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The Contemporary Review, Volume 36, September 1879

Lemke entered the opening of the rock


The

above description is from the correspondent of the _Daily News_. Clearly it is a very pleasant position to be a "privileged person" in Russia. It marks its occupant, by preference, as a possible candidate for exile to Siberia; the more cultivated classes being essentially those which constitute the active element of political dissatisfaction.

Of the treatment of political exiles in Siberia, as it has been carried on for a long time past, I have before me a thrilling description from the pen of Mr. Robert Lemke, a German writer, who has visited the various penal establishments of Russia, with an official legitimation. He had been to Tobolsk; after which he had to make a long, dreary journey in a wretched car, until a high mountain arose before him. In its torn and craggy flank the mountain showed a colossal opening similar to the mouth of a burnt-out crater. Fetid vapours, which almost took away his breath, ascended from it.

Pressing the handkerchief upon his lips, Mr. Lemke entered the opening of the rock, when he found a large watch-house, with a picket of Cossacks. Having shown his papers of legitimation, he was conducted by a guide through a long, very dark, and narrow corridor, which, judging from its sloping descent, led down into some unknown depth. In spite of his good fur, the visitor felt extremely cold. After a walk of some ten minutes through the dense obscurity, the ground becoming more and more

soft, a vague shimmer of light became observable. "We are in the mine!" said the guide, pointing with a significant gesture to the high iron cross-bars which closed the cavern before them.

The massive bars were covered with a thick rust. A watchman appeared, who unlocked the heavy iron gate. Entering a room of considerable extent, but which was scarcely a man's height, and which was dimly lit by an oil-lamp, the visitor asked, "Where are we?" "In the sleeping-room of the condemned! Formerly it was a productive gallery of the mine; now it serves as a shelter."

The visitor shuddered. This subterranean sepulchre, lit by neither sun, nor moon, was called a sleeping-room. Alcove-like cells were hewn into the rock; here, on a couch of damp, half-rotten straw, covered with a sackcloth, the unfortunate sufferers were to repose from the day's work. Over each cell a cramp-iron was fixed, wherewith to lock-up the prisoners like ferocious dogs. No door, no window anywhere.

Conducted through another passage, where a few lanterns were placed, and whose end was also barred by an iron gate, Mr. Lemke came to a large vault, partly lit. This was the mine. A deafening noise of pickaxes and hammers. There he saw some hundreds of wretched figures, with shaggy beards, sickly faces, reddened eyelids; clad in tatters, some of them barefoot, others in sandals, fettered with heavy foot-chains. No song, no whistling. Now and then they shyly looked at the visitor and his companion. The water dripped from the stones; the tatters of the convicts were thoroughly wet. One of them, a tall man, of suffering mien, laboured hard with gasping breath, but the strokes of his pickaxe were not heavy and firm enough to loosen the rock.

"Why are you here?" Mr. Lemke asked.

The convict looked confused, with an air almost of consternation, and silently continued his work.

"It is forbidden to the prisoners," said the inspector, "to speak of the cause of their banishment!"

Entombed alive; forbidden to say why!


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