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Removing of shackles: painting by Aleksander Sochaczewski (1843-1923)

Katorga (Russian: ка́торга, IPA: [ˈkatərɡə]; from medieval and modern Greek: katergon, κάτεργον, "galley") was a system of penal labor in the Russian Empire[1] and the Soviet Union (see Katorga labor in the Soviet Union).

Prisoners were sent to remote penal colonies in vast uninhabited areas of Siberia and the Russian Far East where voluntary settlers and workers were never available in sufficient numbers. The prisoners had to perform forced labor under harsh conditions.


Prisoners at an Amur Cart Road camp, between 1908 and 1913.
Bashkirs conducting convicts to Siberia, painted by William Allan, 1814

Katorga, a category of punishment within the judicial system of the Russian Empire, had many of the features associated with labor-camp imprisonment: confinement, simplified facilities (as opposed to prisons), and forced labor, usually involving hard, unskilled or semi-skilled work.

Katorga camps were established in the 17th century by Tsar Alexis of Russia in newly conquered, underpopulated areas of Siberia and the Russian Far East - regions that had few towns or food sources. Despite the isolated conditions, a few prisoners successfully escaped to populated areas. From these times, Siberia gained its fearful connotation of punishment, which was further enhanced by the Soviet gulag system.

After the change in Russian penal law in 1847, exile and katorga became common punishments for participants in national uprisings within the Russian Empire. This led to increasing numbers of Poles sent to Siberia for katorga. These people have become known in Poland as Sybiraks ("Siberians"). Some of them remained there, forming a Polish minority in Siberia.

The most common occupations in katorga camps were mining and timber work. Another example involved the successful construction of the Amur Cart Road (Амурская колесная дорога).

In 1891 Anton Chekhov, the Russian writer and playwright, visited the katorga settlements on Sakhalin island in the Russian Far East and wrote about the conditions there in his book Sakhalin Island. He criticized the short-sightedness and incompetence of the officials in charge that led to poor living standards, waste of government funds, and decreased productivity. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his book about the Soviet-era labor camps, Gulag Archipelago, quoted Chekhov extensively to illustrate the enormous deterioration of living conditions for inmates and the huge increase in the number of people sent there in the Soviet era, compared to the katorga system of Chekhov's time.

Peter Kropotkin, while aide de camp to the governor of Transbaikalia in the 1860s, was appointed to inspect the state of the prison system in the area; he later described his findings in his book In Russian and French Prisons (1887).

Notable katorgas[edit]

Famous katorga convicts[edit]




Farewell to Europe, by Aleksander Sochaczewski


Soviet times[edit]

After the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Russian penal system was taken over by the Bolsheviks, who eventually transformed the katorga into the Gulag labor camps.

In 1943 the "katorga labor" (каторжные работы) as a special, severe type of punishment was reintroduced. It was initially intended for Nazi collaborators, but other categories of political prisoners (for example, members of deported peoples who fled from exile) were also sentenced to "katorga labor". Prisoners sentenced to "katorga labor" were sent to gulag prison camps with the most harsh regime, and many of them died.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Russian History Resources". Bucknell University – Russian Studies. Lewisberg, PA. n.d. Archived from the original on February 28, 2007.
  2. ^ "ГУЛАГ: общие сведения | Репрессии и пенитенциарная система в СССР" [Gulag: general information | Repression and the prison system in the USSR]. Archived from the original on 2009-04-19.
  • P.Kropotkin, In Russian and French Prisons, London: Ward and Downey; 1887.

Further reading[edit]

  • Daly, Jonathan W. Autocracy under Siege: Security Police and Opposition in Russia, 1866–1905 (1998).

External links[edit]