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Made in Siberia

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Every season a couple of wonderful biographies emerge whose reviews and sales might lead one to believe that they will stay bestsellers for ever. A year or two later they are in no greater demand than thousands of other backlist titles. Examples of this might be Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana or David Gilmour’s Curzon. Both were rightly acclaimed, but after the flurry of reviews, after Christmas had come and gone, they joined others on the shelves as definitive works on rather specialized subjects whose future sales will be steady, but modest. This is not to derogate the books: it is just what happens.

There is another type of book, which may not have made such a splash in the media on publication but which a bookseller is likely to keep within reach of the till for a quick response to the question, ‘Can you recommend a good biography?’ Such books may be personal favourites and they are liable also to be more personal in content. They probably won’t depend on any extraneous knowledge for enjoyment. At one extreme might be The Last Leopard (David Gilmour again), a superb biography of Lampedusa that makes vivid the inner drama of a writer’s life. At the other end lies perhaps Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, the story of a mountaineering accident in the Andes whose drama turns on a harrowing dilemma.

Somewhere along the scale lie Axel Munthe’s The Story of San Michele and books by a tough, self-sufficient sisterhood of plucky women: The Past Is Myself (Christabel Bielenberg), A Mother’s War (Fey von Hassell), The House by the Dvina (Eugenie Fraser), and The Berlin Diaries (‘Missie’ Vassiltchikov). My own clear favourite in this group is Christine Sutherland’s The Princess of Siberia. As a well-researched historical biography, it has the authority of good history, but its brilliance lies in the personal nature of its focus, its skilful unpicking of

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Every season a couple of wonderful biographies emerge whose reviews and sales might lead one to believe that they will stay bestsellers for ever. A year or two later they are in no greater demand than thousands of other backlist titles. Examples of this might be Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana or David Gilmour’s Curzon. Both were rightly acclaimed, but after the flurry of reviews, after Christmas had come and gone, they joined others on the shelves as definitive works on rather specialized subjects whose future sales will be steady, but modest. This is not to derogate the books: it is just what happens.

There is another type of book, which may not have made such a splash in the media on publication but which a bookseller is likely to keep within reach of the till for a quick response to the question, ‘Can you recommend a good biography?’ Such books may be personal favourites and they are liable also to be more personal in content. They probably won’t depend on any extraneous knowledge for enjoyment. At one extreme might be The Last Leopard (David Gilmour again), a superb biography of Lampedusa that makes vivid the inner drama of a writer’s life. At the other end lies perhaps Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, the story of a mountaineering accident in the Andes whose drama turns on a harrowing dilemma. Somewhere along the scale lie Axel Munthe’s The Story of San Michele and books by a tough, self-sufficient sisterhood of plucky women: The Past Is Myself (Christabel Bielenberg), A Mother’s War (Fey von Hassell), The House by the Dvina (Eugenie Fraser), and The Berlin Diaries (‘Missie’ Vassiltchikov). My own clear favourite in this group is Christine Sutherland’s The Princess of Siberia. As a well-researched historical biography, it has the authority of good history, but its brilliance lies in the personal nature of its focus, its skilful unpicking of the emotional threads binding its characters. It is an amazing story to whose broader cultural significance the author is alert, and a dream subject for a biography. In December 1825, on the first day of Tsar Nicholas I’s reign, an ill-conceived revolution by a group of idealistic young aristocrats ended in disaster. When the enquiry finished a year later, five of the ringleaders were hanged; 120 were sent to Siberia, most of them for life, with varying sentences of hard labour. The affair was without political consequence (although it might be argued that it set back the cause of reform in Russia for years because of its effect on Nicholas I). It merits no more than a few pages in Seton-Watson’s mammoth The Russian Empire, 1801–1917, but even he allows that the Decembrists were among ‘the bravest, ablest, and most attractive sons, perhaps the noblest figures in the whole history of Russian revolutionary action’. Christine Sutherland’s Princess is Maria Raevsky, the favourite daughter of General Raevsky, who features in War and Peace as the hero of Borodino. Rich and well-connected, as a teenager Maria also knew the young Pushkin well. When she became engaged to Prince Sergei Volkonsky, one of the Tsar’s aides-de-camp, it was regarded as a superb match by everyone except her father, who was aware that Sergei’s membership of a secret society might get him into trouble. Despite the General’s misgivings, Maria and Volkonsky did marry. A year later, when Maria’s son was born, she had not seen her husband for two weeks. It was another three months before anyone told her that he was incarcerated in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Far from disowning her husband, as her family wished, Maria declared that she would follow him to Siberia. His arrest and the causes for which he had been arrested (constitutional reform, the abolition of serfdom) made sense of behaviour that had puzzled her: her romantic leanings suddenly gained form and clarity. It was made very difficult for Maria to join her husband: she had to leave behind her baby, renounce her wealth, title and even the prospect of returning to Russia. But she was not alone: ‘eleven wives of the condemned prisoners decided to share the fate of their husbands. Six of them were forced to leave behind a total of thirteen children.’ After an epic journey to Siberia, Maria settled down in a shack in Nerchinsk with the only other Decembrist wife to have arrived so far, Katyusha Trubetskoy. Accustomed to servants and wealth, the women had to learn to manage for themselves. The prisoners were not allowed any contact with the outside world, so it was the women who wrote letters to their families, mended their clothes, augmented their diet. They provided not only hope and comfort but also – because they could send information home, where they had powerful (but cautious) relations – genuine protection. After a couple of years, all the disparate groups of Decembrists were gathered together in one prison at Chita, under the rule of an improbably benign commandant called Leparsky. This enabled them to survive as a group beyond political death (although the Tsar’s motive for putting them under one roof was to separate them from others). In Chita they set about educating one another and the local community, helped by books and periodicals obtained through the women. It was not to last: the ‘Chita Academy’ was disbanded and the prisoners moved to a larger, permanent, specially built prison at Petrovsky Zavod. As the compassionate Leparsky grew confident that his charges understood the ground rules – ‘Behave, and I will let you lead as much of a life as I can’ – the prisoners were allowed to visit their wives’ houses and the wives to share their husbands’ cells. Children were born, gardens made, Buriat dictionaries compiled, lectures given. And as Volkonsky became eccentric and prematurely aged, Maria took as her lover another of the Decembrists, an old family friend called Poggio. But it is the connections that make this book so fascinating. The abortive revolution struck deep into the highest layer of society. These were the fast-trackers from the Napoleonic wars, the ones who had returned from France with rosy futures, but instead of lapsing back complacently into Russian absolutism, they believed that the time had come to reform Russia. They all knew one another, and if their brothers and cousins were not Decembrists too then they were high officials. So one of the ringleaders at Nerchinsk with Volkonsky was Maria’s uncle, Vasya Davydov. Volkonsky’s mother was Mistress of the Robes to the Dowager Empress, and was dancing with the Tsar at a party given by Prince Kochubey as her son left St Petersburg in chains for Siberia. A generation later, Maria’s daughter Elena married a Prince Kochubey. General Benckendorff, the chief of police who was instrumental in sending the conspirators to Siberia, was an old school companion of Sergei’s. After Volkonsky’s term of hard labour had come to an end he was sent to live in Urik, a village near Irkutsk. A few years later Maria was allowed to move into Irkutsk with their two children. Thanks to Muraviev, the new governor of Eastern Siberia (who had eight cousins among the Decembrists), Maria was given access to some of her family’s money, so that she lived in Irkutsk in some style. She helped finance the local foundling home and hospital and built a concert hall; much loved, she became known as the Princess of Siberia. There is a wonderful moment when Sergei’s sister comes to visit after twenty-five years. She is a grande dame of the old school, but after a concert it is Maria, the wife of a state criminal, who is given a standing ovation. Eventually Tsar Nicholas died and his son, Alexander II, announced an amnesty for the Decembrists. Maria never properly settled back into life in the West – Siberia was the making of her – and she died seven years later, in 1863. Surprisingly, Sergei flourished on his return: having become notorious among the Decembrists for being uncouth and unkempt, interested only in farming and peasants, he brushed up nicely and was regarded as a grand old man; he died in 1865. Poggio, an attractive character who may have fathered Maria’s daughter, died in 1873 and was buried beside Sergei and Maria. Although many Decembrists died miserably in remote places, some of them returned to Russia in old age as legendary figures. Tolstoy (whose grandfather was a Volkonsky) met Sergei and was certainly influenced by him. It is impossible not to see Pierre Bezukhov as a prototype Decembrist. But if the Decembrists did not quite suffer the living death that Nicholas intended, that had less to do with Tolstoy than with Alexander Herzen, who kept alive their collective identity from his own exile. The triumph of Tom Stoppard’s extraordinary trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, was to show how Herzen’s private life was entangled with his intellectual life, and how he struggled to remain true to both. It is no wonder that he revered the Decembrists, whose personal lives, as Christine Sutherland so eloquently reveals, were integral to the drama of their story and to their ultimate legacy.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 5 © John De Falbe 2005


About the contributor

John De Falbe has been selling books at John Sandoe’s in Chelsea for over 30 years. He is the author of three novels, The Glass Night, The Bequest and Dreaming Iris.

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