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Volkonskaya, Maria (1805–1863)

Volkonskaya, Maria (1805–1863)

Russian aristocrat who joined her husband in Siberian exile and became known as the Princess of Siberia for her leadership and charitable work among the exiled families. Name variations: Maria Raveskaya, Princess of Siberia; Maria Volkonsky. Pronunciation: Vole-kun-SKY-ya. Born Maria Raveskaya on December 25, 1805, on her family's estate in the Ukraine; died on August 10, 1863, in St. Petersburg, after a long illness; daughter of Nikolai Nikolaevich Ravesky (a military officer in the campaign against Napoleon) and Sophia Konstantinova Raveskaya (a descendant of the celebrated 18th-century poet and scientist M.V. Lomonosov); education typical of the Russian aristocracy; married Prince Sergei Volkonsky, on January 12, 1825; children: Nicholas (b. January 2, 1826, died young); son Misha and daughter Elena.

Became friends during adolescence with celebrated poet Alexander Pushkin; married Prince Sergei Volkonsky (1825); Volkonsky implicated in revolt against the tsar (December 14, 1825); followed Volkonsky into exile, leaving son behind (1827); husband's imprisonment ended after ten years but exile continued, in a large house staffed with servants, in Irkurtsk; returned from exile to St. Petersburg, where Decembrists were fêted for their courage and liberal ideals (1856).

A horse-drawn sledge raced across the white Siberian landscape, a tiny speck on a barren snowfilled plain. The young woman inside, in her early 20s, was leaving behind the glittering palaces and comfort of family and friends she had always known. Now thousands of miles from home and her infant son, she raced toward prison and exile. She had committed no crime. Everyone, including Tsar Nicholas I, had implored her not to go. But the young Princess Maria Volkonskaya was determined to be with her husband, and for that she would become known as the Princess of Siberia, the savior of the Decembrists.

Born on December 25, 1805, Maria Raveskaya was the third daughter and fifth child of Nikolia Nikolaevich Ravesky, a military officer soon to become a well-known hero in the campaign against Napoleon's attempt to conquer Russia. Maria's mother Sophia Konstantinova Raveskaya was a descendant of the celebrated 18th-century poet and scientist M.V. Lomonosov, and lavished most of her attention on her two sons. Maria was quite different from her sisters and brothers. She was a musical child, with dark eyes and hair, a great spirit, and an almost exotic air. She was her father's favorite, and returned the adoration of the tall, commanding general.

Like most members of the Russian upper classes, Maria grew up speaking French and learning English and German. She knew far less Russian, which was considered the language of servants. Her family spent their summers at Boltshka, the family estate in the Ukraine, and passed their winters in the sun-drenched Crimea, enjoying its lush fruits and soft breezes. Maria enjoyed the seasonal rounds of dancing, horseback riding, shooting parties, and picking wild mushrooms. When she was 14, the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was a guest of her family, while temporarily exiled to the countryside for his liberal thinking. Pushkin wrote several poems to the young girl, and they maintained a lifelong friendship.

Maria grew up accepting the pattern of Russian society without question. In her eyes, it was natural that most people were serfs tied to the land while a few ruled over them. Some members of the nobility believed this feudal social order was destructive, and that Russia was a backward and oppressive country, badly in need of reform. The relatively recent American and French revolutions led some of the nobility to dream of a freer, more inclusive society which granted all its members liberty and equality. One of these was Prince Sergei Volkonsky, a wellread and sophisticated young noble, who belonged to an ancient and noble family (his mother was first lady of the bedchamber to the dowager empress, Sophia Dorothea of Wurttemberg ). An officer in the army, he had traveled widely in Europe, made friends in England and France, and witnessed the more open behavior of people in Western Europe compared to autocratic Russia. Acquainted with the writings of French philosophers and American revolutionaries who advocated a more liberal form of government, Volkonsky idealized the United States and hoped he would someday have the opportunity to visit the new country.

My parents were convinced that they had assured me the most brilliant future, but I felt strangely uneasy, as if through my wedding veil I had been able to discern the dark fate that awaited us.

—Maria Volkonskaya

When Maria met Prince Volkonsky, she was still in her teens. A graceful girl with enormous dark eyes, she was visiting his sister-in-law, Princess Zenaida Volkonskaya , in Odessa. When the two married, on January 12, 1825, in Kiev, the groom was 35 and the bride had just turned 20. The Volkonskys moved in elevated social circles, and Prince Volkonsky was considered a great catch.

Maria went to live at the family palace of her husband in St. Petersburg, a cold, dark place for someone accustomed to spending the winter in the warmth of the Crimean sun. In their first year of marriage, military duties kept Sergei from her for all but three months. When she saw him, he often seemed preoccupied. A day never passed, however, that she did not receive a note, a present, or some piece of jewelry from him.

When Maria became pregnant, she returned to her parents' home in Odessa to flourish in the warmth of her family circle. On a night early in December 1825, her husband arrived unexpectedly and began to burn some of his papers. Then a terrible argument erupted between her father and her husband. The general accused the prince of "sheer stupidity and selfishness" and of ruining the future of his daughter and grandchild. The following morning, Sergei left.

