Her husband had been put to work as a labourer in a silver mine in Transbaikalia. She finally reached Nerchinsk where she heard her name being called by Katyusha Trubetskoy, who had also followed her husband. They had not been close friends in St. Petersburg, but now Maria fell into her arms. Maria had to present herself to the commandant of the mines and have her travel permit checked over. He considered the arrival of Maria very inconvenient and wasn’t afraid to show it. The formalities seemed endless to Maria, and she eventually fainted from exhaustion. She moved into a small room in a shack belonging to a Cossack with Katyusha. The next morning, Maria saw her husband. “My husband stood before me, and I saw that his legs were bound with heavy chains. No words can ever describe what I felt when I saw the immensity of his suffering.” Maria knelt down and kissed the chains.
Soon the days began to settle into a routine. Maria and Katyusha, who had little practical skills, had begun cooking, cleaning and sewing. They were only allowed to visit their husbands twice a week, but they often sat and watched them from a boulder. Soon, the two women and eight prisoners were moved to Chita, which was known as the garden of Siberia because of its vegetation. Katyusha and Maria hired two rooms. Over time, they had their own houses built there and their husbands could now visit them there. Then came the news of her son’s death. She was not told any details and blamed herself for leaving him. Her father died not much later. She wrote, “I felt as if the sky had collapsed over my head – desperately ill and for days unable to retain any food.” She became so ill that Sergei was temporarily released to care for her. She became better and slowly adjusted to living in Chita. She later wrote, “Our life in Chita has really become quite tolerable.”
As her health improved and the rules around her husband’s imprisonment relaxed, Maria found herself pregnant once more. On 1 July 1830, Maria gave birth to a daughter named Sonyushka, but she had been born with a defective heart valve and died after just two days of life. Sergei helped to make the tiny wooden coffin for his daughter. A heartbroken Maria wrote to her family, “In the entire surrounding landscape I can see only one thing, the new cross on the grave of my child. How will I ever find enough courage to live here and continue to look after Sergei, whose health has again taken a turn for the worse? Sonyushka would have given me the strength to continue. I am very lonely these days.”
Soon, they would be on the move again to a new prison at Petrovsky Zavod. Maria left her belongings with a friend and moved into cell 54 with her husband. It was completely dark, and they had candles lit all the time. She hated it. Maria wrote to the Tsar asking for windows to be put in. She later had a house built by the prison where she installed a maid and a cook. She would live there by day and returned to the cell at night, though these nightly visits became less over time. On 10 March 1832, Maria gave birth to a son she named Mikhail or Misha. He survived and was even joined by a younger sister named Yelena or Nelly in 1835. Several years of a monotonous life were to come and one by one, the Decembrists were being released and dispatched to settlements in Siberia where they were supposed to live for the rest of their lives. Maria began to fear that they too would be dispatched and wrote to her mother-in-law asking her to intercede on their behalf with the Dowager Empress. Her mother-in-law died in 1835, shortly after the arrival of the letter and her petition only reached the Tsar after her death. Maria’s mother-in-law had served the Imperial family for more than fifty years and granted the request. They were told to go to Urik, a village twenty miles from Irkutsk. Maria wrote in her diary, “God took pity on me. My children will have medical attention, and there are schools in the district. Nothing else matters.”
They had a cabin built there and were granted land to cultivate. Once they were settled in, the education of their children became Maria’s main concern. They were officially considered illegitimate and received abuse as “convict brats”, but in Urik, the peasant children did not care. They were bright children and learned to read and write in three languages. Maria and her children were then granted permission to move to Irkutsk but not Sergei. In Irkutsk, Maria’s legend began to grow. Their new house was two stories of fine timber, hand-painted decorations and large rooms. The town treated her as “our Princess” despite the fact that she was still officially the “wife of the state criminal Volkonsky.” Maria felt better, and her old vitality returned to her. She later wrote, “I shall always look kindly on the last eight years of our exile in Irkutsk.”
Meanwhile, Sergei had turned into a farmer, and he did not like living in his wife’s house, which he considered to be too luxurious. He eventually built himself a hut in the yard. They had begun to lead separate lives. In 1850, their daughter Nelly married Dmitri Vasilevich Molchanov and a week later, the newlyweds left for Moscow. Her daughter had found a place in society after all. Maria began to dream of building a theatre and a concert hall and managed to raise the funds.
On 18 February 1855, Tsar Nichola I died and his heir now Tsar Alexander II was determined to put an end to the exile. A formal proclamation of the amnesty coincided with the new Tsar’s coronation the following year, and in the meantime, Maria received a permit to travel to Moscow for a year. She reached Moscow in late September, 28 years after leaving for her exile. She reached her daughter’s apartment and met her grandson. However, that autumn Nelly’s husband died, though it would turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Two years later, she remarried a Prince to her mother’s joy. From the Moscow apartment, Maria watched the celebrations for the Tsar’s coronation. When the amnesty was announced, Mikhail travelled to tell his father, and they travelled back together to Moscow. Maria found it difficult to leave Siberia behind.
The amnesty did not officially grant the titles back to the Decembrists, though their wives and children were allowed to use them. Maria spent her last years between Voronky and Fall. She died on 10 August 1863 with her children by her side. Sergei had been too ill to travel, and he followed her to the grave two years later.1