The Russian practice of exiling criminals, dissidents, and other marginal people to the remote corners of Siberia began in the 16th century as the Russian state conquered new lands in the east. Exile to Siberia continued in the Tsarist period and the Soviets expanded it into the vast penal system known as the Gulag. Andrew Gentes wrote about the early history of this phenomenon in Exile to Siberia, 1590-1822 (Palgrave, 2008). He continues the story in Exile, Murder, and Madness in Siberia, 1823-1861 (Palgrave, 2010).
The book focuses on the reign of Nicholas I, a period in which an estimated 300,000 people were sent to Russia’s eastern frontier. But as Gentes notes, the Tsarist exile system was more than a means of categorizing, punishing, and policing the Russia population for the economic interests of the state. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s notion of “governmenality,” Gentes also shows that the exile system was emblematic of the struggle between the sovereignty of the tsar and the emerging, multi-layered, and dispersed authority of the Russian bureaucracy. In addition to giving us this general, theoretical understanding of Imperial Russian Katorga, Gentes also gets us “on the ground.” He tells rich, compelling stories regarding malfeasance by local administrators, the endurance and survival of political prisoners, and the fate of thousands relegated to Russia’s margins.