IRKUTSK

 

 
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Decembrists' wives

Many of the Decembrists' wives voluntarily followed their husbands into exile. According to the laws of Russia, convicts' wives if they so desired were allowed to follow their husbands to Siberia but for the Decembrists' wives a new law or, rather infringement of the law, was devised. In order to strike the Decembrists totally out of their lives, the Church and the State passed a law whereby the Decembrists' wives were considered widows and allowed to remarry within their living husbands' lifetime without an official divorce.

However, Yekaterina Trubetskaya turned down this offer and so did the other Decembrists' wives. When they departed for Siberia they left behind their privileges as nobles and were reduced to the status of exiled prisoners' wives with restricted rights of travel, correspondence and property ownership. They were not allowed to take their children with them and ever return to the European part of Russia even after their husbands' death. But nothing could stop these courageous women. Yekaterina Trubetskaya was the first to leave for Siberia (in July 1826). The rest wives joined her in Irkutsk.

The Decembrists' wives faced one more ordeal in Irkutsk after covering 5 000 kilometers, a vast distance in those days, and enduring inconceivable hardships on the way. They had to sign a "renunciation" allowing them to meet them with their husbands not mote than twice a week and only in the presence of an officer. They had to give up their money and valuables, only a very small part of which they were to receive to live off. Any children who were born in Siberia were to be registered as state-owned serfs. The government was not to be held responsible if the criminals, inveterate sinners, violated defenseless women or committed murder, and so on and so forth, every next point worse than the previous one. Nine wives and two betrothed who had decided to marry their beloved in prison, agreed in writing to these harsh conditions.

Born in 1800 in the family of Count Laval, the young countess made up for her lack of beauty by being a gifted conversationalist with an intelligent and lively wit. Prince Trubetskoy, a 26-years-old colonel and hero of the 1812 Patriotic War, made her acquaintance at a ball in Paris where she was staying with her family. The 16-years-old girl captivated the prince. They were engaged and married shortly afterwards. Trubetskaya's sister recalled later: What more did a young family need for happiness when they had already mutual love, youth, wealth and, I make bold to say, universal respect, and all the joys of life!.

Various disasters befell her on the way to Siberia: she was pursued by bandits in the taiga, her carriage broke down on the ice of the River Yenisey. Irkutsk officials did much to prevent this brave woman from going any further. They detained her about nine months forcing her to sign the renunciation paper mentioned earlier, then they told her that her husband was already on the other side of Lake Baikal when he was in fact very close-by as the Decembrists hadn't yet been sent to work in the mines. Day after day Countess Trubetskaya suffered all these indignities but nothing could stop her and at last she got the permission to leave for Blagodatsk where a part of the Decembrists was imprisoned. Together with another Decembrist's wife, Maria Volkonskaya, who had caught her up on the way, she rented a tiny box-like house with minute rooms. The rooms were so cold that hoarfrost used to form on the walls at night and girls' hair froze to the bed. The women did everything to alleviate the convicts' lot: they wrote letters on their husbands' behalf, cooked them simple meals after mastering the household chores they had never known before and gave their last crust of bread to them. Two betrothed, Pauline Gueble (1800-76) and Camille Le Dantu (1803-39), followed their loved ones to Siberia and were at last granted the right to marry.

Trubetskoy's family (they had 3 daughters and a son born in Siberia) got sum of money from relatives and built a house in Oyok, a small village which was 38km away from Irkutsk. Sergey Trubetskoy was deported there. They rented a house in Irkutsk 10 years later, in 1845, when Sergey Trubetskoy was allowed to move to Irkutsk. Trubetskoy's houses were open to everyone everywhere. The warm atmosphere was due mostly to Yekaterina Trubetskaya with whom everyone felt at ease. They began to build a wooden mansion in Irkutsk. It should be in the style of the 18th century with a suite of rooms embellished with carved wooden friezes. Yekaterina Trubetskaya was very happy about this building but she never actually lived there. She passed away on October 14, 1854.

One of the insurgents of 1825 said thus of the feat of the Decembrists' wives:

Pride and joy of your fair sex! Pride of the country which produced you! Pride of the husbands who were honoured with the boundless love and devotion of such wonderful, ideal wives! You are truly an example of self-effacement, courage, steadfastness, notwithstanding your youth and the delicacy and frailty of your sex. May your names live on forever!

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