By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
It was their self-deprecation that motivated the Decemberist Wives to leave the comforts of the capital, and their homes, for the inhospitable reaches of Siberia. They built a community of sorts and worked tirelessly to achieve their cause. In fact, the Decemberists and the Decemberist Wives provided a model of revolutionary virtue rather than a model of revolution for generations to come.
First Decembrist Wife: Ekaterina Trubetskaya
The first woman to follow the menfolk to Siberia was the wife of Prince Sergei Trubetskoi—the Decembrist leader who’d gotten cold feet. Trubetskoi’s cowardice had saved him from the scaffold, but his role in the Decembrist organization swiftly resulted in a sentence of hard labor in Siberia.
With iron chains around his ankles, the prince left for Siberia on July 23. The next day, his wife Ekaterina followed. Her family—and even Tsar Nicholas’s wife, the empress herself—begged Ekaterina, known as Katya, to reconsider following her husband to exile.
Hardships in Exile
Family, friends, and high-ranking members of the imperial government urged each of the Decembrist Wives to renounce the men and begin life anew. They would lose their titles and their estates and all of the privileges that accrued to their social station.
They would be required to renounce the right to ever return from exile, even if their husbands died. The state also barred the women from taking their children with them. And, should they bear other children in exile, these children would be classified as state peasants.
Katya’s Undeterred Resolve
Katya Trubetskaya followed her husband into exile—freely and purposefully— as did all of the other women who came after her. Princess Trubetskaya arranged to leave her son and daughter with relatives.
In a horse-drawn carriage, Katya bid adieu to her past. The 4,000-mile trip from St. Petersburg to Irkutsk was long and uncomfortable.
She couldn’t escape the cold and fell prey to a fever. Her carriage broke down, and she finished the journey in a peasant’s rickety old cart. Still, her arrival in Irkutsk in September 1826 confirmed for Katya that her presence was essential to ease her husband’s burden.
In 1863, the Princess of Siberia closed her eyes for the final time. Two years later, Prince Volkonskii, the husband for whom she had sacrificed so much, died as well.
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Katya’s circumstances did improve, even though marginally, when the second Decembrist wife arrived in December 1826.
The 21-year-old Maria Volkonskaya had been giving birth to her first-born son in January, soon after the Decembrist uprising. Volkonskaya had been born into a lively, well-connected family. Her father General Nikolay Rayevsky was a hero of the Napoleonic campaigns.
The Volkonskii’s reunion has become a pivotal element in the legend of the Decembrists, and that of the Decembrists Wives. When Maria saw her husband again—now in leg irons—she fell on her knees and kissed the chains even before embracing him.
It’s hard to ignore the religious symbolism of this episode. Volkonskii takes on a Christ-like persona with her as his devoted disciple.
Martyrs for a Cause
In her memoirs, Volkonskaya presented both her husband and herself as martyrs for a cause. She wrote that their sacrifice was “pure—we are giving up everything for our chosen ones and God”. What had been a disorganized and poorly planned attempt at revolution was now viewed as a sacred endeavor.
But leaving home and privilege behind was just the beginning of the Decembrist Wives’ suffering. Just over a year later, Maria received the devastating news that her baby son in St. Petersburg had died.
While she did her best to hide the extent of her pain from her husband, she now turned to her fellow Decembrist Wives, the Dekabristki, for solace.
Building a Community
The women in exile relied on each other as much as their husbands relied on them. Maria Volkonskaya wrote that the women formed a family of sorts. Their common misfortune tied them together and each accepted one another with open arms.
The women learned to fend for themselves and provide for their husbands. Katya Trubetskaya was adept at finding provisions to make hearty meals. Maria Volkonskaya was the preeminent seamstress.
Even though Volkonskaya and Trubetskaya lived on the verge of poverty, they gave of themselves for others. They cut back on their own meals, and regularly skipped dinner to have enough food for the men.
The Ladies Street
The efforts of the women transformed the remote cultural landscape. Volkonskaya filled Ladies Street, as their establishment came to be known, with music, and was lovingly referred to as the Princess of Siberia.
Volkonskaya’s decision to follow her husband 30 years earlier had initiated a journey of tragedy and triumph. She’d buried children and friends. She went hungry and suffered from the cold. But she also lightened the burdens of those around her.
Inspiration for Generations
Nekrasov’s poem, “Russian Women”, focuses on Maria Volkonskaya and Ekaterina Trubetskaya. He describes them as representative of all Russian women, who—through their strength and devotion—empower others to fight and endure for sanctified ideals.
In the 1870s and 1880s, a new generation of Russian women modeled their activism after the Decembrist Wives, and embraced the revolutionary cause as never before. Vera Figner, a notable revolutionary, recognized the women as “luminaries who from a distance light up our revolutionary movement”.
Common Questions about Ekaterina Trubetskaya and Maria Volkonskaya
Ekaterina Turbetskoi was the first woman to follow the menfolk to Siberia. She was the wife of Prince Sergei Trubetskoi.
In her memoirs, Volkonskaya presented both her husband and herself as martyrs for a cause. She wrote that their sacrifice was “pure—we are giving up everything for our chosen ones and God”.
The women learned to fend for themselves and provide for their husbands. Katya was adept at finding provisions to make hearty meals. Maria was the preeminent seamstress. Even though the Decemberist Wives lived on the verge of poverty, they gave of themselves for others. They cut back on their own meals, and regularly skipped dinner to have enough food for the men.