrepaired. Year after year the prisons fall further into decay, and year after year the prison staff of drunken soldiers remains unchanged. Year after year the Ministry of Justice applies for money to spend in repairs, and year after year the Government is content to put it off with the half, or less than the half, of what it asks; and when it calls--during the years 1875 to 1881--for over six million rubles for the most unavoidable repairs which can no longer be postponed, can spare it no more than a paltry two and a half millions. The consequence is that the jails are becoming permanent centers of infection, and that, according to the report of a recent committee, at least two-thirds of them are urgently in need of being rebuilt from top to bottom. Rightly to accommodate her prisoners, Russia should have to build half as many prisons again as she has. Indeed, on January 1st, 1884, there were 73,796 prisoners, and the aggregate capacity of the prisons in European Russia is only for 54,253 souls. In single jails, built for the detention of 200 to 250 persons, the number of prisoners is commonly 700 and 800 at a time. In the prisons on the route to Siberia, when convict parties are stopped by floods, the overcrowding is still more monstrous. The Chief Board of Prisons does not, however, conceal this truth. In its report for 1882, which was published in Russia, and extracts of which have appeared in our reviews, it stated that, whereas the aggregate capacity of all prisons in the empire is only sufficient for 76,000 men, they contained on January 1st, 1882, 95,000 souls. In the prisons of Piotrokow--it reported--the space designate for one man was occupied by five persons. In two provinces of Poland and in seven provinces of Russia the real population of the prisons was twice the amount which could nominally be contained by them at the lowest allowable cubic space, and in eleven provinces it exceeded the same at the ratio of 3 to 2. (1) In consequence of that, typhoid epidemics are constant in several prisons. (2)
The Russian prison system is thus constituted: First of all we have, in European Russia, 624 prisons or lock-ups, for cases awaiting trial, for a maximum of 54,253 inmates, with four houses of detention for 1134 inmates. If all lock-ups at the police-stations be added to the above, their number must be raised to 655; and in 1883, no less than 571,093 persons passed through them. In Poland there are 116 lock ups of the same type. The political prisons at the Third Section and in the fortresses are not included in this category. Of convict depots--for prisoners waiting transfer to their final stations--there are ten, with accommodation for 7150; with two for political convicts (at Mtsensk and Vyshniy-Volochok), with accommodation for 140. No less than 112,638 prisoners passed through these prisons in 1883, and from these figures alone it is easy to conceive the overcrowding. Then come the ispravitelnyia arestantskiya otdeleniya, or houses of correction, which are military organizations for the performance of compulsory labor, and which are worse than the hard-labor prisons in Siberia, though they are nominally a lighter punishment. Of these there are 33, with accommodation for 7136 (9609 inmates in 1879). In this category must be included also the 13 "houses of correction:" two large ones with accommodation for 1120 (962 in 1879), and 11 smaller ones for 435. These prisons, however, cannot receive all condemned to this kind of punishment, so that 10,000 men condemned to it remain in the lock-ups. The hard-labor cases are provided for in 17 "central prisons." Of these, there are seven in Russia, with accommodation for 2745; three in Western Siberia, with accommodation for 1150; two in Eastern Siberia, with accommodation for 1650; and one on Sakhalin Island, with accommodation for 600 (1103 inmates in 1879, 802 of January 1st, 1884). No less than 15,444 convicts were kept in these prisons in 1883. Other hard labor convicts--10,424 in number--are distributed among the Government mines, gold washings, and factories in Siberia; namely, at the Kara gold-washings, where there are 2000; at the Troitsk, Ust-Kut, and Irkutsk salt-works, at the Nikolayevsk and Petrovsk iron-works, at a prison at the former silver-works of Akatui, and on the Sakhalin Island. Finally, hard-labor convicts were farmed out, a few years ago, to private owners of gold-washings in Siberia, but this system has been abandoned of late. The severity of the punishment can thus be varied ad infinitum, according to the wish of the authorities and to that degree of revenge which is deemed appropriate.
The great majority of our prisoners (about 100,000) are awaiting trial. They may be recognized for innocent; and in Russia, where arrests are made in the most haphazard way, three times out of ten their innocence is patent to everybody. We learn, in fact, from the annual report of the Ministry of Justice for 1881, that of 98,544 arrests made during that year, only 49,814 cases--that is, one half--could be brought before a court, and that among these 16,675 were acquitted. More than 66,000 persons were thus subjected to arrest and imprisonment without having any serious charge brought against them; and of the 33,139 who were convicted and converted into "criminals," a very large proportion (about 15 percent.) are men and women who have not complied with passport regulations, or with some other vexatious measure of our Administration. It must be noted that all these prisoners, three-quarters of whom are recognized as innocent, spend months, and very often years, in the provincial lock-ups, those famous ostrogs which the traveler sees at the entrance of every Russian town. They lie there idle and hopeless, at the mercy of a set of omnipotent jailers, packed like herrings in a cask, in rooms of inconceivable foulness, in an atmosphere that sickens, even insensibility, any one entering directly from the open air, and which is charged with the emanations of the horrible parasha--a basket kept in the room to serve the necessities of a hundred human beings.
In this connection I cannot do better than quote a few passages from the prison experiences of my friend Madame C----, nee Koutouzoff, who has committed them to paper and inserted them in a Russian review, the Obscheye Dyelo, published at Geneva. She was found guilty of opening a school for peasants' children, independently of the Ministry of Public Instruction. As her crime was not penal, and as, moreover, she was married to a foreigner, General Gourko merely ordered her to be sent over the frontier. This is how she describes her journey from St. Petersburg to Prussia. I shall give extracts from her narrative without comment, merely premising that its accuracy, even to the minutest detail, is absolutely unimpeachable:--
"I was sent to Wilno with fifty prisoners-- men and women. From the railway station we were taken to the town prison and kept there for two hours, late at night, in an open yard, under a drenching rain. At last we were pushed into a dark corridor and counted. Two soldiers laid hold on me and insulted me shamefully. I was not the only one thus outraged, for in the darkness I heard the cries of many desperate women besides. After many oaths and much foul language, the fire was lighted, and I found myself in a spacious room in which it was impossible to take a step in any direction without treading on the women who were sleeping on the floor. Two women who occupied a bed took pity on me, and invited me to share it with them. . . . When I awoke next morning, I was still suffering from the scenes of yesterday; but the female prisoners--assassins and thieves--were so kind to me that by-and-by I grew calm. Next night we were 'turned out' from the prison and paraded in the yard for a start, under a heavy rain. I do not know how I happened to escape the fists of the jailers, as the prisoners did not understand the evolutions and performed them under a storm of blows and curses; those who protested--saying that they ought not to be beaten--were put in irons and sent so to the train, in the teeth of the law which says that in the cellular wagons no prisoner shall be chained.
"Arrived at Kovno, we spent the whole day in going from one police-station to the other. In the evening we were taken to the prison for women, where the lady-superintendent was railing against the head-jailer, and swearing that she would give him bloody teeth. The prisoners told me that she often kept her promises of this sort. . . . Here I spent a week among murderesses, thieves, and women arrested by mistake. Misfortune unites the unfortunate, and everybody tried to make life more tolerable for the rest; all were very kind to me and did the best to console me. On the previous day I had eaten nothing, for the day the prisoners are brought to the prison they receive no food; so I fainted from hunger, and the prisoners gave me of their bread and were as kind as they could be; the female inspector, however, was on duty: she was shouting out such shameless oaths as few drunken men would use. . . . After a week's stay in Kovno, I was sent on foot to the next town. After three days' march we came to Mariampol; my feet were wounded, and my stockings full of blood. The soldiers advised me to ask for a car, but I preferred physical suffering to the continuous cursing and foul language of the chiefs. All the same, they took me before their commander, and he remarked that I had walked three days and so could walk a fourth. We came next day to Wolkowysk, from whence we were to be sent on to Prussia. I and five others were put provisionally in the depot. The women's department was in ruins, so we were taken to the men's. . . . I did not know what to do, as there was no place to sit down, except on the dreadfully filthy floor: there was even no straw, and the stench on the floor set me vomiting instantly. . . .The water-closet was a large pond; it had to be crossed on a broken ladder which gave way under one of us and plunged him in the filth below. I could now understand the smell: the pond goes under the building, the floor of which is impregnated with sewage.
"Here I spent two days and two nights, passing the whole time at the window. . . . In the night the doors were opened, and, with dreadful cries, drunken prostitutes were thrown into our room. They also brought us a maniac; he was quite naked. The miserable prisoners were happy on such occurrences; they tormented the maniac and reduced him to despair, until at last he fell on the floor in a fit and lay there foaming at the mouth. On the third day, a soldier of the depot, a Jew, took me into his room, a tiny cell, where I stayed with his wife. . . .The prisoners told me that many of them were detained 'by mistake' for seven and eight months awaiting their papers before being sent across the frontier. It is easy to imagine their condition after a seven months' stay in this sewer without a change of linen. They advised me to give the jailer money, as he would then send me on to Prussia immediately. But I had been six weeks on the way already, and my letters had not reached my people, . . . At last, the soldier allowed me to go to the postoffice with his wife, and I sent a registered letter to St. Petersburg." Madame C----has influential kinsfolk in the capital, and in a few days the governor-general telegraphed for her to be sent on instantly to Prussia. "My papers (she says) were discovered immediately, and I was sent to Eydtkunen and set at liberty."
