Who were Shlisselʹburg’s revolutionary prisoners? Or, When monuments lie

When I started this project, one of the first obstacles I encountered was working out exactly who the Shlisselʹburg prisoners were. This was a problem for the inmates themselves, particularly concerning the prisoners who died before the regime was relaxed and communication was properly established. As Mikhail Frolenko notes, ‘so many people I didn’t know were brought in, and their cells were so far from mine, that I didn’t find out about other deaths’ (Zapiski semidesiatnika, p. 208). Nikolai Morozov’s moving obituary of Aizik Aronchik (Povesti moei zhizni, vol. 3, pp. 295-6) records that his comrade, suffering from severe mental illness and progressive paralysis, was so silent that no-one knew he was in the prison until some time after his death in 1888, when a guard told them about his presence.
Concerned to preserve the memory of all the prisoners, several of the memoirs try to address this problem by documenting as fully as possible the arrivals, deaths and departures from the fortress. Liudmila Volkenshtein made the first attempt to do this (Writing Resistance, pp.43-45) and various other texts by survivors followed her example (see, e.g. Mikhail Novorusskii’s Zapiski shlisselʹburzhtsa, pp. 214-15). To a great extent they succeeded, but doubts remained about whether one revolutionary activist from Odessa region, Nikanor Kryzhanovskii, had ever been in the prison.

Portrait of Kryzhanovskii
Nikanor Fedorovich Kryzhanovskii, 1859-1891

Volkenshtein doesn’t list Kryzhanovskii, but he is mentioned in Novorusskii’s Zapiski shlisselʹburzhtsa (p. 214), and Petr Polivanov’s Otryvki iz pisem byvshego shlisselʹburzhtsa (p. 272). Ivan Iuvachev, however, states that he has reason to doubt Kryzhanovskii’s presence in the fortress (Shlisselʹburgskaia krepostʹ, p. 161) – and I’ll come back to this shortly. In secondary literature as well, there is some confusion. N. N. Gernet’s five-volume Istoriia tsarskoi tiurʹmy, normally a very reliable source, records Kryzhanovskii as one of the Shlisselʹburg inmates (vol 3, p. 231), but D. G. Venediktov-Beziuk, in Po kazematam Shlisselʹburgskoi kreposti, specifically denies that Kryzhanovskii was ever in Shlisselʹburg Fortress (p. 86).
The main available source of information on Kryzhanovskii appears to be the Ukrainian Wikipedia page, which doesn’t mention Shlisselʹburg. But it’s rather poorly referenced and I certainly wouldn’t consider it an infallible source. But it did give me enough information to connect Kryzhanovskii to Sakhalin Island, and several further sources confirmed that he was indeed sent there. Andrew Gentes’ new book, Russia’s Sakhalin Penal Colony, 1849-1917: Imperialism and Exile (which I definitely do trust), identifies Kryzhanovskii as the first political exile sent to Sakhalin, and cites an indirect reference to him in Iuvachev’s 1901 memoir Vosem’ let na Sakhaline (Gentes, pp. 219-23) – this presumably being the latter’s reason for doubting Kryzhanovskii’s presence in Shlisselʹburg Prison.
I think in part the confusion arose because Kryzhanovskii’s journey through the Russian penal system very much resembled several of the inmates’ who were transferred to Shlisselʹburg in August 1884. Like Fedor Iurkovskii, Egor Minakov, Ippolit Myshkin and others, Kryzhanovskii was sentenced to hard labour in Kara, and had his sentence increased for an escape attempt (in fact, he and Minakov escaped together, which probably fixed the association with the Shlisselʹburg prisoners in some minds). And he was sent back to St Petersburg and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress alongside the prisoners who were subsequently transferred to Shlisselʹburg. So in many ways it was a logical assumption that Kryzhanovskii would also have been sent to Shlisselʹburg. Why that did not happen, and why he was sent to Sakhalin Island’s penal colony instead, is a bit of a mystery – though the decision clearly signalled as much of a change of penal policy for political offenders as opening the new prison at Shlisselʹburg Fortress did.

stone monument
Monument to the prisoners who died in Shlissel’burg Fortress, 1884-1906

Despite the longstanding uncertainty about his presence, and the strong evidence of his imprisonment/exile elsewhere, the monument at Shlisselʹburg Fortress to the revolutionary heroes who perished in the prison lists Kryzhanovskii among the dead. This seems odd, because unlike the rest of Russia’s carceral system, Shlisselʹburg Fortress was notable for its close oversight of the prisoners. The new prison was built precisely to keep a constant watch over the state’s most dangerous convicts, with a large administration at the fortress itself and regular inspections by officials from St Petersburg. It seems impossible that the prison’s records left any room for doubt about who was incarcerated there, even if the prisoners themselves were uncertain about this in the early years.
But the error is perhaps understandable when we consider the commemorative context. The monument was erected in the early post-revolutionary period (the earliest image I have of it is from Venediktov-Beziuk’s 1928 book, but if any reader has a more precise date I’d be very glad to hear from you), and it’s likely that the chaos of the post-revolutionary period cancelled out any efficient record-keeping. Perhaps one should simply excuse the error in light of the Bolsheviks’ zeal to memorialize their revolutionary antecedents (better to wrongly include someone than exclude them, one might say).
This is, nevertheless, a good example of the fallibility of monuments, which (as the statue wars of the last couple of years have also shown) reflect the times when they were erected more than the people or events they commemorate.

Photograph of the monument at Shlisselʹburg Fortress by Pamela Davidson, reproduced with her permission.

Works cited

Frolenko, M. F. Zapiski semidesiatnika. Izdatelʹstvo politkatorzhan, 1927, http://elib.shpl.ru/ru/nodes/5043-frolenko-m-f-zapiski-semidesyatnika-m-1927-istoriko-revolyutsionnaya-biblioteka-kn-20-21#mode/grid/page/1/zoom/1.

Gentes, Andrew A. Russia’s Sakhalin Penal Colony, 1849–1917: Imperialism and Exile. Routledge, 2021.

Gernet, M. N. Istoriia tsarskoi tiurʹmy, v piati tomakh. Gosudarstvennoe izdatelʹstvo iuridicheskoi literatury, 1960.

Iuvachev, I. P. Shlisselʹburgskaia krepostʹ. Izdatelʹstvo ‘Posrednik’, 1907, http://dlib.rsl.ru/viewer/01003745902#?page=5.

Iuvachev, I. P. (I. P. Miroliubov). Vosemʹ let na Sakhaline. Tipografiia A. S. Suvorina, 1901.

Morozov, N. A. Povesti moei zhizni. Edited by S. Ia. Shtraikh, Izdatelʹstvo Akademii nauk SSSR, 1947.

Novorusskii, M. V. Zapiski shlisselʹburzhtsa: 1887-1905 gg. Gosudarstvennoe izdatelʹstvo, 1920, http://az.lib.ru/n/noworusskij_m_w/text_1906_zapiski_shilsselburzhtza.shtml.

Polivanov, P. S. ‘Otryvki iz pisem byvshego shlisselʹburzhtsa’. Byloe, vol. 1, no. 2, 1906, pp. 272–77, https://archive.org/details/byloe_1903_1907.

Venediktov-Beziuk, D. G. Po kazematam Shlisselʹburgskoi kreposti. Izd-vo politkatorzhan, 1928.

Young, Sarah J., editor. Writing Resistance: Revolutionary Memoirs of Shlissel´burg Prison, 1884-1906. Translated by Sarah J. Young, UCL Press, 2021, https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/173020.