Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/September 1885/Siberia and the Exiles
WHOEVER associates with the name of Siberia the idea of a vast prison is involved in as great an error as the person who conceives the country as an icy desert or an interminable tundra. The tundras, whose icy fields form a prominent feature in the polar regions, with the stunted vegetation of their southern parts, are no myths, nor is it a fiction that the Russian Government, following the example of France and England, has adopted a system of penal colonies, and has planted them in Siberia. But by far the larger part of this immense territory has been spared the presence of convicts; and the districts in which the residence of persons of that class will justify the application of such a designation occupy a relatively small space in the country. It can not be denied that the transported persons, so far as they do not work in the mines, are subjected to a very strong restraint, but it is in no respect more severe than that which is imposed in the houses of correction of our highly civilized lands. Siberia is regarded by the mass of readers as a country full of discomfort and misery, and it is very hard to controvert that view. It is too much the fashion to consider the Russians as barbarians, and to accuse them of inhumanity. I feel compelled to enter a decided protest against so unjust a condemnation, and to assert as a fact that there are greater barbarians in Europe than the Russians. We shall have to apologize for the whole human race, before we can describe the Russians as the greatest barbarians. I myself formerly believed that one had only to scratch Russians to bring out their barbarism, but I have more recently had occasion to form my judgment from my own unprejudiced observations on the spot, and I consider it my duty, and the duty of every just and truthful man, to bear witness to the incontrovertible truth, and give an energetic protest against such systematic a priori depreciation of a people I have learned to respect. It is true that there are, in the great Russian Empire, as well as in other countries, men who might, should, and ought to be better, but we curiously see only the shady side of Russian conditions, and then perversely suppose that there is nothing good on the other side of the Muscovite lines. I can readily and with perfect conviction declare that, among the educated Russians of Russia, there are manifest a spirit of progress and a striving after better and higher things such as exist nowhere else, and that many of them afford rare examples of magnanimity and generosity. If we consider it from a purely geographical point of view, we shall find that Siberia is in no way, as a whole, a land of misery and terror. It is true that away up in the north are the immense ice-fields and the high moors, and the short, insignificant vegetation of the tundra does not offer an attractive picture; but there is also a larger Southern Siberia, where there is room for all kinds of enterprise, reward for every kind of work, and good living for every industrious man. Material suffering can not be spoken of in this [part of the land; but in an intellectual sense there is much lacking without which we can hardly think of life. Thus, it seems to us something to be lamented that the people are four or five weeks behind the current events of the world. But if the question is one of making a living by means of hard work and a rugged constitution, and particularly of making a new start in life, then Siberia is to be preferred to nearly every other country. Yes, a new era has dawned over Siberia, and along the highways famous for "sighs, where night and day, with the frightful clang of chains, with lamentations, groans, and agony, the prisoners were driven on by the cruel knout," are now wending free men, joyous with hope, with their families and goods, going to build up a more comfortable home than the old one in the rich fields of the Southeast. And all those who give themselves earnestly to it see their enterprise crowned with success. The false representations which are so widely spread respecting Siberia originate in the numerous maliciously colored descriptions of the country, and judgments of its condition, that flow from the pens of famous convicts. I can not exactly pronounce these reports unjust, but they should not be taken as wholly correct. It is a recognized fact that misery and wickedness pain the eye and the heart and provoke erroneous and unjust statements; particularly when, as is the case with the majority of the exiles in question, the conditions are complicated with politics. The situation of the ordinary exiles in the mines and of the settled convicts is relatively much better than that of the miners who are laboring under the despotism of capital in Germany. If one has no especial back-sets in Siberia, if he can and will work, he will be able under all ordinary circumstances to earn a most comfortable living there. When I crossed the Ural the first time, I had only the ethnographic side of my journey in view, and thought little or nothing of the ethical side, which bore no relation to the object I was then seeking. I was not concerned with the exiles, nor in general could any man who stood in open conflict with the laws, not even a political dynamiter or murderer, have aroused any interest in me. But, from the moment when I found myself in the heart of Siberia and came in contact with its exiles, I felt it my duty to examine the ethical question more closely. I have gone down into the dens of vice, and made the acquaintance of the most common criminals—of thieves, robbers, and murderers; I have associated with political exiles; I have sought information everywhere; have made inquiries of officers and private persons, have visited prisons, collected statistics, taken down numerous biographies as given by the exiles from their own mouths, or as recorded by impartial persons; in short, I have become a regular philanthropist. I am aware of one thing, that I have taken all pains to discover the truth, and, if I have not been successful in it, the want of success must not be attributed to lack of good-will, but to the defects of my sources of information.