It must be owned that the picture is horrible. But it is not a whit overcharged. To such of us Russians as have had to do with prisons, every word rings true and every scene looks normal. Oaths, filth, brutality, bribery, blows, hunger--these are the essentials of every ostrog and of every depot from Kovno to Kamchatka, and from Arkhangel to Erzerum. Did space permit, I might prove it with a score of such stories.
Such are the prisons of Western Russia. They are no better in the East and in the South. A person who was confined at Perm wrote to the Poryadok:--"The jailer is one Gavriloff; . . . beating 'in the jaws' (v mordu), flogging, confinement in frozen black-holes, and starvation--such are the characteristics of the jail. . . .For every complaint the prisoners are sent 'to the bath' (that is, are flogged), or have a taste of the black-hole. . . . The mortality is dreadful." At Vladimir, there were so many attempts at escape that it was made the subject of a special inquiry. The prisoners declared that on the allowance they received it was utterly impossible to keep body and soul together. Many complaints were addressed to headquarters, but they all remained unanswered. At last the prisoners complained to the Moscow Superior Court; but the jailer got to hear of the matter, instituted a search, and took possession of the document. It is easy to imagine that the mortality must be immense in such prisons; but, surely, the reality surpasses all that might be imagined.
The hard-labor department of the civil prison at Perm was built in 1872 for 120 inmates. But by the end of the same year it received 240 prisoners, of whom 90 Circassians some of those poor victims of the Russian conquest who cannot support the rule of the Cossack whip, revolt against it, and are deported by hundreds to Siberia. This prison consists of three rooms, one of which, for instance--27 feet long, 19 feet wide, and 10 feet high--contained thirty-one inhabitants. The overcrowding was the same in the other two rooms, so that the average space was from 202 to 260 cubic feet per each man; that is, let me explain, as if a man were compelled to live in a coffin 8 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 5 feet high. No wonder that the prisoners could not live in such confinement and died. Thus, from the end of 1872 to April 15, 1874, 377 Russians and 138 Circassians entered the prison; they were compelled to live there in dreadful humidity, terrible damp and cold, without anything of the nature of a blanket; and they died in the proportion of 90 Russians and 86 Circassians in the space of fifteen months; that is, twenty-four percent of the Russians and sixty-two per cent. of the Circassians, not to speak, of course, of those who were sent away to die on the route to Siberia. The causes of the deaths were no special epidemics: nothing but scurvy, taking a great variety of forms, very malignant in its character, and often terminating by death (3)
Surely, no Arctic expedition, recent or remote, has been so fatal as detention in a Russian central prison. As to the Perm depot prison for convicts sent to Siberia, the same official publication describes it in words hardly credible: it represents it as incomparably worse. The walls are dripping, there is no question of ventilation, and it is commonly so overcrowded that in the summer every inmate has "less than 124 cubic feet (a coffin of eight feet by five and three) to live and breathe in." (4)
As to the first Kharkoff central prison, the chaplain of this prison said in 1868 from the pulpit, and the Eparchial Gazette of 1869 reproduced the fact, that in the course of four months, of the 500 inmates of the prison two hundred died from scurvy. Things were not better in the Byelgorod prison. Out of 330 inmates who were kept there in 1870, 150 died in the course of the year, and forty-five in the first half of the next year out of the same number of prisoners. (5) At Kieff, the jail was a sink of typhus fever. In one month in 1881, the deaths were counted by hundreds, and fresh batches were brought in to fill the room of those removed by death. This was in all the newspapers. Only a year afterwards (June 12, 1882), a circular from the Chief Board of Prisons explained the epidemics as follows:--"1. The prison was dreadfully overcrowded, although it was very easy to transfer many of the prisoners to other prisons. 2. The rooms were very damp; the walls were covered with mildew, and the floor was rotten in many places. 3. The cesspools were in such a state that the ground about them was impregnated with sewage;" and so on, and so on. The Board added that owing to the same foulness other prisons were also exposed to the same epidemics.
It might be supposed that some improvements have since been made, and the recurrence of such epidemics prevented. At least, the official publication of the Statistical Committee for 1883 would support such a supposition. (6) There remains, however, some doubt as to the accuracy of its figures. Thus, in the three provinces of Perm, Tobolsk, and Tomsk, we find only an aggregate of 431 deaths reported in 1883 among prisoners of all categories. But if we revert to another publication of the same Ministry--the Medical Report for 1883--we find that 1017 prisoners died same year in the hospitals of the prisons of the very same three provinces. (7) And even in 1883, although no special epidemics are mentioned this year, the mortality at the two Kharkoff central prisons appears to have been 104 out of 846 inmates, that is, 123 in the thousand; and the same report states that scurvy and typhus continued their ravages in most Russian prisons, and especially on the way to Siberia.
