This is another in the occasional LH series Annoying Errors I Feel the Need to Correct Publicly. I’m still reading, and enjoying, Benson Bobrick’s East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia (see here and here); it’s an excellent overview of the region’s history, with lots of piquant details and mini-biographies. But on p. 286, he says:
Thus did a quite limited idea of Siberia become fixed in the public mind. One Victorian writer called the colony “the cesspool of the Tsars,” and if the judgment seems harsh, the prevailing view was perhaps fairly epitomized by Count Nesselrode’s emphatic pronouncement that Siberia was “the bottom of the sack.”
I was puzzled by the odd phrase “the bottom of the sack” (which he also uses as the chapter title), and checked the footnotes; it turned out that his source was Anatole G. Mazour’s Women in Exile: Wives of the Decembrists (Diplomatic Press, 1975), which was no help. But by dint of clever googling, I was able to turn up the original quote in Ivan Barsukov’s «Граф Н. Н. Муравьев-Амурский по его письмам, официальным документам, рассказам современников и печатным источникам» [Count Nikolai Nikolaevich Murav’ev-Amursky according to his letters, official documents, stories of contemporaries, and printed sources], Vol. 1 (1891); I’ll put the Russian (and a clip from the Google Books page for those who can see it) below the cut, but it is represented accurately by this quote from Mark Bassin’s Imperial Visions: Nationalist Imagination and Geographical Expansion in the Russian Far East, 1840-1865 (which looks quite interesting in its own right, but damn, it costs $129.96 new and $69.00 used):
Nesselrode explained that up to this time distant Siberia had represented a “deep net” into which Russia could discard its social sins and scum (podonki) in the form of convicts and exiles. With the annexation of the Amur, however, “the bottom of this net will be untied, and our convicts would be presented with a broad field for escape down the Amur to the Pacific.”
Yes, he’s comparing eastern Siberia (Transbaikal) to a net for exiles, but the “emphatic” phrase Bobrick quotes is simply a part of the metaphor, representing the then border with China, and not a grim image for the entirety of Siberia (which would have been an extremely unlikely thing to emerge from the pen of the Russian foreign minister). Once more we see the danger of relying on secondary sources.
Here’s the Russian:
Самъ Нессельроде отзывался, «что отдаленная Сибирь была до того времени для Россіи глубокимъ мѣшкомъ, въ который спускались наши соціальные грѣхи и подонки, въ видѣ ссыльныхъ, каторжныхъ и т. п.; съ присоединеніемъ же Амура, дно этого мѣшка должно было оказаться распоротымъ, и нашимъ каторжникамъ могло представиться широкое поле для бѣгства по Амуру въ Восточный океанъ..»