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Last week, I was relieved to learn that the WNBA star Brittney Griner would be returning home to the United States following nearly 10 months of Russian imprisonment—most recently, in a penal colony—for the possession of a small amount of cannabis oil.
The image we in the U.S. have of the terrors of Russian penal colonies is many generations old. The explorer George Kennan (not to be confused with his younger cousin, a historian who shared the same name) traveled throughout Imperial Russia in the 19th century, and became an extremely popular lecturer and writer. He exposed the brutality of the Russian penal system in Siberia in an extensive series of public talks and articles written for The Century Magazine and, in 1891, published a book titled Siberia and the Exile System, which exposed the brutality of the barren, frigid, and remote sites of punishment. Kennan was a strong critic of the tsar and became an advocate for the cause of democracy in Russia.