To make possible an impartial view of the condition of the exiles and prisoners in Siberia, we must first try to learn what the free-born Siberians may attain; and it is therefore incumbent on me to describe the general conditions before proceeding to the illustration and estimation of the situation of the convicts.
It is the region of the mines of the Altai, which, like most of Siberia, is an imperial crown-land, that should more especially be brought under view, for thither are sent those offenders whose sentences to death have been commuted; and the district plays an important part in the more or less romantically tinged accounts of affairs that are sent out. The region, which comprises 8,200 geographical miles, is rich, immensely rich, in subterranean treasures. It is penetrated by veins of silver and gold. Up to the year 1861, seven hundred and thirty mines were opened, and two hundred and sixty abandoned. The precious metals are not the principal treasure; the region also contains copper, tin, antimony, lead, and iron, and includes an immense coal-field. The surface of the land is correspondingly productive, and will compare well in agricultural capacity with the best parts of Germany. The climate is generally mild. During four months a hot summer prevails, which is followed by two months of autumn, four of winter, and two of spring. The mean temperature is not high enough perfectly to ripen grapes, but oranges grow well in the southern parts. The fact that the people live to be very old is the best testimony to the good qualities of the climate. When I traveled over the country, in 1876, I was assured that only four doctors were settled within the whole of the vast territory, and they did not live in very great luxury. Men die here of old age without the help of medicine, and live long and happily without doctors.
Since the house of Romanoff has taken possession of the country, any one can settle there, cultivate such land as suits him, and erect factories, on the single condition of paying an annual rent of thirty copeks—about seventeen cents—per acre; but the fee of the land remains the Czar's; the tenant can cut the wood, but the soil belongs to the imperial domain. He can not mine for gold and silver, or other metals, for these go with the title to the land. As it always has been and is now generally in the Russian Empire, the old ways are encroached upon in every direction. The Romanoffs had for the exploitation of the mines mingled a number of their serfs from Russia with the men already there, and no one could enter upon a systematic or regular cultivation of the soil. The serf-laborers, with their wives and children, received as much as was necessary to satisfy their wants. Till 1861 the population consisted, with rare exceptions, of imperial officers and socage-laborers, mining experts, and superintendents, who were always trained men, and contributed much to the amelioration of the manners of their underlings, who, in other respects, had much to complain of in their treatment. On the 1st of March, 1861, there were living on the crown-lands 145,630 souls, or, in round numbers, 350,000 persons—for in Russia women and minors are not enumerated in the statistical reports. In the mines alone more than 25,000 men were employed, when Czar Alexander, with a stroke of the pen, abolished serfdom, not out of humanity, but in order to weaken the political power of the Staroste.
The serfs in the mines represented only about half of the 25,000 miners—or 12,000 men—and became free peasants without owning any property in the real sense of that word, all lands belonging to the Czar; but they received as much land as they needed, on the usual terms of a ground-rent of thirty copecks per acre. The other half of the miners continued at their old employment, and are now efficient laborers, who accomplish more in freedom than they formerly did in servitude, so that the mines are becoming more profitable every year. Up to the year 1861 the return in most cases did not cover the outlay. In order to cover the deficiency of laboring forces, persons condemned to death and then pardoned were added to the free miners.
From this time agriculture improved rapidly, and in the year 1876 half of Siberia was already settled. A free peasantry was formed, such as we might desire to see in the whole of the country. There are no servile persons like the Russian peasants, and, when I occasionally by inadvertence called them "Russians," they would immediately inform me that I was mistaken, they were "Siberians." "There is no servitude here," they would add; "we are all free men. Heaven is high and the Czar rich, but we have nothing to fear, for we are in Siberia." Not the farmers alone, but the officers also, are inflated with this air of freedom, and not unfrequently may we hear from the mouth of one of the latter such words as, "If you want to see slaves, you must go back over the Ural into Russia, where their home is." And these people speak with truth, for, although serfdom is legally abolished in Russia, it continues to exist in fact, even among the mercantile classes.
