This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.
Siberia was long used as a penal colony by Russian governments, probably from the sixteenth century. The state used troublesome subjects--common criminals, palace revolutionaries, and political dissidents--to populate and develop this frontier. Although some Siberian exiles were condemned to forced labor, others often were given a degree of liberty remarkable in tsarist Russia since there was little possibility of escape.
Exiles mined for gold, built the Trans-Siberian railway, and were forced into many other public works projects. Others contributed to the study and cultural development of Siberia. Some, such as the revolutionaries V. G. Bogoraz and V. I. Iokhel'son, made important ethnographic and linguistic studies of the native peoples. Some edited newspapers, compiled statistical surveys, and performed other intellectual work for local officials. In the Soviet period, Siberian exile became massive and much more brutal and restrictive. Millions of people died in forced labor camps and Siberia became synonymous with the worst Stalinist oppression.
Although parts of America were used originally as a penal colony by England, there was no forced migration of the white population to the frontier. The government did force tens of thousands of eastern Native American tribes to resettle in the West in the 1830s. In contrast, millions of political exiles and common criminals from the Russian Empire--and the Soviet Union--were sent to Siberia over the centuries. Forced migration was brutal and inhumane--millions died in the most wretched conditions, especially in Stalin's Siberian labor camps.
Located on the Pacific shore of the Russian Far East, Sakhalin Island has long been a place of both wonder and misery for the Russians. While rugged and picturesque, this island served for many years in the tsarist era as a penal colony and place of exile for criminals and political prisoners. From 1869 to 1906, more than thirty thousand inmates and exiles endured the harsh conditions of the forced-labor colony there.
Anton Chekhov, the Russian writer and medical doctor, spent three months on Sakhalin in 1890, where he extensively researched the plight of the prisoners and the native population. The publication of his Sakhalin Island in 1895 highlighted the depravity of the situation in this remote corner of Russia and led to public protests that helped bring closure of the penal colony. Beyond this, the calamity of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 resulted in Russia's loss of the southern half of the island to Japan in the Treaty of Portsmouth. The Soviet Union assumed control over the whole of the island in 1945, after Japan's defeat in World War II. Political prisoners and criminals, this time sent by the Soviet regime, again were used to exploit the island's rich mineral wealth.