3 January 1907. We have been in the transit prison for the last two or three hours. I confess I parted from my cell in the “House of Preliminary Arrest” with nervous apprehension. I had become so used to that little ship’s cabin where I had every opportunity for working! We knew that in the transit prison we were to be placed in a common cell – what can be more tiring? And after that would come the dirt, mess, and muddle of the journey into exile, which I know so well. Who knows how long it will be before we arrive at our destination? And who can tell when we shall return? Would it not have been better to stay in Cell No.462, reading, writing, waiting? As you know, to move from one apartment to another is for me an act of moral courage. And a move from one prison to another is a hundred times worse. A new prison administration, new difficulties, new efforts to establish relations that aren’t too intolerable. Ahead of us is a continually changing series of persons in authority, starting with the transit prison governor here in Petersburg and ending with the local policeman in the Siberian village that will be our place of exile. I have made this trip before and I anticipate its repetition without much relish.
We were taken here today quite suddenly, without warning. In the reception hall they made us change into prisoners’ clothes. We did this with the curiosity of schoolboys. It was odd to see each other in those gray trousers, gray cloth jackets, and gray caps. However, the classic “ace of diamonds” on the back of the jacket is missing. We have been allowed to keep our own underclothes and shoes. Then, a large, excited crowd in our new get-up, we burst into our cell ...
Despite the unfavorable rumors concerning the transit prison, the attitude of the administration seems quite decent, in certain respects actually considerate. There is reason to believe that special instructions have been issued: we are to be closely watched, but clashes are to be avoided.
The actual date of departure is still shrouded in the greatest mystery; obviously they are afraid of demonstrations and attempts to free us en route. They are afraid, and so they are taking the necessary measures; yet under the present conditions any such attempt would be senseless.
10 January. I am writing in the train ... Therefore please excuse the bad handwriting. It is 9:00 a.m.
We were awakened by the chief warder in the middle of the night, at half past three (most of us had only just gone to bed, so absorbed had we been in playing chess), and told that we would be leaving at 6:00 a.m. We had waited so long for this moment that the hour of departure struck us as ... unexpected.
Afterwards everything happened as usual. We packed our belongings hurriedly and unsystematically. Then we went down to the reception hail, where the women and children joined us. Then we were handed over to our escort, and our bags were quickly searched. A sleepy warder handed our money to an officer. Then we were placed in prison horse-carriages and taken to Nikolayevsky Station under reinforced convoy. We did not yet know where we were going. It’s interesting to note that our escort was brought over specially from Moscow today: evidently they couldn’t trust the Petersburg troops. The officer was very amiable throughout the proceedings, but claimed complete ignorance in response to all our questions, saying that the person in charge was a gendarmerie colonel who would issue all instructions, while he, the officer, was under orders to take us to the station and that was all. It’s possible, of course, that the government is carrying caution to such a point, but on the other hand it’s quite possible that this was simple diplomacy on the officer’s part.
We have been traveling for about an hour and we still don’t know whether the train is going to Moscow or Vologda. The soldiers don’t know either – and so far as they are concerned that really is the truth.
We are traveling in a separate third-class coach, quite comfortable, with a sleeping bunk for everyone. Another coach is provided for our luggage, and the soldiers of the escort tell us that it also carries the ten gendarmes and their colonel who are accompanying us.
We have settled down and feel that we don’t much care by what route we’re going to travel: they’ll get us there, one way or the other ...
It appears that we are going via Vologda: one of us says he can tell by the names of the stations. That means we’ll arrive at Tyumen in four days’ time.
Everyone is very animated; traveling is a source of distraction and excitement after thirteen months in jail. True, the windows are barred, but directly beyond the bars is freedom, life, movement ... How soon shall we be traveling back along these rails? Farewell, my dear friend.
11 January. If the escorting officer is considerate and courteous, the soldiers are much more so still: nearly all of them have read reports of our trial and are extremely sympathetic towards us. An interesting detail: until the very last moment the soldiers did not know whom they were escorting and where. The precautions with which they were suddenly taken from Moscow to Petersburg made them think that they would have to deliver us to Schlisselburg for execution. In the reception hall of the transit prison I noticed that they seemed very restless and somehow unusually obliging, with a touch of guilt. It wasn’t until we were in the train that I found out the reason ... How overjoyed they were to discover that we were “workers’ deputies” condemned only to exile!
The gendarmes of the super-escort never show up in our coach. They are responsible for exterior guard duties – surrounding the coach at stations, mounting guard outside the carriage door, but most of all watching the soldiers of the escort. At least, that’s what the soldiers themselves think.
Instructions to provide us with food and water for washing and drinking are sent ahead by telegraph. So far as that’s concerned we are traveling in perfect comfort. It’s not for nothing that the buffet manager in one of the stations we passed formed such a high opinion of us that he got the escort to ask whether we wanted thirty oysters! We had a good laugh over that, but turned down the oysters all the same.
12 January. We are leaving you further and further behind all the time.
From the first day we broke up into several “family” groups, and since the coach is crowded, each group has to live separately from the others. Only our doctor (Feit, a socialist revolutionary) doesn’t belong to any group. With his sleeves rolled up, active and indefatigable, he seems to be in command of this all.