I had already been told in Russia that prosperity was generally prevailing in Siberia, and shone in strong contrast with Russian poverty, and I am again obliged to say here that even Russian poverty is not so repulsively conspicuous as the misery in the German factory and mining districts. I do not go too far in asserting that the Siberians lead a happy life; and the best evidence in confirmation of this opinion is found in the fact that the idea of an independent Siberia, not attached to Russia, has already begun to dawn in a few speculative minds. I must guard myself against the suspicion that I am falling into a merely subjective judgment. My opinion is founded on careful observations and conscientious inquiries. It is generally known that in all countries and governments the farmers are always complaining of hard times and high taxes, and I therefore took special pains to compare these peculiar complaints with the representations of the officers. I had arranged a kind of informal catechism in my head, and used it on every suitable opportunity. The answers were, in all cases, if not literally, substantially alike, and I can not forbear repeating one set of them here. My conductor and myself were staying a short time in a little mountain-town, and in one of my excursions I overtook an old peasant who I afterward learned was the head-man of a small village. I invited him to take a seat in my carriage, and at once opened my catechism upon him:
"How is it with you here?" said I.
"God bears with our sins," he replied.
"Yes, he is very merciful, but bow are affairs otherwise?"
"We are contented."
"How are the wife and daughters?"
"They are contented."
"And the other children?"
"They are all contented."
This peasant answered my first three questions with the words" We are contented." I was born among farmers, and believe that I know them well, as I have had much to do with them, but no German farmer ever told me he was contented.
I next turned from the family to the live-stock, and asked, "How many horses have you?
"Thirty or thirty-five."
"Don't you know exactly?"
"No, there may be some new colts, and some may have been stolen or eaten by wolves. I sometimes use six, sometimes eight, and sometimes fourteen."
"Then you have twenty more than you use. You will sell them?"
" That may be."
"But what will you do with so many extra beasts?"
" That's nothing to you."
I would remark that the last answer is a polite form of expression among Siberian farmers. I continued:
"And how many head of cattle have you?"
"That is my wife's affair."
"And how many hogs?"
"How large crops do your fields return?"
"I am satisfied if I get ten times as much as I sow."
"Are your taxes heavy?"
"We are satisfied with them."
"Have you farmers nothing to complain of?"
"Oh, yes, we are getting crowded here; there are beginning to be too many people in the country. If I were not so old, I should move farther east."
"But," I replied, in surprise, "where are the villages? I don't see any."
My village-chief was silent, and shook his head doubtfully. The fact was, the nearest village was ten miles away. The man was satisfied with himself and his family, satisfied with his live-stock and his crops, and satisfied with his taxes, and over-population was apparently the only thing which he and his peers conceived needed to be set right. On this point we should remember that not nearly all the land is yet taken up, and that many of the farms are as large as, and sometimes larger than, the most extensive German manors. Even a spoiled American farmer would be satisfied with such an area. In the midst of these extensive estates stands the spacious log-house, surrounded with barns and sheds, which, possibly, are not large enough. Hardly anything is large enough for the Siberian. I have made personal confirmation of this greed for extension and space in the towns, where it is often carried to excess; thus I have seen parlors where the mirrors and sofas could be counted by the dozen. In bright contrast with the stereotyped complaints of the farmers concerning the too thick population is the fact that they are all proud of having a numerous progeny. The farmer loves his land, his cattle, his summer and fall, but he loves above everything a large family, while, notwithstanding his prejudice against strangers, he lives in the perfect conviction that the country needs men, and he governs his conduct accordingly. In every other country in the world there are foundling-hospitals; in Russia they are numerous, but in Siberia there are none. If a mother