Katorga (ка́торга, from medieval Greek: katergon,κάτεργον galley) was the precursor to the Gulag system. It was a system of penal servitude of the prison farm type in Imperial Russia. Prisoners were sent to remote camps in vast uninhabited areas of Siberia—where voluntary labourers were never available in satisfactory numbers—and forced to perform hard labour. Katorga began in the 17th century, and was taken over by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution of 1917, eventually transforming into the Gulag labor camps.


Unlike concentration camps, "katorga" was within the normal judicial system of (Imperial) Russia, but both share the same main features: confinement, simplified facilities (as opposed to prisons), and forced labor, usually on hard, unskilled or semi-skilled work.

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.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Russian penal system was taken over by the Bolsheviks, eventually transforming into the Gulag labor camps.

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.

Notable katorgas

Famous katorga captives


  • Author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, from 1849 until 1854, for revolutionary activity against Tsar Nicholas I. Dostoyevsky abandoned his leftist attitudes during this period, and became deeply conservative and extremely religious.
  • Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky, imprisoned (and escaped) twice, in 1897 and 1900, for revolutionary activity.
  • David Riazanov (1891-1895), a narodnik at the time and latter founder of the Marx-Engels Institute
  • Revolutionary Vera Figner, a well-known political activist.
  • Decembrists: initial verdict was 16 persons for termless katorga, 5 persons for 10 years, 15 persons for 6 years. After the trial tsar reduced the sentences, subsequent amnesties further shortened the terms.
  • Joseph Stalin escaped twice, in 1902 and 1908, before being finally confined in a katorga on the Yenisei River 1913-1917, finally being released at the time of the February Revolution
  • Fanny Kaplan, a Russian political revolutionary and attempted assassin of Vladimir Lenin.



  • P.Kropotkin, In Russian and French Prisons, London: Ward and Downey; 1887.

External links

Search another word or see termlesson Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature