Prisons and the cholera epidemic of 1892-1893: How the Russian Imperial penal system contained the outbreak


In a new series of posts, historian Mikhail Nakonechnyi, Postdoctoral Researcher on the Gulag Echoes project, takes a look at how epidemics were contained in the prisons of the Russian Empire. The first of his two posts analyses the Cholera epidemic of 1892-1893. You can read the second post here.

As the prison system of the Russian Federation faces the novel COVID-19 threat in 2020, one may wonder how governments have responded to epidemics that have hit penal institutions in the past. This post takes a historical look at how prison systems have dealt with rapidly spreading infections. In the first part of the post, I seek to adumbrate the general contours of policies implemented by the late Russian Empire against mass epidemics of acute infectious diseases. I start with a methodological note, then delineate the broad context of epidemiological situation in history generally, and in the late Russian Empire specifically. Next, the post interrogates the most egregious case in the temporal frame under scrutiny, the epidemic of Asiatic cholera in 1891-1892. I specifically concentrate on the gamut of measures the tsarist bureaucracy undertook to alleviate the epidemiological crisis in the Imperial prison system. The post concludes with a reflection on the degree of the government’s effectiveness against the epidemic.

In Part II of this series of posts (forthcoming on this blog), I will address another global epidemic that broke out in Russian prisons, namely the typhus and typhoid epidemic of 1908-1912. In the overall conclusion, this series of two posts will compare and contrast the contemporary COVID-19 situation with the pre-revolutionary Russian experience, while keeping in mind the methodological limitations of such intellectual exercises.

General context: epidemics in prisons in the late Russian Empire

Penitentiary systems have served as breeding ground for all kinds of diseases from time immemorial. Historically, overcrowding, poor sanitation, paltry rations, rudimentary healthcare were, to a larger or lesser extent, characteristic of all types of incarceration, both in rich and poor countries for hundreds of years. Often, a sentence to prison confinement was tantamount to capital punishment. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, not least due to pioneering efforts of penal reformers John Howard and Jeremy Bentham, European prisons gained a well-deserved reputation as catalysts for lethal epidemics. Correctional institutions were detrimental in this regard not only to the prisoners per se, but also to the adjacent local ‘free’ population. Grim anecdotes of mass contamination spreading like wildfire from local jails into the wider world permeate the medical literature of that time. Even a seemingly innocuous activity, such as the attendance of the court sessions in the early modern period, could have been deadly. In England contemporaries coined a special epithet, the ‘Black Assieze’, to denote frequent cases of mass infection and death of not only detainees, but magistrates, guards, and royal officials present in the courtroom. For example, shortly after judicial proceedings held at Oxford in 1577 against a certain Rowland Jenkes for his ‘seditious tounge’ against the Queen, over 300 court attendees (including Sir Robert Bell, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, a county sheriff, two knights, the whole of the grand jury, and several justices of peace) died from so-called ‘gaol fever’. It was probably typhus transmitted via body lice from ill-kept and impoverished prisoners unto the unsuspecting audience.

Though the Russian Empire had been incrementally improving its public health, in the late 1800s it was not different from other European countries. It had an inadequate health network infrastructure even by the modest standards of 19th century hygiene. The sheer size of the empire, in conjunction with negligible investment in sanitary reforms by an apathetic St. Petersburg, as well as archaic practices among the peasant population, ubiquitous suspicion towards professional doctors (who were even occasionally killed by superstitious peasants in cholera riots) all contributed to the dilatory progress in the sphere of public health. In the Russian Empire, the 19th century was characterised by elevated infant mortality rates, low life expectancy, and high incidence of infectious diseases. Devastating epidemics periodically ravaged the country throughout 19th and early 20th centuries, causing hundreds of thousands of excess deaths among the civilian population (the cholera outbreak of 1848 being a particularly egregious example).  Even members of the royal family, the Romanovs, regularly succumbed to serious ailments (future emperor Alexander III, typhoid, 1866; Empress Maria Alexandrovna, typhoid; Grand Duchess Ksenia Alexandrovna, typhoid, 1888; Emperor Nicholas II, severe case of typhoid, 1900; Grand Duchess Tatiana, typhoid, 1913).

