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Katorga (Russian: ка́торга; IPA: [ˈkatərgə]; from medieval Greek: katergon, κάτεργον, "galley") was a system of penal labor in Russian Empire. Prisoners were sent to remote penal colonies in vast uninhabited areas of Siberia and Russian Far East where voluntary settlers and workers were never available in sufficient numbers. The prisoners had to perform forced labor under harsh conditions.
Katorga was category of punishment within the judicial system of the Russian Empire. It had many of the features associated with labor camp imprisonment: confinement, simplified facilities (as opposed to prisons), and forced labor, usually connected with hard, unskilled or semi-skilled work.
Katorga camps were established in the 17th century in underpopulated areas of Siberia and the Russian Far East, regions that had few towns or food sources. Despite the isolated conditions, a few prisoners successfully escaped to populated areas. From these times, Siberia gained its fearful connotation of punishment, which was further enhanced by the Soviet GULAG system.
After the change in Russian penal law in 1847, exile and katorga became common punishment to participants of national uprisings within the Russian Empire. This led to increasing numbers of Poles sent to Siberia for katorga. There people have become known in Poland as Sybiraks ( "Siberians"). Some of them remained there, forming a Polish minority in Siberia.
The most common occupations in katorga camps were mining and timber work. A notable example was the construction of the Amur Cart Road (Амурская колесная дорога), praised as a success in the organisation of penal labor.
In 1891 Anton Chekhov, the Russian writer and playwright, visited the katorga settlements in 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 decreased productivity. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his book about the Soviet-era labor camps, Gulag Archipelago, quoted Chekhov extensively to illustrate the enormous deterioration of living conditions for inmates and the huge increase in the number of people sent there in the Soviet era, compared to those of the katorga inmates of Chekhov's time.
Peter Kropotkin, while 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 "katorga labor" (каторжные работы) as a special, severe type of punishment was reintroduced. It was 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 labor". Prisoners sentenced to "katorga labor" were sent to gulag prison camps with the most harsh regime, and many of them died.