The great attraction of Siberia for three centuries of settlers, free and otherwise, had been the chance to start afresh in a land where no one would ask too many questions about a person’s past. Shaking off history remains the oldest tradition of them all
It was at one of the smaller towns along the Trans-Siberian Railway, one of the two-minute stops that are so easy to miss altogether between Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk, that the government inspectors boarded our train. My husband Timothy and I were alerted to their presence when the stewardess who had taken our tickets came to our cabin shortly after 9 p.m. and told us that “inspectors of the regime” were aboard, and could we please lock our door and not open it for any reason until she came to fetch us. We did as she said, and also closed the window curtains. It was not necessary to turn out the lights, for we had not figured out how to turn them on or indeed whether they were working or broken. The last thing Timothy said before we lapsed into silence was, “This supports my bribe theory.”
We had good reason to suspect that our presence on the train was not perfectly legal. When we had presented our paperwork at the station in Ekaterinburg, the stewardess had furrowed her brow and fetched the conductor, who looked at our tickets and pointed out that they were for the wrong month. My husband, who had made all of our travel bookings, rent his garments. The conductor thought for a moment then took our passports and told us to follow him.
He led us into a different car of the train and down the corridor to a large private cabin with a wide door, which he told us we could have if we paid half price for replacement tickets in cash, equivalent to several hundred American dollars. We told him we would have to find an ATM at the next station, as there wasn’t enough time before departure to find one now. He glanced at the stewardess, who had followed us, and said that would be fine.
These negotiations were all conducted in Russian, which my husband speaks almost but not quite like a native. His grandmother was born in the White Russian enclave of Kharbin, in Chinese Manchuria, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, and like many White kharbintsy she found her way to Australia in the 1950s. Growing up in Sydney, Timothy spoke Russian at home—émigré Russian, which has its archaisms and corruptions but is closer to what you hear in Moscow than, say, Quebecois is to French.
My own grandmother was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, so I understood none of the conductor’s long speech as he showed us our new cabin. All I caught was his repetition of the word “invalid … invalid”. I assumed this referred to our tickets and was his way of driving home that we were aboard strictly on sufferance. In fact he was explaining that this was the handicapped cabin. Timothy set down his duffel bag on the bunk and said, “I suppose when I pay him I shouldn’t ask for a receipt.”
As we waited for the government inspectors to pass, Timothy and I held each other in a tight embrace. We lay on the same narrow bunk because to unlatch and pull down the upper bunk would have made too much noise. Also, I imagined at the time that if the inspectors did knock and then force open our door, an embrace might suggest by way of excuse that we had failed to respond because they had caught us in flagrante. In the event, no excuse was necessary. Thirty minutes later, we heard footsteps in the corridor—clicking heels, not the shuffling flats of the stewardesses or the thumping loafers of the conductor. They halted outside our door for a moment and then moved on.
The last I heard of the inspector was her rifling through the hallway trash bin. Not to take it out, just to rifle. I checked afterwards and the herring I had deposited at Omsk was still there. Who knows what she was looking for—perhaps cigarette butts, since smoking had been banned on all trains in the Russian Federation just two weeks before. A few minutes later the stewardess returned to give us the all clear.
When we boarded the train in Ekaterinburg, we were still officially in Europe, not yet over the spine of the Urals. When at last we disembarked at Irkutsk, we were into Siberia proper. Our host there was a lawyer whose name we had been given by the Russian Scouts in Sydney, who had met him at an international jamboree the previous year. The Irkutsk troop had been founded in the 1990s, shortly after the repeal of Soviet-era laws prohibiting all scouting groups except the Young Pioneers. In Australia, the first Russian Scout flag was raised in Bathurst in 1950. Timothy’s mother had been a Russian Girl Guide when she was younger, alongside the boys who would grow up to be Timothy’s scoutmasters. Our Irkutsk scoutmaster was just old enough to have missed ever having been a scout himself.
He took us sightseeing along the Angara River the morning after we arrived. Standing on the marble plaza where we joined the riverside pedestrian path, I could see on the opposite bank a children’s theatre. With its white exterior and its roof of nested triangular peaks, it looked so much like a cut-rate Sydney Opera House that I took a picture. Timothy asked if this waterway was much used by commercial ships.
“The word you use for ‘ships’, no one would say that,” the lawyer said. “It is derived from the word for ‘steam’. In 1917 this was correct, but now it is very antiquated.”
Further on we came to a statue of Yermak, the father of Russian Siberia, facing away from the river with a rifle in his hand. The lawyer referred to him as an “explorer”, which is rather an understated way of describing the frontiersmanship of a sixteenth-century Cossack. Yermak’s men were a fell crew even by Cossack standards. When word arrived at the court of Ivan the Terrible that Yermak had graciously donated his newly subjugated eastern lands to the tsar’s domains, the first thing Ivan did was to pardon the messenger, for the hetman Yermak had appointed as his emissary was wanted for murder and had a bounty on his head. It is reported that Yermak’s band were eager to take on such a far-flung mission in the first place because several of them had similar warrants nipping at their heels. If this is true, then Russian Siberia was used for the relocation of criminals not only from its infancy but from the moment of its conception.