Given this context, it is no wonder that Russian Imperial prisons reflected the broader patterns of the era and habitually morphed into a veritable hotbed for the dissemination of contagious diseases. Although by the end of the 19th century the sanitary situation in Russian prisons substantially improved as compared with the early 1800s due to the Western-styled penal reform of 1879, the penal system continued to be susceptible to epidemics. What follows provides an overview of one of the most serious outbreaks of cholera in 19th century Russian prisons. It correlated with the ill-famed famine of 1891-1892 in the southeast of the Empire. The 1891-1893 epidemic, in turn, formed just an episode (however dramatic) of the fifth cholera pandemic (1881–1896). In Russia, it led to at least 613,105 infections and 299,798 deaths outside prisons in 1891-1893. These numbers are certainly understated.

The cholera epidemic in Russian prisons, 1892-1893

The WHO defines cholera as ‘an acute diarrhoeal infection caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae’. Death occurs extremely fast due to dehydration in almost half of all cases. What made cholera particularly dangerous for the Imperial prison system was the protean, extremely transitory nature of its carceral population. The largest landlocked Empire in the world, Russia traditionally used its vast underpopulated frontier for the removal of delinquents. Every year, roughly 10-15 thousand exiles and prisoners travelled on foot (later on trains, ships and barges) under armed guard to inhospitable fringes of the Empire: the Urals, Siberia, and the Far East.  In a system so heavily dependent on transportation, moving parties of prisoners constituted a highly mobile source of disease dissemination. Logically, the main goal and concurrent challenge for Imperial prison authorities was to effectively readjust the sophisticated system of so-called ‘etapirovanie’ (inmate relocation) in the largest country in the world to stall the pathogen’s proliferation.

Figure 1. Official accounting sheet of cholera cases in Russian Imperial prisons on the provincial level in 1893
Source: Otchet po glavnimu tiuremnomu upravleniu za 1893, Spb, 1894, 149.


The first cholera case in the penal system occurred in June 1892. Astrakhan’s governor requested for the Imperial Main Prison Administration (the GTU) in St. Petersburg to stop all transportation of prisoners due to rumours of the disease spreading in Turkestan and along the coast of the Caspian Sea. Central authorities decided to rescind the forwarding of parties of prisoners from the Caucasus, from the Volga River, and between Ufa and Samara. Meanwhile, cholera appeared in Perm prison on July 4. Other prisons quickly followed – Rostov-on-Don (18 July), Tobolsk (end of July). To shield Moscow forwarding prison, a crucial logistical hub of the system, from contamination, the GTU additionally abrogated movement of numerous prisoners and exile parties from Smolensk, Kharkov, Kursk, Iaroslavl, Voronezh, Riazan, Nizhnii Novgorod, and St. Petersburg.  Remarkably, the crisis became so dire that the Minister of Internal Affairs Ivan Nikolaevich Durnovo even sent the Director of the Imperial Penal Administration Mikhail Nikolaevich Galkin-Vrasskoi into the lower Volga region to coordinate relief efforts personally.

Figure 2.The first director of the Imperial prison administration (GTU) M.N. Galkin-Vrasskoi (1832-1916)
Source: Gosudarstvennyi sovet. Petrograd: Tip. Petrogradskoi tiur’my, 1915

Concomitantly, when cholera appeared in Taganrog, the local governor halted the relocation of prisoners from Kerch, Mariupol, Berdiansk, and Eisk. Remarkably, Astrakhan prison, located very close to the epicentre of the epidemic in the free population, managed to eschew the contamination of its population by instituting total quarantine. In some provinces, penal officials ostensibly kept cholera out of correctional institutions entirely (e.g. Vladimirskaia, Vologodskaia, Volynskaia, Novgorodskaia, Stavropol’skaia, Tul’skaia, Tverskaia provinces, and several others). By August 1892, the epidemic started to recede. On 10 October 1892, Galkin-Vrasskoi resumed all transportation of prisoners (except from the Caucuses, where cholera was still prevalent). Although the illness reappeared in 1893, it never reached the levels of 1892.

Overall, per official sources, in 1892 the cholera epidemic affected 17% of existing prisons in the Empire (126 out of 718 correctional institutions, including Poland, but excluding Finland). It caused 1,441 cases of infection and 650 deaths (i.e. 45%). However, a critically thinking sceptic should approach the figures with incredulity and legitimately doubt the veracity of the data. The imperfect 19th century government statistics and the implicit bureaucratic biases underpinning its creation probably downplayed the actual scale of the epidemic. However, the margin of error was not particularly conspicuous. Overall death rate fluctuations can substantiate this inference (see Graph 1).

