Exile’s End: The Decembrist House Museum in Irkutsk
Irkutsk is a pleasant, tree-lined Siberian city of near 600,000 on the banks of the Angara River. Before the Trans-Siberian Railroad arrived, czarist political exiles and prisoners who had served their terms in the labor camps settled here, denied permission to return to their homes in Western Russia.
Some of these were Decembrists, young officers who had become advocates of political reform. The House Museum of the Decembrists belonged to one of these officers and his wife.
Volkonsky Manor House
The painted two-story wooden manor house on Volkonsky Lane was not the grandest house in 1840s Irkutsk, but as a center of social life, it was one of the most important.
And its comforts represented the pinnacle of achievement for its mistress, Princess Maria Volkonsky, who had begun her 28-year Siberian sojourn in a hut near the mines of Nerchinsk in order to be close to her husband, Decembrist exile Prince Sergei Volkonsky.
Ill-fated Decembrist Uprising
Volkonsky was one of the principle actors in the failed 1825 Decembrist uprising, when a hundred or so aristocratic officers and their followers refused to pledge their allegiance to the new czar. Poorly led (the leader, Prince Trubetskoi, didn’t even show up on the morning of the uprising) and ill-advised, the rebellion didn’t spread to other Petersburg military units, as was hoped.
Within the day, it was all over for the aristocratic instigators and the 3,000 men who had followed them. And within the year, Volkonsky and Trubetskoi, along with 120 other noblemen, were on their way to the mines of Siberia.
Famously, some of their wives, including Maria Volkonsky and Ekaterina Trubetskoi, elected to follow them into Siberia, renouncing their lives of luxury in an act of self-sacrifice that made the term “Decembrist wife” the symbol of idealized Russian womanhood.
Irkutsk at that time was far from a wilderness; a booming trade town, with rich merchants’ mansions, churches and secondary schools, it was one of the biggest settlements in Siberia. But the Decembrist wives didn’t get to live in Irkutsk until some 15 years later.
In the meantime, they moved from their first chilly hut into the small town of Chita, where they were able to lobby for better treatment for their husbands and settle into the rhythm of Siberian life. Maria Volkonsky reportedly learned to speak Buryat, the language of the indigenous people, and played the pyramid piano she brought from St. Petersburg.
Decembrists in Irkutsk
When the Volkonskys were finally allowed to move to Irkutsk, Maria made up for lost time, improving an orphanage, founding a theater, getting involved at the local hospital, and raising lemons on her sunporch. Their drawing room, preserved with its crimson wallpaper, 19th century décor and grand piano, was at the center of a salon attended by former Decembrists and other educated people in the region.
Today, travelers can tour the comfortable home with its double-paned windows and furnishings sent by wagon and sledge from Moscow 60 years before the Trans-Siberian Railway came through. Talented singers and musicians from Irkutsk often perform for guests in the elegant Volkonsky drawing room, giving them a glimpse of what life eventually became for these exiled Petersburg princes and princesses.
Travel To Irkutsk with MIR
MIR has more than 30 years of unmatched travel expertise to Russia, with on-the-ground support through its Siberian affiliate offices in Irkutsk and Ulan Ude. Its full service, dedication, and unwavering commitment to quality has twice earned MIR a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.“
Some MIR tours that stop in Irkutsk include:
- Siberian Odyssey: Legends of Lake Baikal & Tuva
- Mongolia to Moscow: A Trans-Siberian Railway Adventure
- Siberia & Mongolia: Spirits & Nomads
- The Trans-Siberian Express Between Moscow & Beijing (Eastbound / Westbound)
- The Trans-Siberian Classic Route (Eastbound / Westbound)
- The Trans-Siberian Mongolian Route with Naadam Festival (Eastbound / Westbound)
- Trans-Siberian Winter Wonderland Route (Eastbound / Westbound)
Contact a MIR destination expert today to explore how you can discover the delights of Irkutsk, Siberia, Russia and beyond.
(Top photo credit: Helge Pedersen – The Decembrist Museum in Irkutsk was Maria and Sergei Volkonsky’s 19th century home)
PUBLISHED: December 3, 2014