Katorga: penal labour and tsarist Siberia

by Andrew A. Gentes


In imperial Russia, kátorga (penal labor) signified a discrete penologico-administrative regime ostensibly designed to punish criminals. Peter I inaugurated katorga when, in 1696, as part of the Azov campaign against the Ottomans, he assigned convicts to the lower Don to help build and possibly man Russia’s first fleet. Until 1767 the state assigned most penal labourers (katorzhnye or katorzhane) to sites outside Siberia, using them to construct St. Petersburg and Port Rogervik as well as fortresses along the Baltic littoral and in Orenburg territory; but that year Zabaikal′e’s Nerchinsk Mining District displaced Rogervik as katorga’s epicentre. Relying mainly upon penal labor, the Nerchinsk metallurgical industries would go on to provide the empire much of its silver and lead, as well as lesser proportions of iron and gold. Besides Nerchinsk, Petersburg also assigned penal labourers to such state-owned Siberian industries as the Okhotsk and Irkutsk saltworks, the Aleksandrovsk and Troitskii distilleries, and the Tel′minsk linen factory outside Irkutsk. Nerchinsk embodied ‘mine (rudnaia) katorga’ and these latter sites ‘factory (zavodnaia) katorga’, whereas ‘fortress (krepostnaia) katorga’ involved the use of convicts assigned to penal labour battalions within a military environment. Dostoevskii served his sentence in the Omsk fortress between 1850 and 1854 under a regime of ‘fortress katorga’ — a category abolished in the 1860s.

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