Graph 1.Mortality in Imperial Russian prisons, 1890-1893
Source: Calculated based on Otchet po glavnomu tiuremnomu upravleniu za 1890,1891,1892,1893.


To appreciate the scale of excess deaths behind bars in Russia due to the cholera outbreak and famine of 1892, let us consider the following proportions. If before the advent of the outbreak prison doctors registered 4,071 deaths in ‘normal’ 1890 (3.8% of daily average population), the absolute figures of fatalities leaped to 6,645 deaths in ‘epidemic’ 1892 (5.9% of daily average population). In 1893, mortality started to wane. By 1894, the epidemic abated, provoking premature deaths of at least several hundred prisoners across the Empire. We certainly should doubt the precision of diagnostics in determining the real causes of death. Apparently, the number of cholera-induced fatalities was larger than official data indicated, but the total number of deaths was registered far more precisely. Overall, general mortality oscillations, although still high (roughly 10,000 deaths due to all reasons in two years), proves that the cholera and famine of 1892 did not usher a truly unprecedented catastrophe behind bars. For comparison, several decades later, death rates skyrocketed to 15% per annum in the famine and typhus-stricken GULAG circa 1933, сausing the death of roughly 70,000 prisoners and 150,000 special settlers in just one year. One may wonder what measures allowed the Imperial penal administration to alleviate the crisis and obviate even more disastrous social consequences.

Preventive measures against the cholera (implemented by the Russian Imperial GTU in 1892-1893)

One can summarize the response strategies of the Imperial administration as follows:

  • The complete halt of exile and prisoner transportation to Siberia via Tyumen and Perm forwarding prisons by a direct order of the Main Prison Administration director Galkin-Vrasskoi on 1 August 1892.
  • Active use of relatively new communication technologies (the telegraph). Quick exchange of information between St. Petersburg and the localities facilitated coordination of nationwide prevention efforts and increased administrative flexibility of local prison authorities, depending on the severity of the threat.
  • Institution of two weeks’ quarantine to all parties of prisoners suspected of contracting a cholera.
  • Prohibition of providing non-boiled water or milk to prisoners and substitution of it with hot tea. This was probably the most important response measure. Thanks to pioneering studies of British epidemiologist John Snow, confirmed later by German microbiologist Robert Koch, the causal link between contaminated water and the infection was already widely acknowledged. By the early 1890s, a greater understanding of cholera bacteria and the etiology of the disease precipitated significant decrease of death rates during the fifth cholera pandemic (1881–1896), including in Russia.
  • Increased focus on sanitation. Propagation of disinfection techniques for prisoners’ clothes, prison facilities, particularly latrines and excrement (a known catalyst of infection). The main aseptic agents recommended and employed by the GTU were relatively recently discovered carbolic acid (karbolka), mercuric chloride (sulema), vitriol solution, burning sulfur, quicklime, and formalin.
  • Regular washing of prisoners in the bathhouses; disinfection of their clothes with steam; systematic burning of clothes soiled with faeces.
  • The ban on visitation rights for prisoners. Family members could not meet with prisoners in order to decrease the risk of spreading the infection.
  • The creation of additional emergency hospitals along the Great Exile Path to Siberia (e.g. a new sanitary point between Tyiumen and Tobolsk, and others).
  • Increases in the delivery of medical supplies to transit prisons . Each party of prisoners received medicine stocks additional to the standard issue.
  • Allowance to break Orthodox Lent to support prisoners’ health with meat, fat and other nutrients (in ‘non-crisis’ times, prisoners were supposed to adhere to the fast according to prison regulations).
Figure 3. A scheme of primitive apparatus for chlorine fumigation, used in Imperial prisons, late 19th century.
Source: Sistematicheskii sbornik uzakonenii I rasporiazhenii po tiuremnoy chasti. Sost. V.N.Kokovtsev and S.V. Rukhlov. SPB :tip.I.N.Skorokhodova, 1894.


Were these measures effective? The answer is complicated due to relative nature of ‘effectiveness’, especially in historical context. To be sure, to a contemporary observer, at least some of abovementioned strategies might legitimately seem as ‘Potemkin’ measures, or superficial and inadequate approaches meant to create a façade of efforts. The premature death of hundreds of convicts (including their non-incarcerated wives and children) unequivocally demonstrates the failures of the administration. Mismanagement, haphazard decision-making, and truculent, callous attitudes of Imperial functionaries undoubtedly aggravated the situation in a few provinces and lead to deaths which could have otherwise been avoided.

