THE PRINCESS OF SIBERIA: The Story of Maria Volkonsky and the Decembrist Exiles by Christine Sutherland

THE PRINCESS OF SIBERIA: The Story of Maria Volkonsky and the Decembrist Exiles

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Being sent to Siberia in Tsarist Russia meant exile from the society of European Russia--but it also meant a new, if difficult, life in the community of exiles, complete with wives and families. This is a slight biography of one of the wives, and its only redeeming quality is the occasional glimpse of life in Siberia. The first half is given over to life among the very rich warrior princes of Russia, complete with the exploits of Maria's father, General Raevsky, in the Napoleonic wars (her future husband, Prince Sergei Volkonsky, served with him) and idyllic scenes of lives in Kiev and on Crimean estates. Here we learn that Maria had big eyes (very large irises, actually); that Pushkin wrote poems about her (he seems to have chased very many skirts, however); and very little else. She was 21 when her husband was arrested following the botched Decembrist uprising in 1825--a move by liberal aristocrats back from the wars to topple the system of serfdom--and sent off to Siberia. All this is straight fluff. Sutherland (Maria Walewska) says that Maria took off after her husband for purely romantic reasons, understanding little of what the Decembrists were up to; and certainly there is nothing here to support any other view. Her letters are the main source for what follows, which is an account of a pampered aristocrat trying to do her own cooking. Maria followed Sergei from village to village, becoming more and more interested in the primitive locals and less interested in Sergei. Sutherland isn't sure if Sergei or Maria's new lover fathered her children in Siberia, but justifies her change of heart by reference to Sergei's broken character. Maria taught in schools and established a theater, bringing enlightenment and earning her the nickname of the title. Sutherland wants us to believe that Maria became dedicated to the ideals of the Decembrists while living among them, and in this case that amounted to little more than traditional noblesse oblige. A feeble affair even for teenage romantics.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux