Prisons and the typhus/typhoid epidemic of 1908-1910: How the Russian Imperial penal system contained the outbreak


In a new blog post on the history of pandemics in prisons, Dr. Mikhail Nakonechnyi takes an in-depth look at the typhus and typhoid outbreak in the Russian Empire in 1908-1910. He analyses the range of measures the government employed to contain the epidemic, and compares these historical events with COVID-19 in present-day Russian prisons.

Typhus, an acute infectious disease, is transmitted by the human body louse. The case-fatality rate (CFR) easily reaches 40% without treatment. Importantly, one should not erroneously conflate typhus with typhoid fever, almost as lethal as the former, but caused by different bacteria. Historically, both illnesses were endemic to most prison systems (typhus even received a nickname ‘jail’, ’camp’ or ‘gaol’ fever). The deadliness of the disease was directly predicated on the degree of overcrowding (another perennial characteristic of 19th and early 20th century prison systems). The worse the congestion in the penal institution, the higher the typhus-induced mortality rate.

The brutal suppression of the First Russian revolution (1905-1907) by the ministerial cabinets of Sergei Iul’evich Witte, Petr Nikolaevich Durnovo and Petr Arkad’evich Stolypin in conjunction with the upswing of crime rates and loss of a penal colony in Sakhalin after the Russo-Japanese war precipitated an exponential increase of the prisoner population in the Empire. If the daily average number of prisoners hovered around 85,184 in 1905, it skyrocketed to 175,228 in 1911.  The surge of the custodial population catalysed severe overcrowding of penal facilities. For a representative local example, per Orel prison inspector fon Kube, a provincial prison in Briansk had capacity for 115 prisoners, but concurrently held more than 400 detainees in 1908. In turn, the unprecedented overcrowding prompted one of the worst typhus and typhoid epidemics in the history of pre-revolutionary penal system.

Figure 1. Vladimir Savelievich Voitinskii (1885-1960), a prominent revolutionary (Bolshevik, then menshevik), a survivor of the typhus epidemic in Ekatirenoslavskaia prison in 1908-1909

Russian prisons, which before the crisis boasted one of the lowest death rates in Europe, evinced the first signs of crisis by the end of 1907. Like in the cholera years, the highly mobile prisoner population, now increasingly transported via newly built railroads, contributed to the rapid dissemination of the disease.  In the summer of 1908 both typhoid and typhus reached epidemic levels, leading to the precipitous rise of sickness and death rates. Typhus erupted in particularly staggering proportions in Kievskaia, Simferopol’skaia, Ekatirenoslavskaia, Saratovskaia, Penzenskaia, Ufimskaia, Kaluzhskaia prisons, as well as several other provincial prisons.  To get a peak into what a prisoner could have experienced in this period, below is a quote from the recollections of prominent social democrat Vladimir Voitinskii, who served time as a ‘political prisoner’ in Ekaterinoslavskaia province:

Almost the whole time typhus was raging in Ekaterinoslav prison. <…> Each day, 2-3 corpses were carried away. Mortality hovered around this number all winter in 1908-1909. In the spring, the epidemics became stronger. 5-6 people started dying every day. Then – another surge in mortality. Twenty-three people died over the course of two days. Overall, during my incarceration roughly 1,200 prisoners died from typhus. If no new prisoners were admitted into the prison, it would become empty.

Another remarkable feature of the 1908-1912 epidemic was that it decimated not only prisoners who undoubtedly bore the principal burden of excess mortality, but spilled over to penal officials. Typhus victims included local senior administrators (prison directors and wardens). In December 1908, the director of Vinnitsa prison Mirbach contracted typhus and died, leaving behind a wife and five children. In June 1908 deputy head of Vologodskaia prison Egorov died. In December 1908 warden of Verkhoturskaia prison Budai succumbed to the disease and died. In addition, at least dozens of rank-and-file prison guards and paramedics did not survive 1908-1909 and fell victim to typhus (see Figure 2). These cases indicate how dangerous, uncontrollable and deadly the epidemic actually was at its peak.

Figure 2. List of penal officials who died of typhus in 1908
Source: Otchet po glavnomu tiuremnomu upravleniu za 1908, SPB, 1909, 33.

