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Katorga (Russian: ка́торга; IPA: [ˈkatərgə]; from medieval Greek: katergon, κάτεργον, "galley") was a punishment of penal servitude in Tsarist Russia's labor camps, which were later expanded into the Soviet Union's gulags. Prisoners were sent to remote penal colonies in vast uninhabited areas of Siberia where voluntary settlers and workers were never available in sufficient numbers. The prisoners had to perform forced labor under harsh conditions.
Katorga was within the normal judicial system of (Imperial) Russia. It had many of the features associated with concentration 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, the development being influenced by the history of the Katorga camps.
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 being sent to Siberia for katorga, where 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 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 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 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.
In 1943, during World War II, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union issued the decree Presidium "О мерах наказания для немецко-фашистских злодеев, виновных в истязаниях советского гражданского населения и пленных красноармейцев, для шпионов, изменников родины из числа советских граждан и для их пособников", in which section 2 provided punishment with katorga works for 15 to 25 years. The abbreviation for the corresponding convicts was "з/к КТР" (z/k KTR).