is not able to take care of her child, she will offer it to the nearest farmer, and he will be as glad to have such an increase in his family as if it were a fine colt foaled to him. Till 1856, marriage of free persons was permitted at any age; now the marriageable age is fixed by law at eighteen years. To show how little in earnest the people are in their deprecation of over-population, they as a rule marry immediately after they have passed the legal age, and their families increase, with mathematical regularity, by at least one member every year. It may sound strange if I mention the fact that, notwithstanding the low marriageable age fixed by law, elopements are common. It is true they are of a quite peculiar sort, and they might be divided into elopements with and elopements without the consent of the parents on either side. This custom so illustrates the character of the peasantry of all regions, that I must not dismiss it with too brief a mention. Elopement with consent is an important matter. The young pair are agreed, and have the full acquiescence of the parents on both sides. But every marriage calls for a wedding, and a farmer's wedding is, under ordinary circumstances, no child's play. The relatives and friends must be invited from distances extending to fifty or a hundred miles. The substantial part of the feast is rather a secondary affair to the farmer richly provided with farm products and cattle, but then drink must be furnished, and the national drink is dear, and will be consumed on such occasions in immense quantities. In order to escape the expense of this provision, which would be borne equally by both families, the parents of the bridegroom advise him to elope with his beloved, and her parents advise her to consent to the elopement. After receiving the blessings of the crafty parents, the young people steal away into the bush. On the next day the friends set up a cry as of murder, beat around for a while, and laugh in their sleeves. The young couple must of course come back after a little while and receive forgiveness, but there can be no wedding-feast after such a "scandal." The latter is confined to a narrow circle, and the brandy is saved. The second kind of elopement is of a more serious nature, but in it also thrift and brandy play the chief parts, the latter that of a propitiator. The custom prevails for the bridegroom to pay to his future mother-in-law before she will give her acquiescence a definite sum of "bride-money," the amount of which is regulated according to the standing of the parties. The Siberian youth, having thus made things all right for his future, escapes with his beloved by night and under favor of darkness, and with the scandal of the abduction of the daughter a second matrimonial candidate is out of the question. The mother screams and curses the couple for a little while, but the storm soon ceases. The bridegroom knows the people he is dealing with, and, after the first spurt of vexation is over, returns with a stout brandy-flask, from which he pours out to the angry mother-in-law till she is propitiated. Then the ruined daughter appears, and a general forgiveness follows, with a family wedding-feast, in which immense quantities of brandy are consumed.
The young pair go right to housekeeping, and in the course of ten years the former abductor will be able to stretch himself before the door of his own unencumbered residence. In the reception-room will hang waving tapestries, and in the bedrooms will rustle silken curtains and canopies. I have seen hundreds of such cheerful family pictures and rejoiced over them. The people form a splendid race, and are happy. "I am a Siberian!" sounds from the mouth of one of them like a shout of exultation; "I have nothing more to desire."
A similar happy future awaits the convict-exile, if long life and success are given him, and he is endowed with courage and energy. "He is consigned to the mines, and will die there by inches with chains on his hands and feet," is the current expression when speaking or writing of a Siberian convict. But here, too, as in other cases, the colors are too darkly painted. I do not feel called upon to deplore the excessive harshness of Russian justice, or to indulge in general criticism, but it is true that not only criminals, but also disagreeable persons, vagrants, and political oppositionists, are sent to Siberia under cover of judicial proceedings. What is now imposed in Russia as a punishment was also administered not so very long ago in Germany and even in free Switzerland.
Whoever, by a judicial sentence, or by an administrative measure, is exiled to Siberia, is first lodged in a district prison, whence he is transferred to a government prison. The transportation to Siberia is carried on by railroad and boats to Tobolsk, where a division of the gang takes place, and destinations are appointed for the prisoners according to the character of their offenses. Those who have been condemned to death, and had their sentences commuted to exile, are bound with chains and all sent together to the mines of the Altai. Formerly the convicts were driven in gangs, chained about two feet apart. So at least I have read and heard it generally believed. I was once myself a witness of a spectacle of this kind, but it was not in Russia nor in Siberia, but in Olmütz, in Austria, in the year of grace 1872. The worst part of the journey is when the steamers come into requisition. They are long boats with a high deck, designed to carry six hundred persons at once. The deck is inclosed and covered with strong grating, in order to prevent any attempts to escape. Fore and aft of these are the kitchens and hospitals, while the six hundred convicts are confined in a mass under the deck in a space which is far too narrow, and where, for lack of efficient ventilation, a stifling atmosphere always prevails. The Russian law allows a divorce to the wives of convicts sentenced to exile, but the communes, on the other hand, are anxious to cast off the burden of their possibly pauper families, and the government encourages this disposition by permitting the wives and children of the exiles to go with them. In most cases, the families are ready to share the fate of the father; the Jewish wife always goes with her husband. The relatives are also sent off with the prisoner. This measure has evil consequences on the vessels, where, as we have said, six hundred persons, including those of the worst character, are crowded into a single apartment, and can see, hear, and talk with one another at every hour of the day and night. When we consider that many children are mingled with the crowd, we can easily conceive what horrible scenes besides the physical torments are enacted there, and how brutalizing must be the impression they make upon young and old. In such cases the reproach of inhumanity against the government is fully justified, and it is not spared, for I have frequently heard the officers condemn the decrees of the courts. The journey by steamer requires ten times less time, but it is also ten times worse, more degrading, and more barbarous than the march on foot. When the change is made from the steamer to the railroad the situation assumes a little better shape. The prisoners, with their wives and children around them, cling to the benches along the bare walls, and the chains clink weirdly in the confusion of screaming, moaning, and cursing voices. Here also is a deficiency of space and air, and the conditions are hardly endurable. But the few observations of strangers are contradicted by the stereotyped view. "The farmers do not travel differently, and what they freely endure for themselves certainly ought to be good enough for criminals." Gangs on foot are still usual, but only the strongest men are taken in them, and the treatment is more humane than it was. The average day's journey is about seven geographical miles, and every third day is a rest-day. Complaints may be heard that seven miles a day is too much, but it seems to be forgotten that the soldier has to perform the same march, and he is encumbered with his baggage. At the present time the deportation takes place only in the summer, and the exiles are settled before the approach of winter.
At the beginning of the journey, each prisoner is given a gray cloak, and he receives daily for his maintenance from ten to fifteen copecks, about from five and two thirds to eight and a half cents. This may seem very little in our conception, but it must not be forgotten that the men are permitted to beg on the way and to work on the rest-days, whereby each one may, if he will, obtain a considerable addition to his allowance. Great sympathy is felt in Siberia with the prisoners, who are never called by any other name than "unfortunates." Every one gives readily, and recollects that he himself, perhaps, or his father or grandfather, may have made the journey thither under similar circumstances. On the whole, transportation on foot is now quite well conducted. Such a journey can not be called a pleasure trip, but it does not in any way bear the stamp of inhumanity and the terrible character which the sensational reports would impute to it.
Finally, the prisoner has reached his destination, either alone or with his wife and children, and is allotted accordingly a larger or smaller hut for a dwelling—I am speaking particularly of those who had been condemned to death. The chains are not taken off from his hands and feet, but he must work with them on. It often happens that he dies shortly—that is his luck; or that he will not accommodate himself to the situation, and leads a wretched existence, and finally goes to ruin, unless he has energy enough left to escape. He is himself committed to the most arduous exertions to better his fate, but, of the thousands and thousands who arrive there, only a very small per cent have the earnest will to do it. The great majority brood over their lot, and think and dream only about the ways and means of bringing about their escape. The convicts are mingled in work with the free laborers, go in and out with them, and do not have to exert themselves any more or do any harder work than they. The mine is not a prison as we are accustomed to regard prisons. The convict lives free and un watched, alone or with his family, and the only limitation of freedom imposed upon him consists in his being always shackled with chains, whether at work or at recreation, by day and by night, and in his never being allowed to go out of the bounds that are assigned to him. In a district of six thousand square versts (about eight hundred and sixty geographical square miles), there are only a hundred soldiers stationed to watch the thousands of convicts. Escape under these circumstances is easy, and is a daily event. No one runs away alone; they generally go in pairs, and after careful preparation. The mine-smith is always ready, for a fee of ten copecks, to be a help in time of need and take off the chains. The fugitives gather up whatever seems useful to them, and travel under cover of darkness on their hazardous journey. On the next morning the director mentions the fact that A and B have disappeared. "No matter," he coolly remarks, and with that the affair is over for him. The fugitives spend the first three or four days in the woods, traveling at night, when they can pass on the highways undisturbed, and will rarely have to take the trouble to hide themselves. More than once have we met such desperadoes on the road, been begged from and given, in regular Siberian style. If a police-officer casually comes in the way, he will offer his mite very quietly, without asking a question. "Let them go, it's no matter," is the refrain of the officers. The farmers take the best of care of the fugitives, and that quite systematically. At night, before bedtime, provisions for any passing "unfortunates" are placed at the windows in all the villages on the roads leading to Russia. When a pair of such men come into the village, they go around from house to house, take the food they find set out, as much as they want, with a little provision for the road, and proceed to the bath-house, at the end of the village, where it is always pleasantly warm, to sleep; and this they do with the greatest security, for they know that, in case of danger from the military patrol, the nearest farmer will send his son or a servant to the bath-house to warn any "unfortunates" that may be lodging there. The farmer is the providence of these people.
