We arrived at Tyumen, our destination, late at night. This was the end of our railway journey. At any other time we should have been appalled by the household arrangements of what was, by courtesy, styled an hotel; but after the experiences of that journey we were prepared to put up with anything. Tyumen, too, was a land of Canaan to inhabitants of Petrograd, where all foodstuffs had been rationed for several months, and we saw the famished travellers throwing themselves like hungry beasts on the masses of white bread, cold roast game, and sausages that peasant women sold in booths at the station. Though we behaved, I hope, with greater decorum, how we too enjoyed our first meal at that Tyumen hotel!

Here we found real home-baked bread and buns, caviare, delicious sterlet soup, game - and all at a price that no one had heard of in the capital for years! The keeper of the inn - for to tell the truth his establishment deserved no finer name - was a retired Polish colonel who had been wounded in the war. He was the type of the Polish officer of olden days - gallant to the ladies, and constantly executing a series of courtly bows and slides that had about them a vague flavour of the mazurka. The poor man was reduced by hard times to be not only innkeeper but also his own head waiter and chef - and a most excellent one he was! The hotel was strange. It came as a shock, for instance, to discover that we were supposed to bring our own bedding! My maid and I had to sleep on rugs on the floor, as there was only one available bed with a mattress, and this I insisted on leaving to Miss Mather. One sheet had been unearthed in the establishment, and this was obligingly given to us, and we were also supplied with the colonel's own pillow-slips. Washing arrangements were of the most primitive order. In one of the corridors of the hotel was a kind of three-legged table, on which was a pail with a spout out of which flowed a very small quantity of water, and visitors were supposed to use this for their ablutions. It was a sociable arrangement, as all those who passed had a full view of their neighbour's toilet; but the washing of our fellow-guests seemed to be of a somewhat summary nature. Happily, for the sake of public hygiene, the Russian steam bath on Saturdays is a generally recognised institution. As a concession to Miss Mather's nationality we managed to obtain a washing-stand for private use in our room. Otherwise we found the place not uncomfortable for the couple of days we had to stay in it, and quite warm. We had to be very cautious with the people we met, for though the Bolsheviks were not in the majority at Tyumen, yet there were many of them about. Still, as the Siberians are exceedingly friendly, one or two of our fellow-guests took great interest in us without even asking for our names. One of these was a stout and cheerful-looking merchant's widow, whose ample means were emphasised by the lovely diamond combs that seemed permanently to adorn her very agressive wig, not quite in keeping, perhaps, with the flowing red flannel dressing-gown and carpet slippers in which she spent the best part of the day. Though neither she nor the colonel had the faintest idea of our antecedents, they both went out of their way to help us in making arrangements for our further journey, and in fitting us out for it suitably.

The kindness of the merchant's widow even extended to accompanying me on a shopping expedition. I wish I could myself have seen the ridiculous sight my new friend and I must have presented on this occasion. In order to underline her importance in the eyes of the tradesmen, my companion wore a rich cloak of scarlet velvet, lined and trimmed with sable, while her head was swathed rather incongruously in many layers of grey knitted shawl, probably chosen so as not to disturb the diamond combs, which, being of the Spanish persuasion, would have been in the way of a hat. She occupied three-quarters of a small sledge, and I did my best to balance myself on the remainder. She was a competent adviser in the selection of hay to fill the bags on which we were to recline during the journey, of rugs of thick felt of the kind the nomads use for tents, which were to cover us in our sledges, and of numerous articles of which I had never heard, but which she assured me were indispensable to Siberian travel. She also made arrangements for the hiring of the post horses, being very particular about our getting safe drivers, as not all were to be trusted.

For my part I was greatly disappointed at being unable to hire a car. The people at the post station told me politely that they had heard there were such things in Petrograd and Moscow, but that no one had ever seen a car in those parts. I finally hired two conveyances - a voaok, a kind of closed carriage on runners, with no seat inside and no windows except a tiny round opening in front; and an open sledge for my maid.

