Exile to Siberia, 1590-1822

Article excerpt

Andrew A. Gentes. Exile to Siberia, 1590-1822. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. xiii, 271 pp. Bibliography. Index. $80.00, cloth.

One of the curious aspects of the Siberian exile system in Russian historical writing is that it never seems to get better - it starts off bad and simply gets worse. As Andrew A. Gentes argues in his Exile to Siberia, 1590-1822, the Muscovite state invented the brutal habit of dumping unwanted people in Siberia. Peter the Great then expanded the scope of the system and made it even more brutal, while would-be "liberal" reformers like Mikhail Speranskii only made it more efficient. In fact, anyone who wants to see the Russian government become gentler between the 16th and the early 19th centuries should probably look for another topic. And, as we know from Dostoevsky, George Kennan "senior," and the GULAG, there was worse to come.

Inasmuch as Gentes follows a fairly well-worn path in the historiography, his book is less a reinterpretati on of the history of Siberian exile than simply a new one. But it nonetheless has a number of pluses, not least being that it offers usa view of the big dismal picture all in one go. The book also includes a range of interesting details. In fact, one of the attractions of Gentes' s scholarship is the deep research that has gone into it.

In his introduction, Gentes tells us that this is the first of three volumes he intends to publish on the exile system. Given this broad agenda, his goal here is limited to recounting the first part of the story - the origins of the exile system from its beginnings in the late Muscovite period to Speranskii' s Siberian Statute of 1822, which he presents as an earnest if ultimately limited attempt to link the exile system to the operations of regional administration. He covers this period of over two hundred years in five chronologically arranged chapters - one and a half on the Muscovite age, one and a half on the 18th century, one on the first quarter of the 19th century, and a final one devoted to the 1822 decree.

Gentes makes his basic case well. The Russian exile system, he argues, always had two purposes. The first was to punish offenders by banishing them to the country's distant Siberian borderland. The second was to use banishment to the state's advantage by exploiting the exiles as fully as possible. Indeed, inasmuch as exploitation was central to the plan, the state's approach was remarkably egalitarian. Exiles were of different types (ordinary criminals, political criminals, Schismatics, etc.), but every type was useful in Siberia because the region had almost no non-native population to speak of. …