When I was a Boy in Russia - Vladimir de Bogory

My Escape from Siberia

Soon after the death of our comrades, we had to prepare for our long journey to Siberia, and not only to Siberia, but to the mines. That meant incredible hardship and insufferable cruelty for fourteen years,—for fourteen long, weary years. It meant that most of us would die lonely and neglected in a filthy prison cell. And so many were so young, so young! Fourteen years' hard labor in the Siberian mines, and for what? For trying to bring greater freedom to our beloved country. But that old hard, unseeing Russia is going; Russia to-day, alert, making vast strides to help her people, building public schools by scores, with huge government departments organized to aid the peasants and bring them to greater values of life, is doing the work that we began. Ossinsky did not die in vain, and our dream is coming true.

Before leaving for Siberia, Ivan came to see me and he slipped me a one hundred-rouble note. The keeper had noticed it, so when Ivan had gone he insisted on searching me. He looked everywhere, even in my hair and my mouth. But he could find nothing, so finally, very much puzzled, he let me return to my cell. He never thought of looking in the palm of my hand, where I had been holding the money quietly all the while.

We knew that we were going to Siberia, although we did not know where we were going to be sent. Of all the revolutionaries with me, only two were not nobles. These two were put in irons and their hair was cut, but our rank saved us from some of the miseries of the journey. We traveled by train through Russia to Nijni-Novgorod, where we were taken on barges on the rivers Volga and Kama to the town of Perm. In addition to our party of political exiles there were also a number of criminals, who were being sent to Siberia. From there we went by train to Ekaterinburg, and wherever we went, I only thought and dreamed of my escape. I had spent six years dodging capture, and I was not going to take my sentence lightly, without making one last supreme effort to get away.

From Ekaterinburg we traveled in vozoks, or small three-horse carts, with one prisoner in each. Beside each political exile sat a gendarme, armed with a revolver and sword, and beside the driver sat a soldier armed with a rifle. We drove rapidly along the flat country, and I thought with dread of the terrible Siberian winters. Our vozoks with the little bells tinkling on the harness moved rapidly, one behind the other, along the famous Siberian Tract, which all the exiles used to pass. Several times I thought of escape, but we traveled without stopping, sleeping in the vozok during the nights. I could see no chance of escape, for I was dressed in coarse grey prison clothing, clumsily sewn, and this would have instantly caused capture. After several days of this travel we were again taken still further east by barge till we reached Surgut. At Tomsk we were taken to the big prison, on the walls of which we found the names of the women revolutionists of our group, who had been sentenced with us. This was the first news we had of them, and now we knew that they were traveling ahead of us. We were hurried on by vozok until we reached Krasnoyarsk, the boundary town of Eastern Siberia. We had left Russia and Western Siberia behind us.

All during the journey we found the authorities anxious to please the political exiles and avoid trouble. As nobles we obtained many privileges, and were given fur coats when we asked for them on the plea that we were cold at night. We remained in Krasnoyarsk for some weeks, awaiting further orders.

It was the end of August when six of the political exiles, among whom I was one, were ordered to proceed to Irkutsk by the so-called "etape." In front came several files of soldiers. Then walked the criminals, of whom there were about one hundred and eighty in irons. They were being sent to exile, which meant that they had to go to certain villages, and there remain free, so long as they did not try to leave the place. Behind them came about fifteen wagons, in which were the wives and children of the exiles. Next followed a few wagons in which nobles, who had been convicted as criminals, were riding, for no noble was required to walk, and we political exiles came last. A file of soldiers walked on either side of this procession, and there was a detachment behind.



Many of the criminals took off their irons as soon as we left the town, and the officers made no objection. Their orders were strict, but there were many mutual concessions made on the part of the officers and prisoners. That evening we came to the polu-etape, or half etape, where there was a jail. We, as nobles, were kept apart from the peasant prisoners, so that we slept under better and cleaner conditions than the others. At the end of the next day we reached the etape, which differed from the polu-etape only by being a little larger.

Studying carefully the make-up of the party and the strong organization among the criminal prisoners, which amounted to a union, whose orders none dared disobey, I first conceived my plan of escape. The problem was not that of escape alone, for that was comparatively easy. There was not much difficulty in breaking away and hiding in the primitive forests through which we were traveling; the problem was to live afterwards when the dreaded battue had been organized,—the battue of Siberia, most thorough and discouraging of all systems. Still we were all set on an attempt, and it was agreed that one of us would escape first and organize the rescue of the others. Vladislav Isbitzky was chosen for this part.



Since the criminals were going into exile, and were sent to special villages, where they would be freed, our plan was to exchange places with them and under their guise leave the party at the village in which the peasant was supposed to settle. The honor of the prisoners, due to their organization, prevented them from revealing the deception. Once in the village it would be easy to escape. Meanwhile the criminal would continue as a political prisoner. When the deception was discovered, it would not entail much punishment for him, and this was more than compensated by the reward (we gave them money and clothing) which would make his life much easier in the new country. Besides this, for a peasant to aid in freeing one of the revolutionist nobles, who was giving his life for the cause, was a great honor.

After the escape, it was planned that Isbitzky should travel ahead of us rapidly enough to reach the polu-etape and there make a secret tunnel to the prison, through which we could all escape. We agreed that he should leave chalk marks along the telegraph poles, so that we might know he was safely ahead of us.

The day of the exchange, as we left the etape, sitting on our slow moving wagons, we saw Isbitzky standing before an izba in a bright red shirt, smiling. That was the last time I saw him. For many days we noted the marks on the poles, and then they disappeared. After that we looked in vain. Later, we learned that he had to return to Tomsk for lack of money, which he procured, and then started after us. But delays occurred, and he did not reach the party until it had arrived at its destination, which was the silver mines of Kara. His fate is unknown, for he disappeared; possibly he was killed by robbers on the road.

Since the chalk marks had vanished, we made other plans for the escape. I found Pavlov, a criminal, willing to exchange with me. This was done with very little trouble, and after that, I walked with the criminals, sometimes with irons on my feet. I suffered horribly, and almost starved on the coarse and scanty food.

As we advanced, bread became scarce and dear. Hunger marched in the grim procession. The yellow parchment skin of starvation showed on every face. We walked with difficulty. The criminals asked permission from the officers to sing milostinia, the begging song, upon entering the villages. This was granted. So, when we came to villages, the basses started the slow, melancholy chant to the accompaniment of the clang of the irons and the squeaking of the wagon wheels. Several of the prisoners went from izba to izba with bags, begging for food. In nightmares I see that march again and hear the slow drone of the starving men, eager for a crust.

To famine was added typhoid, and as the etape hospitals were scores of versts apart, many of the men were placed on the wagons when they became too ill to travel. One man died on the way, and we traveled with his body for many miles till we came to the etape.

At last we reached the village at which I was to be set free, with several other men. I was examined, and, according to the part of the criminal with whom I had exchanged, I gave my name as Petrov and my crime that of being a thief. So, with the prison clothing, which became mine, I was allowed to walk out with my fellow-criminals as a free man, free, but three thousand miles from home, free only to try to rescue my comrades. Still, I was at liberty.

Free! I could hardly believe it as I walked down the street of the village. The other prisoners all went to an inn and I went with them, but I did not intend to remain any length of time in that village, for I feared that either somebody might report the exchange or tell of it at the first questioning. I had no money, and only the address of a friend exiled to a village that was 150 versts (100 miles) from my present whereabouts. I could do no better than go there. I sold some of the clothing I had for a rouble and a half (seventy-five cents), and after a night's rest in the inn, started out early the next day.

I had a prison fur coat and cap to match, trousers of grey cotton, prison boots with leather gaiters. I had an extra shirt and cotton trousers. That was my entire baggage, and Siberian winter was fast approaching, for it was the second day of November. My head was cropped, but since prisoners traveled, when there was no battue, openly in Siberia, I was not afraid of the fact that all could see I had been a convict.

