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History of Siberian Exiles

The first Poles sent to Siberia were prisoners of war from various battles fought against Russia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After the partitions in the late 1700s, Poles were exiled to Siberia in large numbers following the anti-Russian insurrections of 1794, 1830-1 and 1863, as well as during the Napoleonic wars when Poles who fought with the French were captured. But all during the 1800s thousands of Poles were sent to Siberia for various anti-Russian activities and plots, real or imagined, along with Polish common criminals.


exile SybirOnly seventeen days after the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 to start World War II, the USSR invaded and occupied the eastern half of the country. The Soviets rounded up and expelled at least 300,000, some say up to two million, Polish citizens from this occupation zone and sent them to work camps in northern Russia, Siberia, Kazakhstan and Kirgyzstan. Read a personal story: Memories from Deportation to Kazakhstan

When the Germans invaded the USSR in 1941, most of the Poles, the ones who survived, were set free to trek south to join the British army in Iraq, Iran and other places.

This was not the first time in history that Poles had been forcibly sent eastward by the Russians. Almost from the time the Russians first conquered Siberia in the 1500s, they had used it as a vast prison, a place of exile. Any crime against the Tsarist government could result in exile to Siberia.

There were four different levels of punishment in Siberia. The harshest was hard labor in prison camps. Next was compulsory settlement at forced labor, then compulsory settlement exempt from forced labor. The most lenient allowed freedom of movement within a large area and eligibility to return to European Russia.

The first Poles sent to Siberia were prisoners of war from various battles fought against Russia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After the partitions in the late 1700s, Poles were exiled to Siberia in large numbers following the anti-Russian insurrections of 1794, 1830-1 and 1863, as well as during the Napoleonic wars when Poles who fought with the French were captured. But all during the 1800s thousands of Poles were sent to Siberia for various anti-Russian activities and plots, real or imagined, along with Polish common criminals.

There are stories of Polish deportees, known as Sybiracy, forming societies, libraries, and even building Catholic chapels. And the fire of freedom burned deeply within the hearts of those exiles, for almost all had been sent to frozen Siberia for their attempts at gaining liberty for their fatherland.

In the 1830s two Poles, a doctor and a priest, plotted to wrest control of Siberia from the Russians. It sounds insane, but their plans counted on the two thousand Polish exiles around the city of Omsk, Russian deportees, discontented Russian soldiers, of which there were plenty, and the help of native Siberians, who never had any love for the Russians who had come to their land hundreds of years before. But the plot failed before it really began because the conspirators were double-crossed by fellow Poles on the very eve of the planned rising.

In 1866 another plan for freedom was hatched by Siberian Poles. The center of these subversions was in the Irkutsk area near Lake Baikal. On June 24, 700 Poles working on a road near the lake rebelled. This had been planned for months, but arrests made prior to its implementation blunted its impact.

As unrealistic as it may seem, the plotters, who styled themselves "The Siberian Legion of Free Poles," planned to free the entire Russian Empire. First, a United States of Siberia, called Svobodoslaviya, was to be formed, a democracy modeled on the U.S.A. This was to be followed by the liberation of European Russia, then Poland.

The insurrectionists took over a few buildings including a post office and freed some prisoners. But after only four days the rebellion was suppressed by Governor General Kukiel of Irkutsk, ironically an ethnic Pole. The 400 surviving rebels were imprisoned and their leaders shot.

In general, it was not terribly difficult for the typical exile to escape from his assigned area of settlement, and many did. The hard part was making his way back to Europe. Most escapees simply moved to another Siberian settlement, free of the oversight of their Russian masters.

Frequent amnesties by the czar during the 1800s resulted in repatriation of large numbers of Poles back to their homeland. Yet after years of life in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Kirgyzstan, many Poles remained there even after being freed. They had started families, established farms, even businesses, and had grown used to their new land. Even today many citizens of these lands can trace their roots back to nineteenth century Polish exiles.

Recommended reading(s):

When God Looked the Other WayWhen God Looked the Other Way: An Odyssey of War, Exile, and Redemption (Paperback) by Wesley Adamczyk

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