Preventive measures

At the start of the epidemic, waves of revolutionary violence paralyzed, disoriented and bewildered the Main Prison Administration (the GTU). The excessive use of force by some prison wardens to ‘pacify’ the prisoner population and strengthen the regime of detention provoked indiscriminate retaliation from radicals. Only in 1907, terrorists, mostly social-revolutionaries (SRs) and anarchists, killed 15 senior and 126 subaltern prison officials, including the incumbent Director of the Main Prison Administration, Alexander Mikhailovich Maksimovskii. His immediate successor, Pavel Grigorievich Kurlov, had to tackle not only the impending threat of riots, armed escapes and external attacks on prisons, but also rapidly spreading typhus and typhoid infection. The GTU, severely underfunded and understaffed, nevertheless attempted to quell the diseases in a centralised manner.  On 19 May 1908 Kurlov issued circular № 38 to all local governors. It charted principal response strategies to combat the epidemic. Remarkably, they were heavily reminiscent of cholera containment in 1892-1893. The GTU director valorised the instructions against cholera and advised the localities to use similar measures in their fight with typhus and typhoid. Among other things, Kurlov urged to implement the following:

  1. Create an emergency Special Board (Osoboe Sovescschianie) of provincial senior officials, dedicated specifically to stopping the epidemic.
  2. Initiate assiduous medical screening of all the prisoners and isolation of the sick detainees from the healthy ones.
  3. Impose 10-day quarantine in all suspicious cases.
  4. Implement wide disinfection of clothes and penal facilities.

Prisoners in some provinces again received permission from authorities to break Orthodox Fast to boost their immune systems with fat and protein (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Authorization of the Main Prison Administration (GTU) of the Ministry of Justice to the Pskov governor, allowing prisoners of Pskovskaia gubernia to be supplied with food that was forbidden for consumption during Orthodox fast, April, 1907
Source: State Archive of Pskovskaia oblast’.F.13. Pskovskaia gubernskaia tiur’ma.

While this measure may seem insignificant to a contemporary observer, it could be construed as a quintessential illustration of rapidly changing Zeitgeist. Secular, science-based practicality superseded religious tenets (one should not forget that Orthodoxy was the state religion in the early 1900s).

All the abovementioned containment strategies looked more impressive on paper than in reality. Given the heterogeneity of the localities, their actual enactment on the ground considerably diverged from the impeccable vision of the St. Petersburg policymakers. As local inspectors’ materials reaffirm, in many Imperial provinces (in particular, poor and distant ones) prison functionaries often shirked their arduous duties in the fight against the disease with iniquitous indifference.

Even when officials conscientiously tried to mitigate the epidemiological crisis, acute overcrowding simply impeded any feasible improvements of pernicious conditions. For example, doctor Guriev, sent by St. Petersburg to check the sanitary state of prisons in several provinces, depicted Novocherkassk prison, the infrastructure of which was completely overwhelmed:

During the recent typhus epidemic, the prison housed 800 prisoners instead of the allowed 400. With such congestion and extreme deficit of bed sheets, the prison remained without any fresh water supply due to the malfunction of the sewer system, with the bathhouse and laundry facilities almost ceasing to be operational. Any isolation of the sick was simply impossible, because the cells were overcrowded, whereas the small infirmary could not accept all the prisoners.

Finally yet importantly, as in the cholera years, the GTU in 1909 dissuaded the local prison governors from transportation of prisoners who exhibited symptoms of the disease.

Figure 4. Stepan Stepanovich Khrulev, Director of the Main Prison Administration (1909-1913)

Source: Luchinskii, N.F. Kratkii ocherk deiatel’nosti Glavnogo tiuremnogo upravlenia za pervie 35 let eg suzhestvovania (1879-1914). SPB, 1914.

On 3 March 1909, the next Director of the Main Prison Administration after Kurlov, Stepan Stepanovich Khrulev, issued a telegram №620-706 to all local prison governors. The telegram temporarily halted the relocation of prisoners on a nationwide scale for two weeks (in effect from March 8 1909). On 21 March 1909, Khrulev extended the halt until 5 April 1909 and eulogized its putative effectiveness.  By far, the nationwide stopping of transportation in March-April 1909 indeed proved to be the most important thing that could stop the infection from spreading.

Although Khrulev regularly excoriated particularly passive and nonchalant prison governors to reinvigorate the fight against the epidemic, it took almost two years to see tangible results of governmental efforts. Ultimately, penal bureaucracy managed to extricate the Imperial prisons from the crisis only by 1910, extensively drawing additional resources from private charities. The victory over the disease came at high price: several thousand lives of prisoners and their relatives (See Table 1 and Graph 1 and 2 below).

Table 1. The number of registered typhoid, typhus and recurrent fevers cases in Imperial prison system, 1908-1914

Enteric fever


Typhus (spotted fever) Recurrent fever Unidentified typhus form Total
1908 1,944 5,436 7,525 831 15,736
1909 1,209 7,758 10,538 853 20,358
1910 656 1,241 1,574 212 3,683
1911 1,025 1,051 938 149 3,163
1912 677 986 1,004 132 2,799
1913 410 347 706 92 1,555
1914 353 441 212 65 1,071
Graph 1. Dynamics of the epidemic, 1908-1914 (absolute number of cases)
Source: Otchet po Glavnomu Tiuremnomu Upravleniu za 1914 god, Chast II, 1915
Graph 2.Mortality in Russian Imperial prisons, 1906-1914
Source: Calculated based on Otchety po glavnomu tiuremnomu upravleniu, 1906-1914.

At the apex of the epidemic curve (1909), prison doctors registered 20,358 cases of typhus, typhoid, recurrent fever and unidentified typhus (probably an understatement). The number of new cases dramatically plummeted in 1910 to 3,683 and receded further to 1,555 cases in 1913 and only 1071 in 1914. In addition to morbidity, mortality coefficients swelled as well. Thus, in the ‘normal’, non-epidemic year of 1906, 1,596 prisoners died from all reasons in the entire Empire from Warsaw to Vladivostok (daily average population 111,403). This signified 1.4% mortality, just slightly above the rate of corresponding ages in the free population. However, in the ‘epidemic’ years of 1909-1910, both absolute and relative mortality skyrocketed as material conditions deteriorated. In 1909, 6,728 prisoners died, almost half of them from typhus and typhoid. The relative coefficient leaped to 3.8% per annum. Stephen Wheatcroft gives even higher crude death rate for 1911 in his excellent article on the subject– 4.9% per annum (my calculations for this year are somewhat lower, but still demonstrate high general mortality of 3.7% per annum).

By 1911-1912, the epidemic ended. If typhus and typhoid-induced deaths stood at 350 in 1911, in 1912 and 1913 the number of fatalities fell to 253 and 151 respectively. Neither typhus nor typhoid reached nationwide scale until the fall of the Russian Empire, the revolutions and the Civil War of 1917-1921. In these tumultuous years, the highly virulent infections correlated with the Spanish Flu of 1918, and rose to truly eschatological magnitudes both in prisons and outside them.


In this conclusion I briefly compare and contrast the 1908-1910 experience in pre-revolutionary Russian prisons with the COVID-19 pandemic in the contemporary prisons of the Russian Federation.

Let us start with the parallels. First, no effective vaccines or drugs against typhus and typhoid existed in 1908-1910. The incurable nature of the pathogens made the situation at the beginning of the 20th century vaguely similar to the COVID-19 virus, which remains intractable (as of May 2020).  In addition, the current emergency behind bars is riddled with ambiguities about the ways the novel virus spreads and ‘behaves’. An insufficient understanding of the typhus etiology and mechanisms of its dissemination similarly compounded the outbreak of 1908-1910. For example, doctors failed to recognize the link between body lice and the dissemination of infection. This crucial factor predetermined the limited efficacy of response measures by the state, and made excess mortality inevitable. That said, one can only wonder how many additional deaths were provoked by the acquiescent, almost lethargic behaviour of some of the local prison directors in 1908-1910, and how many lives could have been saved by more responsible attitudes of the bureaucracy. Finally, like the contemporary Russian prison service in 2020, the Imperial GTU lacked the medical means to stop the epidemics and relied heavily on strenuous quarantine, isolation, and basic disinfection. However, there are considerably more differences than similarities between the year 2020 and 1908.

The first salient difference pertains the mortality rate. Although precise data in this regard for COVID-19 remains to be ascertained, it is clear even now that its mortality is considerably lower than that of typhus and typhoid at the beginning of the 20th century. Modern-day Russian prisons, however harsh by contemporary norms, on average are nevertheless far less lethal than they were a century ago due to fundamental progress in the medical sphere.

The second major discrepancy, usually overlooked in the literature, comprises the relative ‘transparency’ of the Imperial prison system to public scrutiny. The pre-revolutionary press and nascent civil society actively debated the disastrous situation in Imperial prisons circa 1908-1910, often justifiably lambasting St. Petersburg’s policies. Public intellectuals, the international community, and investigative journalists constantly criticized prison conditions.

Paradoxically, the state itself regularly provided the factual material for its own vituperation. From the early 1880s, the Imperial Main Prison Administration openly published meticulously detailed statistics of sickness and mortality during epidemics in prisons on the province-to-province level (which, ironically, often presented the government in an unfavourable light). Scathing criticism of the Russian penitentiary system (e.g. George Kennan’s famous exposé) demonstrated damning facts about the catastrophic death rates in tsarist prisons directly from these easily accessible official reports.

Figure 5. A fragment of The New York Times featuring an interview with Stepan Khrulev, the GTU director, 1910
Source: The New York Times, 18 September 1910.

Moreover, the tsarist government in 1908-1910 was pragmatically concerned with reputational losses on the international arena due to scandals linked to prisons (see Figure 5).  Ineluctably, this exogenous pressure incentivised Imperial bureaucrats to act. It also motivated society to launch charitable efforts to combat the infection (e.g. in 1908-1910 many private business enterprises donated money to prisons to help to combat typhus). Importantly, in stark contrast to the Soviet GULAG epidemics, neither the cholera epidemic of 1892-1893, nor the typhus/typhoid of 1908-1910 were ‘classified’ or deliberately hidden from the public eye.

Conversely, we simply do not know the detailed numbers on COVID-19 infections and deaths in present-day Russian prisons. The government of the Russian Federation publishes only bits and pieces of disjointed figures without any local distributions. This proclivity to compartmentalize sensitive information on prisoner morbidity stems from the Soviet GULAG practice, which took secrecy to an extreme. Thus, the devastating typhus epidemics of 1932-1933 and 1938 in the GULAG became a carefully-guarded state secret. Although all prison systems are inherently resistant to public oversight, late Imperial prisons, however deplorable, were more open, permeable institutions in this regard.

One explanation behind the relative ‘visibility’ of flaws in the late Imperial prison system lies in the reactive nature of the tsarist regime. The Russian Imperial state was notoriously ineffective at hiding information that could discredit it, even they tried. As Sarah Badcock provocatively argued:

The British Empire’s use of the death penalty and summary justice, highly regimented and severe prisons, and brutal and remote exile locations, place her at least on a par with the worst that the Russian Empire could offer her political offenders. But while ‘the Siberian exile became a metaphor for unjust state sponsored terror and violence’, British horrors in her governance of empire were conveniently occluded by international reporting that emphasized civil unrest, mutiny, anarchy, and treason. Explanations for these discrepancies in international educated opinion and press treatment are complex, but are connected to British effectiveness in managing its own international image, in contrast with the Russian state’s very poor grasp on its public relations.

However, in addition to maladroit public relations, one should not be entirely dismissive of the sincere desire to improve the morbid state of affairs in Russian prisons and exile, galvanized by the more liberal part of the bureaucracy.  From 1879 onwards, at least some elements in the Russian government genuinely attempted to integrate its ill-reputed prison system in the emergent transnational movement of penal reform and modernization. This desire to import the latest progressive trends of European penology can be exemplified by the structural reform of 1879 (which led to a dramatic decrease in death rates until 1906) and regular participation of Russian delegates in the International Penitentiary Congresses, the fourth of which took place in St. Petersburg in 1890.  This reformist drive encompassed relatively new concepts of prison personnel accountability and civilian control over the penitentiary system.

Of course, we should not overestimate this factor or idealize the system of checks and balances in and around prisons before 1917. The late Russian Empire remained an autocracy, where concepts of rule of law, governmental accountability and civilian oversight over prisons only started to take root. Some pre-revolutionary officials certainly tried to whitewash the darkest underbelly of the penal system. However, the range and potential of these obfuscations was quite clearly defined.  The typhus/typhoid outbreak of 1908-1910 and failures of the administration to contain it did not constitute a carefully guarded state secret (as in the Soviet GULAG and, regrettably, even in contemporary Russian prisons in part). Imperial authorities openly published prison mortality and morbidity statistics. Large swathes of society, including the press, discussed the outbreak of 1908-1910. This public debate, in conjunction with intense criticism, provoked both governmental and civic action to alleviate the crisis (e.g. through charity). If there is anything at all for contemporary decision makers to take away from the pre-revolutionary experience of containing the epidemic of 1908-1910, it is the need for openness and accountability.


Further reading

Gur’iev N. ‘Sanitarnoe sostoianie nashikh tiurem’ in Tiuremnii vestnik, 1910. № 1, 65-85.

Tiuremnyi vestnik, 1893-1915.

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

Badcock, Sarah. A Prison without Walls? Eastern Siberian Exile in the Last Years of Tsarism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Gentes, Andrew. Roads to Oblivion: Siberian Exile and the Struggle between state and Society in Russia, 1593–1917 (Brown University, PhD.diss, 2002).

Wheatcroft, Stephen. The crisis of the late Tsarist penal system in Challenging traditional views of Russian history (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2002), 27-50.


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