At the last moment, before we started on our two hundred miles' drive, two rather unprepossessing-looking soldiers appeared and, as they were also bound for Tobolsk, asked to be allowed to share the maid's sledge. I did not altogether enjoy the idea of their company, but as the post had been robbed by highwaymen a few days previously, I supposed that after all they might be useful if we should be attacked; and as the colonel seemed very dubious about ladies undertaking the journey by themselves, I agreed that they might come with us.

We started early on the morning of January 1, 1918. It was a bright, sunny day, not too cold, 4 degrees F. below zero. Our costumes were marvellous. Before we left Petrograd my friends had supplied me with everything they considered suitable for a northern journey, and the result was a heterogeneous collection of clothing that must have produced a somewhat startling effect. Over my sealskin I wore a huge reindeer-skin coat lined with fox, which had belonged to my uncle, and which trailed on the ground when I walked. My feet were encased in immense felt boots, lent me for this journey by a very tall Grand Duke. Inside these whole haystacks had been put in order to enable me to walk in them. On my head I wore an aviator's fur-lined helmet, also much too large, which practically covered my face. Miss Mather had three layers of coats of different sizes and different stuffs, and wound around her head a large plaid of Royal Stuart tartan. This had great success among the Bolsheviks, who supposed it to indicate a line of political thought in accordance with their own!

We soon discovered that a drive in a vozok could not be looked upon in the light of a joy-ride. The small opening in front, though it was a wise precaution against the cold, allowed but little light to filter in. The smell of goats emanating from the felt rugs, combined with the terrible jolting as we bumped along the frozen ruts, reminded us of experiences on the high seas. Most of the road, at the best, was only thinly covered with snow, which in Siberia is quite dry and as fine as dust. Sheets of this light snow are blown hither and thither by the wind, so that often, whilst on one side of the road it lies many feet deep, on the other the ground may be bare. On account of this snow-storms are a terrible danger. The whole plain seems to move and shift, and if it were not for the lines of cut pine trees stuck up on both sides of the road the way would be difficult to keep. Not withstanding all precautions people are often lost in the drifts in the depth of winter.

It did not take us long to leave Tyumen behind us, and our Jehu, a very fierce-looking Tartar who did not understand a word of Russian, tore across the snowy plains as fast as his three small sturdy horses could carry us. He whistled to them incessantly and from time to time gave vent to weird shrieks, probably for special encouragement. All this noise seemed to be understood by the horses, who carried us nearly as fast as our train had done. The driver's shouts and the clanging of the big bells which every horse wore round its neck, to act as a signal in a snow-storm, were most irritating at first; but soon, tired out as I was, I began to drowse. My dreams took me back to Tsarskoe and to my former life. I seemed to be in the Empress's sitting-room. I saw its pale green furniture and familiar pictures. The Empress's tall, stately figure walked in, and I saw the kindly smile which so wonderfully lit up her somewhat cold and severe beauty. I seemed to hear her voice addressing me, when an awful jolt woke me with a start. I saw the reality - no palace, no Empress, but instead Siberia, and myself, a voluntary exile, going to join State prisoners in this desolate land.

The Siberian scenery, as I saw it on this journey, seemed to consist of endless snow-plains without human habitation, dotted here and there with dark and gloomy woods. The villages were at great distances from each other; at first there were some fifteen miles between them, then twenty-five or thirty! Their wooden houses were larger and more prosperous than those with us in Russia. The Siberian peasant is, generally speaking, a small landowner. Most of them own a number of acres of very fertile land, and each one has several horses, cows and sheep. Their cottages have three or four rooms and are much better furnished than those of the average Russian peasant. There is a mixture of old and new times both in the mentality and in the mode of living of the Siberian peasant. It comes as a surprise to see perfect electric light in a village some two hundred miles from the nearest railway station, and at the same time to find beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery that pertain to the eighteenth century.