The general had come to realize that his son-in-law was in mortal danger. In fact, since before his marriage, Volkonsky had been involved in a plot to overthrow the tsar. Liberal ideas widely discussed in the army had led him to join a group led by Pavel Ivanovich Pestel and Nikita Muraviev, who were conspiring to replace Russia's system of serfdom and autocracy with more open institutions. On November 27, 1825, Tsar Alexander I had unexpectedly died, and for almost three weeks the country remained in a state of suspension, not knowing whether the ruler would be succeeded by his brother Constantine or by Nicholas, his son. Constantine had no wish for the throne, hoping to avoid the fate of his own father, who had been assassinated, and by December 12 it was clear that Nicholas would be tsar. The conspirators, thinking the new tsar was weak, chose this time to strike, wanting to rescue their leader Pestel, who had already been arrested for conspiracy, and also expecting all of Russia to answer their call for revolution by rising up and demanding reform.

Unfortunately, on December 14, 1825, only a few thousand joined the cause of the revolutionaries. Nicholas, furious at the treachery among men he had known as friends, called on loyal troops. Many in the opposition were massacred, and the remaining leaders of the uprising were rounded up and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress. In a towering rage, Nicholas interviewed every member of the nobility who had betrayed him and personally decided their fate. Five ringleaders, including Pestel, were executed by hanging. Volkonsky and others were ordered into exile in Siberia.

On January 2, 1826, while Volkonsky was being held in Peter and Paul Fortress, Maria Volkonskaya gave birth to a son named Nicholas, after a long labor without the aid of a midwife. Childbed fever kept her in bed for two months, but she finally recovered and managed with great difficulty to visit her husband in prison. Shortly afterward, Volkonsky departed with other prisoners for Siberia.

Few in the nobility, including the prince's own mother, showed the slightest remorse about the fate of the revolutionaries, known by then as the Decembrists. Maria's father, grief stricken over having arranged this disastrous marriage for his favorite child, made his position clear: she was not yet 21, it would be relatively easy for her to obtain an annulment and begin her life anew; she should forget Volkonsky.

Maria instead began to petition the tsar for permission to join her husband in exile. When the embittered Nicholas finally acquiesced, he made his conditions harsh. Maria must leave her son behind with the Volkonskys; even if her husband should die in exile, she could never return to European Russia; all future children born to their marriage would be serfs, not nobles. She could own no valuables and hire no domestics. The Princess Maria Volkonskaya would henceforth have the status of the wife of a state criminal.

Thus began the sledge-drawn journey to Nerchinsk, where Maria arrived with her maid Masha, who followed her into exile, and with provisions that even included a piano. Prepared as she was for the intense cold of Siberia, she soon found her new way of life a great shock, as she witnessed for the first time how most Russians lived, and the harshness of the rule of the tsar toward the common people.

At Nerchinsk, she met Princess Katherine Trubetskaya , the first wife among the Decembrist exiles to have departed for Siberia, only a week behind the prisoner convoy that had left in July 1826. On her initial visit to the prison, Maria found her husband looking thin and pale, in rags and leg irons. All the men suffered from being forced to do hard labor every day in the freezing mines. Soon Maria managed to sneak into the mines, bringing the Decembrists letters from home and their first glimmer of hope.

More wives of the banished men, drawn from various ranks of society, eventually joined their husbands. Princess Trubetskaya was a plain woman who gave the appearance of being from earthy peasant stock, but her charm had made her a beloved figure in Russian upper-class society. She was a member of the Laval family, known for great social entertaining and the outstanding art collection in the family palace (which today houses the central archives of the former Soviet Union). The princess had met Sergei Petrovich Trubetskoy in Paris and much of her existence revolved around her husband. Countess Alexandrina Grigorevna Muravieva left two sons and a daughter to join her husband in exile, and fared poorly under the harsh conditions. She lost a premature infant, and then her husband became ill. She died in 1832, followed by her husband in 1835. She was buried in the tiny cemetery adjacent to the local church, where her crypt was well tended and a flame was kept lit. Years later, survivors who returned found the flame still burning.

Two of the Decembrists' wives were French. In the years following the French Revolution in 1789, a number of French royalists and members of the nobility had made their way to Russia and taken jobs as governesses, seamstresses, or other service positions among the Russian upper classes. Pauline Geueble Annenkova was from Nancy, and was representing a French fashion firm in Russia when she met Ivan A. Annenkov, a wealthy young lieutenant. She was musically gifted, a talented seamstress and cook, and in love with the Russian lieutenant at the time of his arrest. A few months later, she gave birth to his daughter, and joined her lover in Siberia in March 1828. Though they were allowed to marry, Annenkova's lack of social standing increased the hardships of her exile. Eventually she was recognized as a valued member of the colony. Camilla Petrovna Ledantu was one of three daughters of a governess who had married a prominent landlord, V. Gigorovich. Camilla fell in love with Vasili Petrovich Ivashev, a young man of noble birth who had been groomed for a military career, but her lower social status would have prevented their marriage under ordinary conditions. After Pauline Geueble was permitted to marry Ivan Annenkov, Camilla petitioned Tsar Nicholas I for permission to marry Ivashev, who was not even aware of the depth of her affection at the time. The permission was granted, and the couple was married in 1831; their first child died. In 1839, Camilla died when she was eight months pregnant and in serious need of medical attention.

