Princess Maria Volkonsky was born Maria Raevskaya on 25 December 1805 as the youngest daughter of Russian general Nikolay Raevsky and Sophia Konstantinova. Her mother wrote, “She is totally unlike anyone in the family. Her face is all eyes – very dark with long lashes… She gazes at me unsmilingly, and she does not even cry like other babies.” Maria spent her childhood in Boltyshka (Ukraine) in a house overlooking the Dnieper. While her brothers were educated in St. Petersburg, Maria and her three sisters were educated at home and learned from French tutors and an English governess.
In early 1815, her father was given the command of the IV Army Corps which had its headquarters in Kiev. The entire family was to move there, and they were given a large house in the centre of town. It soon became a gathering place for the locals and suitors were already lining up for Maria’s elder sister. But it was Maria who was the subject of an 1820 poem by Alexander Pushkin. Maria’s sister Ekaterina married General Mikhail Fyodorovich Orlov in 1821, and not much later Maria’s first suitor appeared in the form of Count Gustav Olizar. Shortly after her 17th birthday, an official proposal of marriage came from him. It is unclear if her father discussed the matter with her, but he probably realised that she was not in love with the count. He wrote back to the count that there were “grave and to me insurmountable obstacles to this union.” In the meantime, a certain Prince Sergei Volkonsky had appeared on the scene.
Prince Sergei Volkonsky was from one of the noblest families in Russia. He was an avid reader, to his father’s frustration who wrote, “He thinks too much – you must stop him from reading all that romantic drivel from abroad!” For Prince Sergei, it was love at first sight, and he told a friend that the “little Raevsky” was going to be his wife. He began to call on Maria’s sister and her husband to see more of Maria. When the marriage proposal came, her father was quite pleased. There was no more splendid match for Maria. On 12 January 1825, Maria married Prince Sergei Volkonsky. Maria later wrote, “I was sad to leave home. My parents were convinced that they had assured me the most brilliant future, but I felt strangely uneasy as if through my wedding veil I had been able to discern the dark fate that awaited us.”
During the first year of their marriage, they only spent about three months together, and Maria realised that she barely knew her husband. Her sister wrote, “Mashenska looks beautiful, but she has lost much of her sparkle.” Nevertheless, Prince Sergei was deeply in love with her, and when they were apart, he often sent gifts and letters. In May, Maria discovered that she was pregnant. Maria was not aware that Prince Sergei had a secret and she later wrote, “I had no idea of the existence of any secret society or Sergei’s involvement in it. Sergei was so much older than I. In his eyes, I was still a child. How could he confide in me in matters of such gravity? And yet, it would have brought us together, had I known. I would have helped him to share the burden.”
Prince Sergei had been promoted to Major General Battle of Großbeeren and Battle of Dennewitz and he was the only general still in active service when he took part in the Decembrist conspiracy of 1825, which was a protest against Tsar Nicholas I’s accession to the throne after his elder brother Constantine removed himself from the line of succession. One night in early December, her husband returned home after midnight and called for his heavily pregnant wife to get up at once. He exclaimed that one of his fellow conspiracists had been arrested. Maria later wrote, “I started to tremble uncontrollably, trying to get a hold of myself so I could be of comfort to him. He seemed so infinitely sad and terribly distressed.” The following morning, he brought her to her parents’ house, and when she saw him again, he was a prisoner in the Peter and Paul Fortress.
Maria gave birth to her first child on 2 January 1826. She wrote, “I suffered greatly, as there was no midwife to attend me…” The young boy was named Nicholas and Maria came down with a terrible fever which kept her in bed for two months. She kept asking for her husband, unaware that he had been arrested. When she finally learned of his fate in early March, she was initially relieved that he was not dead. She wrote to him, “My beloved Sergei: Two days ago, I learned of your arrest. I will not allow my soul to be shattered by it. I put my hope in the mercy of our great-hearted Emperor. One thing I can assure you of: whatever your fate, I will share it.” As soon as she was able to travel, she took her son, and they travelled to St. Petersburg. She left her son with an aunt on the way. In St. Petersburg she met up with her mother-in-law, who was preparing to leave Moscow with the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (born Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg), for whom she acted as a lady-in-waiting. Her mother-in-law had been greatly embarrassed by her son’s actions, and it was only with the new Tsar’s reassurance that nothing had changed, that she dared to return to court.
Maria appealed directly to the Tsar to be able to visit her husband, “I know the greatness of soul of Your Majesty and cannot believe that Sergei had sinned beyond forgiveness. I will be patient, but I must go back to my small child, that is why I address myself directly to Your Imperial Majesty, count on his august mercy. I beg you, do not refuse my request.” Ten days later, her request was granted. “We were luckily allowed to talk French and vainly tried to cheer each other up.” Maria returned to her baby son and spent the next three months in social isolation. Meanwhile, her husband’s trial was underway. Several executions took place, but Prince Sergei was dispatched to Siberia. When Maria was finally informed, she immediately decided to go with him. Her father desperately tried to stop him her from going and even wrote to Prince Sergei, “You know the devotion of your wife. Do not be her assassin. The power to stop her is yours!”
She was finally granted permission to join her husband at the end of the year, but she would need to leave her son behind. She left him in the care of her mother-in-law and left for Moscow, the first leg of her long journey. After two weeks, she arrived in the Ural Mountains, yet she was not even halfway. After 4,000 miles she finally reached Irkutsk, the capital of eastern Siberia where she would live. She wrote, “I found Irkutsk attractive. Its position is lovely and the Angara River magnificent, even when covered with ice. My first act upon arrival was to go into a church and ask for a service of thanksgiving, for the more I reflected on my journey, the more grateful I was to God for allowing me to come this far safe and healthy.” She met with General Zeidler, who presented her with a document, which she signed without reading. She had effectively signed her life away. She needed authorisation to travel to Transbaikalia, but as Maria had signed away her social status, she had to join the long queue of petitioners. She later wrote, “I am glad I did not know what awaited me here. It would have made my decision to leave Nikolenka (their son) and the family much harder.”1