In 1754 the Russian government decided to send petty criminals and political opponents to eastern Siberia. Sentenced to hard labour (katorga), the convicts had to travel mostly on foot and the journey could take up to three years and it is estimated about half died before they reached their destination. George Kennan, the author of Siberia and the Exile System (1891) has explained: "When criminals had been thus knuted, bastinadoed, branded, or crippled by amputation, Siberian exile was resorted to as a quick and easy method of getting them out of the way; and in this attempt to rid society of criminals who were both morally and physically useless Siberian exile had its origin. The amelioration, however, of the Russian criminal code, which began in the latter part of the seventeenth century, and the progressive development of Siberia itself gradually brought about a change in the view taken of Siberian exile. Instead of regarding it, as before, as a means of getting rid of disabled criminals, the Government began to look upon it as a means of populating and developing a new and promising part of its Asiatic territory."
Over the next 130 years around 1.2 million prisoners were deported to Siberia. Some prisoners helped to build the Trans-Siberian Railway. Others worked in the silver and lead mines of the Nertchinsk district, the saltworks of Usolie and the gold mines of Kara. Those convicts who did not work hard enough were flogged to death. Other punishments included being chained up in an underground black hole and having a 48lb beam of wood attached to a prisoner's chains for several years. Once a sentence had been completed, convicts had their chains removed. However, they were forced to continue living and working in Siberia.
Praskovia Ivanovskia explained that the cold was a major problem: "The Kara prison most resembles a tumbledown stable. The dampness and cold are ferocious; there's no heat at all in the cells, only two stoves in the corridor. The cell doors are kept open day and night - otherwise we would freeze to death. In winter, a thick layer of ice forms on the walls of the corner cells and at night, the undersides of the straw mattresses get covered with hoarfrost. Everyone congregates in the corridor in winter, because it's closer to the stoves and you get a warm draft. Since the cells farthest from the stove are completely uninhabitable, the people who live in them carry their beds into the corridor."
On 1st March, 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by members of the People's Will. The following month Sophia Perovskaya, Andrei Zhelyabov, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov, Gesia Gelfman and Timofei Mikhailov were executed for their involvement in the assassination. Others such as Gesia Gelfman, Olga Liubatovich, Vera Figner, Grigory Isaev, Mikhail Frolenko and Anna Korba were exiled to Siberia.
Anna Yakimova, who was also pregnant, had her baby in the prison and had to watch over him night and day to protect him from rats. In 1883 she and Tatiana Lebedeva were transferred to the Kara Prison Mines. The journey north, which was on foot, lasted two years, was hardly better than life in Trubetskov Dungeon. As it was clear that her baby would not survive the long journey, Yakimova gave it away to "some well-wishers who had come out to greet the prisoners with messages of support and tears of sympathy"
George Kennan attempted to obtain sponsorship for and on-the-spot study of Siberia and the exile system. After approaching several organizations he eventually persuaded Century Magazine to finance the expedition. After a preliminary visit to St. Petersburg and Moscow to perfect the arrangements, Kennan set off on his journey in the early spring of 1885, accompanied by the artist, George Albert Frost. "We both spoke Russian, both had been in Siberia before, and I was making to the empire my fourth journey."
Kennan interviewed several political prisoners. This included Anna Korba a member of the People's Will. "In 1877 the Russo-Turkish War broke out, and opened to her ardent and generous nature a new field of benevolent activity. As soon as wounded Russian soldiers began to come back from Bulgaria, she went into the hospitals of Minsk as a Sister of Mercy, and a short time afterward put on the uniform of the International Association of the Red Cross, and went to the front and took a position as a Red Cross nurse in a Russian field-hospital beyond the Danube. She was then hardly twenty-seven years of age. What she saw and what she suffered in the course of that terrible Russo-Turkish campaign can be imagined by those who have seen the paintings of the Russian artist Vereshchagin. Her experience had a marked and permanent effect upon her character. She became an enthusiastic lover and admirer of the common Russian peasant, who bears upon his weary shoulders the whole burden of the Russian state, but who is cheated, robbed, and oppressed, even while fighting the battles of his country. She determined to devote the remainder of her life to the education and the emancipation of this oppressed class of the Russian people. At the close of the war she returned to Russia, but was almost immediately prostrated by typhus fever contracted in an overcrowded hospital. After a long and dangerous illness she finally recovered, and began the task that she had set herself; but she was opposed and thwarted at every step by the police and the bureaucratic officials who were interested in maintaining the existing state of things, and she gradually became convinced that before much could be done to improve the condition of the common people the Government must be overthrown. She... participated actively in all the attempts that were made between 1879 and 1882 to overthrow the autocracy and establish a constitutional form of government." She was arrested and found guilty of carrying out propaganda activities and was sent to the Kara Prison Mines in Siberia.
George Kennan carried out a long interview with Prince Alexander Kropotkin, the brother of Prince Peter Kropotkin. Kennan pointed out that: "Prince Alexander Kropotkin's... views with regard to social and political questions would have been regarded in America, or even in western Europe, as very moderate, and he had never taken any part in Russian revolutionary agitation. He was, however, a man of impetuous temperament, high standard of honor, and great frankness and directness of speech; and these characteristics were perhaps enough to attract to him the suspicious attention of the Russian police." Kropotkin told Kennan: "I am not a nihilist nor a revolutionist and I never have been. I was exiled simply because I dared to think, and to say - what I thought, about the things that happened around me, and because I was the brother of a man whom the Russian Government hated." His first arrest was as a result of having a copy of a book, Self-Reliance, by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Kennan had great respect for Kropotkin and was distressed when he heard about how he committed suicide while in exile in 1890.
A large percentage of the political prisoners tried to escape from the prison camps. Leon Trotsky was imprisoned in a camp close to the Lena River. "The Lena was the great water route of the exiled. Those who had completed their terms returned to the south by way of the river. But communication was continuous between these various nests of the banished which kept growing with the rise of the revolutionary tide. The exiles exchanged letters with each other. The exiles were no longer willing to stay in their places of confinement, and there was an epidemic of escapes. We had to arrange a system of rotation. In almost every village there were individual peasants who as youths had come under the influence of the older revolutionaries. They would carry the 'politicals' away secretly in boats, in carts or in sledges, and pass them along from one to another. The police in Siberia were as helpless as we were. The vastness of the country was an ally, but an enemy as well. It was very hard to catch a runaway, but the chances were that he would be drowned in the river or frozen to death in the primeval forests."
Most of the revolutionary leaders in Russia spent time in Siberia. This included Catherine Breshkovskaya, Lev Deich, Olga Liubatovich, Vera Figner, Gregory Gershuni, Praskovia Ivanovskia, Peter Stuchka, Mark Natanson, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko, Sophia Smidovich, Inessa Armand, Andrey Bubnov, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Mikhail Frunze, Adolf Joffe, Maihail Tomsky, Ivan Smirnov, Yakov Sverdlov, Irakli Tsereteli, Gregory Ordzhonikidze, Vsevolod Volin and Anatoli Lunacharsky.
After the Russian Revolution the labour camps in Siberia were closed down. These were later reopened by Joseph Stalin and opponents of his regime were sent to what became known as Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagere (Gulag). It is estimated that around 50 million perished in Soviet gulags during this period.