Eleven thousand Poles, men and women, had been transported to East Siberia alone, in consequence of the insurrection of 1863. They were chiefly students, artists, ex-officers, noobles, and especially skilled artisans from the intelligent and highly developed workers' population of Warsaw and other towns. A great number of them were kept at hard labor, while the remainder were settled all over the country, in villages where they could find no work whatever, and lived in a state of semi-starvation. Those who were at hard labor worked either at Chitá, building the barges for the Amúr - these were the happiest, -- or in iron works of the Crown, or in salt works. I saw some of the latter, on the Léna, standing half-naked in a shanty, around an immense cauldron filled with salt-brine, and mixing the thick, boiling brine with long shovels, in an infernal temperature, while the gates of the shanty were wide open, to make a strong current of glacial air. After two years of such work these martyrs were sure to die from consumption.
Afterward, a considerable number of Polish exiles were employed as navvies building a road along the southern coast of Lake Baikál. This narrow Alpine lake, four hundred miles long, surrounded by beautiful mountains rising three to five thousand feet above its level, cuts off Transbaikália and the Amúr from Irkútsk. In winter it may be crossed upon the ice, and in summer there are steamers; but for six weeks in the spring and another six weeks in the autumn the only way to reach Chitá and Kyákhta (for Pekin) from Irkútsk is to travel on horseback a long, circuitous route, across mountain 7000 to 8000 feet in altitude. I once traveled along this track, greatly enjoying the scenery of the mountains, which were snow-clad in May, but otherwise the journey was really awful. To climb eight miles only, to the top of the main pass, Khamár-dabán, it took me the whole day from three in the morning till eight at night. Our horses continually fell through the thawing snow, plunging with their riders many times a day into the icy water which flowed underneath the snow crust. It was decided accordingly to build a permanent road along the southern coast of the lake, blasting out a passage in the steep, almost vertical cliffs which rise along the shore, and spanning with bridges a hundred wild torrents that furiously rush from the mountains into the lake. Polish exiles were employed at this hard work.
Several batches of Russian political exiles had been sent during the last century to Siberia, but with the submissiveness to fate which is characteristic of the Russians, they never revolted; they allowed themselves to be killed inch by inch without ever attempting to free themselves. The Poles, on the contrary, -- to their honor be it said, -- were never so submissive as that, and this time they broke into open revolt. It was evident that they had no chance of success, but they revolted nevertheless. They had before them the great lake, and behind them a girdle of absolutely impracticable mountains, beyond which spread the wildernesses of North Mongolia; but they conceived the idea of disarming the soldiers who guarded them, forging those terrible weapons of the Polish insurrections, -- scythes fastened as pikes on long poles, -- and making their way across the mountains and across Mongolia, towards China, where they would find English ships to take them. One day the news came to Irkútsk that part of those Poles who were at work on the Baikál road had disarmed a dozen soldiers and broken out into revolt. Eighty soldiers were all that could be dispatched against them from Irkútsk; crossing the Baikál in a steamer, they went to meet the insurgents on the other side of the lake.
The winter of 1866 had been unusually dull at Irkútsk. In the Siberian capital there is no such distinction between the different classes as one sees in Russian provincial towns, and Irkútsk "society," composed of numerous officers and officials, together with the wives and daughters of local traders and even clergymen, met during the winter, every Thursday, at the Assembly rooms. This winter, however, there was no "go" in the evening parties. Amateur theatricals, too, were not successful; and gambling, which usually flourished on a grand scale at Irkútsk, only dragged along; a serious want of money was felt among the officials, and even the arrival of several mining officers was not signalized by the heaps of banknotes with which these privileged gentlemen commonly enlivened the knights of the green tables. The season was decidedly dull, -- just the season for starting spiritualistic experiences with talking tables and talkative spirits. A gentleman who had been the pet of Irkútsk society the previous winter for the tales from popular life which he recited with great talent, seeing that interest in himself and his tales was failing, took now to spiritualism as a new amusement. He was clever, and in a week's time all Irkútsk society was mad over talking spirits. A new life was infused into those who did not know how to kill time. Talking tables appeared in every drawing-room, and love-making went hand in hand with spirit rapping. Lieutenant Pótaloff took it all in deadly earnest, -- talking tables and love. Perhaps he was less fortunate with the latter than with the tables; at any rate, when the news of the Polish insurrection came, he asked to be sent to the spot with the eighty soldiers. He hoped to return with a halo of military glory."
"I go against the Poles," he wrote in his diary; "it would be so interesting to be slightly wounded!"
He was killed. He rode on horseback by the side of the colonel who commanded the soldiers, when "the battle with the insurgents" - the glowing description of which may be found in the annals of the general staff - began. The soldiers were slowly advancing along the road when they met some fifty Poles, five or six of whom were armed with rifles and the remainder with sticks and scythes. The Poles occupied the forest and from time to time fired their guns. The file of soldiers returned the fire. Pótaloff twice asked the permission of the colonel to dismount and dash into the forest. The colonel very angrily ordered him to stay where he was. Notwithstanding this, the next moment the lieutenant had disappeared. Several shots resounded in the wood in succession, followed by wild cries; the soldiers rushed that way, and found the lieutenant bleeding on the grass. The Poles fired their last shots and surrendered; the battle was over, and Pótaloff was dead. He had rushed, revolver in hand, into the thicket, where he found several Poles armed with scythes. He fired upon them all his shots, in a haphazard way, wounding one of them, whereupon the others rushed upon him with their scythes.
At the other end of the road, on this side of the lake, two Russian officers behaved in the most abominable way toward the Poles who were building the same road, but took no part in the insurrection. One of the two officers rushed into their tent, swearing and firing his revolver at the peaceful exiles, two of whom he badly wounded.
Now, the logic of the Siberian military authorities was that as a Russian officer had been killed, several Poles must be executed. The court-martial condemned five of them to death: Szaramówicz, a pianist, a fine looking man of thirty, who was the leader of the insurrection; Celínski, a man of sixty, who had once been an officer in the Russian army; and three others whose names I do not remember.
The governor-general telegraphed to St Petersburg asking permission to reprieve the condemned insurgents; but no answer came. He had promised us not to execute them, but after having waited several days for the reply, he ordered the sentence to be carried out in secrecy, early in the morning. The reply from St Petersburg came four weeks later, by post: the governor was left to act "according to the best of his understanding." In the mean time five brave men had been shot.
The insurrection, people said, was foolish. And yet this brave handful of insurgents had obtained something. The news of it reached Europe. The executions, the brutalities of the two officers, which became known through the proceedings of the court, produced a commotion in Austria, and Austria interfered in favor of the Galicians who had taken part in the revolution of 1863 and had been sent to Siberia. Soon after the insurrection, the fate of the Polish exiles in Siberia was substantially bettered, and they owed it to the insurgents, -- to those five brave men who were shot at Irkútsk, and those who had taken arms by their side.
For my brother and myself this insurrection was a great lesson. We realized what it meant to belong in any way to the army. I was far away, but my brother was at Irkútsk, and his squadron was dispatched against the insurgents. Happily, the commander of the regiment to which my brother belonged knew him well, and, under some pretext, he ordered another officer to take command of the mobilized part of the squadron. Otherwise, Alexander, of course, would have refused to march. If I had been at Irkútsk, I should have done the same.
We decided then to leave the military service and to return to Russia. This was not an easy matter, especially as Alexander had married in Siberia; but at last all was arranged, and early in 1867 we were on our way to St Petersburg.
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