The December early release from prison of former IUKOS chairman Mikhail Khodorkovskii as well as Pussy Riot members Mariia Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova was a major news story. Personal experience of imprisonment and exile in tsarist Russia form the subject of the January item of the month – Ivan Belokonskii’s 1887 Po tiur’mam i etapam.
The Bol’shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia (Great Soviet encyclopedia (third edition, R900.R11)) tells us that Ivan Petrovich Belokonskii was born in Chernigov (modern-day Chernihiv) in 1855 and died in Khar’kov (Kharkiv) in 1931. After studying in Kiev and Odessa, he grew close to the Narodniki, a populist movement largely followed by the educated middle class, and was arrested for agitation in 1879 and sent to eastern Siberia. He returned in 1886, the year before this book was published.
The full title of the book is Po tiur’mam i etapam : ocherki tiuremnoi zhizni i putevyia zamietki ot Moskvy do Krasnoiarska (Through prisons and stages : details of prison life and notes on the journey from Moscow to Krasnoiarsk). The term etap has the general meaning of a stage in a process, but also, at the time, had the more specific meaning of a ‘halting place … for groups of deported convicts in transit’ (Oxford Russian dictionary, fourth edition, R785.R62).
In the introduction, Belokonskii explains that the book is made up of work previously published in newspapers and journals and is based on his own experiences supplemented by the reports of others. ‘Through this book,’ he writes, ‘I attempt to acquaint readers with the conditions of prison life, the stage (etap) journey to Siberia which thousands of members of Russian society make every year, and, in part, the conditions of life in Siberia.’
The ten main chapters cover the realities of the fate of prisoners and exiles vividly and are often full of dialogue. Each chapter starts with a heading listing the subjects it covers. Chapter 1, for example, covers no fewer than 39 subjects (the whole book is 240 pages long), such as the start of the day in prison, children, escapees, and the cruelty of the prison administration. The final chapter is followed by an additional section which covers the route from Ekaterinburg to Krasnoiarsk and data about the cost of essentials. Turning to page 237, we find a table which shows the relative costs of products such as flour, salt, and sugar in three stops along the route (Tobol’sk, Tomsk, and Achinsk) and Krasnoiarsk itself.
The University Library owns one of few copies of the book in western libraries; the majority have instead microfilm copies. The Library of Congress subject headings given in our catalogue to the book are three: Penal transportation, Prisons, and Exile (Punishment), each subdivided geographically by Russia (the LC term for pre-Soviet Russia (post-Soviet Russian is called Russia (Federation)).
The Slavonic item of the month feature aims to celebrate, through examination of particular pieces, the diversity and riches of Cambridge University Library’s Slavonic collections. It has been running since April 2013. Items featured in previous months can be found here on the Slavonic webpages.