The chief prison in St. Petersburg, the so called "Litovskiy Zamok," is cleaner; but this old-fashioned, damp, and dark building should simply be leveled to the ground. The common prisoners have a certain amount of work to do. But the political ones are kept in their cells in absolute idleness; and some friends of mine--the heroes of the trial of the hundred and ninety-three who had two years and more of this prison--describe it as one of the worst they know. The cells are very small, very dark, and very damp; and the jailer Makaroff was a wild beast pure and simple. The consequencs of solitary confinement in this prison I have described elsewhere. It is worthy of notice that the common allowance for food is seven kopecks per day, and ten kopecks for prisoners of privileged classes, the price of black rye bread being four kopecks a pound.
But the pride of our authorities--the showplace for the foreign visitors--is the new "House of Detention" at St. Petersburg. It is a "model prison"--the only one of its kind in Russia-built on the plan of the Belgian jails. I know it from personal experience, as I was detained there for three months, before my transfer to the lock-up at the Military Hospital. It is the only clean jail for common prisoners in Russia. Clean it certainly is. The scrubbing-brush is never idle there, and the activity of broom and pail is almost demoniac. It is an exhibition, and the prisoners have to keep it bright. All the morning long do they sweep, and scrub, and polish the asphalt floor; and dearly have they to pay for the shine upon it. The atmosphere is loaded with asphaltic particles (I made a paper-shade for my gas, and in a few hours I could draw patterns with my finger in the dust with which it was coated); and this you have to breathe. The three upper stories receive all the exhalations of the floors below, and the ventilation is so bad that in the evenings, when all doors are shut, the place is literally suffocating. Two or three special committees were appointed one after the other to find out the means of improving the ventilation; and the last one, under the presidency of M. Groth, Secretary of State, reported in June, 1881, that to be made habit- able, the whole building (which has cost twice as much as similar prisons in Belgium and Germany) must be completely rebuilt, as no repairs, however thorough, could make the ventilation tolerable. The cells are ten feet long and five feet wide; and at one time the prison rules obliged us to keep open the traps in our doors to the end that we might not be asphyxiated where we sat. Afterwards the rule was canceled, and the traps were shut, and we were compelled to face as best we could the effects of a temperature that was sometimes stiflingly hot and sometimes freezing. But for the greater activity and life of the place, I should have regretted, all dark and dripping as it was, my casement in the fortress of Peter and Paul--a true grave, where the prisoner for two, three, five years, hears no human voice and sees no human being, excepting two or three jailers, deaf and mute when addressed by the prisoners. I shall never forget the children I met one day in the corridor of the House of Detention. They also, like us, were awaiting trial for months and years. Their grayish yellow, emaciated faces, their frightened and bewildered looks, were worth whole volumes of essays and reports " on the benefits of cellular confinement in a model prison." As for the administration of the House of Detention, sufficient to say that even the Russian papers talked openly of the way in which the prisoners' allowances were sequestrated; so that in 1882, a committee of inquiry was appointed, when it was found that the facts were even darker than had been reported. But all this is a trifle, indeed, in comparison with the treatment of prisoners. Here it was that General Trepoff ordered Bogoluboff to be flogged because he did not take his hat off on meeting the omnipotent satrap, had the prisoners who protested in their cells knocked down and beaten, and afterwards confined several of them--for five days--in cells by the washing-rooms, among excrement and in a temperatures of 110 degrees Fahr. (45 degrees Celsius). In the face of these facts, what pitiful irony is conveyed in an English panegyrist's admiring remark:--" Those who wish to know what Russia can do, ought to visit this House of Detention"! All that Imperial Russia really can do, is to build prisons where the prisoners are robbed, or flogged by madmen, and edifices which must be rebuilt five years after their construction.
The great variety of punishments inflicted under our penal code may be divided broadly into four categories. The first is that of hard labor, with the loss of all civil rights. The convict's property passes to his heirs; he is dead in law, and his wife can marry another; he may be flogged with rods, or with the plete (cat-o'-nine-tails) ad libitum by each drunken jailer. After having been kept to hard-labor in the Siberian mines, or factories, he is settled for life somewhere in the country. The second category is that of compulsory colonization, accompanied by a complete or partial loss of civil rights, and is equivalent to Siberia for life. The third category deals with all convicts condemned to compulsory labor in the arrestantskiya roty, without loss of civil rights. The fourth--omitting much of less importance--consists of banishment to Siberia, with out trial, and by order of the Executive merely, for life, or for an undetermined period.
