Branding on the Cheeks and Back of Forced Labor Convicts and on the Arms of a Vagrant
This photograph is one of 74 views taken in July 1891 by Aleksei Kirillovich Kuznetsov (1845‒1928) and contained in the album Tipy i vidy Nerchinskoi katorgi (Views and inhabitants of Nerchinsk hard labor camps). The Nerchinsk katorga was part of the katorga (forced labor) system of imperial Russia, located in the province of Transbaikalia (present-day Zabaykal’skiy Kray), near the Russian border with China. The katorga was administered by the Ministry of Interior and included prisons at Akatuy, Kara, Aleksandrovsk, Nerchinskii Zavod, and Zerentuy, all of which are depicted in the album. Common criminals and political prisoners alike were sent to these camps to work the nearby mines and their associated smelting plants. Gold was chiefly mined at Kara, silver and lead at Akatuy. Kuznetsov himself was a political prisoner, sentenced in 1873 to permanent exile in Siberia and six years of hard labor at the Kara mines. After completing his sentence, Kuznetsov received permission to settle in Nerchinsk, where he founded a local cultural society. In 1889 it moved to Chita. It is not clear how he received permission to visit the prisons of the Nerchinsk katorga and to create this graphic record of the prisoners and the conditions in which they lived and worked. The album is held by the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg and was digitized for the Meeting of Frontiers digital library project in the early 2000s.
Title in Original Language
Старыя клейма у с.-каторжныхъ на щекахъ, спинѣ и у бродяги на рукахъ
Type of Item
1 photograph ; 14 x 10 centimeters
- The branding depicted in this photograph was intended to prevent escape by making convicts easy to identify. Beginning in the time of Peter the Great (ruled 1696–1725), ink was used for branding in place of fire. Common markings included KAT for katorzhnik (convict) and CK for sibirskii katorzhnik (Siberian convict).
- During the 18th century, the government of the Russian Empire sought to centralize its power and increase control over the population, which led to the criminalization of activities such as begging and trespassing. Vagrancy, depicted in this photo, was also included in the list of activities punishable by exile to Siberia.
- Daniel Beer, The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile under the Tsars (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016).
Last updated: October 31, 2017