Mme E.P. Naryshkina , Mme Yental'tseva, Anna Rozan , and Sashenka Davydova were other women in the Decembrists' circle, as well as Masha, the maid of Volkonskaya. At times, the women shared a common household, and Volkonskaya gradually emerged as their leader. She wrote constantly to relatives and friends demanding funds and needed items, such as warm clothes, sometimes sending 30 letters a day. Over 100 men were imprisoned and some had less than others. Maria took charge of the received funds, which were pooled so that every prisoner had the right to a portion of the money for extra food, tobacco, clothes, and other necessities. Over time, the colony thus grew, ironically, into a community of people living the ideals for which they had sacrificed their freedom. At the same time, Volkonskaya never forgot her aristocratic upbringing, and along with her female companions always dressed in her finest. To most Siberians, these wives of state criminals looked like ladies of the court.

In 1830, the small colony moved from a prison at Chita to another specially constructed facility at Petrovsky zavod, a suburb of Nerchinsk. Although the conditions left much to be desired, the Decembrists and their wives were fortunate in their commandant at the new site. General Stanislav Romanovich Lepardsky was fair minded and believed in treating those in his charge decently. With the help of Volkonskaya's organizational efforts, life for the prisoners and their families was gradually transformed. Warmer clothes and better food became available; books, newspapers, rugs, and other signs of civilization began to reach the prison, and the men were even allowed to spend time outside the prison walls. Summer gardens were planted, discussion groups were allowed to meet, and performances of string quartets were organized. At Petrovsky zavod, the women were allowed to occupy a string of huts which they called Ladies Street (Damskaya ulitsa), a name which endures to this day, where the men could spend time with their wives and growing families. Eventually, the community had more than 20 children, and with their advent came schooling. Prisoners or their wives commonly spent several hours a day tutoring the children, and because the Decembrists were generally highly educated men, the children became knowledgeable on a variety of topics and often spoke flawless French. Often there were gatherings at tea time, holiday celebrations, or walks when the weather was fine.

In Siberia, Volkonskaya received news of the death of her first son, and she lost another infant in exile. In 1832, she gave birth to another son Misha, who eventually had a sister Elena Volkonskaya . The Volkonskys' marriage was not without difficulties, however. Sergei adjusted to Siberia less well than did Volkonskaya, who found freedom in the life far from St. Petersburg, learned to enjoy the country, and became adept at the language of the local Buritan tribe. For awhile, she fell in love with a close friend of her husband, Alessandro Poggio, but the three managed to maintain a lifelong devotion to each other without destroying the marriage.

After ten years of imprisonment, the men were released and allowed to live in Siberian towns. The breakup of the small colony severed important relationships and required new adjustments. In the fall of 1844, Maria bought a large house in Irkurtsk which she staffed with 25 servants, and took up her habit of good works in the town, improving the orphanage and the local hospital. In Irkurtsk, she became known as the Princess of Siberia, and the governor and townspeople felt honored, by this time, to associate with the Volkonskys.

After the death of Tsar Nicholas I in February 1855, his son came to power as Alexander II. Over three decades, the story of the men who had risked everything for liberty and the women who had joined them in exile had become a powerful example to younger Russians, and even the new tsar was an admirer of the Decembrists. He issued a pardon allowing their return to European Russia in 1856. After 28 years, Trubetskaya and others were dead, and some of the Decembrists who remained now thought of Siberia as home. But the Volkonskys returned to Moscow and St. Petersburg, where they were widely fêted as heroes. Sergei, now a distinguished silver-haired gentleman, doted on his wife and blossomed in the drawing-room society he had enjoyed in his youth. Maria felt the loss of her parents, long dead, but was able to see her son and daughter returned to their place in society and was able to make successful marriages for them. The Volkonskys enjoyed several happy years together before her death on August 10, 1863. After that, Sergei went into decline. He retired to Voronky to "place my life beside her, who saved it for me," and died in 1865.


Crankshaw, Edward. The Shadow of the Winter Palace. Russia's Drift to Revolution 1825–1917. NY: Viking, 1976.

Mazour, Anatole G. The First Russian Revolution, 1825: The Decembrist Movement, Its Origins, Development and Significance. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1937.

——. Women in Exile: Wives of the Decembrists. Tallahassee, FL: The Diplomatic Press, 1975.

Raeff, Marc. The Decembrist Movement. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966.

Sutherland, Christine. The Princess of Siberia: The Story of Maria Volkonsky and the Decembrist Exiles. NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984.

Venturi, Franco. Roots of Revolution. A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia. NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1960.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia

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