Formerly, the hard-labor convicts were sent straight off to Siberia: to the mines belonging "to the Cabinet of the Emperor"--which are, in other words, the private property of the Imperial family. Some of these, however, got worked out; others were found (or represented) as so unremunerative in the hands of the Crown administration that they were sold to private persons who made fortunes with them; and Russia in Europe was compelled to take charge of her hard-labor cases herself. A few central prisons were therefore built in Russia, where convicts are kept for a time (one third to one-fourth of their sentence) before being sent to Siberia or Sakhalin. Society at large is of course inclined to regard hard labor convicts as the worst of criminals. But in Russia this is very far from being the case. Murder, robbery, burglary, forgery, will all bring a man to hard labor; but so, too, will an attempt at suicide; so will "sacrilege and blasphemy," which usually mean no more than dissent; so will " rebellion "--or rather what is called rebellion in Russia--which is mostly no more than common disobedience to authorities; so will any and every sort of political offense; and so will "vagrancy," that mostly means escape from Siberia. Among the murderers, too, you will find not only the professional shedder of blood--a very rare type with us--but men who have taken life under such circumstances as, before a jury, or in the hands of an honest advocate, would have ensured their acquittal. In any case, only 30 per cent. or so of the 2000 to 2500 men and women yearly sent down to hard-labor are condemned as assassins. The rest--in nearly equal proportions--are either " vagrants " or men and women charged with one of the just-mentioned minor offenses.
The Central Prisons were instituted with the idea of inflicting a punishment of the severest type. The idea was--there can, I am afraid be no doubt about it--that you could not take too little trouble with convicts, nor get rid of them too soon. To this end these prisons were provided with such jailers and keepers--mostly military officers--as were renowned for cruelty; and these ruffians were gifted with full power over their charges, and with full liberty of action, and had orders to be as harsh as possible. The end to which they were appointed has been magnificently attained: the Central Prisons are so many practical hells: the horrors of hard-labor in Siberia have paled before them, and all those who have experience of them are unanimous in declaring that the day a prisoner starts for Siberia is the happiest of his life.
Exploring these prisons as a "distinguished visitor," you will, if you are in search of emotions, be egregiously disappointed. You will see no more than a dirty building, crammed with idle inmates lounging and sprawling on the broad, inclined platforms which run round the walls, and are covered with nothing but a sheet of filth. You may be permitted to visit a number of cells for "secret" or political cases; and if you question the in mates, you will certainly be told by them that they are "quite satisfied with everything." To know the reality, one must oneself have been a prisoner. Records of actual experience are few; but they exist, and to one of the most striking I propose to refer. It was written of an officer who was condemned to hard labor for an assault committed in a moment of excitement and who was pardoned by the Czar after a few years' detention. His story was published in a Conservative review (the Russkaya Ryech, for January, 1882), at a time, under Loris-Melikoff's administration, when there was much talk of prison reform and some liberty in the press; and there was not a journal that did not recognize the unimpeachable veracity of this tale. The experience of our friends wholly confirms it.
There is nothing uncommon in the account of the material circumstances of life in this Central Prison. They are in some sort in. variable all over Russia. If we know that the jail was built for 250 inmates, and actually contained 400, we do not need to inquire more about sanitary conditions. In like manner, the food was neither better nor worse than elsewhere. Seven kopecks (1 3/4d) a day is a very poor allowance per prisoner, and the jailer and bursar being family men, of course they save as much as they can. A quarter of a pound of black rye bread for breakfast; a soup made of bull's heart and liver, or of seven pounds of meat, twenty pounds of waste oats, twenty pounds of sour cabbage, and plenty of water--many Russian prisoners would consider it as an enviable food. The moral conditions of life are not so satisfying. All day long there is nothing to do--for weeks, and months, and years. There are workshops, it is true; but to these only skilled craftsmen (whose achievements are the prison-keeper's perquisite) are admitted. For the others there is neither work, nor hope of work--unless it is in stormy weather, when the governor may set one half of them to shovel the snow into heaps, and the other half to shovel it flat again. The blank monotony of their lives is only varied by chastisement. In the particular prison of which I am writing, the punishments were varied and ingenious. For smoking, and minor offenses of that sort, a prisoner could get two hours of kneeling on the bare flags, in a spot--the thoroughfare of icy winter winds--selected diligently ad hoc. The next punishment for the same minor offenses was the blackholes--the warm one, and the cold one underground with a temperature at freezing point. In both, prisoners slept on the stones' and the term of durance depended on the will of the governor.
