On the afternoon of 19 November 1877, an undistinguished-looking 17-metre schooner named Dawn dropped anchor alongside the Customs House on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg. An excited crowd of onlookers had gathered to catch a glimpse of the ship. The Dawn had just completed the first successful maritime voyage from the Yenisei River in Eastern Siberia to St. Petersburg. It had crossed the Kara and Barents seas, before circumnavigating Scandinavia by way of Vardø, Christiania (Oslo), Stockholm and Helsingfors (Helsinki) to finally reach the Russian capital. By common consensus both in Russia and abroad, this was a prodigious feat of seamanship: a half-decked sailing boat without a keel and with a crew of only five had navigated the ice floes and storms of the barely charted, and notoriously dangerous, Arctic seas. The ship had already enjoyed a triumphal passage through the coastal towns and cities of Norway, Sweden and the Grand Duchy of Finland, where it had been enthusiastically received by crowds of well-wishers; its crew had been celebrated in the national press and treated to feasts in its honour.
By the time the Dawn reached the Customs House on Vasilevsky Island, however, it bore only four of the five crew members who had set out from the Yenisei on 9 August. Andrei Tsybulenko was absent, as the daily St. Petersburg News drily noted, “for reasons beyond his control.” Tsybulenko had been arrested that morning when the ship docked in the naval base of Kronstadt, following a tip-off from the Russian consul in Christiania. Tsybulenko was, it had emerged, an exile from Yenisei province who had illegally made the passage from Siberia back to European Russian and was, therefore, a fugitive from justice. On orders from the minister of the interior, Aleksandr Timashev, he had been taken into custody and detained in the Kronstadt fortress. The authorities intended to deport Tsybulenko back to Yenisei province, where he would remain in exile for the rest of his life, but by January 1878, Tsybulenko had been released from custody and had received an official pardon from Alexander II and even awards and commendations from both the influential Imperial Society for the Advancement of Russian Merchant Shipping and the Ministry of Trade.
Tsybulenko’s remarkable reversals in fortune—from exile in Eastern Siberia, to member of a celebrity crew of intrepid seamen, to prisoner of the state in Kronstadt, and finally to pardoned fugitive—reflect mounting public opposition to the use of Siberia as a penal colony. From the 1850s, leading figures in Russia’s scientific, commercial and political elites began to challenge the established view of Siberia as a frozen, inhospitable wasteland, suitable only as a place of banishment for the empire’s criminals. They argued for a re-imagining of Siberia as a rich economic colony, one which had been neglected by the state and crippled by the exile system but which harboured, in fact, a wealth of natural resources awaiting exploration and development. These strategic criticisms of the government’s use of Siberia as a continental prison joined the rising tide of moral opposition to a system characterized by brutal floggings, by destitution and degradation of the blameless wives and children of convicts and by the martyrdom of revolutionaries.
30 May 2017
Siberian Exile Pioneer Hero Tsybulenko
From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 6436-6460: