Rogervik – the Russian Empire's WORST labor camp

Russia Beyond (Photo: Charles-André van Loo; Public domain)
Empress Elizabeth was the first Russian ruler to ban the death penalty. However, during her reign there was a punishment essentially equal to a death sentence – hard labor for life in the construction of a Baltic port.

The average lifespan of a prisoner in the Rogervik hard labor camp was less than three months. Writer Andrei Bolotov was a prison guard there in 1755. He recalls that "convicts were led to work surrounded on all sides by an uninterrupted row of soldiers with loaded guns," they lived in barracks surrounded by wooden stockades, all shackled in iron, some of them in double and triple shackles, and there were about a thousand of them at the time.”

Working at the quarries and port construction, the prisoners had to brave rain, snow and hail, with a constant fierce wind from the sea. Russian historian Elena Marasinova estimated that from 1753 to 1756, 13,242 prisoners were brought to Rogervik, all but 141 of which died during their time at the prison camp.

A haven on the Baltic

Rogervik Bay, 1723.

Rogervik is now the Estonian town of Paldiski, 52 km (32 miles) west of Tallinn. It takes its name – meaning 'Rye Island' – from Swedish settlers, who settled the island from the 14th century. Rogervik Bay is protected from most winds, except for north and northwesterlies, and almost never freezes in winter – essential for the Russian navy that had few warm water ports.

In the early 18th century, Peter the Great based the Russian naval fleet in Reval (now Tallinn). The Northern War with Sweden was underway. In winter, Reval harbor was frozen, and even in summer it could be a disaster because of strong Baltic winds. Peter needed a better anchorage for his fleet. In 1710 Lieutenant-Captain Hesler, after examining the coasts of the Gulf of Finland and Gulf of Riga, reported that Rogervik Bay was the only safe harbor available in the region. However, Hesler said the bay was too narrow an anchorage. The fleet would lack protection from attack from the open sea, unless a mole was built.

A cliff and a lighthouse in Rogervik.

Peter was an extremely stingy tsar, he didn’t trust anyone, and before spending huge sums of money on construction, he personally inspected Rogervik. Eventually he notched up six visits, and even personally plumbed the depth of the bay to check whether it was deep enough to take the draught of heavy warships. In 1715 the tsar finally ordered the construction of ports in Rogervik for naval and merchant vessels, to build an Admiralty, shipyards and the city buildings.

To protect the bay from the winds, Peter ordered a stone mole built that extended from the center of Small Horn Island to the mainland – a distance of more than 2.5km (1.5 miles). It was a physically demanding, labor-intensive job, requiring the quarrying of stone to build the breakwater. On July 20, 1718 the tsar personally demonstrated what was required, throwing a massive, heavy piece of cut stone into the bay – the marine equivalent of laying a foundation stone – and so the construction of the new Russian harbor began.

"Those who don't want to shave their beards"

A convict in a labor camp in Nerchinsk, Siberia.

The town of Rogervik included "a wooden church of St. George, 67 barracks, headquarters, a windmill, and two piers for unloading ships." The naval harbor wasn’t even completed until 1721 – Peter was busy fighting the Northern War, which concluded August 30, 1721 with a peace treaty signed in Nystadt by high-ranking Russian officials James Bruce and Andrei Osterman. The same day, August 30, in St. Petersburg, Peter the Great reported to the Military Collegium of the need for a harbor in Rogervik.

In 1722, the labor camp was erected in Rogervik. Peter ordered mostly Old Believers sent there. Two decrees suggest this: "On the deportation to Rogervik of those who do not want to shave their beards and refuse to pay a fine," and "On sending the raskolniki (a term for Old Believers in Russian – ed.) to Rogervik for hard labour for life, rather than exile to Siberia".

Russian convicts in the 19th century.

In 1721-1724 a total of 9,136 workers were employed in the construction of Rogervik port. There are no statistics on death rates among them, but it is likely none returned from Rogervik. With the death of the tsar in 1725, work ceased, and in his final decrees the emperor ordered the release all convicts in the Empire, except murderers and robbers – so long as they prayed for the health of the tsar.

In 1726, the population of the fortress numbered 450, of which 150 were transferred to mines in Nerchinsk (Siberia), and the rest perished. In 1746, under Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, the Senate reported that there were only 10 workers left in Rogervik. “The construction is stalled, the buildings have become useless from inclement weather, and the mole, made by the slave labor of convicts, is all-but submerged."