After the fugitives have put a distance of one hundred and fifty or two hundred miles between themselves and the mines, the journey becomes easier and they appear more openly. They can venture to ask for a lodging from any of the farmers, and to take horses from the back of the village and ride on them to the next village. There they will unbridle the beasts and start them back toward where they came from, mount fresh horses, and so on for hundreds and hundreds of miles. But the horses are every time carefully started back to their homes. Everything goes smoothly, and the sympathy of the people is inexhaustible, so long as the "unfortunate" does not steal. As soon as he appropriates the smallest portion of strange goods, he seals his fate. The whole village turns out and pursues the thief, who is beaten down like a dog, wherever and whenever he is found; and he is always found. The result of this inexorable popular justice is, that hardly any thieves are to be found in Siberia, and that no country enjoys greater security than this colony of criminals. But, one may ask, "Are not the people punished who execute this lynch-law?" It must be remembered that the mining district embraces an area at least five times as large as that of the State of New York, that the population is relatively small, and that in most cases no one cares for slain fugitives. If the officers are informed of the occurrence, they will simply remark that no harm has been done. The report is sent to St. Petersburg, and is lost in the flood of similar documents. The escape of convicts is, as we have remarked, a daily event, and it is of little consequence to the magistrates whether one more or less has been captured or killed. Of the fifteen thousand prisoners annually brought into the district, an average of five thousand escape. These are the desperate ones who stake everything to obtain freedom again. If they are brought back, they flee again. The number of those who escape two or three or more times, and are brought back as often, is great; and many "unfortunates" spend the last days of their lives in trying to get back to Russia, and being re-transported to the colony.
This is the shadow-side of the convict's existence: I will now briefly sketch the bright side. A convict, who has become skilled in mining, repents of his offense, submits to his fate, works industriously, and conducts himself well in every respect, and ventures in time to open his heart to the director and ask to have his situation improved. The officer encourages him, gives him good advice, and permits him, after he has suffered three, four, or five years of punishment, to have his chains replaced by lighter ones, and, when he is convinced that the man is really reformed, grants him a settlement. Thus the prisoner has become a free man, except that he is never permitted to leave the district to which he is assigned. Now, the advantage of the system that permits the family of the prisoner to go with him to the place of punishment is manifested. The man has, during his long years of hard labor, been with his wife and children, has gained courage and strength in this family life, and has become a good man. The presence of his family has been a blessing to him. When in other countries the doors of the prison close upon a condemned man, the world is no more to him—all connection between him and his is severed; while to the Russian prisoner is left the comfort of his family, a strong anchor that holds his heart fast against the tumult of his sufferings. The released miner goes with his family to the settlement which has been designated for him. He has nothing but the bare land, his own strong will, and his energy inured to suffering. The village must extend a hand to him and advance the means for setting up an independent establishment. He is furnished a house—of course a very poor one—farming-tools, seed-corn, and a start in live-stock. Now, he begins a new life. After the first harvest is gathered, and what is necessary for his bare support has been reserved, he goes bravely to work to discharge his obligations to the commune. After ten years at latest, he will have made good to the last grain of corn, and he then becomes the owner of an estate free of debt, for which he has only to pay a small ground-rent, and has the satisfaction of knowing that after his death his children will be free men in a home founded by him.