I knew the direction I had to walk in, and nothing more, so I started. But as I walked through the dense forests I did not have the feeling of freedom, for I realized that I was just as far from freedom as before, for now I was at the mercy of the Siberian elements. I spent my nights in the village baths, and often, since the peasants were all kindly disposed to the convicts and helped them, I had a warm bed. I used to buy a crust of bread for a few kopecks, and the peasants, knowing that I was an escaped convict, sometimes gave it to me. Often the peasants, themselves exiles, treated me to a glass of tea.

After a weary journey I finally reached the village in which my friend was supposed to be. I knew which izba he occupied, so I counted off the izbas, and entered the one I had been told he lived in. An old woman met me.

"What do you want?" she asked.

"I'm looking for some exiles," I said. "Nobles."

"There are lots of nobles, exiles," she answered looking at me suspiciously.

Suddenly an inner door opened, and a young woman came out. I knew immediately that she was a "political" exile, by her appearance first, and then by her speech.

"What do you want?" she asked, looking at me.

"I have a little business," I said, coming up to her, and gently pushing her back into the room, so as to speak to her not in the hearing of the old woman. She spread her arms across the door jamb, but finally fell back.

"What do you want?" she repeated.

I was already in the room and I closed the door behind me.

"I'm De Bogory Mokrievitch," I said in a whisper, "just escaped from the party on the way."

You—De Bogory Mokrievitch! Oh!" she said.

"Have you heard about our trial?"

She clasped her hands about my arm.

"Tell me all, all!" she said.

I cannot describe the excitement that spread in this little house, and a neighboring one, in which another political exile lived. My friend was not in the village, but by mere chance I had met some other of the exiles.

I was freezing, and as a samovar stood on the table, I had just sat down to drink a glass of tea, when I was told that the gendarmes had come to the village. I had to escape. My new friends told me how to leave the village, and where to go, and added that a man, whose description they gave me, would catch up to me on a sleigh and would take me to safety.

I had not a kopeck left, so they gave me a rouble from their own scanty stores. Thus, without a chance to change clothing or appearance, and knowing that I looked like a veritable tramp, I had to go. The police might not have come for me, but I could take no chances.

The sleigh soon caught up with me, and took me a big part of the way to the village in which the man lived. He agreed to hide me on condition that I come to him at night, so that nobody should see me come in. He told me where his house was, and left me.

Russian children


Then I learned—and for a moment I turned cold at the peril—that the battue was on. It is a good word that battue, meaning as it does the rousing of a neighborhood to drive and trap some wild beast to his death. The battue was on for Isbitzky and for me, and also for a political exile from a party traveling behind us, who, however, by dallying one day too long in the village of his exchange, was later caught and sent on to the silver mines at Kara. I have told you that Isbitzky disappeared. I was the wild beast to be trapped. My description was sent to every village over the two thousand miles of desolation between where I was and Russia. An order was issued that every stranger, no matter if his passports were in perfect order, should be arrested and searched. To give me food or shelter was a crime punishable with sentence to the mines. And the Siberian winter was at hand. There was but one thing to do, and many of the villagers did that thing. They would put food on the window ledges for any starved passer-by. And day by day the cold fell more intense, the wind blew keener, and the snows of Siberia began.

But the police were hot upon my trail. The escape of De Bogory Mokrievitch was, they thought, dangerous to the peace of Russia. Siberia became as one vast eye looking night and day, and looking for me. An exile, who had given me a night's shelter, gave me the address of a Polish exile three villages away. Somehow, by some mad power that must have been the exhilaration of near-exhaustion, I reached the village. It was midnight when I knocked at his door.

The door opened.

"I'm De Bogory Mokrievitch," I said. "Will you hide me?"

He stood aside to let me enter.

"Yes," he replied.

