...[a] masterly new history of the tsarist exile system ... Mr Beer’s book makes a compelling case for placing Siberia right at the centre of 19th-century Russian—and, indeed, European—history. But for students of Soviet and even post-Soviet Russia it holds lessons, too. Many of the country’s modern pathologies can be traced back to this grand tsarist experiment—to its tensions, its traumas and its abject failures.
Mr. Beer’s excellent book will for some time be the definitive work in English on this enormous topic ... Mr. Beer devotes 80 pages to a fascinating new account of the Decembrists that soberly delves into their tensions and personal weaknesses and tells of some of their conspiracies, drinking, debts and feuds. More important, Mr. Beer argues persuasively for a direct line between their story and the role played by the exile system in the eventual fall of the czars ... Mr. Beer provides a valuable sketch of life on Sakhalin island in the north Pacific, where late in the 19th century the apparat decided that convicts and exiles could more or less be dumped to fend for themselves—thus providing a perfect greenhouse for the exile system to flower into its purest moral expression.
Beer has done more with his own House of the Dead than merely reprise the accounts of great writers before him. A senior lecturer at the University of London, he has mined an impressive trove of resources, including state archives in St. Petersburg, Moscow and two Siberian cities that became hubs for the expanding penal system, Tobolsk and Irkutsk. From these rich lodes emerges a history with the sort of granular details that make the terror of the 'very name ‘Siberia’ ' so vividly, so luridly clear.