Katorgas were established in the 17th century in underpopulated areas of Siberia and the Russian Far East that had few towns or food sources. Nonetheless, a few prisoners successfully escaped back to populated areas. Since these times, Siberia gained its fearful connotation of punishment, which was further enhanced by the Soviet Gulag system that developed from the Katorga camps.
After the change in Russian penal law in 1847, exile and katorga became common penalties to the participants of national uprisings within the Russian Empire. This led to increasing number of Poles being sent to Siberia for katorga; they were known as Sybiraks. Some of them remained there, forming a Polish minority in Siberia.
The most common occupations in katorga camps were mining and timber works. A notable example was the construction of Amur Cart Road (Амурская колесная дорога), praised as a success in organisation of penal labor.
Anton Chekhov, the famous Russian writer and playwright, in 1891 visited the katorga settlements in the Sakhalin island in the Russian Far East and wrote about the conditions there in his book Sakhalin Island. He criticized the shortsightedness and incompetence of the officials in charge that led to poor living standards, waste of government funds, and poor productivity. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his book Gulag Archipelago about the Soviet era labor camps quoted Chekhov extensively to illustrate the enormous deterioration of living conditions of the inmates in the Soviet era compared with those of the katorga inmates of Chekhov's time.
Peter Kropotkin, while being aide de camp to the governor of Transbaikalia, was appointed to inspect the state of the prison system in the area, and later described the findings in his book, In Russian and French Prisons.
In 1943 the term "katorga works" (каторжные работы) was reintroduced. They were 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 works". Prisoners sentenced to "katorga works" were sent to Gulag prison camps with the most harsh regime and many of them died.
Penal labour has been quite common throughout history, in a number of countries. Parallels can be drawn between the katorga and the American chain gang, or the convict settlements in Australia, which played a part in building the country. As well as the punishment aspect, penal labour also partially attempts to address the financial cost of keeping prisoners.