A bird’s eye view of the Siberian taiga in the nineteenth century would have revealed a steady trickle of figures, stooped under heavy bundles, trudging westwards either alone or in small groups. The “hunchbacks,” as the peasants called them, were escaped convicts who had fled the marching convoys, the mines, the prisons and the penal settlements and were making their way across the forests in the direction of European Russia. Answering the spring call of the migrant cuckoo and taking advantage of the warmer weather, thawed waterways and thickening vegetation that provided them with camouflage and with food, the fugitives set forth. These were the foot soldiers of what became known as “General Cuckoo’s Army.”
The numbers of fugitives told a sobering tale. Abandoned and imprisoned in penury and squalor and with quite literally nothing to lose, Siberia’s convicts absconded from every single prison, factory, settlement and mine in their thousands. Between 1838 and 1846, the authorities apprehended almost 14,000 male and 3,500 female fugitives in Siberia (figures that probably represented just half of those convicts who were at large). In the second half of the nineteenth century, the numbers of escapes only increased as the overall exile population expanded. One government report on the state of exile in Eastern Siberia in 1877 recorded that, in three districts surveyed in Irkutsk province, half of the more than 20,000 prisoners had run away, their “whereabouts unknown.” By 1898, a quarter of the exiles assigned to Yenisei province, 40 per cent of those assigned to Irkutsk province and 70 per cent of those assigned to Primorsk province in Eastern Siberia were unaccounted for. Purpose-built penal labour sites witnessed a similar exodus. Such figures would suggest that, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, anywhere up to a third of Siberia’s 300,000 exiles were on the run in what ethnographer Nikolai Yadrintsev termed “an endless perpetuum mobile from Eastern Siberia to the Urals.”
The tsarist government was populating Siberia not with industrious colonists but with hordes of destitute and desperate exiles who roamed Siberia as beggars, at best, and petty thieves and violent brigands, at worst. Their victims were the Siberians themselves, both the indigenes and the migrant peasant settlers from Russia. Brutalized by the conditions of their captivity, fugitives visited a plague of theft, arson, kidnapping, violent robbery, rape and murder on Siberia’s real colonists. Seeking strength and protection in numbers, they sometimes formed armed gangs capable of terrorizing not just isolated villages but entire towns and cities. The exile system had transformed Siberia into Russia’s “Wild East.”
Some exiles known as brodiagi, or vagabonds, made for themselves a life of escape, recapture, spells in prison and then escape again. Overwhelmingly male, the brodiagi embraced a semi-nomadic existence in Russia, fuelled by a combination of charity and criminality. Like most pre-industrial societies, the Russian Empire had a rich variety of migratory traditions and a large diaspora encompassing fugitive peasants, Cossacks, peddlers, gypsies, migrant hunters, pilgrims, peripatetic sectarians, travelling merchants and the nomadic tribes of the taiga, steppe and tundra. These migratory peoples had played a significant role in Russia’s expansion across Siberia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1823, the state criminalized vagrancy in European Russia, a fact which accounted for a large part of the sudden upsurge in the numbers exiled to Siberia over subsequent decades. Between 1827 and 1846, the almost 50,000 vagrants constituted 30 per cent of all those exiled. Most of those convicted of vagabondage in Russia in this period were deserters from the army and fugitive serfs, and they presented in either case a direct challenge to Nicholas I’s cherished vision of a disciplined society. The numbers arrested for vagabondage declined in European Russia after the abolition of serfdom effectively decriminalized the unauthorized movement of people. In Siberia, however, the exile system gave vagabondage a new lease on life.
27 May 2017
Vagabonds of Siberia, 1800s
From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4293-4327: