THE five years that I spent in Siberia were for me a genuine education in life and human character. I was brought into contact with men of all descriptions: the best and the worst; those who stood at the top of society and those who vegetated at the very bottom, --- the tramps and the so-called incorrigible criminals. I had ample opportunities to watch the ways and habits of the peasants in their daily life and still more opportunities to appreciate how little the state administration could give to them, even if it was animated by the very best intentions. Finally, my extensive journeys, during which I traveled over fifty thousand miles in carts, on board steamers, in boats, but chiefly on horseback, had a wonderful effect in strengthening my health. They also taught me how little man really needs as soon as he comes out of the enchanted circle of conventional civilization. With a few pounds of bread and a few ounces of tea in a leather bag, a kettle and a hatchet hanging at the side of the saddle, and under the saddle a blanket, to be spread at the camp-fire upon a bed of freshly cut spruce twigs, a man feels wonderfully independent, even amidst unknown mountains thickly clothed with woods, or capped with snow. A book might be written about this part of my life but I must rapidly glide over it here, there being so much more to say about the later periods.
Siberia is not the frozen land buried in snow and peopled with exiles only, that it is imagined to be, even by many Russians. In its southern parts it is as rich in natural productions as are the southern parts of Canada, which it resembles so much in its physical aspects and beside half a million of natives, it has a population of more than four millions of Russians. The southern parts of West Siberia are as thoroughly Russian as the provinces to the north of Moscow. In 1862 the upper administration of Siberia was far more enlightened and far better all round than that of any province of Russia proper. For several years the post of governor-general of East Siberia had been occupied by a remarkable personage, Count N. N. Muravióff, who annexed the Amúr region to Russia. He was very intelligent, very active, extremely amiable, and desirous to work for the good of the country. Like all men of action of the governmental school, he was a despot at the bottom of his heart; but he held advanced opinions and a democratic republic would not have quite satisfied him. He had succeeded to a great extent in getting rid of the old staff of civil service officials, who considered Siberia a camp to be plundered, and he had gathered around him a number of young officials, quite honest, and many of them animated by the same excellent intentions as himself. In his own study, the young officers, with the exile Bakúnin among them (he escaped from Siberia in the autumn of 1861), discussed the chances of creating the United States of Siberia, federated across the Pacific Ocean with the United States of America.
When I came to Irkútsk, the capital of East Siberia, the wave of reaction which I saw rising at St. Petersburg had not yet reached these distant dominions. I was very well received by the young governor-general, Korsákoff, who had just succeeded Muravióff, and he told me that he was delighted to have about him men of liberal opinions. As to the commander of the general staff, Kúkel, --- a young general not yet thirty-five years old, whose personal aide-de-camp I became, --- he at once took me to a room in his house, where I found, together with the best Russian reviews, complete collections of the London revolutionary editions of Hérzen. We were soon warm friends.
General Kúkel temporarily occupied at that time the post of governor of Transbaikália, and a few weeks later we crossed the beautiful Lake Baikál and went further east, to the little town of Chitá, the capital of the province. There I had to give myself, heart and soul, without loss of time to the great reforms which were then under discussion. The St. Petersburg ministries had applied to the local authorities, asking them to work out schemes of complete reform in the administration of the provinces, the organization of the police, the tribunals, the prisons, the system of exile, the self-government of the townships, --- all on broadly liberal bases laid down by the Emperor in his manifestoes.