"Several of us" (says our author) "were kept there for a fortnight; after which some were literally dragged out into daylight and then dismissed to the land where pain and suffering are not." Is it any wonder that during the four years over which the writer's experience extended, the average mortality in the prison should have been thirty per cent. per annum? "It must not be thought" (the writer goes on to say) "that those on whom penalties of this sort were inflicted were hardened desperadoes; we incurred them if we saved a morsel of bread from dinner for supper, or if a match was found on a prisoner." The insubordinate were treated after another fashion. One, for instance, was kept for nine months in solitary confinement in a dark cell--originally intended for cases of ophthalmia--and came out all but blind and mad. There is worse to follow.
"In the evening" (he continues) "the governor went his rounds and usually began his favorite occupation--flogging. A very narrow bench was brought out, and soon the place resounded with shrieks, while the governor, smoking a cigar, looked on and counted the lashes. The birch-rods were of exceptional size, and when not in use were kept immersed in water to make them more pliant. After the tenth lash the shrieking ceased, and nothing was heard but groans. Flogging was usually applied in batches, to five, ten men, or more, and when the execution was over, a great pool of blood would remain to mark the spot. Our neighbors without the walls used at these times to pass to the other side of the street, crossing themselves in horror and dread. After every such scene we had two or three days of comparative peace; for the flogging had a soothing influence on the governor's nerves. He soon, however, became himself again. When he was very drunk, and his left mustache was dropping and limp, or when he went out shooting and came home with an empty bag, we knew that that same evening the rods would be set to work." After this it is unnecessary to speak about many other revolting details of life in the same prison. But there is a thing that foreign visitors would do well to lay to heart.
"On one occasion" (the writer says) "we were visited by an inspector of prisons. After casting a look down the scuttle, he asked us if our food was good? or was there anything of which we could complain? Not only did the inmates declare that they were completely satisfied, they even enumerated articles of diet which we had never so much as smelt. This sort of thing" (he adds) "is only natural. If complaints were made, the inspector would lecture the governor a little and go away; while the prisoners who made them would remain behind and be paid for their temerity with the rod or the black-hole."
The prison in question is close by St. Petersburg. What more remote provincial prisons are like, my readers may imagine. I have mentioned above those of Perm and Khardoff; and, according to the Golos, the Central Prison at Simbirsk is a center of peculation and thievery. In only two of the central prisons, namely at Wilno and Simbirsk, the inmates are occupied with some useful work. At Tobolsk, the authorities, being at their wits' end how to occupy the inmates, discovered a law of March 28th, 1870, which ordered the prisoners to be occupied in the removal of sand, stones, or cannon-balls from one place to another, and from there back again; and they acted accordingly for some time, in order to give some exercise to the inmates, and prevent the spreading of scurvy. As to the other hard labor prisons, with the exception of some book binding, or some repairs made by a few prisoners, the great bulk spent their life in absolute idleness. "All these prisoners are in the same abominable state as those of the old times" writes a Russian explorer. (8)
One of the worst of the hard-labor prisons was that of Byelgorod, in the province of Kharkoff, and it was there that the political prisoners condemned to hard-labor were detained in 1874 to 1882, before being sent to Siberia. The first three batches of our friends--those of the Dolgushin and Dmohovsky trial, the trial of the fifty at Moscow, and that of the hundred and ninety-three at St. Petersburg,--were sent to that prison. The most alarming reports were in circulation about this grave, where seventy prisoners were buried without being allowed to have any intercourse of any kind with the outer world, and without any occupation. They had mothers, sisters, who, undaunted by repeated refusals, never ceased to apply to all who had any authority at St. Petersburg, to obtain permission to see-were it only for a few minutes-their sons, or their brothers. It was known through the Byelgorod people that the treatment of the prisoners was execrable; from time to time it was reported that somebody had died, or that another had gone mad; but that was all. State secrets, however, cannot be kept ad infinitum. The time came when one mother obtained permission to see her son, once a month, for one hour, in the presence of the governor of the prison, and she did not hesitate to live under the walls of the prison for the sake of these short and rare interviews with her son. And then, came the year 1880, when it was discovered at St. Petersburg (after the explosion at the Winter Palace) that it was no longer possible to torture political prisoners at Byelgorod, and to refuse them the right they had acquired to be transported to a hard-labor prison in Siberia. So, in October, 1880, thirty of our comrades were transported from Byelgorod to Mtsensk. It was found that they could not bear the long Journey to the Nertchinsk mines, and they were brought to Mtsensk, to recover a little strength. Then the truth came out. Reports about the confinement at Kharkoff were published in the Russian revolutionary papers, and partially penetrated also the press of St. Petersburg; written accounts of the life at Byelgorod were circulated. It then became known that the prisoners had been kept for three to five years in solitary confinement, and in irons, in dark, damp cells that measured only ten feet by six; that they lay there absolutely idle, absolutely isolated from any intercourse with human beings. The daily allowance of the Crown being five farthings a day, they received only bread and water, and thrice or four times a week a small bowl of warm soup, with a few grits mixed with every kind of rubbish. Ten minutes' walk in the yard each second day, was all the time allowed to breathe fresh air. No bed, no sort of pillow, nothing whatever to cover them; for the rest, they slept on the bare floor, with some of their clothes put under their heads, wrapped in the prisoner's gray cloak. Unbearable loneliness, absolute silence; no occupation of any kind! It was only after three whole years of such confinement that they were allowed to have some books.
