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Siberian exiles

The term 'Sybiracy' (the Siberians) is a colloquialism and is primarily used in two meanings. In Russia, it refers to the inhabitants of Siberia who were not members of indigenous tribes and Asian peoples. The Siberians were basically free newcomers from the European part of the Russian Empire and their descendants. In fact, among the Siberians there were many descendants of the exiles or fugitives who sought shelter from prosecution or religious persecution. However, in Poland the term 'Sybiracy' has come to denote all the Poles who were sent into exile and forced to settle in Siberia ('sent into exile to Siberia') from where some of them did not return. Apart from the exiles, some Poles volunteered to settle in Siberia.

Poles first came to Siberia as prisoners of war in the first half of the 17th century, but the actual history of the Polish Siberian exiles begins after the suppression of the Confederation of Bar in 1768. Under the special ukase (imperial edict) issued by Tsarina Catherine II, at least 5,000 persons were sent behind the Urals, only to be released in the years 1773-1781. The successive waves of exiles - in reprisal for plotting, conspiracy (including, inter alia, a conspiracy of Józef Zaliwski and the patriotic conspiracy of Szymon Konarski) and participation in uprisings, etc. - took place in the 1830s and 1840s. Most Poles ended up in Siberia as a result of the failure of the January 1863 Uprising. It is estimated that 16,800 Poles and 1,800 members of their families were sent into exile in the years 1863-1867.

In the last two decades of the 19th century, members of the underground revolutionary movement were mostly 'sent into exile'. The number of the exiles was insignificantly, albeit steadily rising from the early 20th century. Among them were persons either convicted by courts or exiled from the country by way of administrative decisions. Some of them were additionally sentenced to hard labour (katorga) and prison terms, which was usually of temporary character. In 1910, from 48,000 to 52,000 Poles lived in Siberia. Common offenders, like the political exiles, were also expelled to Siberia, but Polish criminals constituted just a fraction of the masses of Russians and other peoples of the Empire. Most of the 'Siberian exiles' returned to the Second Polish Republic during or after World War I, but some Poles did not leave Siberia and became 'Siberians' in the Russian sense of the word.

The exiles of the Stalinist era are often compared with the exiles of the Tsarist times. One can also come across comments that the former system was just a continuation of the latter one. This reasoning is totally incorrect: the Russian system operated - although not from the very beginning - according to the strictly defined laws, and the prison, katorga and exile administration had limited powers whereas the Gulag (in Russian: Glawnoje Uprawlenije Lagerei - in English: the Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies) was the state within a state (its prison officers could even take decisions to execute inmates by firing squad). In the Tsarist Russia, the system was much more moderate and its repressions were steadily curbed, while the situation of the exiles worsened as the country was undergoing changes. The political prisoners of the Tsarist Russia did enjoy some privileges and, in practice, were in a better situation than criminals. In the Soviet era, the reverse was the case.

Citizens of various nationalities, including Poles, suffered repressions from the Stalinist regime of the 1930s. The mass deportations of Poles began after 17 September 1939 and included members of various social groups, especially those who, by virtue of their professions or participation in the war, carried firearms. Deportations of whole families were also carried out, but it is difficult to estimate how many people ended up in Siberia and other areas within the Gulag. Many prisoners disappeared without trace, and attempts are still being made to determine the number of the victims who died in Siberia and who managed to survive.

prof. dr hab. Elżbieta KACZYŃSKA