Russia’s Decembrist Wives: Inspiring Women across Generations

From the Lecture Series: The Great Revolutions of Modern History

By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University

In the annals of Russian history, the men of the Decembrist Uprising of 1825 are rivaled only by the women in their lives. Indeed, 11 wives, fiancés, and sisters would follow the men into exile and isolation over the next few years, bidding goodbye to their families, and leaving behind the comforts of the noble estates.

woman looking far away in distress
As the Decemberists went into exile, their wives followed them leaving behind a life of luxury. (Image: Ysbrand Cosijn/Shutterstock)

Self-deprecating Wives

The women became known to history as the Decembrist Wives, and they came to epitomize “political and social martyrdom”. Their model of self-sacrifice would be celebrated by Russian poets and become a hallmark of a revolutionary code of ethics for generations to come.

The women of the Russian nobility didn’t ride with tsarist troops through the cities of Western Europe. And most had no formal education, though they typically had foreign tutors to educate them on their estates.

The one lesson they learned well was the humility and self-sacrifice touted by the Russian Orthodox Church. This self-deprecation is what motivated them to leave the comforts of the capital, and their homes, for the inhospitable reaches of Siberia.

One Soviet-era historian described them as women “whose spiritual lives were limited to the confines of the family”, but who taught, by their example, countless others about fortitude and strength.

Establishing a Settlement

The act of shared sacrifice became a pattern for the Decembrist Wives. The women in exile relied on each other as much as their husbands relied on them. The women formed a family of sorts. Their common misfortune tied them together and each accepted one another with open arms.

The bonds grew over time. Initially scattered among several prisons and exile outposts, the Decembrists settled in Petrovsky Zavod, a suburb of Nerchinsk, in 1830. There, the women built a string of huts that became known as Ladies Street, often with money sent by their families.

After having spent their lives living in the lap of luxury, the women learned to fend for themselves and provide for their husbands. So, they grew vegetables and even pulled rotten teeth.

One of them, Katya Trubetskaya, was adept at finding provisions to make hearty meals. Another, Maria Volkonskaya, was the preeminent seamstress. And she admitted that such physical labor helped to lull her mind and temporarily escape thoughts about all that she had left behind.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Surviving Frigid Cold and No Medical Facilities

One of the women’s greatest struggles was the frigid cold. Their ramshackle homes couldn’t shut out sub-freezing temperatures and—without enough warm clothing to compensate for the fact—conditions became torturous.

A lack of medical care was another hardship on the frozen tundra. And it made the illnesses that ensued from these extreme conditions, and lack of resources, especially dangerous. This is especially apparent when we look at the children in exile.

The Decembrist Wives bore more babies after they arrived in Siberia and the joy that came from these new arrivals was often swiftly tempered. Twenty-two children died in infancy or early childhood. The lack of proper nourishment and medical care that the Decembrist exiles faced increased the number of offspring who died.

Brave, Selfless Women

Years later, the Russian revolutionary Vera Figner celebrated the selflessness of the Decembrist Wives on the 100th anniversary of their uprising. She noted that even though they lived on the verge of poverty, they gave of themselves for others.

Soldiers in a battlefield
The Decemberist Wives gave a newfound vigor to the Russian women to rise up for the cause. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

They committed to providing meals to their husbands and to dozens of political exiles. In doing so, they cut back on their own meals, and regularly skipped dinner to have enough food for the men.

Figner recounted that for a time, Trubetskaya survived solely on black bread and kvas—a fermented beverage—and refused to use the resources she possessed to mend or replace her ruined shoes. Instead, she traipsed through snow and ice, exposed to the elements.

The Decembrist Wives also exhibited great determination. They negotiated with authorities for access to health care and campaigned for opportunities to educate the children born to them in Siberian exile.

Help from Family Back Home

In letters to loved ones, the women acknowledged the challenges they faced but did not bemoan their sacrifices. They did, however, make regular requests of their mothers, fathers, and sisters in St. Petersburg to send them clothes, money, and books both for themselves and their community.

With donated funds and goods, the women also established public libraries, schools, and medical clinics, and arranged for concerts and informal lectures. These efforts transformed the remote cultural landscape.

Maria Volkonskaya’s home was always the center of intellectual and cultural vitality. Having brought a small piano with her into exile, she filled Ladies Street with music and was lovingly referred to as the Princess of Siberia.

Significant Contribution

It’s doubtful that the actions of the Decembrist Wives would have enjoyed lasting significance if not for their celebration in Russian literature. The Russian poet and social critic Nikolai Nekrasov’s poem, “Russian Women”, focuses on two Decembrist Wives: 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.

Common Questions about Russia’s Decembrist Wives

Q: Who were the Decembrist Wives?

The men of the Decembrist Uprising of 1825 were followed into exile by the women in their lives: wives, fiancés, and sisters. The women willingly gave up all the luxuries of their life to accompany their men in exile.

Q: How did the Decembrist Wives survive in exile?

The Decembrist Wives built a strong community of their own. They sought help from their families for funds and used them to establish a small settlement. The women learned to fend for themselves and provide for their husbands. So, they grew vegetables and even pulled rotten teeth.

Q: What is the significance of the Decembrist Wives in history?

The Decembrist Wives inspired women across Russia to raise their voices in support of revolutionary causes.

Keep Reading
Why Do Revolutions Happen?
The Early History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement
The Violent History of Confronting Racial Segregation in America