Siberia Letter: Freedom and fear have long mingled in Russia’s wild east.

When Sergei and Maria Volkonsky decided in 1845 to dismantle their large Siberian home and rebuild it, plank by plank, 30km away in the city of Irkutsk, it must have been a daunting prospect – but they had overcome far worse.

Prince Volkonsky had been exiled to Siberia with other Russian officers after a failed military coup in December 1825, when their demand for a constitution and an end to serfdom was crushed by the autocratic Tsar Nikolai I.

While Volkonsky was spared the fate of five leaders of the Decembrists who were executed in Saint Petersburg, banishment to Siberia for life could have broken a privileged nobleman whose dreams of liberal reform had been inspired by visits to Paris, London and Vienna and by the American Revolution.

Yet Volkonsky and his fellow rebellious aristocrats forged remarkable new lives in exile, as did Maria and other women who stunned high society by giving up their own status to follow their husbands into Russia’s wild east.

Maria’s winter voyage alone was nightmarish: more than 5,000km by horse-drawn carriage and sledge through freezing and dangerous territory to Irkutsk, where she was given a final chance to renounce her marriage and retain her property and the right to return home.

She refused and forged on for another 1,200km to the Nerchinsk silver mines where Volkonsky had been sent with other Decembrists, including Prince Sergei Trubetskoi, whose wife Yekaterina also joined him in exile.

Maria found her husband – a hero of Russia’s 1812 defeat of Napoleon – shackled in a squalid cell; when the men’s chains were finally removed, a Decembrist used them to make simple jewellery that the women wore like a badge of honour.

Along with other political prisoners, including Poles who opposed Russian rule, the Decembrists and their wives gradually adapted to life in Siberia, first in the prison camps and then in villages to which they were sent after a decade of hard labour.

Without the nannies and other staff who had always cossetted them, they now had to raise their own children, learn manual skills and trades, and speak colloquial Russian instead of the courtly French of the capital’s beau monde.

The Decembrist Museum in Irkutsk, Russia. It contains objects brought to Siberia by the aristocratic Maria Volkonsky when she followed her husband, a celebrated military officer, into exile after a failed 1825 uprising against autocratic Tsar Nikolai I. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

The Decembrist Museum in Irkutsk, Russia. It contains objects brought to Siberia by the aristocratic Maria Volkonsky when she followed her husband, a celebrated military officer, into exile after a failed 1825 uprising against autocratic Tsar Nikolai I. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

For many of the former officers, the experience reinforced a belief acquired during the war with the French – when they lived and fought alongside peasants for the first time – that the best of Russia was to be found in its “ordinary” people, not the pampered elite to which they belonged.

‘Different traditions’

The feeling inspired the Decembrist movement and was shared by Lev Tolstoy, for whom Volkonsky was the likely model for Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace.

Serfdom was rare in Siberia, which added to a striking impression among Decembrists that they had been banished to a land – remote and harsh as it could be – that was actually freer than European Russia.

“I think people are freer here. We are different and have different traditions,” says Alexei Petrov, a prominent Irkutsk historian.

Alexei Petrov, a well-known historian in his native Irkutsk in Siberia, is the first person in the city to be declared a ‘foreign agent’ under a new law that has blacklisted many prominent journalists and activists. Photograph courtesy of Alexei Petrov.

Alexei Petrov, a well-known historian in his native Irkutsk in Siberia, is the first person in the city to be declared a ‘foreign agent’ under a new law that has blacklisted many prominent journalists and activists. Photograph courtesy of Alexei Petrov.

“Many people came here to get land, others fled here [from oppression]– but not Siberia – they threw themselves into local life, teaching languages and music and funding schools and hospitals in places like Irkutsk, where the Volkonsky house is now the Decembrists Museum.

“We don’t see them as convicts but as people who brought culture here,” explains Petrov, who last week became the first person in Irkutsk to be branded a “foreign agent” under a law that has blacklisted scores of journalists and activists – leading some to call it a badge of honour in today’s increasingly autocratic Russia.

Petrov, who has done much to popularise the history of his native Irkutsk, thinks he was targeted due to his work with independent election monitor Golos.

“Maybe this will be mentioned when the modern history of Irkutsk is written,” he says. “It is a very Siberian story.”

The Irish Times

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