Georgievskaya street in the town of Baltic Port.

Empress Elizabeth decided to visit Rogervik immediately after the Senate report. The Grand Duke and Duchess, the future rulers Peter III and Catherine II, accompanied her. From the notes of the young Catherine Alekseevna, it is clear that the town was then a truly challenging place.

"From this journey we have all unusually strained our feet. The soil of this place is stony, covered with a thick layer of small cobblestones of such a quality that if you stand for a while in one place, your feet begin to sink, and the small cobblestones will cover your feet. We were camped here and had to walk from tent to tent on this kind of soil for several days; my feet were sore afterwards for four entire months. The convicts who worked on the breakwater wore wooden shoes, and they did not last more than 80 days,” Catherine wrote.

Death without the death penalty

Empress Elizabeth by Charles-André van Loo, a parade portrait.

This is where Empress Elizabeth planned to exile those condemned to death. Historians agree that in the beginning of her reign, the empress vowed not to execute her subjects – as a reaction to the excessive cruelty of the previous ruler, Anna Ioannovna. During the first years of Elisabeth's rule, executions were suspended, and by 1746, when she visited Rogervik, there were 110 murderers, 169 thieves, and 151 people sentenced to hard labour for life in the empire’s dungeons. The Senate proposed to exile them to Rogervik.

In 1752 (the decision wasn’t easy, and took six years!) a decree was issued – to exile counterfeiters to Rogervik. From 1756, all those "condemned to death, political execution, and exile for a lifetime of labor" were to be sent to Rogervik.

"Political execution" under Elizabeth meant that an executioner forced the convict to put his head on a block, then formally announced an imperial pardon. But it was not without torture. Convicts could have their nostrils torn off, their arms chopped off, be branded, whipped, or beaten with spitzrutens – metal ramrods. If a convict died from the consequences of such punishments, it was still not considered that a death sentence had been carried out.

A convict with letters K, A, T (analogue of 'thief' in Russian).

After 1754, "political execution" became more merciful. After a formal declaration of clemency, the convicts were punished "with a whip, with their nostrils cut out, or without any punishment, other than exile." Convicts were branded, placing three letters on their faces: "В" "О" and "Р" (вор – “vor” – meaning ‘thief’ in Russian). The branding clearly rendered the escape of such a convict pointless – even if one managed to escape, the convict would sooner or later be identified and caught.

These were the kind of people who made up the thousands (some 3,000 new convicts annually) who worked at Rogervik during the last years of Empress Elizabeth's reign. They included, Andrei Bolotov observed, "people of all kinds, ranks, and denominations: nobles, merchants, artisans, clerics and all kinds of rustics. Besides Russians, there were also people of other nations, French, Germans, Tatars, and the like.”

An agonizing death during hard work awaited all convicts incarcerated in the camp. And the soldiers, sent to guard the convicts, considered their own service hard labor.

In 1762 Catherine II wrote: "I consider it a state necessity to end the works in Rogervik." In the same year, the Empress renamed the city the Baltic Port and allowed ordinary citizens to settle there. Few took up the offer: the severity of the climate and the proximity of the prison, which continued to hold prisoners, put off most people. All the same, the fortress was finished between 1755-1762, with Pushkin's grandfather Abram Hannibal, in charge of construction. It was he who brought it to an end. However, it never served any military purpose.

The town of Baltic Port in 1789.

Now in the capacity of an Empress, Catherine again visited Rogervik, in 1764. After this visit the final decision was made: "The Baltic Port is to be used only for sheltering ships, all the finances and means are to be used for the construction of a new stone harbor in Ravel.”

In 1768, when work finally ground to a halt, almost half a million rubles had been spent over 50 years of construction of a harbor that never functioned as intended. At that time the total tax revenue of the country was about 15-16 million rubles, demonstrating just how huge a sum of money had been wasted. The fortress, abandoned by its garrison in 1788, became a cattle pen. The breakwater, of which 380 meters was built, gradually sank into the bay and formed a shoal. The convicts were sent to Siberia.

The labor camp still housed lifers: Salavat Yulayev, a companion of Pugachev, and his father ended their days in Rogervik, along with several other participants of the Pugachev rebellion; by 1800 they numbered 12.

The city gradually lost its status; in 1825 just 184 people were recorded on its census and it was only after a railroad was built that linked the Baltic Port to the rest of Russia, that it began to more or less recover.

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