Decembrists' wives: Maria Volkonskaya, Ekaterina Trubetskaya, Polina Annenkova

In the depths of Siberian mines

By Anna Sokolova

“Love tyrannizes 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 Evgeny Onegin

My writing today is dedicated to love: To innocent, selfless, devoted love. Does it actually exist? Has it ever existed? First thing that comes to mind is a story of Romeo and Juliet. However they were not real. It was just a story written by the Shakespeare. Today I would like to share with your real events, part of the Russian history, which is a clear example of superior love and devotion.

It was December 1825, a secret society of young officers staged a revolutionary attempt in Saint-Petersburg Russia. They tried to bring the idea of a Russian constitution while refusing to swear allegiance to the new tsar, Nicholas I. They became know as the Decembrists. The Decembrists were arrested, tried, and convicted. Over 120 of them were sentenced to exile to work in Siberian mines. Among them were 8 prominent members of the aristocracy. Although the Tsar declared a law that said women of exiles are regarded as widows allowing them to marry again and go on with their lives, in a show of loyalty to their husbands, many wives followed the men into exile. They followed their husbands 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. In 30 years they received amnesty. A lot of them died, but some were able to return.

Maria VolkonskayaThe most famous of these women was Maria Volkonskaya. When Maria - beautiful, highly cultivated, daughter of famous general Raevski married prince Volkosnkii her family was thrilled. Although they came from a rich, well known family and close to the tsar family themselves, the fact of their daughter marrying wealthy prince was very honorable and alluring. She was set to live in splendor in one of the magnificent palaces.

Twenty-one year-old Maria was married only for year when her husband was arrested. She wrote to her husband: “One thing I can assure you of: what ever your fate I will share it.” Her family was very upset and objectected to her decision to follow her husband into exile, pleading to consider her infant son. The Tsar prohibited the taking of any children along. “My son is happy, but my husband is not and he needs me”. In her defense, she never expected that it would be separation for ever. However, after her long trip to Siberia and not long before she finally reached her husband, Maria was presented with the document that she had to sign. Maria had to renounce all her rights, titles, possessions and acknowledge the understanding that she would never be allowed to return, even upon death of her husband. That was one way ticket, journey of no return. She signed it and so did the rest of those women. With a flash of her pan, this young woman left everything and everybody except her husband behind.

When she saw her husband at last she knelt on the filthy floor and kissed his chains. Then came long years of brutal reality. However her spirit never was broken for long. She learned how to perform basic chores, negotiated with prison’s guards to allow wives to deliver food and clothing to their husbands, pleaded with authorities to ease conditions, maintained contact with families back home for many prisoners and supported other wives that followed their husbands. Many years later, under her influence a theater and concert hall were opened in Siberia. She became involved in the local hospital: reorganized staff, introduced measured of hygiene and helped to open new a wing. Maria was well respected and adored by the community in which she lived.

Unfortunately, her marriage to Sergey was not perfect, with time they drifted apart. As Maria stayed strong and active, Sergey let himself go. He lost interest in life, did not take care himself and eventually turned into eccentric old farmer. Biographers find a lot of indication of Maria having a long lasting romance with another Decembrist, however there is no proof that it went beyond of friendship. Even when all those marriage troubles took place, divorce was never discussed. Maria and Sergey stayed together until her death.

Ekaterina TrubetskaiaAnother woman was Ekaterina Trubetskaya. She followed her husband as the first of all wives. Her marriage to prince Sergey Trubetkoy was solid and unshakable until the end. Even Trubetkoy did not show himself as a strong person during arrest and trial, Ekaterina adored him completely. They had 5 children in exile. Ekaterina died from cancer before amnesty even took place. She is remembered as cheerful, always in a pleasant mood and a loving people person. “She who had been brought up in the greatest of luxury” was sweeping mud floors and handling other housework without any indication of unhappiness.

Pauline GuebleThere was another remarkable woman Pauline Gueble (Polina Annenkova). She was a 30 year-old French woman, who did not even speak Russian. Pauline came to Russia to open a dress making business. She met and fell in love with Ivan Annenkov, an attractive, and an heir to an enormous fortune. Aristocratic conventions were such that there was no question of marriage. Ivan was totally dependent financially on his fabulously rich widowed mother. Pauline was determined to follow her love. The permission from the tsar was very hard to obtain. Eventually Evan and Pauline married in Siberia. After the wedding ceremony, Ivan’s chains were clamped on again. He said good-bye to his bride and returned to his prison. Pauline brought a lot of practical skills to the community of wives.

That was in the 1800s ... In today’s world of countless divorces, psychologists, articles teaching us to be selfish this story seem as something unreal. Today we are looking in our relationships for happiness and personal satisfaction. I don’t know if those women were right or wrong. However, every time I read or think about Decembrists wives I feel moved and touched by their innocent sacrifice. As I studied the matter, I realized that those women were far away from been submissive. If anything, they were heroes, who made a difference in the lives of so many people. They not only helped their own husbands, but other Decembrists as well to survive exile. They made a difference in the communities where they lived by building hospitals, opening schools and theaters. I truly believe that Decembrist’s wives left a much greater impact in the history and culture of Russia than their husbands did with their failed revolutionary attempt. Anyhow, that all started from great love.

Reference: Christine Sutherland “Princess of Siberia: the story of Maria Volkonsky and the Decembrist exiles”: Internet articles.

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