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June 03, 2007

 Princess Zeka (Trans-Sib 6)

In a glass case in the small museum in the Tobolsk kremlin is an early photograph of a haggard Siberian convict with "K" (katorga) and other symbols on his cheeks and forehead. Next to it is a neat wooden box with what looks at first sight to be a set of rubber stamps. But the business ends are covered not with rubber but half-inch steel spikes. It's a convict tattooing kit.
(I think it probably dates from after 1845, when branding, that had fallen into disuse under Alexander I, was reintroduced by the governor of the Nerchinsk katorga.)

The soulless, bureaucratic character of Tsarist criminal justice in some ways prefigured modern totalitarianism; you could be convicted for mere words said against the tsar (though only 10% of convicts were political), and as a prisoner flogged to death for disobedience with the birch or knout, as in Nelson's Royal Navy. We should not airbrush tsarist tyranny just because Soviet rule was worse. Still, the katorga in Siberia was very much smaller than the Soviet gulag and on the whole less cruel. It allowed forms of protest that the gulag did not. Chekhov's reporting from Sakhalin was one; another was far stranger, though even more heroic. This is the story of Princess Maria Volkonskaya.

In December 1825 a group of liberal Russian aristocrats, many of them veterans of the wars against Napoleon, launched a badly planned putsch on the death of Alexander I. It failed. Five Decembrist leaders were hanged and the rest sent to Siberia. Many were followed voluntarily by their wives, who have become emblems of fidelity in Russian culture. One such wife, Maria Volkonskaya, left a house in Irkutsk that has been lovingly restored as a museum of the Decembrist women:

(photo lifted from the museum guide)

The self-exiled wives lost their possessions and abandoned their life of extreme privilege for poverty and hardship. Far worse for Volkonskaya, the new Tsar sadistically refused to let her take her one-year-old son to Siberia; she chose to leave him with relatives, but he died a year later. Prince Volkonsky was at first condemned to forced labour as a shackled miner near Chita. With time his régime softened. After a few years he was sent to a normal prison at Petro-Zavodsk, where he was allowed weekend contact with his wife. She bore him four children in Siberia, of whom two survived. After ten years he was allowed to live as a peasant on 16 hectares of land in a village outside Irkutsk, growing vegetables for the town market. In 1838 they built themselves a large wooden house, no doubt with money from friends and relatives; and in 1845 moved the entire house to the town, where she wanted to educate her children. I didn't learn whether he was allowed to move as well.

As a convict's wife she wasn't allowed to attend such public entertainments as the town offered, so she created her own island of upper-class culture, with music, amateur theatricals, books, and dances. A surprising number of professional musicians made the trip to perform there. Her house of ten rooms or so is a close cousin to those of the English gentry depicted by Jane Austen, and the cultural life it framed is an exact parallel to that of the Bennetts and Woodhouses and their friends. But this life was created with hugely more effort. Siberia was then a crude and violent frontier society, with thousands of escaped convicts living as brigands. In June 1845 Siberia, with a tiny population, had twenty-one murders. The Woodhouses in Emma live 16 miles from London and think it too stressful to travel there; the Volkonskys' grand piano had to be shipped in by sled 5,000 km from St Petersburg - then it broke down and had to do the round trip back for repairs.

In 1855 Tsar Nicholas I was succeeded by the more liberal Alexander II, who soon amnestied the surviving Decembrists before going on to emancipate the serfs. The elderly Volkonskys went back to European Russia for the few years left to them.

Here are contrasting portraits in the house. Sometime near the amnesty, he had himself photographed as a robust old peasant, and bears the serene expression of a man who does not regret his choices. I suppose soldiers get used to the inevitability of collateral damage, even to those they love.


An earlier portrait of her - sorry for the poor quality - doesn't hide her fatigue and bitterness. It's good work considering where it was done - could you have got a portrait of any sort painted in Tombstone in 1870? - but doesn't bring out the force of character she must have had.


She appears in a late group photograph, taken after the amnesty, looking as tough and hatchet-faced as Aunt Ada Doom.

You can quarrel with Jane Austen's values, or more precisely the values of the society she belonged to and chronicled. In particular, her characters are all dilettantes; some are quite good at music and so on, but none show the dedication, the readiness to work their socks off to get it exactly right, that she herself showed in her life and work - as did another great product of the same class, Charles Darwin. But reproduced by an exile in remote, harsh and brutal Siberia, Janeite society is open to no such cavils. There it was an admirable affirmation of civility by a remarkable woman, and a fine and constructive protest against a double barbarism.

Kipling used Jane Austen to make a similar point in his late story The Janeites set in an artillery battery on the Western Front in 1918. As one surviving gunner puts it:

Brethren, there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. Gawd bless ’er, whoever she was.

PS: Zeka in my title is of course an anachronism - it's a word created in the gulag - but I couldn't find the earlier equivalent. Update 16/6/07 The masculine form is katorzhany, the feminine katorzhanina: whether there is a lexical distinction between a woman convict and the wife of a male convict I don't know, but there isn't one for tsaritsa.

That's it for my Trans-Siberian thread. I promised no travelogues. The earlier ones in the set were:
Trans-Sib 1: Ch'in Homeland Security
Lao Tze Pew (Trans-Sib 2)
Development through a train window (Trans-Sib 3)
A short story of two cities (Trans-Sib 4)
The river Hilok and the birth of life on land (Trans-Sib 5)

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