THE awful conditions of Russian, and particularly Siberian, prison life have been sufficiently described in detail by other writers, particularly Russian and American. It is not my object to harrow the soul and to bemire the imagination of my readers by quoting their words. The coarse animalism from which the common decencies of civilisation are absent, the overpowering stenches, the swarming vermin, the incessant noise and unrest day and night, the unfeeling guards, the fearful overcrowding, the sickness, the chains all combine to make a hell upon earth, in which many thousands of our fellow-creatures have been condemned to spend their lives. What it must have been to men and, oh, to women ! of refined tastes and delicate sensibilities, who can tell ! When you add to the physical torments, the utter absence of all moral restraints, the working of lawless and ungovernable passions in vile speech and revolting conduct, the impossibility of escape even for a moment from the ” human demons,” to use Dr. Baedeker s own words, that are your appointed companions by day and by night, you will admit that imagination is utterly baffled to conceive the infernoes that some of these places used to be. Dr. Baedeker gratefully reported that the Russian Government was making great improvements ; ” but,” said he, ” Russia is enormous ; larger than the whole of Africa; larger than the United States and Canada; and the evils of centuries are not rectified in a year.”
“This journey by river-steamer is monotonous and wearisome, but I use every opportunity for conversation with the people on board.”
Our pity for the prisoners and horror at their fate may possibly be qualified in most instances by the consideration that they are offenders against law, and have been justly sentenced. But what shall be said respecting the innocent men doomed to this worse than death? On board the steamer, on a return journey down the Obi, were a passenger and his wife, with whom the doctor had some conversation. They were very weather-beaten and prematurely furrowed and aged. They were exiles returning to Simpheropol in the Crimea. Dr. Baedeker found considerable difficulty in drawing them into conversation. Their long solitude and remoteness from civilised society had made them distressingly shy and timorous in the presence of human-kind. But the doctor was long familiar with the rare art of unlocking hearts and inspiring confidence ; and presently the exile told his sorrowful story. He was an engineer, and was unfortunate enough to be acquainted with certain persons implicated in the conspiracy which resulted in the assassination of the Czar Alexander II. The assassins were condemned and executed. He was arrested on suspicion of complicity, but nothing was brought against him except the fact that some of the plotters were known to him, and that he possessed a printing-press. For these high crimes he was condemned. He was first kept in solitary confinement for sixteen months in a St. Petersburg prison, his jailors watching his every movement night and day. He was never permitted to utter a word. This awful ordeal ended, there began the march to Irkutsk in Siberia, by etape. He walked every step of the dreadful journey in chains, except the passage by barge on the Obi ; and at its end passed into a prison-house, where he spent four years. His faithful wife bravely followed him, enduring cruel hardships on the way. At the end of four years he was liberated and permitted to reside in a hamlet near the prison, where for the further term of six years he and his wife toiled for a scanty subsistence, pinching themselves in every possible way to save up enough money to pay their journey home at the end of their term, if their petition to do so should be granted. The Emperor was indulgent. Permission to return was given, and the two timid, bronzed, enfeebled exiles were on their way back to the dear spot where once their home stood and their friends lived Simpheropol, where he will be under strict police super vision for the rest of his days. Of course their prospects in life were ruined, and they must begin life afresh ; but their hearts were joyous in their newly-found freedom.
“He looked a nice quiet man,” the doctor said. The moral of the story appears to be Avoid the acquaintance ship of everybody, who is likely to know anybody else, who is likely to speak to anybody else, on the subject of the murder of an Emperor, before it is accomplished !
Robert Sloan Latimer, “CHAPTER X DESCENDING INTO HELL”
Frederick Baedeker was a missionary; his biography credits him with “apostolic work”, in 19th century Russia. The memoirs of his life, written in 1907, show how much he was concerned about the condition of prisoners. The residual suffering evident in a man who had worked his way through the penal system struck a chord in the heart of a man of God. Let this be our way of being. He even notes that there are some very serious crimes which may temper our feelings about how those prisoners are treated. But some forms of abuse are so abhorrent as to warrant the offending party to be called Innocent! Again we see the effect of prisons on family members in that this prisoner’s brave wife had to follow him all the way during a humiliating march.
We also see a strong commentary about how abusive attitudes towards prisoners will be the fruit of a “coarse animalism”. The gospel of course is the antidote to this animalism. The question is whether the ethos we carry with us will lead to the evangelized towards or away from such a spirit of coarseness.
PRAYER FOCUS: Think about the attitudes we have towards prisoners.