In 1857, the Czarist government of Russia established a penal colony on Sakhalin, a large island in the Pacific Ocean off its east coast, just north of Japan. Inmates there endured a brutal climate, long treks in leg irons, floggings, wardens embezzling the food of helpless prisoners, women prisoners forced into prostitution, and daily murders. The administrators drank vodka all day long.


In 1890, Anton Chekhov, a 30-year-old writer, set out across Siberia on an journey of two and a half months by horseback, horse-drawn carriage, river steamer, and on foot, traveling through frigid cold, crossing flooded rivers, walking for hours in mud, choking on the ash from forest fires.

Upon arrival, he told the wardens he was conducting a census. He later wrote, “Sakhalin is a place of the most unbearable suffering that can befall a man, free or shackled…  I have seen Ceylon, which is paradise, and Sakhalin, which is hell.”


Needless to say, in such a setting, mail was welcomed. These photos of the Sakhalin post office date from between 1894 and 1905, when a Japanese invasion of the island led to the penal colony’s abolition. They are from the digital collection of the New York Public Library.