Scarcely any land in Siberia proper belonged to the nobility. Indeed there were only six landed proprietors who were not of the peasant class in the whole of the Government of Tobolsk for instance, though it covers a greater surface than France, and their estates were not large. Vast expanses of country were, however, owned by the State. Tartar villages alternate with the others, distinguishable from afar by the minarets of their mosques, sharply outlined against the clear horizon, though the villagers themselves do not look different from the rest of the population. The Tartars were the first Siberian settlers. They were always a free people (they have never been serfs), and the Empress Catharine II in the seventeenth century granted vast stretches of land to them in order to induce them to emigrate. Land was cheap then, and their allotments were much larger than those granted to the Russian settlers who followed. The Tartars are sober and industrious and belong to the wealthiest part of the population, but as a whole the Siberian peasants give the impression of greater prosperity and culture than do their brethren beyond the Urals. To the fact that they have never been serfs may be attributed the people's dignity of carriage and independence of speech and opinion. Those I met disapproved for the most part of the new ideas. They were landowners, and felt that there was danger to property in what was being preached, though events in Petrograd did not affect them much. The Tsar to them was an exalted being, but as the proverb said: "It is high to God and far to the Tsar." He did not enter into their everyday life, and his deposition consequently did not touch a vital chord. They felt that there ought to be a head to the Government, but were more acutely troubled by the local disorganisation, which they too were beginning to feel.

"How long will this state of things last?" the majority asked me, when they detected by my accent that I was no Siberian; and they shook their heads disapprovingly on hearing that I was unable to answer them.

Though we met few travellers all the time, the high road was by no means empty. We overtook or met endless caravans of sledges heavily loaded with goods. Horse after horse trudged along, the feet of one stepping on the tracks made by the one before it. Many were without drivers, each horse following the leader, who, by instinct, got out of the way of any approaching conveyances that did not give room. These caravans followed each other in an uninterrupted procession, and the tinkling of their bells was the only sound in the still air. It is in this way that salt and incalculable quantities of salt fish, caught yearly at the mouth of the Obi, were taken down to Tyumen, thence to be sent by rail up and down the Trans-Siberian line. The fish, I was told, come up the river in such quantities during the season that the fishermen can never obtain enough receptacles in which to salt them. Thousands of fish, it was said, had generally to be left rotting in the sun.

Though I was to have a surfeit of snow before I left Siberia, I was entranced by the picture of those clear moonlight nights. The white plain glittered as if covered with diamonds, and in the deep shadows of the trees the blue and violet tones melted harmoniously into one another, making a perfect symphony of colour. I had never seen moonlight of such strength and radiance as in Siberia. This may be due to the transparency of the air, which is marvellously pure, as no microbes or germs of any kind can resist the cold blasts that come down from the North Pole without anything to arrest them on the way. Nor have I ever seen anywhere such beautiful sunsets. The whole sky was lit up by a scarlet and yellow glow as if a huge bonfire were burning near the horizon. In Tobolsk there were frequent displays of the Aurora Borealis, but I had not the luck to see one during this journey. I was so anxious to travel as fast as possible that we only stopped every three or four hours at the post relays to change the horses. This took about half an hour, during which we had just time to stretch our cramped limbs and enjoy the hot tea which was provided immediately on our arrival.

The post stations were usually one of the isbas (cottages) in a village, and the peasants in charge were most friendly and nospitable, not having as yet been affected by the hostility against the bourgeois which had become prevalent in the towns.

At one place, where the samovar was slow in appearing, I produced my thermos bottle. This nearly caused trouble. I had not realised it might seem very uncanny to the superstitious mind that had never heard of the invention. When I opened the bottle, which she had seen me take out of the sledge, and poured out steaming tea, my hostess threw up her hands and crossed herself vehemently. "This is sorcery!" she exclaimed. "They are witches! They do not even speak as we do!" This, of course, applied to Miss Mather, and my maid whose Russian was bad. (She was a Lett.) The woman seemed to think that we should bring misfortune into her house, and wanted to send for the priest! With the greatest difficulty I pacified her and demonstrated the workings of the bottle. My soldier escort proved useful in this emergency. As men of the world, who had seen me use the thermos before, they loftily explained to the civilians, of whom they were always slightly contemptuous as a species, that it was a German invention and a very clever one. Was it not known that the Germans were so clever that they had even invented monkeys? This was accepted as axiomatic and finished the discussion! I prudently refrained, however, from using the thermos after this. The people's justice - lynching - had come into use since the revolution, and I preferred not to tempt Fate!

