The Polish term sybirak (plural: sybiracy) is synonymous to the Russian counterpart sibiryak (a dweller of Siberia). It generally refers to all people resettled to Siberia, but more specifically it refers to Poles who have been imprisoned or exiled to Siberia and even to those sent to Arctic Russia and Kazakhstan in the 1940s.
Russian and Soviet authorities exiled many Poles to Siberia, starting with the 18th-century opponents of the Russian Empire's increasing influence in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (most notably the members of the Bar Confederation of 1768-1772).
After Russian penal law changed in 1847, exile and penal labor (katorga) became common penalties for participants in national uprisings within the Russian Empire. This led to sending an increasing number of Poles to Siberia for katorga, they became known as Sybiraks. Some of them remained there, forming a Polish minority in Siberia. Most of them came from the participants and supporters of the November Uprising of 1830-1831 and of the January Uprising of 1863-1864, from the participants of the 1905-1907 unrest and from the hundreds of thousands of people deported in the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.
Around the late 19th century a limited number of Polish voluntary settlers moved to Siberia, attracted by the economic development of the region. Polish migrants and exiles, many of whom were forbidden to move away from the region even after finishing serving their sentence, formed a vibrant Polish minority there. Hundreds of Poles took part in the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Notable Polish scholars studied Siberia, such as Aleksander Czekanowski, Jan Czerski, Benedykt Dybowski, Wiktor Godlewski, Sergiusz Jastrzebski, Edward Piekarski (1858-1934), Bronisław Piłsudski, Wacław Sieroszewski, Mikołaj Witkowski and others.
The term Sybiracy might also refer to former exiles, such as those who were allowed to return to Russian-held Poland following the amnesty of 1857. The group, popular among the youth in the period preceding the outbreak of the January Uprising, supported the idea of organic work. However, during the January Uprising it ceased to exist as some of its members supported the Reds, while others supported the Whites. Among the most notable members of the group were Agaton Giller, Henryk Krajewski, Karol Ruprecht and Szymon Tokarzewski.
At the start of World War II the Soviets deported hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens, most of them in four mass waves. The accepted figure exceeded 1.5 million. The most conservative figures use recently found NKVD documents showing 309,000 to 381,220.
The Soviets did not recognise ethnic minorities as Polish citizens, some of the figures are based on those given an amnesty rather than deported and not everyone was eligible for the amnesty therefore the new figures are considered too low. The Polish Institute of National Remembrance now estimates of the number of people deported to Siberia at 320,000.
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