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Alexei Kirillovich Kuznetsov’s photographs of Russian prison camps at the turn of the century

24 November 2013

Author : ivgheny-kosthin

Alexei Kirillovich Kuznetsov was born on February 13th 1845 in Kherson in a family of merchants. After a primary education the district school, Kuznetsov graduated from the Moscow Commercial College. He then went on to study at the Petrovsky Agricultural and Forestry Academy.

After taking part in the riots of “Nechayev” case in January 1870 Kuznetsov was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress, and in July 1871 he was sentenced for “participation in an illegal community which aim was to change the existing government system of Russia.” Also Alexei Kirillovich was one of the suspects in the murder of student I.I. Ivanov. The most interesting fact of this is that this brutal murder committed in 1869 by a secret revolutionary society called “Narodnaya Rasprava” (“Народная Расправа” or “People’s Reprisal”) headed by Sergey Nechayev became the basis for Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel “Demons” which brought him the reputation of a progressive mind.

Kuznetsov was convicted and sentenced to deprivation of all property rights, with a deportation on a penal servitude in the fortress for ten years, and a permanent exile in Siberia. In June 1873, he arrived at the Kara river.

After serving six years in the Kara hard labor, he was allowed to settle in Nerchinsk, where he started his enlightenment activities.

Besides local history, geographical studies and museum works, Alexei Kirillovich was highly interested in photography.

Here are some pictures taken by him in the camp near the Russian-Chinese border, which illustrate the prisoners and hard labor life in the Far East of Russia.

On these pictures we can see two types of stigmatizings of the time:


1. According to the “Penal Code” of 1845 it was necessary to put the letter “К” on the forehead, the letter “А” on the right cheek, while on the left – the letter “Т” (first three letters of “каторжник” which means “convict”). Stigmatizing was an action directed to the prisoners sentenced to penal servitude. This human branding followed the flogging, also performed publicly by the executioner.

2. By the Ukase of 21 July 1845 it was provided for each escaped convict to put on his right arm below the elbow, and a shoulder blade the stigmas with the letters “СБ” or “СК” (acronyms for “СсыльноБеглый”, “СсыльноКаторжный” which both indicate a convict’s attempt to escape) and for each new escape, the new stigma should be placed right down on the arm and a shoulder blade.

In 1905, Kuznetsov appears again in the fire of the revolutionary events. He was one of the leaders of the so-called “Chita Republic” dictatory, and belonged to the Esers (members of Socialist Revolutionary Party) . A drumhead court martial sentenced him to death by hanging, which unexpectedly (by the request of the Russian Geographical Society) was replaced by a ten-year hard labor. He served these days in Akatuy katorga. In 1908, sick and feeble Kuznetsov was sent to an exile in Yakutia, where he eventually opened his third local history museum.

In 1913, he received the permission to return to Chita, where he continued his artistic and scientific researches.

Alexei Kirillovich Kuznetsov died in 1928 in Moscow, leaving 11 photographic albums and imposing mineralogical and archaeological collections.

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