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Siberian Punishment Essay, Research Paper

In the 1660s the Russian government under Czar Alexis I had begun the practice of punishing common criminals and political offenders by exiling them to Siberia. During the last two centuries of Russian imperial rule, punishment varied significantly from czar to czar. Different styles of interrogation and justice were prevalent with each successive ruler. Autocracy allowed for what seems to be a harsh system of imperial punishment. In actuality, the practice of capital punishment and torture were commonplace throughout European rulers. Though labeled by the west as barbaric at times, Russia had no striking trends in outrageous punishment from Peter the Great to Nicholas II.

What does differ between Europe and Russia in terms of punishment were the crimes committed. Europe saw much religious persecution and punishment of vagrants and peasants. Russia saw more peasant revolts and responded with oppression. Perhaps also alarming is the number of formerly powerful government officials of the Russian court sent to exile in Siberia. It becomes clear that czars were not overly cruel to the citizens of imperial Russia. However, at the same time, the gentry and peasants did know that the czar held the power, and the czar would let them know what happened to traitors.

Peter the Great was a very progressive ruler, taking rational aspects of European society and incorporating them into the Russian infrastructure. These included military reform, educational reform, and cultural amending. Peter was also somewhat progressive in punishment, but he did utilize some rather harsh methods. If a person were exiled, he/she would be sent for hard labor in Siberia, perhaps at the lead/silver mines of Nerchinsk. But a favorite of Peter’s was beating and interrogation rather than outright exile. A prime example of this is his son Alexis, whom he had beaten and tortured, eventually killing him. Peter knew that as long as his son was alive, he was a threat to the throne whether or not Peter actually intended to kill his son. Of prime concern for Peter was the possibility that Alexis had asked Charles VI of Austria for assistance to overthrow his father and seize the throne.

Aided by an assembly of high officials, Peter made the decision to dispose of Alexis. Along with him there were few other executions in the plot to dethrone Peter. Conspirators Kikin, Bishop Dositheus, Avraam Lopukhin, and Glebov, among others were put to death. Others suffered beatings and exile. In 1697 Peter had Ivan Zickler, A.P. Sokovnin, F.M. Pushkin, and Don Cossack leader Lukyanov slowly killed for conspiracy to kill the czar.

Far more brutal than this was Peter’s suppression of the Streltsy in 1698-1699. The Streltsy military force was very hostile to foreign influences on the Russian government and had revolted before in 1682. This uprising was a response to a general dislike and mistrust of Peter’s style of rule. Peter exiled the monk Avraam after he presented a written protest to the czar of foreign influence. The westernization of the court and country, his journey to the west, and his rejection of traditional behavior all contributed to unrest. Peter, in Europe at the time, made the trip home. In October 1698, 799 members of the Streltsy were killed, evidence of the memory of Peter of the Miloslavskii family and the earlier revolt. February 1699 saw over 350 more killed. The executions were preceded with torture with the knout, and a roasting of victims over a fire, with Peter himself joining. Their mangled bodies were displayed publicly as a salutary lesson, and the Streltsy were disbanded other members being beaten and exiled. Sophia, who was implicated in the conspiracy, was tortured and questioned but with no clear evidence that she had started, or was involved in the revolt. She was forced to become a nun, as was Peter’s wife, Eudoxia, with three Streltsy hanging outside Sophia’s window, in the Novodevichii convent.

These actions by Peter do give him somewhat of a brutal image, but the reforms that he proposed and carried out were by no means popular, and he had to protect himself. Most historians will agree that his reign was for the benefit of imperial Russia. Although many of the revolts that took place during his reign were unorganized and posed little threat, one must think before one challenges an autocrat. Compared to the techniques of Ivan IV (1533-1584) Peter might seem divine. Ivan ordered the killing of a nobleman with wild dogs, had an archbishop sewn into bearskin and fed to wolves, and killed his own son with a blow to the head. He often ordered the torture and execution of anyone who displeased him. Peter acted on his oppression for political goals and stability. Any uprising, peasant or otherwise, was brutally oppressed, but Peter did not randomly send people into exile, or have random persons executed. He always insisted that he was acting in the best interests of Russia, and that meant having himself in a position of power for the longest amount of time.

