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that's not unrelated to her Siberian roots. We have now—mercifully—headed back to the
warmth of the museum to continue our chat.
“I would like to give you an interesting fact,” Tatiana says. “When the Decembrists ar-
rived in Siberia, they realized they could use their talents and responsibilities in ways they
never imagined.”
The story of the Decembrists is one of the most epic and colorful tales in Russian his-
tory. In December 1825 some Russian army officers—many of them princes and dignitar-
ies in their own right—led a revolt against Czar Nicholas.
It failed.
The Decembrists, as the revolutionaries came to be known, were sentenced for their
deeds—a few executed, others imprisoned. Many were exiled to Siberia. For some that was
refreshing—for one thing, because they were still alive, but also because it offered a fresh
start. After suffering through several years in labor camps, some of these men settled here,
and their wives, who could have remained in the West, enjoying lives of royalty, joined
them in exile. It wasn't an easy road. When one of the wives, Princess Trubetskaya, “first
caught sight of her husband's emaciated, bearded face and filthy, tattered convict's smock
held up by a length of string,” she fainted. In his book The Decembrists , Mikhail Zetlin
writes that another woman, Princess Volkonskaya, “was allowed to visit her husband in his
cell. She found a tiny cubicle, six feet by four, filthy and with a ceiling so low that she
couldn't even stand up. The prisoners were so covered with vermin that the ladies had to
shake out their clothes after every visit.” But things improved. Princess Volkonskaya rented
a house in the city of Irkutsk, and her husband, once a prince, was released a changed man.
He “preferred the company of his peasant friends,” but the princess “gave parties, balls and
masquerades that were attended by all the local society.”
The Decembrists who settled in Siberia were by and large embraced by the locals, and
their legacy has lived on here. Many people credit the Decembrists with bringing the region
arts, literature, sophistication, and a can-do attitude.
“They began educating the Siberian people,” Tatiana tells me. “They opened schools
and grew new types of plants. They constructed railways and developed natural resources.
They no longer had to fight the czar. And they realized they loved Siberia, and loved the
people of Siberia.”
“Was part of it a sense of freedom out here?” I ask.
“I think so, yes.”
“Is that spirit of freedom still here?”
“That feeling, that sense of freedom, lives on in people here, I know it. We feel like no
one can make us do what we don't want to do.”
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