Beautiful, cultivated, the daughter of a hero of the Napoleonic wars, Maria Volkonsky had been married only one year to Prince Sergei Volkonsky when the ill-fated Decemberist uprising against the tsar, in December 1825, ended with her husband’s exile to Siberia. Despite her family’s and the tsar’s opposition, Maria was determined to join her husband thousands of miles from St. Petersburg. She was more than halfway there when the tsar’s decree that she could never return from Siberia was read to her. The reunion occured in the depths of a silver mine, where she fell at her husband’s feet and kissed his chains.
Christine Sutherland’s fascinating portrait of Maria and members of the Decembrist circle is based on the unpublished memoirs and diaries of the princess, which the Volkonsky family made available to her. The exile in Siberia lasted for almost thirty years, when an amnesty following the tsar’s death freed them.
In exile, Maria brought to Prince Volkonsky her love, gaiety, and artistic talents, together with a force of character, courage, and integrity which sustained them through the long years. A second son and a daughter were born to them in the detention camp of Chita in Transbaikalia. The Volkonskys were eventually allowed to settle in Irkutsk in a large, well-furnished wooden house. Maria’s benevolent influence on the govenor of the province, in establishing local schools, in building the first theater in Siberia, and in promoting farm cooperatives, won her the love of the populace as “our Princess.”