Siberia became the Botany Bay of Russia, particularly after the discovery of gold and precious metals opened the territory to mining in the eighteenth century. The problem was not so much a need for labour—the mines paid well enough that there was no shortage—but the need to fill a vast wilderness with enough Slavic bodies that Siberia and its resources would be internationally acknowledged as belonging to Russia. There were only a quarter of a million natives in the entire Siberian territory before Yermak’s conquest—fewer than Australia, half its size, had when Cook landed. Thankfully the populations coexisted more peacefully in Siberia, due to flourishing trade and a shared love of chess.
In 1762, landlords were given the right to banish serfs to Siberia on their own authority, and for the next century the number of exiles averaged nearly ten thousand per year. Only a small fraction were ever required to perform hard labour, the notorious katorga of Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead. Most were simply resettled. Transportation was officially ended by Nicholas II in 1899, not for humanitarian reasons but because the free yeomen who had been streaming into Siberia since the abolition of serfdom had become sufficiently numerous, established and self-confident to object to their region being used as a dumping ground for European Russian felonry. An official history of Siberia published in 1900 by the Ministry of Communication credited Nicholas’s ukase with “removing from Siberia the shameful stain attached to it as a place of exile”.
Our lawyer steered us away from the river and back to the central district, where he handed us off to another scoutmaster, a woman, and went back to his office. We did not see him again until he came to bid us farewell at the station—dressed in seersucker, the only Siberian I ever saw so attired. Unlike the lawyer, the lady scoutmaster spoke some English, and at a café over milkshakes she asked how I thought Russia compared to Australia.
Timothy hastened to clarify that I was actually an American. I explained that I had moved to Sydney from North Carolina only a few years before. In answer to her question, I said that Siberia and Australia seemed to me to have a lot in common.
I mentioned low population density—hardly the most striking similarity, but I did not want to lead with the convict stain. I further padded my answer with allusion to rugged and overwhelming landscapes and economies based primarily on resource extraction before finally noting certain similarities shared by the two as former penal colonies: a refusal to hold far-off authorities in awe, a proud self-reliance, and on the other hand a willingness to go to the wall for the other bloke because he’d do the same for you. Whether this heritage is the consequence of any cultural influence on the criminals’ part or simply a product of the geographic attributes that make a region suitable for convict settlement in the first place, like remoteness and harsh climate, I declined to speculate.
None of this made her smile, but then Russians do not have the habit of smiling to show that they are listening to you.
“We don’t really think about that. I have a friend in England who sent us a book, big, like this. The title was just ‘Russia’. We looked up Siberia to see what it said about Irkutsk, Lake Baikal—all it said was ‘gulag’!”
The distinction between Soviet and tsarist systems of exile did not seem a likely avenue of discussion, so I told her how much I had enjoyed the walk through Irkutsk, and how I regretted that we would not have time to see the monument to the Decembrist wives. The memorial, which I had seen in a guidebook, depicts Maria Volkonskaya, the most famous of the women who voluntarily followed their husbands to Siberia after the abortive officers’ revolt of December 1825. This also failed to make our host smile, but in a different way.
“I am a member of a group, we have just finished a project on some of the Decembrist wives. We have sent it to Moscow, and now we are waiting to hear from them.” I asked what sort of project.
“A photographic project, and a history. Also a—how do you say ‘should’ in the past? Should have. A ‘what-should-have’. And a curriculum for how the story of the Decembrists should be taught in schools.” She said that her group also hosts an annual ball in one of the remaining Decembrist houses.
“Fifty people plus, dancing to real nineteenth-century music. Schoolchildren read poetry.”
I asked if there were any descendants of the Decembrists in Irkutsk now.
“There must be, but I do not know of any.”
Later I asked Timothy why he had not jumped in to defend my comparison of Siberia to Australia, or at least to explain it better in Russian. He said he had wanted to, “especially the economic parallel, which I think is spot on”, but vocabulary had prevented him. “I couldn’t think of how to say ‘strong primary and tertiary but weak secondary industries’. The closest I came up with was ‘good mines, but not so good factories’.”
We had no more overnight stops for the rest of the journey, just three nights on the train and then Vladivostok. We told the young man who drove us to the Irkutsk station where we were going, and he said with delight that he had a brother in “Vladi”. “We are from a very small town, but it produces the best aluminium in the world. For rockets and planes.” We asked if he had ever visited his brother. “No, because it is an eight-hour flight and I am afraid of flying.”
There was no Russian Scout contingent in Vladivostok, as far as we knew, but a journalist friend of Timothy’s uncle had offered to show us around. She proved to be quite the hometown booster. Timothy explained to her how he had originally wanted to take the branch of the Trans-Siberian that terminates in Beijing, in order to see Mongolia, but I had insisted on seeing Vladivostok. She grasped my arm and said in English (not a strong language for her), “I love you.”
