Recollections of Tartar steppes and their inhabitants
by Mrs. Lucy Atkinson, 1820-1863?.
London: J. Murray, 1863.
"We looked like a band of wandering spirits clothed in pure white, riding on horses with black legs." So wrote Lucy Atkinson of her family and their party as they travelling through the deep Russian snows. Given the harsh conditions through which they travelled, and the extremes of both heat and cold which they faced in the Russian steppes, it is remarkable that they were not "wandering spirits" in truth, long before the end of their journey.
Lucy, a new bride, was the first woman to travel on parts of their route. In several places local women tried to persuade her not to go further. Their objections are even more understandable when one discovers that Lucy was pregnant during the journey. She was delivered of a healthy baby, about two months earlier than expected, soon after a waterless ride of nearly 100 miles under bitter conditions. Having expected to return to more civilized areas before his birth, she had no baby clothes prepared.
"When asked what he was to be wrapped in, I, after a moment's thought, bid them take his father's shirt. My friends here laugh, and say I could not have done a better or a wiser thing, as it is one of their superstitions, that if a child is enveloped in its father's shirt it is sure to be lucky; and, I having done so accidentally, he will be most fortunate, and rise to great riches!"
Amazingly, both she and her child continued to thrive -- something which she attributed in part to frequent washing, bathing two or three times a day when possible.
During the rest of their trip, their baby son Alatau (named for the mountain range near which he was delivered) was a great source of interest, and was given many rich gifts. Indeed, he was considered to be far more important than his mother, who noted that girls were considered "most insignificant articles of barter." At one point a local chief noticed Lucy's industrious sewing, and offered to buy her from her husband. The lives of Khirgis women were hard, and Lucy Atkinson was very aware of the disparity between men and women in steppe culture, and in her own.
In addition to travelling the steppes, the Atkinsons stayed in several of the principal towns, including Irkutsk. They were welcomed by many Siberian exiles, including prominent Decembrists Prince Volkonskoi and his wife (Maria Volkonskaia) and Princess Troubitskoy (Yekaterina Trubetskaya). In December of 1825 a group of officers had headed a revolt in Saint Petersburg, refusing to swear allegiance to the new tsar, Nicholas I. Their goals included the abolition of serfdom and redistribution of land. Over 3,000 soldiers were arrested, five were hanged, and more than 120 were sent into exile.
The wives of the Decembrist nobles had the choice of accepting an official decree declaring them widows and retaining their titles and possessions, or accompanying their husbands into exile with restricted rights of travel, correspondence and property ownership, leaving their children behind. Many chose to go into exile. While their husbands worked in the labor camps, the women were able to create a supportive community, petition the emperor for improved conditions, and initiate social and cultural reforms. By the time of the Atkinson's visit to Irkutsk in 1851, Princess Volkonskoi had bought a good house for herself and her children: her husband was allowed to live in 'an apartment in a small building in the court-yard.' Writers and poets were inspired by their example, and the expression 'Decembrist wife' became symbolic in Russia of the devotion of a wife to her husband.
Lucy Atkinson and the Decembrist wives were well-matched in their determination and courage. The words that Lucy writes in her letters of accompanying her husband on his travels might as easily speak for any of the Decembrist wives, setting out to follow her husband into exile:
"They were convinced I should die ere I reached the place. I laughed at their fears, and assured them that it would cause me much anxiety to be left behind, and, even though they told me that death would be my lot if I went, still I was firm to my purpose. You know I am not easily intimidated when once I have made up my mind. I started on this journey, with the intention of accompanying my husband wherever he went, and no idle fears shall turn me; if he is able to accomplish it, so shall I be. I give in to no one for endurance."