Kúkel, supported by an intelligent and practical man, Colonel Pedashénko, and a couple of well-meaning civil service officials, worked all day long, and often a good deal of the night. I became the secretary of two committees, --- for the reform of the prisons and the whole system of exile, and for preparing a scheme of municipal self-government, --- and I set to work with all the enthusiasm of a youth of nineteen years. I read much about the historical development of these institutions in Russia and their present condition abroad, excellent works and papers dealing with these subjects having been published by the ministries of the interior and of justice; but what we did in Transbaikália was by no means merely theoretical. I discussed first the general outlines, and subsequently every point of detail with practical men, well acquainted with the real needs and the local possibilities; and for that purpose I met a considerable number of men both in town and in the province. Then the conclusions we arrived at were re-discussed with Kúkel and Pedashénko; and when I had put the results into a preliminary shape, every point was again very thoroughly thrashed out in the committees. One of these committees, for preparing the municipal government scheme, was composed of citizens of Chitá, elected by all the population, as freely as they might have been elected in the United States. In short, our work was very serious; and even now, looking back at it through the perspective of so many years, I can say in full confidence that if municipal self-government had been granted then, in the modest shape which we gave to it, the towns of Siberia would be very different from what they are. But nothing came of it all, as will presently be seen.
There was no lack of other incidental occupations. Money had to be found for the support of charitable institutions; an economic description of the province had to be written in connection with a local agricultural exhibition; or some serious inquiry had to be made. "It is a great epoch we live in; work, my dear friend; remember that you are the secretary of all existing and future committees," Kúkel would sometimes say to me, --- and I worked with doubled energy.
An example or two will show with what results. There was in our province a "district chief " --- that is, a police officer invested with very wide and indeterminate rights --- who was simply a disgrace. He robbed the peasants and flogged them right and left, --- even women, which was against the law; and when a criminal affair fell into his hands, it might lie there for months, men being kept in the meantime in prison till they gave him a bribe. Kúkel would have dismissed this man long before, but the governor-general did not like the idea of it, because he had strong protectors at St. Petersburg. After much hesitation, it was decided at last that I should go to make an investigation on the spot, and collect evidence against the man. This was not by any means easy, because the peasants, terrorized by him, and well knowing an old Russian saying, "God is far away, while your chief is your next-door neighbor," did not dare to testify. Even the woman he had flogged was afraid at first to make a written statement. It was only after I had stayed a fortnight with the peasants, and had won their confidence, that the misdeeds of their chief could be brought to light. I collected crushing evidence, and the district chief was dismissed. We congratulated ourselves on having got rid of such a pest. What was, however, our astonishment when, a few months later, we learned that this same man had been nominated to a higher post in Kamchátka! There he could plunder the natives free of any control, and so he did. A few years later he returned to St. Petersburg a rich man. The articles he occasionally contributes now to the reactionary press are, as one might expect, full of high "patriotic" spirit.
The wave of reaction, as I have already said, had not then reached Siberia, and the political exiles continued to be treated with all possible leniency, as in Muravióff's time. When, in 1861, the poet Mikháiloff was condemned to hard labor for a revolutionary proclamation which he had issued, and was sent to Siberia, the governor of the first Siberian town on his way, Tobólsk, gave a dinner in his honor, in which all the officials took part. In Transbaikália he was not kept at hard labor, but was allowed officially to stay in the hospital prison of a small mining village. His health being very poor, --- he was dying from consumption, and did actually die a few months later, --- General Kúkel gave him permission to stay in the house of his brother, a mining engineer, who had rented a gold mine from the Crown on his own account. Unofficially that was well known all over Siberia. But one day we learned from Irkútsk that, in consequence of a secret denunciation, the general of the gendarmes (state police) was on his way to Chitá, to make a strict inquiry into the affair. An aide-de-camp of the governor-general brought us the news. I was dispatched in great haste to warn Mikháiloff, and to tell him that he must return at once to the hospital prison, while the general of the gendarmes was kept at Chitá. As that gentleman found himself every night the winner of considerable sums of money at the green table in Kukel's house, he soon decided not to exchange this pleasant pastime for a long journey to the mines in a temperature which was then a dozen degrees below the freezing point of mercury, and eventually went back to Irkútsk, quite satisfied with his lucrative mission.
The storm, however, was coming nearer and nearer, and it swept everything before it soon after the insurrection broke out in Poland.Go To Part III, Chapter 3.