Her acquaintance with Timothy’s uncle came through their shared interest in the White Russian diaspora, which had led them to the same archives and online discussion forums. As we walked to lunch, she pointed out the hotel where Admiral Kolchak had stayed during the Civil War, in the months before the Bolsheviks shot him, and the separate hotel where his mistress—more of a common-law wife—had stayed in order to maintain appearances.
Much of her conversation revolved around history of this sort, so, via Timothy’s translation, I asked as many questions as I could think of—about the famous Czech Legion, which had briefly conquered Vladivostok during the First World War, about the Soviet years when Vladivostok was a closed city, about whether Yul Brynner’s kids keep up their local ties.
Timothy asked whether I would like him to ask her opinion on Siberia’s convict legacy. I told him he had better make it an open-ended question, so he asked her how Siberia came to be settled.
“Government policy. Under the tsar, there were incentives for people to come—land grants, remission of taxes, subsidised fares, many incentives for families to relocate. It was like the west in America, a frontier society.”
I asked whether this meant Siberia was predominantly a land of smallholders.
“Not small, the farms were very big. The government let people claim as much land as they wanted.”
But they were independent farmers, I clarified, not a plantation-style aristocracy. There was for example very little serfdom in Siberia?
“That is correct. You could have as much land as you wanted, but only as much as you could cultivate yourself.” Switching to English, she said, holding up her fingers, “Three years.” In Russian again, “The journey took three years. They came by wagon.”
The journalist spoke feelingly of these pioneers, but as I listened to her I knew that this frontier-society line was not the whole story. The Englishman Henry Landsell crossed Siberia in the 1870s, well into the heyday of voluntary migration, and in the book of his travels he can’t stop tripping over convicts and ex-convicts. In the chapter where he must flee his hotel in Irkutsk in advance of a spreading fire next door, the well-dressed passerby from whom he begs an afternoon’s sanctuary turns out to be a criminal exile made good. Anna Bek, a long-lived doctor from Nerchinsk whose 1948 memoir was recently published in translation by a small American press, admits in her first chapter that both branches of her family were exile-descended, including from one of Pugachev’s lieutenants. When she needed to learn Latin and Greek for her medical school entrance exams, her father hired a “political” as her tutor.
More than a million people were exiled to Siberia in the nineteenth century, and they did not just disappear. In tsarist times no attempt was made to hide them, for the government was not ashamed of its unusual penal system—had exile not originated as an alternative to the death penalty, and did this not make it fundamentally a liberal institution? The great hubs of convict labour were all located along the main travel routes, and (in decided contrast to Soviet practice) any foreigner with a passport was welcome to inspect the conditions at the ironworks of Petrovsky or the silver mines of Nerchinsk. The only people really uncomfortable with Siberia’s penal legacy were the reactionary officials in the capital who feared the emergence of a new type of Russian there, one who valued his independence and his rights. Peter Stolypin, Nicholas II’s minister of the interior, warned his tsar that Siberia was “a vast, rudely democratic country which will soon throttle European Russia”.
This relaxed attitude went out with the revolution. Under the Soviets, the very existence of the old exile system was downplayed, because however keen they were to bash the Romanovs, they did not want to draw attention to their own activities in that sphere. Instead they attacked the tsars for neglecting Siberia’s economic development. “Before the Bolshevik Revolution, capitalists—both native and foreign—were only hunters here,” declared Pravda in 1936. “They took only what was strewn around.” Siberia never lost its reputation as a land of independent risk-takers and abundant hospitality, but there was no mention of the history that went into making them that way.
But if the Siberians I met seemed to want to imagine that the exile system began and ended with the Decembrists, who can blame them? It wasn’t so long ago that Australians talked as if Britain had transported no one but Irish rebels and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. I emigrated to a Sydney where convict ancestry is chic, but it was not always so, and considering Siberia’s twentieth century it is not surprising that it should lag behind in coming to terms with its legacy as a place of exile. On the other hand, the Siberians’ reluctance to discuss the matter might indicate not anxiety but a healthy state of having moved on. They had not reckoned with their past in a way that turned up under my questioning, but that hardly proves no reckoning has taken place.
There is a rare fish that lives only in Lake Baikal, golomyanka, the oil fish. It is a classic deep-water freak, like the anglerfish or the barreleye. Nearly half of its body mass is pure fat—placed in a frying pan, it simply deliquesces—and it has no scales. It is therefore perfectly transparent, its internal organs visible to the naked eye under a gelatinous layer of skin and grease. But most fish are not like that, and neither are most people. The attraction of Siberia for three centuries of settlers, free and otherwise, had been the chance to start afresh in a new land where no one would ask too many questions about a person’s past, his family name, what schools he had attended, what his father had done for a living. My own impression was that Siberians were a different sort of fish from Muscovites, but it was absurd of me to expect that they would parade their inner workings like a golomyanka, flaunting the story of how they came to be that way—not when shaking off the past is the oldest Siberian tradition of all.
Helen Andrews is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies and a former associate editor of National Review.