THE ARCHIPELAGO OF EXILE:
“My friend left for Magadan… take off your hat…He left on his own…
Not in étapes… not because my friend was unlucky…just like that. ‘Sure,
there are camp sites everywhere… but they’re full of murderers…’. ‘No
more murderers than in Moscow’… Then he packs his suitcase—for
Vladimir Vysotsky, “My Friend Left for Magadan”, 1965
In 1885 the American explorer and journalist George Kennan (18451924) travelled to Siberia to write a book about the exile system. It was not Kennan’s first time there. He had already spent two years on Kamchatka conducting survey work for the Russian-American Telegraph Company, and he had also travelled into the Caucasus. After returning to the United States from the Kamchatka journey he gave a series of lectures on Siberia and was criticized for taking too positive a view of the exile system. As a result, he left for Siberia again, spent two years travelling to different prisons and wrote his two-volume work Siberia and the Exile System, published in 1891 in London. The Russian government gave Kennan full access to the prisons, and unlike in his earlier reports, he painted a damning picture of conditions. It is a fascinating account and a fine descriptive record of the prison system in its day. At one point he describes travelling from Tomsk to Irkutsk when, noticing a horse in handcuffs, he laconically muses whether the tsar has taken to banishing horses. Handcuffing and banishing an errant nag beyond the Urals would be an unusual step but not a precedent in the bizarre history of exile. In 1591, when the regent, Boris Godunov, ordered the exile of the Uglich Bell for sounding the death of the young pretender to the throne Dmitry, he also ordered the cutting out of its “tongue” and a good flogging.
As it turned out, a peasant had lacked rope to tie his horse, decided to use a pair of handcuffs, and sometime later he lost the keys. Since then, the horse had stood around in handcuffs with nothing to do.
The history of Siberia and its exiles is as brutal and tragic as it is