East of Paris Bookstore

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Irkutsk -- Decembrist Wives

Princess Maria Volkonsky after decades of exile
Despite the naiveté and failure of the Decembrists in 1825 and despite the suppression and murder of many Russian aristocrats in the 1917 Revolution, the “romance” of the Decembrists has lingered for nearly two centuries.  The reason for this enduring myth was the heroic loyalty of a number of the Decembrist wives and fiancées.  

Our guide in Irkutsk told us that it is a very high complement for a woman to be called a “Decembrist Wife.”  To understand why we need to go back in time ...

After the futile uprising of a number of high ranking wealthy aristocrats during the confusion that followed the unexpected death of Alexander I, the new Tzar, Nicholas I, sentenced five of the rebels to death by hanging.  Other rebels were exiled to Siberia as criminals of the state.  Suddenly men whose hardest days consisted of riding horses, fencing, and playing cards, were transported to places thousands of miles in east of Moscow and St. Petersburg to work in the mines and to be ordered about by petty government functionaries.  The transportation was by walking or in shaky carriages and sleighs.  And, as criminals of the state, they lost their titles and privileges and their estates.

A painting above the staircase of the Volkonsky Manor-house
depicting a winter sleigh traveling through the Siberian Steppe
Prince Serge Volkonsky

A number of the Decembrists had wives and children.  As long as the wives stayed behind, they were allowed to keep their titles and money, and could “honorably” divorce and remarry.  The children were also allowed to keep their titles and property.  Nicholas I wanted the matter to be closed and for people to forget the Decembrists and their families.

However, there were a handful of wives who did not want to renounce their marriage vows or to abandon their husbands.  The Princesses Troubetskoy and Volkonsky are the most famous of these wives.  

None of the women who wanted to follow their men into exile could do so without permission from the Tzar himself.  And, for those who finally got permission, it came at great cost.  The wives who wanted to follow their husbands to Siberia had to agree to give up their titles and privileges.  Henceforth, they would be known as the wives of criminals and would move from the top of the social ladder to its very bottom.  Further, any children born in Siberia to these “criminals” would not have rights, titles or privileges.  Perhaps most painful of all, the women were required to leave behind any existing children. Maria Volkonsky left behind an infant son who died a year later.

Despite the threat of poverty and a future life of no power or privilege, some of these intrepid women -- who literally did not know how to boil  water -- left lives of comfort to honor their marriage vows and follow their husbands.  At each town on their journey, the women were subject to petty harassments by the local government officials who tried to convince them to turn back.  When Maria Volkonsky finally saw her husband again, despite his being in chains, haggard, filthy and emaciated, she knelt and kissed his shackles.

In the romantic case of Pauline Gueble, soon after she arrived, her fiancé, Ivan Annenkov (son of one of the richest women in Russia), was let out of the prison mine just for the marriage ceremony.  As soon as he left the church, his shackles were replaced and he went back to the mines.
The Volkonsky Manor-house in Irkutsk
A conservatory on the upper level
 of the Manor-house

Over time, conditions improved for the prisoners and their families due to petitions by the wives and family members in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Their families in western Russia sent books, clothes, seeds for planting, and other items.  The exiles lived in expectation that they would be allowed to return after five years or ten.  Slowly, they reconciled to the idea that they were in Siberia forever.

In Maria Volkonsky’s case, she dedicated herself to easing her husband’s life.  She also began caring for orphans, learned the language of the Buryats (a Mongol people living in the area), learned about their herbal remedies, and traded with them.  When she and her husband were allowed to live in Irkutsk, she was instrumental in starting schools, bringing music and culture to the city, and established the city’s first theater.  Eventually, her Siberia-born children were allowed to go west for their education.     

After thirty years, Nicholas I died and his son, Alexander II, became tzar.  Alexander II, known as the Tzar Liberator, commuted the sentences of the Decembrists almost immediately on ascending the throne.  Some of the Decembrist exiles returned to western Russia.  Some had already died and others stayed in Siberia.  Princess Troubetskoy died before she could returned home.  Maria Volkonsky and her husband returned to find that the world had moved on.  He was determined to forget the past 30 years.  She seemed to miss the "Wild East" where she had persevered and become a legend.
A salon on the second level with the first piano in Siberia
The first piano in Siberia
Maria Volkonsky had a great love of music.  Before leaving for Siberia, her family hosted a series of farewell dinners and parties.  Listening to the music, Maria asked for her favorites to be repeated since she expected never to hear music again.  Unknown to her, a relative secretly packed a small German piano in the sleigh of supplies and household goods that accompanied Maria on her journey.  This generous gift is on display at the Volkonsky Manor-house in Irkutsk.

A room on the ground level
We were treated to a short concert in the main salon of the Volkonsky Manor-house.  
Mr. Wonderful "horsing" around
And, an impressive rainbow bade us Adieu as we left.

P.S.  Our guide recommended the book Princess of Siberia by Christine Cunningham.  I found it on Amazon and read it in a few sittings once it arrived.  Well written and thoroughly researched, this book echoed the stories of our local guide.  The film, The Captivating Star of Happiness, is a beautiful production depicting the romance of the Decembrist wives.  While the film is in Russian and has subtitles, it is a bit choppy since it cuts to and from different wives and their separate experiences that ultimately merge in Irkutsk.  After reading the Cunningham book and reviewing the notes of my trip, the film was easier to follow.

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