As you know, there are four children traveling with us in this coach. But their behavior is ideal, so much so that one forgets that they exist. The tenderest friendship unites them to the soldiers of the escort. The raw-boned soldiers treat them with the utmost delicacy ...
... How “they” do guard us! At every station the coach is surrounded by gendarmes, and at the larger ones by policemen as well. In addition to their rifles, the gendarmes carry revolvers with which they threaten anyone who, accidentally or out of curiosity, approaches the coach. Such protection is reserved these days, for two categories of persons: especially important “criminals” and especially well-known ministers.
Their tactics in our respect have been carefully worked out. We realized this back in the transit prison. On the one hand the most watchful vigilance, on the other hand, gentlemanly treatment within the limits of the law. This reflects Stolypin’s constitutional genius. But, beyond any doubt, this cunning system will break down. The only question is, which of the two will break down first – vigilance or gentlemanly behavior?
We have arrived in Vyatka. The train is standing still. What a reception we got from the Vyatka bureaucracy! I wish you could have seen it all. Half a company of soldiers lined up on either side of the carriage, a second row of local police with rifles slung behind their backs. Officers, police inspectors, sergeants, etc. Directly by the coach, as always, the gendarmes. In short, a whole military demonstration. It seems that Prince Gorchakov the local pompadour, has added his own special touch to the instructions from Petersburg. Some of our crowd say they’re offended because there isn’t any artillery. Truly it’s hard to imagine anything more ridiculous or more cowardly. It’s a real caricature of “strong” power. We have reason to feel proud: evidently even a “dead” Soviet still scares them.
Cowardice and stupidity – how frequently they become the obverse of vigilance and gentlemanliness! To prevent anyone knowing which way we are traveling which is anyway impossible – we are sure this is the reason, there can’t be any other – we are not allowed to write letters en route. Such are the orders from the invisible colonel, based on “instructions” from Petersburg. But we started writing letters on the very first day in the hope of finding a way of posting them. And we were not mistaken. The “instructions” fail to take account of the fact that the authorities have no faithful servants, whereas we are surrounded by friends on every side.
16 January. I am writing under the following conditions: we are halted in a village twenty versts from Tyumen. Night. A peasant’s hut. A low-ceilinged, dirty room. The entire floor, without any free space whatever, is covered with the bodies of members of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.
No one is asleep yet, there is talk and laughter ... Three of us drew lots for a wide bench (something like a divan), and I won. I’m always lucky in life. We stopped in Tyumen for three days. We were met (as we are used to being, by now) by a vast number of soldiers, mounted and on foot. Those on horseback (“chasseurs”) made their horses rear up to frighten away the street urchins. From the station to the prison we had to walk.
Our treatment continues to be extremely considerate, almost excessively so, but at the same time the precautionary measures are getting stricter all the time, almost to the point of superstition.
For example, we were offered by telephone a choice of goods from all the local shops, and at the same time not allowed to exercise in the prison yard. The former is an exceptional privilege, the latter a breach of the law. From Tynmen we continued in horse-drawn sleighs, the 14 of us prisoners being accompanied by 52 (fifty-two) escort soldiers, not counting their captain and a police inspector and a sergeant. This is something unheard-of. Everyone is amazed, including the soldiers, the captain, the inspector, and the sergeant. But such are the “instructions.” We are now heading for Tobolsk and advancing extremely slowly. Today, for instance, we covered only twenty versts, arriving here at 1:00 p.m. Why not go on? Impossible. Why not? Instructions! To avoid escapes they do not want us to travel at night, which makes a small amount of sense. But the folks in Petersburg have so little confidence in the initiative of the local authorities that they have laid down in advance the number of versts to be covered each day. What efficiency on the part of the Department of Police! So now we travel for three or four hours a day and halt for twenty hours. At this rate we’ll reach Tobolsk (250 versts) in about ten days, arriving probably on January 25 or 26. How long we shall stop there and where we shall go thereafter is unknown, or rather, we aren’t told.
The convoy consists of about forty sleighs. The front ones are used for carrying the luggage. Then it’s us, the “deputies,” in pairs. Each sleigh is drawn by one horse. Behind us is a line of sleighs carrying only soldiers. The officer and the police inspector are traveling in front of the convoy in a covered sleigh. We proceed at walking pace. For several versts from Tyumen we were escorted by twenty or thirty mounted “chasseurs.” In short, taking account of the fact that these unheard-of and never previously seen precautions are the result of orders from Petersburg, one is bound to conclude that they are determined to deliver us to the most remote place possible at any price. After all, this voyage with a royal escort can’t simply be the result of some pen-pusher’s whim ... This may mean that serious difficulties lie ahead ...
Now everyone is asleep. In the kitchen next door – the door is ajar – soldiers are on guard. Sentries are walking up and down outside the windows. This night is glorious, moonlit, snowy, sky-blue. What a strange scene – these bodies scattered on the floor in deep sleep, these soldiers at the doors and windows. But since I am going through all this for the second time, my impressions aren’t any longer quite fresh ... and just as Kresty prison seemed to me a replica of Odessa prison, which is built on the same model, so this voyage seems no more than a continuation, temporarily interrupted, of that first journey under escort to Irkutsk province.
