“Death on the stage” – a painting (1891) by Jacek Malczewski depicting Polish deportees in Siberia (Source:
National Museum in Poznań/www.pinakoteka.zascianek.pl/Wikimedia Commons)

Between 1861 and 1881 the largest single category of political prisoners in Siberia were the Poles. Most of the exiles tended to be insurgents or suspected insurgents, as well as persons accused of aiding and harboring the buntovschiki.

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

A leading expert on imperial Russia’s penal issues, including St. Petersburg’s use and abuse of Siberia as its favorite dumping ground for undesirables, Andrew A. Gentes has given us a rare treat: a well-researched and trenchantly argued monograph on The Mass Deportation of Poles to Siberia, 1863-1880. This is a study of Russian deportation policies and the Tsar’s treatment of an imperial minority group, the Poles (p. viii-ix). “The mass deportation of Poles between 1863 and 1880 was perhaps the largest forced migration of Europeans prior to World War I. It resulted in thousands upon thousands of personal tragedies, a small minority of which were ever documented” (p. 79). Yet, their harrowing ordeal under Mother Russia and Little Father (batiushka) Tsar has been grossly neglected lately by English-speaking academia.

The Australian scholar proposes to remedy that and acquits himself very well. He purposefully eschews delving into much detail of the lot of the Poles at home. Instead, he focuses on their exile experience. His is first and foremost a social history of the Polish political prisoners. Most of them were Catholics commoners. “The book considers the Russian government’s mass deportation of Poles within the context of its expansion of both the exile population and the exile system. It demonstrates that Alexander II not only perpetuated his father Nicholas I’s police state, but significantly expanded it” (p. 8). So much for the Tsar Liberator.

Between 1861 and 1881 the largest single category of political prisoners in Siberia were the Poles. “Virtually all of the deportees were male. But some women were caught up in the maelstrom” (p. 105). Most of the exiles tended to be insurgents or suspected insurgents, as well as persons accused of aiding and harboring the buntovschiki. This last category included priests, who either preached patriotic sermons, or helped the needy, including tending the wounded and feeding and sheltering the freedom fighters. “Half of all the insurrectionists deported to Siberia originated in the Western Provinces, where the ethnically Polish population was smaller than that of even the Jews, let alone Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians” (p. 85).

Entire nobility hamlets and neighborhoods were razed to the ground and their inhabitants dispatched to Siberia. For example, in 1865 alone 12,035 were deported from the Seized Lands, including 7557 commoners (prostoliudiny) and 4,478 nobility (p. 94-95). At the end of 1867, 7,109 insurgents arrived in Siberia, and most of them were noblemen – 4,252 (p. 132). In 1868-1869 over 9,000 were exiled from the whole of the Russian partition. The last convoy containing 46 “criminals” sentenced to Siberia for their part in the January Rising departed from the Polish lands to the far north of the Empire on July 16, 1880. There was no forgiveness (p. 106).

Most Poles were not sentenced to Siberia by civil courts. Many fell under the jurisdiction of military courts which were much more ruthless. But it seems that as far as an overwhelming majority of the exiles, Russia dispensed with any court system at all. Instead, the Poles suffered the arbitrariness of administrative exile. Not judges but bureaucrats decided their fate. This system was soon extended from the occupied Polish lands to the rest of the Empire (p. 8).

The ordeal of the prisoners started at the outset of the trek east and north. Sometimes the prisoners had to walk in chains all the way to their destination sometimes taking as much as two years on the road. Probably the death rate was highest en route. On the other hand, it was surprisingly low in Siberia. “The best explanation for the apparently low mortality rates is that the insurrectionists tended to be young and, compared to the average Russian exile, much healthier” (p. 117).

There were a number of categories of the deportees. The most unlucky ones were sentenced to hard labor (katorga). That could entail slaving away in a gold mine chained to a wheelbarrow for 25 years. Some of the exiles were lucky to be able to parley their education and skills into marketable jobs that eased their predicament, at times even significantly as the exiles worked as tutors to prominent officials or merchants as well as engineers in mining and industries. A few reinvented themselves as geographers, geologists, and naturalists in situ. Most, however, eked out a miserable existence. That was one of the main reasons why the Poles fought strenuously to get from the Siberian countryside to urban areas. The city presented more opportunities to improve one’s lot.

According to Gentes, “relations between the Poles and Siberians were both confrontational and amicable” (p. 136). They reflected the individual personalities of the insurgents as well as the general predicament the unfortunates found themselves in. There was no infrastructure, and hardly any provisions for them. There were no resources to support them. The ex-insurgents had no means to make a viable living as farmers. Further, St. Petersburg and its local officials mandated that the Siberian locals (both indigenous and Russian colonist) maintain the exiles.

This created a lot of tensions. The locals resented the Polish exiles as penniless interlopers and freeloaders. Even if they did not, what could have been done for the insurgents? “There were so many needy Polish exiles that peasants could not help them all” (p. 139). Some of the Poles, in turn, regarded their new neighbors not as fellow unfortunates, but as snitches and stooges of the regime. Indeed, many of the locals informed on the former insurgents. They even helped re-capture fugitives.

Under the circumstances, although a number of brave souls did try to escape, only very few succeeded. The Poles also rebelled with very slim results, including the staging of a major uprising of the Balkai-Circle Road on 25 June 1866. At any rate, another way to get out of Siberia was to either passively await an amnesty or pursue actively an act of clemency.

From the point of view of efficiency, the exile was an absolute waste of time and resources. “The immediate consequence of the imperial government’s insertion of thousands of insurrectionists into a penal system that could not accommodate them were as follows: the system collapsed, exiles suffered and died, escapes by the desperate and despairing proliferated” (p. 203). Nonetheless, Siberia under the Tsar was not the same as the Gulag under the Commissar: “it would therefore seem that if a Pole survived the march-route into Siberia and either his term in katorga or the countryside, he had a good chance of being able to return home. However, he would have had to return the way he came, along the same march-route with prisons, way-stations, embezzling guards, and common criminals. How many more Poles died attempting to repatriate will never be known” (p. 226).

Andrew Gentes’s general conclusion is pretty sad: “Like many tyrannical systems, such as that in British India, Russia’s survived thanks in large part to society’s cooperation in its own subjugation” (p. 7). By and large, the Russian peasants and other downtrodden chose not to rebel against the Tsarist authority in Siberia. So the system endured. At least the Poles did not put up with it. And they paid the price. The Mass Deportation of Poles to Siberia, 1863-1880 is a rare treat in a desert on Polish topics, in particular the Siberian experience.

We would like to thank prof. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz for sharing this article.