Russian Elites Ride into Exile, 1820s

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1518-1547:

The Decembrists’ spirits began … to lift after they left the Urals behind. They discovered not the frozen wasteland of the Russian imagination but a beautiful and varied landscape, one in which the peasants were not oppressed by the slavery of serfdom. Basargin noted that “the further we travelled into Siberia, the more fetching it seemed in my eyes. The common people seemed freer, more lively and more educated than our Russian peasants, especially the serfs.” Such observations would feed into a growing Romantic perception among reform-minded Russians of Siberia as a democratic alternative to the rigid and suffocating hierarchies of European Russia.

Nevertheless, for all their moral torments and physical discomfort, the manner in which most Decembrists were deported to Siberia marked them out as men of exceptional status. First, they rode in wagons, rather than walked, something quite unimaginable for the thousands of exiles who made the arduous journey over the Urals every year in the 1820s. Officials and convoy soldiers were also unsure of how to treat their eminent charges. Even if they had been “deprived of all rights and privileges,” the Decembrists were still identical in language, bearing and manners to their superiors. As Zavalishin observed, “everywhere we went, we were called princes and generals … many, wishing to satisfy both the rules of our current status and their desire to show us respect, addressed themselves to us as ‘Your former Highness, Your former Excellency.’” The guards’ hesitant enforcement of the strict rules meticulously laid out by government ministers was rendered all the more confused by favours the Decembrists themselves purchased through bribes. Alexander Benckendorff, the head of Nicholas I’s Third Section, which had been established to combat sedition in the wake of the Decembrist Revolt, learned that the initial two groups of exiles “were wining and dining” en route and plying their convoy soldiers and gendarmes with food and drink. Obolensky was permitted to write to his wife and Davydov was allowed to shave. The Decembrists were expressly forbidden from riding in their own carriages but, armed with 1,000 roubles from his wife, Fonvizin did just that and managed to obtain warm blankets for himself and his travelling companions into the bargain. During the course of their journey, he and his comrades were “waited on” by their gendarmes.

As they rode into exile, the Decembrists encountered not the baying mob of which Rozen, the Baltic German, had been warned, but curiosity, sympathy and generosity from both officials and the wider Siberian population. Fonvizin wrote to his wife from the route that the governor of Tobolsk, Dmitry Bantysh-Kamensky, and his family “received me warmly and generously—I am obliged to them that our convoy officer treated us very well and even agreed to forward you this letter.” Basargin recalled how the elderly governor of the small town of Kainsk, a certain Stepanov, approached them “accompanied by two men dragging an enormous basket with wine and foods of every kind. He made us eat as much as we could and then take the leftovers with us. He also offered us money with words that surprised us: ‘I acquired this money’—he said pulling out a large packet of notes—‘not entirely cleanly, in bribes. Take it with you; my conscience will rest easier.’” In Krasnoyarsk, the inhabitants argued over who should have the honour of accommodating the exiles as they took a day’s rest in the town. Merchants entertained the Decembrists in the best rooms of their houses, sparing no expense on the food and drink they lavished upon their guests.

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Filed under democracy, education, labor, migration, Russia, slavery, travel

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