The trend for changes in rule was a practice of exiling political heavyweights that at one time found themselves in a high position of power. Matveev had experienced exile before he was killed in the Streltsy revolt of 1682. Political exile was used in the Anna and Elizabeth reigns when government service was a highly unstable position. Other emperors were known for being overly cruel in their punishment. The political exile trend stopped with Catherine, prosecuting and exiling none of the former cabinet. She also did not exile any of her own court. Catherine was a bit more progressive that Peter organizing the Penal code. She set up correction houses, and prisons for persons awaiting trial or exile. People convicted of minor crimes and the homeless benefited much from these reforms.

The only notable political exiling during Alexander I (1801-1825) was the intellectual Speransky, whose proposed reforms and honesty proved to be his downfall. Other intelligentsia who were exiled in late imperial Russia included Leon Trotsky, and Aleksandr Radishchev. Dostoevsky was also exiled to Siberia, after his death sentence was reduced, for six years at hard labor and a solider, recording his experience in The House of the Dead where he deals with the return and reawakening of his personality. The last victims of political exile were Nicholas II (1894-1917) and his family, to Tobolsk in western Siberia.

The overall trend for punishment was exile for political dissidents, political foes, convict laborers, and later on members of the intelligentsia. Harsher punishments were levied for traitors and persons who attempted upon the emperor’s life or instigated revolts, persons such as Pushkin, Ivan Zickler, etc. Emperors increased the use of capital punishment during times of war or increased tension. This was largely the case in the rule of Peter the Great with his wars against Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, along with the numerous peasant and Streltsy revolts that were instigated. Exile and capital punishment were used effectively when indeed they were used. Displays of the dead bodies were commonplace to deter any further unrest. Elizabeth abolished capital punishment in an enlightened act, but Catherine used the practice, although not nearly as extensively as Peter. It seems that as the two centuries progress, capital punishment and exile were used less.

In Europe capital punishment was very widely used, and exile hardly at all. Lacking a vast region of continual hardship, European monarchs simply killed criminals. Great Britain increased the number of capital offenses to almost two hundred between 1688-1810. Extreme cases have been found there, a girl being hung for stealing a petticoat, and two men executed for poaching. Also gaining popularity was religious persecution, this happened especially in France under Louis XIV (1643-1715). Most vigorous was the persecution of the Huguenots who were forbidden to leave France. The king also revoked the edict of Nantes, and persecuted the Jansenists, who believed in faith and divine grace.

Practices in Russia were little better during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Serfs or peasants could be sent to hard labor at any time, and Peter specifically employed forced labor in the building of St. Petersburg. Throughout the two centuries in question, Russia cannot be singled out as a particularly oppressive state. Peter the Great was the most ruthless, and it can be argued that he was one of the greatest Russian rulers of all time. Other czars were far less oppressive, striving to deal with the problems of serfdom, and backwardness and less with the problems of maintaining power, exiling and killing political prisoners. As the practice of execution lessened, exiles to Siberia saw more intelligentsia in the region, as well as runaway serfs and peasants trying to escape the harsh conditions of serfdom, preferring the harsh climactic conditions of Siberia.

Siberia remains virtually unknown to Europeans and Americans except as the land of Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago,” an ice-bound prison of forced labor and death. As the czars’ jail, Siberia has been synonymous with suffering–suffering on a megahuman scale when the gulag ruled. Given the bloodspread in France, the outrageous crime in England, and harsh policing in Germany, Russian exile and execution were merely styles of a general European system of harsher punishment than we have today, but which were commonplace in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


Anderson, Matthew S. Profiles in Power: Peter the Great. 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1995.

Conroy, Mary S. ed. Emerging Democracy In Late Imperial Russia. Niwot: Colorado UP, 1998.

Duffy, James P. Ricci, Vincent L. Czars: Russia’s Rulers for More Than One Thousand Years. New York: Facts On File, 1995.

Frank, Stephen P. Crime, Cultural Conflict, and Justice in Rural Russia, 1856-1917. Los Angles: U of California P, 1955.

Madariaga, Isabel De. Catherine the Great: A Short History. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

Merriman, John. A History of Modern Europe. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.

Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. A History of Russia. 6th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2000.


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