Knowing by two years and a half of personal experience what solitary confinement is, I do not hesitate to say that, as practiced in Russia, it is one of the cruelest tortures man can suffer. The prisoner's health, however robust, is irreparably-ruined. Military science teaches that in a beleaguered garrison which has been for several months on short rations, the mortality increases beyond measure. This is still more true of men in solitary confinement. The want of fresh air, the lack of exercise for body and mind, the habit of silence, the absence of those thousand and one impressions, which, when at liberty, we daily and hourly receive, the fact that we are open to no impressions that are not imaginative--all these combine to make solitary confinement a sure and cruel form of murder. If conversation with neighbor prisoners (by means of light knocks on the wall) is possible, it is a relief, the immensity of which can be duly appreciated only by those who have been condemned for one or two years to absolute separation from all humanity. But it is also a new source of suffering, as very often your own moral sufferings are increased by those you experience from witnessing day by day the growing madness of your neighbor, when you perceive in each of his messages the dreadful images that beset and overrun his tormented brain. That is the kind of confinement to which political prisoners are submitted when awaiting trial for three or four years. But it is still worse after the condemnation, when they are brought to the Kharkoff Central Prison. Not only the cells are darker and damper than elsewhere, and the food is worse than common; but, in addition, the prisoners are carefully maintained in absolute idleness. No books, no writing materials, and no implements for manual labor. No means of easing the tortured mind, nor anything on which to concentrate the morbid activity of the brain; and, in proportion as the body droops and sickens, the spirit becomes wilder and more desperate. Physical suffering is seldom or never insupportable; the annals of war, of martyrdom, of sickness abound in instances in proof. But moral torment--after years of infliction--is utterly intolerable. This our friends have found to their cost. Shut up in the fortresses and houses of detention first of all, and after wards in the central prisons, they go rapidly to decay, and either go calmly to the grave, or become lunatics. They do not go mad as, after being outraged by gendarmes, Miss M---, the promising young painter, went mad. She was bereft of reason instantly; her madness was simultaneous with her shame. Upon them insanity steals gradually and slowly: the mind rots in the body "from hour to hour."
In July, 1878, the life of the prisoners at the Kharkoff prison had become so insupportable, that six of them resolved to starve themselves to death. For a whole week they refused to eat, and when the governor-general ordered them to be fed by injection, such scenes ensued as obliged the prison authorities to abandon the idea. To seduce them back to life, officialism made them certain promises: as, for instance, to allow them walking exercise, and to take the sick out of irons. None of these promises were kept. It was only later on, when several had died, and two went mad (Plotnikoff and Bogoluboff), that the prisoners obtained the privilege of sawing some wood in the yard, in company with two Tartars, who understood not a word of Russian. Only after obstinate demands for work, after weeks spent in black-holes for that obstinacy, they obtained some work in the cells by the end of the third year of their detention.
In October, 1880, a first party of thirty prisoners, condemned mostly in 1874, was sent to the Mtsensk depot before being dispatched to Siberia. They were followed in the course of the winter by forty more of their comrades, from the hundred and ninety-three. All were designated for the Kara gold mines in Neztchinsk. They knew well the fate that was reserved for them, and still the day they left the Byelgorod hell was considered as a day of deliverance. After the Central Prison, hard labor in Siberia looks like a paradise.
I have before me an account written by a person who was allowed to visit one of the prisoners at the Msensk depot, and I never saw anything more touching than this plain tale. It was written under the fresh impression of interviews at Mtsensk with a beloved being recovered after many years of disappearance from the world; and with a forgiving heart the writer consecrates but a few lines, a dozen or so, to the horrors that had been suffered at Byelgorod. "I shall not insist on these horrors"--it stands in the account--" because I am eager to tell what has been a warm ray of light in the great darkness of the prisoners' life," and pages are filled in describing in detail the joy of the short interviews at Mtsensk with those who for so many years had been buried alive.
"Old and young people, parents, wives, sisters and brothers, all were coming to Mtsensk from different parts of Russia, from different classes of society; the common joy of the interviews and the common sorrow of parting had united them into one great family... What a dear, precious time it was!"
"What a dear, precious time it was!"--What a depth of sorrow appears in this exclamation coming from the very heart of the writer, when one knows that the interviews were interviews with prisoners who were going to leave Russia for ever, who had a journey of more than four thousand miles before them, who had to be transported for ever to the land of sorrow--Siberia! " What a dear, precious time it was!" And my informant minutely describes the interviews; the supplies of food they brought to; the prisoners to invigorate them after a six years' seclusion, the tools to give them some distraction; the tidy preparations for the long journey through Siberia; the padding they were manufacturing to prevent the chains from wounding the ankles of those five who had to perform the whole of the journey in irons; and finally, the sight of a long row of carts, with two prisoners and two gendarmes in each, which took them away to the next railway station, and the sorrow of parting with beloved beings, none of whom have yet returned, while so many have died either on the journey or in Siberian jails, and so many again have put an end to their lives from sheer despair of ever seeing the day of liberation. . . .
The above fully shows what the common-law prisons in Russia are. More pages could be filled with like descriptions, more separate jails could be described, it would be a mere repetition. New and old prisoners are alike. The whole of our penal institutions is described in one sentence of that record of prison-life on which I have already drawn so much:--
"In conclusion," writes the author, "I must add that the prison now rejoices in another governor. The old one quarreled with the treasurer on the subject of peculation from the prisoners' allowance, and in the end they were both dismissed. The new governor is not such a ruffian as his predecessor; I understand, however, that with him the prisoners are starved far more than formerly, and that he is in the habit of giving full play to his fists on the countenances of his charges."
This remark sums up the whole "Reform of Prisons" in Russia. One tyrant may be dismissed, but he will be succeeded by some one as bad, or even worse, than himself. It is not by changing a few men, but only by changing completely from top to bottom the whole system, that any amelioration can be made; and such is also the conclusion of a special committee recently appointed by the Government. But it would be mere self-delusion to conceive improvement possible under such a regime as we now enjoy. At least half a dozen commissions have already gone forth to inquire, and all have come to the conclusion that unless the Government is prepared to meet extraordinary expenses, our prisons must remain what they are. But honest and capable men are far more needed than money, and these the present Government cannot and will not discover. They exist in Russia, and they exist in great numbers; but their services are not required. There was, for instance, one honest man, Colonel Kononovitch, chief of the penal settlement at Kara. Without any expense to the Crown, M. Kononovitch had repaired the weather worn, rotten buildings, and had made them more or less habitable; with the microscopic means at his disposal, he contrived to improve the food. But the praise of an occasional visitor of the Kara colony, together with like praise contained in a letter intercepted on its way from Siberia, were sufficient reasons for rendering M. Kononovitch suspicious to our Government. He was immediately dismissed, and his successor received the order to reintroduce the iron rule of past years. The political convicts, who enjoyed a relative liberty after the legal term of imprisonment had expired, were put in irons once more; not all, however, as two have preferred to kill themselves; and once more affairs are ordered as the Government desires to see them. Another gentleman in Siberia, General Pedashenko, has been dismissed too, for refusing to confirm a sentence of death which had been passed by a military tribunal on the convict Schedrin, found guilty of striking an officer for insulting two of his fellow sufferers, MM. Bogomolets and Kovalsky.
It is everywhere the same. To devote oneself to any educational work, or to the convict population, is inevitably to incur dismissal and disgrace. Near St. Petersburg we have a reformatory--a penal settlement for children and growing lads. To the cause of these poor creatures a gentleman named Herd--grandson of the famous Scotchman employed by Alexander I. in the reform of our prisons--had devoted himself body and soul. He had an abundance of energy and charm; his whole heart was in the work; he might have rivaled Pestalozzi. Under his ennobling influence boy-thieves and ruffians, penetrated with all the vises of the streets and the lock ups, learned to be men in the best sense of the word. To send a boy away from the common labor grounds or from the classes was the greatest punishment admitted in this penal colony, which soon became a real model colony. But men like Herd are not the men our Government is in need of. He was dismissed from his place, and the institution he ruled so wisely has become a genuine Russian prison, complete even to the rod and the black-hole.
These examples are typical both of what we have to suffer and of what we have to expect. It is a fancy to imagine that anything could be reformed in our prisons. Our prisons are the reflection of the whole of our life under the present regime; and they will remain what they are now until the whole of our system of government and the whole of our life have undergone a thorough change. Then, but only then, "Russia may show what it can realize;" but this, with regard to crime, would be--I hope--something quite different from what is now understood by the name of "a good prison."
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