Love tyrannizes all the ages; but youthful, virgin hearts derive a blessing from its blasts and rages, like fields in spring when storms arrive. (Pushkin’s poem, Eugene Onegin)
December. 1825. Saint Petersburg. Imperial Russia. Young noblemen united in an attempt to release their motherland from the chains of autocratic oppression. There were hundreds of them, inspired by the constitutional governments of Western Europe. Members of the aristocracy, they were the first to rebel and attempt to overthrow the absolutist regime of the Tsar. However unfortunate for them, their uprising was a failure. They were condemned as criminals of the state. Five of them hanged, roughly a couple thousands incarcerated. More than a hundred sent into exile, sentenced to thirty years of hard labor in the mines of Siberia. They became known as the Decembrists.
It’s not the giant trees, nor the deathly stillness that constitutes its power and enchantment; rather, it’s in that only the migrating birds know where it ends. You don’t pay attention to it on the first day of travel; on the second and third, you are surprised; the fourth and fifth day give you a feeling that you’ll never get out of that monster of the Earth. (Anton Chekov on Siberia)
The real protagonists of this story are surprisingly, the wives of these men, better known as the Decembrist Wives. Young, fragile, pampered, they followed their husbands into exile. They left everything behind, their families, their lives, their children, their possessions. You may think they were forced into exile just like their husbands, but it was their free choice to do so.
Jean Jacques Rousseau states there are two human types, the philosopher and the hero. The difference between these two is that the philosopher looks after his own happiness while a hero looks after the happiness of the others. A philosopher is wise, a hero is generous. According to him, “generosity and compassion make a hero feel responsible for the others to such an extent that he freely chooses to sacrifice his own expediency and pleasure for their sake.” (J-J Rousseau, Discours sur la vertu)
One of these women was Maria Volkonskaya, the quintessence of class, a princess. When her husband, double her age, was exiled, she gave birth to their first son. No one will know what motivated young Maria, daughter of a famous hero of the 1812 war with Napoleon, but she agreed to leave everything that was so merry to her, including her son. She signed a document with the Tsar, renouncing all her rights, titles, possessions, and even acknowledging the fact that she would never be allowed to return. The trip to Siberia was a one way ticket. “What ever your fate, I will share it,” she wrote in a letter to her husband.
In your position you cannot simultaneously do two equally sacred duties. Do that which your heart prompts you and you will see that it is the only way to recover that peace of mind which you crave. (Maria Volkonskaya)
Altogether, there were eleven of them, including a Frenchwoman – Pauline Gueble, the lover of one of the Decembrists. Such was the love of those women, unconditional. They were selfless and loyal wives, the personification of eternal feminine ideal…. tender, passionate lovers. Their husbands lived in shackles, working hard in the iron mines. The wives lived nearby, in pitiable huts, and from time to time were allowed to visit their husbands. They shared their husbands’ fate, and in a way alleviated their suffering…by standing by their side when the entire world turned its back on them. In the bitter winters of the monster of the Earth, these women did not eliminate the darkness, but they created a circle of light where they lived, and their legacy remains today.
What are the limits of ‘unconditional love’ and ‘devotion’? What motivated them to follow their husbands to that monster of the Earth? Was it love? Was it their moral duty? Was it their sacred duty? My guess is that we will never know. The answer is buried in the past. All that are left are facts. Wikipedia has many of those. Yet, there is one thing I know for sure. This post serves to disprove another stereotype about Russians, the one where we have a cold heart…