The Decembrists of Siberia

In an old wooden mansion in Irkutsk, Maria Volkonskaya would sit at her inlaid table, surrounded by her Empire furniture, her library of over three thousand books, her gilt Italian music box and her opera glasses for the opera she never again attended. Here, she would gaze out of the window and observe her husband, once a famous general, pottering eccentrically about his vegetable garden while the children of the poor which she had adopted scurried about the house.

Irkutsk lies close to the shores of Lake Baikal, the unfathomable body of water -- it's over a mile deep -- which scythes a crescent into the southern Siberian wilderness. It's hundreds of miles from the nearest city; four time zones from Moscow; frozen to forced hibernation in the bitter continental winters. It conforms, on paper, to every one of our preconceptions.

But in fact Irkutsk, like Siberia itself, comes as a surprise. Where you would expect to find choking factories, grim prisons and downtrodden people, you encounter tree-lined avenues hung with ornate silver lampposts, museums, pretentious mansions and a beautiful civic theatre painted scarlet. When Chekov stayed here at the turn of the last century, he dubbed it the ‘Paris of Siberia.’ **

Only as a centre for exiles does the city comply comfortably with the Siberia of the imagination. In 1753, the death penalty was abolished in favour of lifelong labour. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Irkutsk was the main staging post for the thousands of men and women impelled to work Siberia’s mines or build its railroads. By the turn of the twentieth century, the tide sent east had become a flood. You could be sent to Siberia for the most trifling of peccadilloes: illicit tree-felling, fortune-telling, begging with false distress — even taking snuff or driving a cart with the use of reins. Criminals became a convenient source of free labour for Tsarist Russia. These exiles could easily have gone unnoticed into the misery-seeped annals of Russian history. But in 1826, a bedraggled cortege arrived which again upturns one’s prejudices.

In December 1825, a secret society of young officers staged an uprising in Saint Petersburg. Many had chased Napoleon right back to Paris after the crushing defeat of the largest army the world had ever seen. Many returned to Russia imbued with the ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The uprising, ill-conceived and badly led, was a disaster. Over 3,000 of the soldiers were promptly arrested. Of these, five were hanged. As if to sum up the officers’ frustration with backward Russia, one remarked, upon only breaking his legs on the scaffold, "they can’t even hang a man properly in Russia." Over 120 of the conspirators were exiled. They became known as the "Dekabristi", the Decembrists.

Among them numbered eight prominent members of the aristocracy. In a show of loyalty to their husbands, nearly all the wives followed the men into exile. The most famous of these are Ekaterina Trubitskaya and Maria Volkonskaya.

The beautiful Maria had only been married two years. Forced to renounce all her possessions and titles, she even had to leave her infant son behind. "My place is with my husband," she told her appalled family. She followed her husband to the salt, silver and lead mines where the workers toiled from six in the morning until 11 at night, in chains. Here, the wives were allowed to visit them twice a week. Eventually, the prisoners’ conditions improved. They built quarters where they could live with their wives, and a marriage, on which Alexander Dumas based his novel "The Fencing Teacher" even took place in the camp at Chita. Pushkin, a friend of many of the Decembrists, wrote a poem about them in 1827. He too was inspired by their tales of unconditional love. The female protagonist of "Eugene Onegin" is based on one of the wives.

The house which the Volkonskys built in Irkutsk in 1844 still stands. Close-by, in a hush part of the city, is the Trubetskoy house. The residence is simple but handsome from the outside, while inside, the Volkonsky’s furniture and many of their possessions are still here, the elegant rooms papered with the bright colours and friezes of the nineteenth century. Maria had a great love of the arts, the theatre and opera particularly. Since she was prohibited from attending the city theatre, she created her own in one of her parlours. The grand piano she had sent from the capital still dominates the room, and amateur dramatists perform here in the winter months.

The Decembrists had a huge impact on the life of Irkutsk. Along with a group of Polish officers exiled in the 1850s, they offset the Wild West feel of the city with their balls, concerts, plays and recitals. Many set up schools, at a time when the crime rate was such that its inhabitants would regularly shoot a warning salvo from their windows before retiring for the night. They influenced the nouveaux-riches merchants — who’d made their fortunes from sable furs and later gold — lending the town a sophistication and municipal munificence unknown in the rest of Siberia.

Their legacy can still be felt today in the squares, hospitals, universities and churches which monopolise the city’s centre. The art museum is the largest in Siberia, its rooms groaning with rows of nineteenth century canvasses, and the regional museum ranks among the best in the country. The merchants’ mansions, rebuilt in stone following a devastating fire in 1879, dominate the wide arteries of the city’s heart with their ornately-framed windows, imposing columns and handsome pediments. It might not be Paris, but it still comes as a shock after the badlands of Siberia.

Despite the charitable deeds, the bejewelled balls, the touching amateur dramatics, a sadness permeates the walls of the Volkonsky house. The wives of the Decembrists were still exiles, unable even to write to their relations for the first terrible years. They gave up everything. Many of them thrived. But, standing by Maria Volkonskaya’s desk, you can’t help but feel the tragedy that befell her. Staring absentmindedly out of the window, you can imagine her dreaming back to the glorious Saint Petersburg of her youth, to the balls of the immense Winter Palace and the genteel salons, to another life which was denied her.

She died in 1863, seven years after the pardon Tsar Alexander II finally granted the Decembrists. The Volkonskys returned to the capital. But they were old now, and many of their friends had died. Life and the city had moved on, and they felt like strangers. At the end of her life she confided that she had been happy, and perhaps happier, in Irkutsk. Reading at her desk, dreaming of the opera, the sound of children’s games echoing around the house.


* "Love tyrannises all the ages; but youthful, virgin hearts derive a blessing from its blasts and rages, like fields in spring when storms arrive."
From Pushkin’s prose poem Eugene (or Evgeny) Onegin (also an opera by Tchaikovsky, and more recently a film starring one of the Fienneses).

** Of Siberia, Chekov wrote at the turn of the century, somewhat gloomily, "It's not the giant trees, nor the deathly stillness that constitutes its power and enchantment, rather, it's in that only the migrating birds know where it ends. You don't pay attention to it on the first day of travel; on the second and third, you are surprised; the fourth and fifth day give you a feeling that you'll never get out of that monster of the Earth."


Needless to say,
all text and photos are
Dominic Hamilton

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