Now, how does the condition of a person discharged from prison in one of the so-called civilized countries compare with that of this Siberian? The last spark of self-respect that may be left in him is extinguished by the reception society gives him. Contempt, suspicion, and scorn meet him at every step. Neither Government nor society will give him the means of rehabilitating himself by labor and of founding a new existence, and he sinks deeper and deeper, with no way of escape open to him, into crime and ever again into crime.
Pardoned convicts or their children are living in nearly every town and village of the Altai region, and this fact is the origin of the most curious relations. I sojourned for a short time at an inn in Tomsk. The host and his wife made an unfavorable, I might say a repulsive, impression upon me. I could not refrain from expressing my suspicions to the chief of police, to whom I had been introduced. To my edification I learned that the host had been condemned to twenty-five years in prison for fraudulent bankruptcy, and his wife to twenty years as his accessory; that the porter was an old house-breaker, and the four butlers had been compelled to take the involuntary tour to the East for thefts; the two maids were child-murderers! Such is the environment in which the people of that district constantly live. On the next day I dined by invitation with a merchant. I met a polite, cultivated company, and learned afterward from my friend the police-officer that the apothecary, who sat next to me, had been transported for poisoning, that three of the guests were fraudulent directors of exploded banks, and two were counterfeiters! The last two had made a bad impression on me from the beginning, and I could not afterward repress the thought that they were continuing in Siberia to increase as much as they could the circulation of cash in the Russian Empire. If one expresses surprise at such social conditions, the answer is, "Oh, please remember that we are in Siberia!" It is, moreover, not considered necessary to avoid speaking of these matters with reference to any one. The party concerned himself will converse on the subject with the greatest ease, and his frankness respecting it is really astonishing. I inquired one day in a matter-of course-way of a Jew named Ephraim, who carried on a small banker's business, a very prepossessing man socially, how he came to settle there. He replied jestingly, and with a wink: "Circumstances are to blame for that; they compelled me to establish my business here some two and-twenty years ago."
Real prisons with locks and walls are comparatively rare in Siberia, and form in all cases, unless the positively evil disposition of the convict prolongs his stay, a transitional abode between the unlimited freedom he enjoyed before his offense and the limited freedom that follows his sentence. Offenders are not cast into narrow cells for the full term of their punishment, but go around free after a short confinement, and are supported by the contributions of their former colleagues, while they are afforded full opportunity to found a new existence. The contrasts between the positions which released prisoners may attain in Siberia and the offense which led to their exile are frequently quite comical. The child-murderer becomes a trusted nurse, the burglar an overseer, the thief a confidential servant! But a practical Christianity is exercised toward the fallen one. The Government and private persons rival one another in pointing out and clearing the way of reform for the wanderer. In Kazmetak, we visited the local prison, which is unique in its way. It was of immense capacity, and was so arranged as to permit a complete separation of the several confessions—Mohammedans, Jews, and Christians. All the prisoners assured us that they had no complaints to make. The few political prisoners confirmed these statements, so that their condition, too, must certainly have been endurable; for it is well known that the political prisoners are the most discontented. A school is connected with the prison, in which a young priest was serving as teacher; the only text-book was a Russian catechism, which was used by Mohammedans and Jews as well as by Christians. The great point was that all learned to read and write. The priest received no pay, but was performing a work of mercy. In the same place are a hospital for the sick and an orphan-house for the children of those convicts whose imprisonment is prolonged. The foundation of this institution was the work of a lady who gave her whole fortune to it, and then devoted herself to the solicitation of means for its support.
When one has studied these conditions on the spot, and has satisfied himself that while the situation of the prisoner condemned to death and pardoned to the mines is hard, it nevertheless depends upon himself whether he shall improve it and make his children free, independent, and prosperous citizens; when one sees how the opportunity is given to all convicts, without distinction as to what their crime may have been, to found by their own exertions a new and honorable career, and that the Government aids the earnest efforts of such persons with counsel and act; when one, finally, contrasts the magnanimity, fidelity, and touching sympathy, existing among private persons, with the sad lot of convicts in Europe and America, he will have to admit that there may be worse countries than Siberia.