In the prison at Tyumen, there were many political prisoners, especially “administrative” exiles. During exercise they collected outside our window, sang songs and even produced a red banner with the inscription “Long Live the Revolution!” The choir wasn’t at all bad; obviously they’ve been kept together for a long time and have had plenty of opportunity for practice ... The scene was quite impressive and, if you like, moving in its own way. We replied with a few words of greeting through a tiny ventilation window. In the same prison, the criminal prisoners handed us a very long petition in prose and verse, begging us, “distinguished revolutionaries from Petersburg,” to help them in some way. We thought we might give a little cash to the most needy ones among the politicals, some of whom lack underclothing and warm clothes, but the prison administration refused categorically. The “instructions” prohibit any contact whatsoever between the “deputies” and other politicals. Even contact through impersonal bank notes? Yes. What forethought! We were not allowed to send telegrams from Tyumen because no one must know where we are and when. What foolishness! As if the military demonstrations all along the route didn’t make it perfectly clear to every passer-by which way we’re traveling!
18 January. Pokrovkoye. I am writing from our third halt. We are traveling at a rate of no more than six versts an hour and no more than four or five hours a day. Luckily the frost is not very severe – 20, 25, or 30 degrees below zero (Réaumur). Three weeks ago the temperature went down to 52 degrees below zero. Imagine traveling with young children under such conditions!
There’s another week left till Tobolsk. No newspapers, no letters, no news of any kind. We write without any certainty that our letters will arrive at their destination: we are still forbidden to post letters en route, and so we are obliged to avail ourselves of chance opportunities which are not always very reliable. But really all this is unimportant. We are all warmly dressed and we enjoy breathing the wonderful frosty air after the stinking atmosphere of solitary cells. Say what you like, the human organism wasn’t intended for the conditions of solitary confinement.
Heine wrote in his Paris Letters in 1843:
In this sociable country, solitary confinement – the Pennsylvanian method – would constitute an unheard-of cruelty, and the French people are too magnanimous to agree to purchase their public safety at such a price. As a consequence I am convinced that even if the Chambers were to give their consent, the dreadful, inhuman, yes, unnatural system of solitary confinement would not be put into effect, and that the many millions spent on building the necessary premises are, God be thanked, so much money down the drain. The people will smash these castles of the new bourgeois knights with the same indignation as it once smashed the nobility’s Bastille. However grim and frightening the aspect of the latter, it was a bright kiosk, a gay pavilion compared with these small, silent American caves which could only have been invented by a dull-minded pietist and approved only by a heartless shopkeeper trembling for his property.
All that is very true and very fine. But still, I prefer being in solitary.
Everything in Siberia has remained the same as it was five or six years ago, and yet everything has changed: not only Siberian soldiers (and to what an extent!) but also Siberian peasants, or “cheldony.” Everybody talks politics, everybody wants to know when “this” will end. A boy sleigh-driver, about thirteen years old (he swears he’s fifteen), sings at the top of his voice: “Arise, arise you working people! Enter the struggle, starving folk!” The soldiers, obviously well-disposed towards the singer, tease him by threatening to report him to the officer. But the lad knows very well that everyone is on his side, and that he can invite the working people to “arise” with perfect impunity ...
Our first halt from which I wrote to you was in a wretched peasant hut. The other two have been in government buildings, no less filthy but more comfortable. There are separate premises for men and women, there are kitchens. We sleep in tiered plank-beds. Our standard of cleanliness is, of necessity, extremely relative. That, I suppose, is the most disagreeable feature of the voyage.
Peasant women and men come here, to these government transit buildings, bringing us milk, curds, suckling-pigs, griddle-cakes (“shangy”) and other food. They are allowed in, which is actually against the law. The “instructions” prohibit any form of contact with the outside world. But it would be difficult for the escort to organize our food supply in any other way.
Order among us is maintained by sovereign headman, F., whom everyone – we prisoners, the officer, the soldiers, the police, the food-selling peasant women – call simply “Doctor.” He seems to have inexhaustible reserves of energy, packing, buying, cooking, feeding, teaching to sing, etc., etc. The others take turns in helping him, and all of them resemble one another in that they do practically nothing… At this moment supper is being cooked, which means a lot of animation and noise. “The doctor wants a knife ...“
“The doctor needs some butter ...”
“Look, friend, would you mind taking out the slops?” ... The doctor’s voice: “Oh, you don’t eat fish? I’ll fry you a rissole, it’s no odds to me ...” After supper, tea is served to the tiered beds. Our ladies are responsible for tea duties: it is so ordained by Doctor Feit.
23 January. I am writing from the last halt but one before Tobolsk. The transit house here is excellent, newly built, spacious and clean. After the filth of the other stopping-places this does good to body and soul. There are sixty more versts to go before Tobolsk. If you knew how, in these last days, we have been longing for a “real” prison where we shall be able at last to have a proper wash and rest! Here there is only one political exile, formerly the licensee of a liquor shop in Odessa sentenced for carrying on propaganda among soldiers. He came to bring us food and told us about living conditions in Tobolsk province. Most of the exiles are living in villages 100 to 150 versts from Tobolsk itself; however, there are a few exiles in Berezov district as well. Life there is incomparably harder and the poverty greater. Escapes are very frequent from everywhere. Escaped prisoners are mostly caught in Tyumen (the nearest railway station) and along the railway generally. But the proportion of those caught is small.
Yesterday we happened to read in an old Tyumen newspaper about two telegrams addressed to S. and myself at the transit prison in Tyumen and never delivered. These telegrams must have arrived just while we were there, but the prison authorities refused to accept them, again for those strange conspiratorial reasons which neither we nor they can grasp. We are being guarded very closely all along the way. The captain has quite worn out his men with excessively long hours of sentry duty, not only outside the building where we are locked up but everywhere in the village. Yet it has already become noticeable how, as we travel further north, the “regime” is gradually thawing: little by little we are being allowed to visit local shops under escort, we walk about the village in small groups, sometimes we can visit the local exiles. The soldiers help us as best they can; they feel united to us by our common opposition to the captain. The N.C.O., who represents the connecting link between the officer and the men, is in the most difficult position.
“You know, gentlemen,” he once told us in front of the soldiers, “today’s N.C.O. isn’t what he was in the old days.”
“There are some who’d like to be just what they were in the old days,” a soldier riposted, “but we twist their tails for them and then they think better of it.”
Everyone burst out laughing. The N.C.O. laughed too, but not very happily.
26 January. Tobolsk prison. Two halts before Tobolsk we were met by a deputy police inspector, on the one hand to ensure greater safety and, on the other, to emphasize the courtesy with which we are being treated. The guard was reinforced. We were no longer allowed out shopping. Yet the families among us were placed in covered sleighs. Vigilance and gentlemanliness! About ten versts from the town, two exiles came to meet us. As soon as the officer saw them he immediately “took measures”: he rode past our entire convoy and ordered the soldiers to dismount (until then they had been riding in the sleighs). And that is how we proceeded for the remaining ten versts. The soldiers, cursing the officer for all they were worth, walked on foot on either side of the road with their rifles on their shoulders.
But here I must interrupt my description: the doctor, who has just been called to the office, tells us that we are all being sent to the village of Obdorskoye; we are to travel forty or fifty versts a day under military ecort. To Obdorskoye it is more than 1,200 versts by snow road. That means that under the best imaginable conditions, if horses are available at every changing stage and no time is lost through illness, we shall be on the road more than a month. Once arrived, we shall receive a subsidy of 1 rouble 80 kopecks a month.
Traveling for a whole month with young children is particularly difficult just now. They say that between Berezov and Obdorsk reindeer will have to be used. This was especially alarming news for those of us who are traveling with their families. The local administration swears that the ridiculous schedule of forty versts a day instead of 100 [?] has been prescribed by Petersburg, like all other details of our voyage. The wise men in their offices have thought of everything to prevent us escaping; and, to do them justice, nine out of ten measures prescribed by them are devoid of any meaning whatsoever. The wives who are following their husbands into exile voluntarily asked to be let out of prison during the three days we are stopping here in Tobolsk. The governor refused point-blank, which is not only senseless but also completely illegal. Local public opinion is a little disturbed, and a protest is being written. But what is the use of protesting when the answer is the same in every case: sorry, instructions from Petersburg.
Thus the most sinister newspaper rumors have proved justified: our place of exile is the northernmost point of the province. It is curious to note that the “equality” which found expression in the verdict has also affected the choice of the place of exile: all of us are going to the same destination.
The idea people here in Tobolsk have of Obdorsk is just as vague as yours in Petersburg. All they know is that it is a village somewhere inside the Arctic circle. The question arises: will they have to settle soldiers in Obdorsk specially to guard us? That would be only logical. And will there be any possibility at all of organizing an escape, or shall we be obliged to sit there between the North Pole and the Arctic circle waiting for the further progress of the revolution and changes in the whole political situation? There are grounds for fearing that our release will be transformed from a technical question into a political one. Very well then, we shall sit in Obdorsk and wait. And work. Just keep sending books and newspapers, newspapers and books. Who knows how events will develop in the future? Who knows how soon our calculations will prove right? Perhaps the year we shall be obliged to spend in Obdorsk will be the last revolutionary breathing-space history will ever grant us to fill the gaps in our knowledge and sharpen our weapons still more. Do you think such thoughts are too fatalistic? Dear friend, when one is traveling to Obdorsk under escort there’s no harm in a little fatalism.
29 January. It’s two days now since we left Tobolsk: Our escort consists of thirty soldiers under an N.C.O.’s command. We left in huge troikas on Monday morning, but after the second halt the number of horses pulling each sleigh was reduced from three to two. It was a marvelous morning, clear, bright, and frosty. Forest all around, still and white with frost against the clear sky. A fairy-tale setting. The horses galloped at a mad pace – the usual Siberian rhythm. As we were leaving the town (the prison is in the outskirts), a crowd of local exiles, forty or fifty persons, stood awaiting us; there were many greetings, gestures, attempts to exchange a few words ... But we were driven away at great speed. The people here have already made up legends about us: some say that five generals and two provincial governors are being taken into exile, others that it is a count with his family, still others that we are members of the State Duma. And the woman in whose house we stopped last night asked the doctor: “Are you politicals, too?” “Yes, we’re politicals.6'(""!, “But then you’re surely the chiefs of all the politicals!”
Tonight we are staying in a large, clean room, with papered walls, American cloth on the table, a painted floor, large windows, two lamps. All this is very pleasant after those other filthy places. But we have to sleep on the floor because there are nine of us in the room. They changed our escort at Tobolsk, and the new escort turned out to be as rude and mean as the Tyumen one had been courteous and well-disposed towards us. This is due to the absence of an officer; the soldiers feel responsible for everything that may go wrong. But I must add that after only two days they have thawed considerably, and we are establishing excellent relations with most of them, which is far from being a mere detail on such a long journey.
Almost in every village since Tobolsk there have been political exiles, most of them “agrarians” (peasants exiled for rioting), soldiers, workers, and only occasionally intellectuals. Some are “administrative,” a few are “settlers,” i.e., exiles condemned to settle here. In two of the villages we passed, the “politicals” have organized cooperative workshops which yield a small income. Altogether we have not yet encountered really desperate poverty among the exiles. This is because life in these parts is extremely cheap; politicals pay the peasants six roubles a month for board and lodging, the minimum fixed by the local exiles’ organization. For ten roubles a month you can live “quite well.” The further north you go, the more expensive life becomes and the more difficult it is to find work.
We have met some comrades who used to live in Obdorsk. All of them had good things to say about the place. The village is large, with more than 1,000 inhabitants and twelve shops. The houses are built on the town model and good lodgings are easy to find. The countryside is mountainous and very beautiful, the climate very healthy. The workers among us will find jobs. It is possible to earn some money by giving lessons. Life is quite expensive, it is true, but earnings are also higher. This incomparable place has just one drawback: it is almost entirely cut off from the world. One and a half thousand versts from the railway, 800 versts to the nearest telegraph office. Mail arrives twice a week, but when the roads are bad in spring and autumn it stops coming altogether for periods of six weeks to two months. If a provisional government is formed in Petersburg today, the local policeman will still be king in Obdorsk for a long time: the fact that Obdorsk is so far from the Tobolsk highway explains its relative liveliness, for it serves as an independent center for an enormous area.
Exiles do not remain in one place for long. They wander incessantly all over the province. The regular steamships on the Ob River carry politicals free of charge. The paying passengers have to crowd into corners, while the politicals take over the whole ship. This may surprise you, dear friend, but such is the firmly established tradition. Everyone is so used to it that our peasant sleigh-drivers, hearing that we are going to Obdorsk, tell us: “Never mind, won’t be for long, you’ll be back again on the steamship next spring.” But who knows under what conditions we of the Soviet will be placed in Obdorsk? For the time being instructions have been issued for us to be given the best sleighs and the best stopping quarters en route.
Obdorsk! A minuscule point on the globe ... perhaps we shall have to adapt our lives for years to Obdorsk conditions. Even my fatalistic mood does not guarantee complete peace of mind. I clench my teeth and yearn for electric street-lamps, the noise of trains and the best thing in the world – the smell of fresh newsprint.
1 February. Yurovskoye. Today was exactly the same as yesterday. We covered more than fifty versts. My companion in the sleigh was a soldier who entertained me with stories of the war in Manchuria. We are being escorted by men of the Sibirsky regiment, which was almost completely reconstituted after the war. This regiment suffered more losses than any other. One part of it is stationed in Tyumen, another in Tobolsk. The Tyumen soldiers, as I told you before, were very well disposed towards us, those in Tobolsk are more rough; among them there is a largish group of “conscious” Black Hundreds supporters. The regiment is composed of Poles, Ukrainians, and Siberians. The indigenous Siberians are the most ignorant element. But even among them there are some splendid fellows ... After only two days our new escort began softening towards us – which is not an insignificant detail, for these warriors now rule over our life and death.
My companion was enthusiastic over the Chinese women. “Lovely things, they are. Their men are undersized, can’t be compared to real men, but the women are beautiful, white and plump ...”
“Well then,” asked our sleigh-driver, an ex-soldier, “did our fellows take up with the Chinese girls?” “No ... not allowed to, see. First they take the Chinese women away, then they let the troops in. Still, some of our crowd caught a Chinese girl in a maize field and had a go. And one of them, see, left his cap there. So the Chinese men brought this cap along and showed it to our officer. He lines tip the whole regiment and asks: ’Whose cap?’ Nobody makes a sound, better lose your cap than get into that sort of trouble, see? In the end it all came to nothing. But the Chinese girls are lovely ...”
We left Tobolsk in troikas, but since the second halt the sleighs have been drawn by pairs because the road is getting narrower all the time.
In the villages where we change horses there are sleighs already harnessed and waiting. The change is made outside the villages, in the middle of fields. Usually the entire population comes out to look at us. Some animated scenes take place. While the women hold the horses by their bridles, the men, under the doctor’s instructions, take care of our baggage and the children run noisily and merrily around us. Yesterday some “politicals,” wanting to take a photograph of us while our horses were being changed, waited for us outside the rural office building, but we were driven past at a gallop and they had no chance to do anything. Today, as we entered the village where we are now spending the night, the local “politicals” met us, carrying a red banner. There are fourteen of them, including ten or so Georgians. The soldiers became alarmed at the sight of the red banner, drew their bayonets and threatened to shoot. Finally they managed to seize the red banner and push back the “demonstrators.”
In our escort there is a small group of soldiers centered around a corporal who is an Old Believer. This man is an exceptionally low and cruel brute. Nothing gives him greater pleasure than to bully a boy driver, frighten a Tatar woman or hit a horse with his rifle-butt. A brick-red face, a permanently half-opened mouth, bloodless gums, and unblinking eyes give him the appearance of an idiot. This corporal is in violent conflict with the sergeant in charge of the escort. He thinks the sergeant doesn’t treat us roughly enough. When it’s a question of grabbing a red flag or pushing back a political who has come a little too close to our sleighs, the corporal and his little gang are always there first. We all have to control ourselves in order to avoid sharp clashes, for in case of trouble we could hardly count on the sergeant, who is scared to death of this corporal.
2 February, evening. Demyanskoye. Despite the fact that the red banner which greeted its at Yurovskoye yesterday was seized by the troops, this morning, as we were leaving the village, there was a new one stuck on a long pole into a snowdrift. This time nobody touched it; the soldiers had only just settled into their sleighs and no one felt like getting out again. And so we paraded past it. Further on, a few hundred yards from the village, where the road dips down to the river, we saw an inscription in huge letters on the snowy slope: “Long Live the Revolution!” My driver, a fellow of eighteen or so, burst out laughing when he read the inscription. “Do you know what that means – long live the revolution?” I asked him. “No, I don’t,” he said after a moment’s thought, “all I know is that people keep shouting these words, ’Long Live the Revolution!’” But you could tell by his face that he knew more than he was prepared to say. Altogether the local peasants, especially the young ones, are extremely well disposed towards the “politicals.”
We arrived at Demyanskoye, the large village where we are stopping for the night, at 1:00 p.m. A large crowd of exiles came to meet us (there are more than sixty here). This caused great confusion among some of our escort. The corporal at once gathered his faithful around him in case of need. Luckily there was no trouble. It was obvious that they had been waiting for us here for a long time and with a good deal of nervous tension. A special commission to organize our reception had been appointed. A magnificent dinner and comfortable quarters were prepared in the local “commune.” But we were not allowed to go there, and had to stop in a peasant house; the dinner was brought here. Meeting the politicals is extremely difficult; they were able to get in to see us only for a few minutes at a time, in twos and threes, carrying various parts of the dinner. Apart from that we took turns to visit the local shop, accompanied by soldiers, and on the way were able to exchange a few words with comrades who waited in the street all day long.
One of the women exiles, dressed up as a peasant woman, came to sell us milk; she played her part very well, but the owner of the house must have given her away to the soldiers and they immediately forced her to leave. The corporal was on duty at the time, worse luck. I remember how our little colony at Ust-Kut (on the Lena) used to prepare for the passage of every new lot of exiles: we tried to cook shchi, make pelmeni, in short we did exactly what the people at Demyanskoye did for us today. The passage of a large batch of exiles is a tremendous event for every little colony along the route, all of whose members are impatient for news from home.
4 February, 8:oo p.m. Tsingalinsk Yurts. Our accompanying police officer, at our request, asked the Tobolsk administration whether the tempo of the journey could not be speeded up. Apparently Tobolsk asked permission from Petersburg, and as a result the police officer has received a telegram giving him freedom of action in this respect. Assuming that from now on we shall do seventy versts a day, the chances are that we shall arrive at Obdorsk on February 8 or 20. Of course that is only an estimate. We are stopping in a small village called Tsingalinsk Yurts. But in reality the houses here are not yurts (nomads’ tents) but peasant huts. The population consists mostly of Ostyaks, a very sharply defined Asiatic type. However, their speech and way of life are purely peasant like; the only difference is that they drink even more than Siberian peasants. They drink every day, from early morning on, and by noon they are already drunk.
A local exile, N., a schoolteacher, has told us some curious things. It appears that the Ostyaks, hearing that unknown persons were going to pass through their village and that these persons were being received with great pomp everywhere, became very frightened, refrained from drinking and even hid away their stocks of liquor. That is why today most of them are sober. By evening, however, unless I am mistaken, our Ostyak host returned home drunk.
We have now entered fish country, and meat is difficult to get. The same teacher has organized a fishermen’s team of exiles and local peasants. He has bought fishing nets, he supervises operations himself and takes the catch to Tobolsk for sale. Last summer every member of the team earned over 100 roubles. Everyone tries to adapt himself to his circumstances as best he can ... But N. has got a rupture as a result of his fishing initiatives.