To this man I owe my safety. The fact that I spoke Polish was my salvation. Once, when I was in this exile's store—he was keeping the village shop, he who had owned a couple of thousand families of serfs before the emancipation—the police asked for my friend. I answered in Polish that I knew very little Russian and suspicion was averted for the time.

The story of that hiding is told in hours, not in days. A dozen times I was all but captured, but caution never slept, and I was held safe among those Polish exiles. Even to-day I dare not mention names, for the penalty of helping a political prisoner to escape is many years of hard labor. I can only repay that kindness by silence.

For one month and a half the battue was in full operation. Every man along the roads was arrested, every man who had the insignia of the convict was stopped. Nobody was allowed to pass by. At every village special guards were stationed to question strangers. Not a fly could have crept through. I realized why even the most hardened convicts regarded the battue with dread.

As soon as the first fervor of the battue had abated, I decided to go to Irkutsk. Here I organized the escape of five of my old comrades from the Irkutsk jail by means of a tunnel. I drove them in a sled to safety, and I provided them with provisions, so as to avoid their having to enter any villages, Alas, all were caught, although much later.

Few of us political prisoners had the physique to withstand the terrible Siberian winter, for we were of the nobility, and unused to hardship. The escape created great excitement, and again I had to seek a hiding-place among strangers, and again I was saved by the kindness of people.

I would not leave Siberia, however, without one last attempt to rescue the men and women of my own group, my old comrades, who had already reached the silver mines of Kara, to which I had been destined. Well-disguised, I bought a horse and cart and became an itinerant merchant. This not only gave me a living, which I had to earn, since I had no money, but it also covered the real reason for my distant journey.

Months later I reached Kara, and settled there as a merchant. I lived in a small house, close to the jail, for half a year, making my plans for the escape.

The unexpected happened. A party of prisoners arrived, among whom was a peasant criminal who knew me. To curry favor he reported my presence. I escaped by the rear window, as the police battered in my door. This time a battue was not ordered, as the authorities did not want to admit that they had allowed so dangerous a character as De Bogory Mokrievitch to live there five months unobserved by them.

I had to admit at last that I could do no more to help my comrades, for I was too well-known, and to take a chance on another battue was unwise. So, with heavy heart, I returned, knowing that I was leaving Siberia and my comrades forever.

I traveled for many months, first on my own horse, which I finally sold, then by troika, hired from village to village. I had lived one year in Siberia after my escape, and now I was on my way back to Russia.

It was in February, 1881, that I arrived in Moscow, and soon after that date, Alexander II was killed by the Terrorists. I had intended taking up revolutionary work again, but I found that during my absence ideas had changed, and that I could not agree with the Terrorist plans for the liberation of Russia. Ivan was in prison and died there. The police activity became so great that I feared spies who had known me might recognize me, and I was obliged to escape again. I left Russia then and went to Switzerland, an exile from the country in which I was born, and for which I sacrificed the best years of my life.

In Switzerland I married a Russian noblewoman, who had left her home in order to study medicine. She had been educated in the most exclusive of Russian schools, called the Institutes, where the girls were trained to be society women and ladies of the Court. But she aspired to a profession, with which ambition her parents entirely disagreed, whereupon she had left them and left Russia. We have one daughter.

I lived in America and England for some years, then went to Bulgaria, where so many Russian exiles dwell. It seemed nearer to Russia in this Slavic-speaking country. My university training, so many years set aside, served me in good stead, and I became a civil engineer, in charge of all the city planning and engineering of several Bulgarian towns. My memoirs were also written and first published in Paris, but, after the revolution of 1905, republished in Petrograd.

Luka-Barskaya ceased to be ours even before my parents' death, and I never saw the old home again. But though the amnesty of 1905 did not cover me and give me the privilege of returning to Russia, I live in banishment well enough content that Ivan has not died in vain, nor am I still an exile fruitlessly. It is beyond belief how Russia has advanced, and many of my early dreams have been realized. I think of Ivan, of Donetzky, of Ossinsky, and my heart is very sore within me. I look at Russia and I am well content.