Hard Labor Convict Lying on a Bunk While Chained to a Wheelbarrow
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
Прикованный къ тачкѣ, лежащiй на нарах
Type of Item
1 photograph ; 14 x 10 centimeters
- In the marching convoys by which convicts and exiles were transported to Siberia, those condemned to penal labor wore both arm and leg fetters and were shackled together to prevent escape. Exiles―considered less dangerous―wore only leg fetters, while administrative exiles, the least dangerous group in the convoy, wore no chains. Usage of chains varied across different locations of exile based on individuals’ status and behavior. Penal laborers in the mines of Nerchinsk, for example, generally wore no fetters. However, convicts in many exile locations could be chained to wheelbarrows for five to ten years as a punishment for repeated crimes or escape attempts. The perpetrators of serious crimes, such as murder and arson, were sometimes chained to walls for up to ten years.
- Chains came to symbolize state tyranny in educated circles of Russian society, especially after Decembrist Nikolai Bestuzhev began making jewelry out of the discarded chains of his fellow exiles. Bestuzhev’s creations found many imitators, and “Decembrist jewelry” achieved a high degree of popularity among the Russian intelligentsia.
- Daniel Beer, The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile under the Tsars (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016).
Last updated: October 31, 2017