6 February. Samarovo. We covered sixty-five versts yesterday and seventy-three today, and tomorrow we shall cover approximately the same distance. The agricultural region now lies behind us; the peasants here, Ostyaks as well as Russians, engage exclusively in fishing.
The extent to which Tobolsk province has been settled with “politicals” is extraordinary. There is literally not a single remote hamlet that doesn’t house its exiles. The owner of the house where we stopped for the night told us that not long ago there were no exiles here at all; they began to arrive in large numbers after the manifesto of October 17. “Ever since then they’ve been flooding the place.” Such has been the effect of the constitutional era in these parts! In many places the politicals pursue the same occupations as the indigenous population: they collect and clean cedar cones, catch fish, gather berries, hunt. The more enterprising have organized cooperative workshops, fishing gangs, shops for consumer goods. The peasants’ attitude towards the exiles is extremely friendly. For example, here in Samarovo – a large trading village – the peasants have given a whole house to the politicals free of charge and gave the first to arrive a present of a calf and two sacks of flour. There is an established tradition whereby the shops sell to exiles at a cheaper price than to peasants. Some of the exiles here live in a commune in their own house, on the roof of which a red flag flies all the time. Just try raising the red flag in Paris, Berlin, or Geneva!
In passing I’d like to tell you of two or three general observations I have made concerning the condition of exile at the present time.
The fact that the social composition of the political population of prisons in Siberia is gradually becoming more democratic has been pointed out dozens, if not hundreds of times since the 90s. Workers have come to represent an increasingly high percentage of the “politicals,” finally outnumbering the revolutionary intellectuals who were once accustomed to consider the Peter and Paul Fortress and Kolymsk their private and hereditary monopoly, something like an entailed estate. At the beginning of the century, I still saw members of the People’s Will and People’s Right parties who shrugged their shoulders in an almost offended manner when they saw chimney sweeps from Vilna or fodder merchants from Minsk arriving with the latest party of prisoners. But the exiled workman of that time was, in the majority of cases, a member of a revolutionary organization and his political and moral level was high. Almost all exiles, except possibly for workers from the Jewish Pale, had been through the sieve of the gendarmerie’s interrogation, and, however coarse that sieve, it generally retained the most advanced workers. This maintained a certain level among the exiled population.
Exile in the “constitutional” period of our history bears an entirely different character. Now it is no longer a matter of organizations, but of an elemental mass movement. There are no longer gendarmerie interrogations, but wholesale street roundups. The most inconspicuous is now eligible for exile, or even for the executioner’s bullet. After the suppression of a series of popular movements, a period of “guerrilla” actions began, with expropriation for revolutionary ends or simply under revolutionary pretexts, maximalists’ adventures, and plain thuggeries. Whoever could not be hanged was sent by the administration to Siberia. It is easy to understand that a brawl of such colossal dimensions involved many people who had merely touched the revolution with one finger, or who were innocent onlookers, not to mention many adventurers from the underworld of our large cities. You can imagine what an effect this has had on the general level of the exiles.
There is another factor which leads in the same direction: the escapes. It is obvious what sort of people escape: the most active, most conscious ones, who know that their party and their work is waiting for them. The percentage that succeeds can be judged by the fact that out of 450 exiles in a certain part of Tobolsk province only approximately 100 are left. Only the lazy ones stay. As a result, most of the remaining exiles are a gray, politically ill-defined lot who find themselves there more or less by chance. The few active ones who, for some reason, have not managed to get away, are sometimes placed in a difficult position, since all politicals are morally bound to one another by the mutual guarantee system.
8 February. Karynikrinsk Yurts. Yesterday we did seventy-five versts, today ninety. We arrive at the halts tired out and go to bed early.
Tonight we are stopping in an Ostyak village, in a small, dirty hut. The soldiers of the escort, chilled to the bone, are crowding out the filthy kitchen together with some drunken Ostyaks. A lamb is bleating on the other side of the wall ...
There is a wedding in the village – this is the season of weddings – and all the Ostyaks are drinking and, once drunk, try to get into our hut.
A little old man from Saratov, an “administrative” exile, also drunk, has been to see us. It turns out that he and another man have come here from Berezov to buy meat, which they then resell. Both are politicals.
The preparatory work which must have been done here to ensure our transport is extraordinary. Our convoy, as I already told you, consists of twenty-two covered sleighs drawn by about fifty horses. Few villages dispose of such a number of horses and they are assembled from all over the countryside. At some stations we were given horses brought there from 100 versts away. Yet the coaching stages here are very short, mostly 10 or 15 versts. Thus an Ostyak has to drive his horse for 100 versts in order to transport two members of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies over a distance of 10 versts. Moreover, since no one knew when exactly we would arrive, some drivers had to wait a fortnight before their horses were needed. They can remember only one such case previously – when the provincial governor “himself” made a tour of these parts ...