However, one can argue that the Imperial government still managed to avert full-blown catastrophe and curtail the epidemic in its penal system with a relatively low cost (certainly, only by the harsh standards of the 1890s). If we factor in the highly virulent and then-incurable nature of the cholera pathogen, the extreme case-fatality rate (50%), insignificant bureaucratic capacity of the tsarist state, general deleterious conditions of the prison life in the 1890s (not only in Russia, but in Europe and the USA), and catastrophic plight of the epidemic in the free population, the crisis of 1892-1893 in prisons appears grave, but certainly less dire than it could have been. Why?

The confluence of causal factors is complex, but I would highlight the principal variable – the relatively small (and manageable) size of the tsarist penitentiary system itself.  It was not large by European and even contemporary standards. The late Russian Empire incarcerated only a tiny portion of its population (93 inmates per 100,000 population in 1890; compare with 1546 in the USSR circa 1950; 655 in America circa 2019; or 386 in Russian Federation circa 2019) and transported ‘only’ 10-15 thousand exiles over the Ural Mountains to Siberia and the Far East. Even despite dysfunctionalities and inefficiencies intrinsic to Imperial bureaucracy, it was easier to micro-manage and control a smaller penal system with its relatively insignificant population ‘flow’. This included the implementation of measures against cholera epidemic of 1892-1893.

However, the following major epidemic, typhus and typhoid of 1908-1912, incurred a higher death toll in absolute figures than cholera. The next blog post in this series on the history of epidemics in prisons is devoted to this crisis.

Methodological note

We should be careful to not crudely extrapolate our contemporary sensibilities and expectations on the 19th and even the early 20th centuries, and take into account the levels of scientific, medical, and technological developments of those periods. It would be anachronistic to assume that 19th century governments, with their limited administrative capacities, could quell, say, typhus as effectively as contemporary bureaucracies. Even in the most advanced countries of the time, no dedicated Ministries of Health existed until the early 1900s. Vaccination, sanitation research, bacteriology, microbiology, and germ theory of disease (which gradually replaced archaic miasma theory only in the 1880s) were all in their nascent stages. The vast majority of acute infectious illnesses continued to be intractable and incurable. Hospitals often exacerbated the health problems of their patients rather than solving them. Like in the Middle Ages or Early Modern period, states faced with the need to stop infections from spreading would usually rely not on therapeutic medical policies, but on basic preventive measures like draconian quarantine. The epidemics themselves resulted in considerably more deaths and greater social turmoil than their present-day analogues.

As late as the 1950s, typhus and typhoid fevers, smallpox, scarlet and yellow fevers, measles, erysipelas, cholera, whooping cough, diphtheria, and other infectious maladies (or zymotic diseases, as they were called at the time) occasionally reached flagrant proportions in prison systems all across the globe. The death rates of prisoners during these epidemics were exceptional by 21st century norms. A case in point: in 1852, as a result of cholera, 16% of all prisoners in Munich prison in Bavaria died, and by the following year the death rate at this prison rose to 24%.

The antibiotic revolution of mid-20th century radically changed morbidity and mortality in prisons worldwide. The advent of sulfanilamides and penicillin in the 1940s turned out to be a structural ‘game changer’. The principal 19th-century ‘killers’ of prisoners, such as typhus or cholera, now do not post a particular threat to prison populations and are almost extinct (at least in developed countries). Conversely, these same diseases posed an immense threat to custodial populations a hundred years ago. Cholera, for instance, if left untreated, could lead to death in one or two days with 50% probability. All of the above should be factored in when one attempts to draw any direct parallels to the contemporary COVID-19 crisis in prisons.

Further reading

Obzor desiatiletnei deiatel’nosti Glavnogo tiuremnogo upravlenia, 1879-1889. Spb, 1889.

Tiuremnii vestnik, 1893-1915.

Otchety po Glavnomu Tiuremnomu upravleniu, Spb ,1892-1893, 1907-1912.

Salomon A.P., Ssylka v Sibir’: Ocherk ee istorii i sovremennogo polozheniia : Dlia… Komis. o meropriiatiiah po otmene ssylki /. – Sankt-Peterburg : tip. S.-Peterb. tiur’my, 1900.

Davis, John P. Russia in the Time of Cholera: Disease under Romanovs and Soviets (London, England: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2019).

Robbins, Richard G. Famine in Russia, 1891-1892: The Imperial Government Responds to a Crisis (New York ; London : Columbia University Press, 1975).

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