I have already mentioned several times how friendly the local peasants are to politicals in general and to us especially. An extraordinary thing happened to us in Belogorye, a small village in the Berezov district. A group of local peasants collectively organized a reception for us, with tea and cold food, and collected six roubles to give to us. We naturally refused the money, but accepted the invitation to tea. However, our escort protested and the party did not come off. That is to say, the sergeant agreed, but the corporal made a tremendous fuss, shouting loudly enough to be heard all over the village and threatening to denounce the sergeant. So we left again without our tea. Almost the whole village followed us; it was a proper demonstration.
9 February. Kandinskoye. We have done another 100 versts. Another two days and we shall reach Berezovo (on the eleventh). I got very tired today; we had nothing to eat throughout nine or ten hours of continuous travel. We are following the Ob River all the time. The right bank is hilly and wooded, the left bank low. The river is wide, the weather calm and relatively warm. Small fir trees are stuck in the snow on either side of the road to serve as beacons. Most of our drivers are Ostyaks. The sleighs are pulled by two or three horses harnessed one behind the other, since the road gets narrower the further we travel. The drivers have long rope whips on long handles. The convoy spreads over a tremendous distance. From time to time one of the drivers gives a high-pitched shout which sets the horses galloping, raising thick clouds of snow-dust. The speed takes your breath away. The sleighs almost pile up on top of one another, a horse’s mouth suddenly appears from behind your shoulder and breathes into your face. Then one of the sleighs capsizes or some part of the harness breaks or comes undone. The whole convoy stops. After many hours of driving you feel as though hypnotized. The air is very still. The drivers call to one another in their guttural voices. Then the horses start up again and soon we are galloping once more. Frequent halts slow us down greatly and prevent the drivers from attaining maximum speed. We do about fifteen versts an hour, whereas the normal speed here is eighteen to twenty or even twenty-five versts.
Rapid travel in Siberia is the normal and, in a sense, necessary thing, given the enormous distances. But I’ve never experienced such driving as this, even on the Lena.
We arrive at a station. Beyond the village, harnessed sleighs and fresh horses are waiting; only two of our sleighs, reserved for the families with children, are “through carriages” to Berezov. We change quickly and proceed on our way. The drivers here sit in an extraordinary way. A plank is nailed across the front end of the sleigh; this place is called the “arbor,” and the driver sits on top of the arbor, that is, the bare plank, his feet hanging over the side of the sleigh. When the horses are galloping and the sleigh tilts up now on one side, now on the other, the driver balances it with his body, leaning out sideways like a yachtsman and sometimes pushing off from the ground with his feet.
22 February. Berezoz. The prison. Five or six days ago – I didn’t write about it at the time so as not to cause you unnecessary worry #8211; we passed through an area where there was a lot of typhus. Now those parts are left far behind. At Tsingalinsk Yurts, which I mentioned to you, there were typhus cases in thirty houses out of sixty. The same in many other villages. Many deaths. There was scarcely a driver who had not lost one of his relations. The speeding up of our journey and the change in the original schedule is directly connected with the typhus: the police officer justified his telegraphic request to the authorities by the necessity to pass the danger area as quickly as possible.
During the last days we have been advancing towards the north at a rate of 90 or 100 versts a day, that is to say, by almost a whole degree. As a result, the cultural decline – if one can speak of culture here – is especially evident. Every day we drop a degree further into the kingdom of wildness and cold. A climber must have a similar impression as he ascends a high mountain, traversing one zone of altitude after another. First there were prosperous Russian peasants. Then Russified Ostyaks who, as a result of mixed marriages, had almost lost their Mongol look. Then we left the agricultural zone and entered the land of Ostyak hunters and fishermen, short, shaggy-headed creatures who speak Russian with difficulty. Horses became more scarce and less good; horse transport does not play an important part here, and a hunting dog is valued more highly than a horse. The road became worse too, narrow and entirely unsurfaced ... And yet the police sergeant tells us that the “highway” Ostyaks here are models of culture compared with those living along the tributaries of the Ob.
Their attitude towards us is vague and confused; I daresay they imagine us to be big shots in temporary disgrace. An Ostyak today kept asking: “Where’s your general? Show me your general ... I wish I could see him ... I’ve never seen a general.”
An Ostyak today was harnessing a broken-down nag to one of our sleighs, and another one called out to him: “Give them a better one than that, who do you think they are, police officers?” But there was another, opposite case, the only one of its kind it is true, when an Ostyak said of us: “Not very important passengers, are they?”
We arrived in Berezov last night. You will hardly expect a description of the “town.” It is like Verkholensk, Kirensk, and a multitude of other towns with 1,000 inhabitants, a police station and a fiscal office. However, here they also show (without guarantee of authenticity) Osterman’s grave and the place where Menshikov was buried. Local wits also point out the old lady in whose house Menshikov had his meals.
We were taken directly to the prison. The entire local garrison, some fifty men, were lined up at the entrance. It appears that prior to our arrival the prison was washed and scrubbed for a fortnight, all prisoners having been previously removed. In one of the cells we found a large table with a table cloth, some dining chairs, a card table, two candlesticks with candles and a large hanging lamp. Such consideration is almost touching.
We shall rest here for a couple of days and then move on.
Move on, yes ... but I haven’t yet decided in which direction.