We covered only about seventy miles on the first day of our journey, as the roads were appalling. We were told that we were lucky to travel by sledge, for in the summer the ruts are indescribable, and the usual conveyance then is a kind of basket on four wheels. Our drivers decided that it was necessary to make a halt of a few hours at night and to sleep at one of the stations, making an early start on the next day. Unfortunately the isba in which we were to rest was the smallest of those we had come across. In the room allotted to us, the owner, his wife, and all his children were already established for the night on the broad flat platform of the stove. When the light was brought in several little tousled heads, several pairs of bright gleaming eyes were raised from the mountain of red pillows and patchwork quilts which formed this family bed. The host amiably invited us to share it with his wife and five children, "as it was warmer there," suggesting that he himself should go and join the drivers in the next room. We were not tempted by his hospitable offer, but preferred to spread our coats on the ground, using our haybags as pillows, and resting on them in our clothes. Our hosts told us not to mind them and were really most considerate. Still, it came somewhat as a surprise when I woke up at night to feel something about my head, and to see my host bending over me. "Sorry I woke you," he said. "I happened to tread on your hair " (I had taken it down) "in stepping over you when I went to look after the horses."

On the second day of our journey we crossed the Tobol river again and again, as it winds from right to left in nearly parallel lines in its northward course. Each time the horses rushed down and up the steep banks at the top of their speed. Our charioteers were changed at every station, and we were driven once for several hours by a bold maiden of some sixteen summers, who had kept up the family trade while the men were at the war. She drove her horses even more recklessly than our usual drivers, and her shrieks were simply blood-curdling.

We now passed darker and gloomier forests in which, we were told, the Tobolese used often to go bear-hunting. Indeed only the day before a beautiful bear had been seen by some travellers. That was not our luck, happily; but as it got dark I saw from the shelter of our vozok some small specks, like glow- worms, under the trees. Miss Mather suggested that these might be wolves' eyes, especially as our horses pricked up their ears and pressed close together. I scoffed, considering that wolf days belonged to Russia's ancient history; but when I asked the driver he startled us by saying that they were "wolfies," and "bold ones too," he added. He seemingly felt quite friendly towards them, but we did not! This, joined to the tales of highwaymen and the great fatigue we were beginning to feel, would have made us ready to sleep at the station we reached at midnight, had not the people there struck us as having something unpleasant in their faces. We both had the same impression, though the owners were eager for us to remain, showing us a room actually prepared for travellers. Miss Mather asked me in Russian, our hosts being present, if I had not noticed the great likeness they bore to our Italian acquaintances the Fra Diavoloffs. I heartily agreed, and the people, pleased at their resemblance to unknown gentlefolk, were much surprised and aggrieved at our decision to depart! This proved a wise act on our part, for I heard later that this special post house was ill-famed, and even during our brief stay its expert owners managed to pilfer our belongings.

Three hours later we saw at last the lights of Tobolsk shining at a distance. It was like the sight of land to shipwrecked mariners. By this time we were completely worn out. Every bone in our bodies ached, and I was particularly sore, as I had had the unfortunate idea of sitting on my box instead of reclining gracefully on the haybags. I feared to trust my possessions to the soldiers' care, but though I had my property I had cause to remember my box for many days, as it rubbed through both my fur coats and left indelible marks on my person! We were taken to an hotel -a worse edition of the one at Tyumen; but nothing mattered to us. The only feeling we had was that we had reached our goal at last.

A special thank you to for scanning the text for this online edition.

Contact Bob Atchison for comments on this site.

Other books on Russian History from the Alexander Palace Association:

The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna by Sophie Buxhoeveden | Memories of the Russian Court by Anna Vyrubova | Thirteen Years at the Russian Court by Pierre Gilliard | Last Days at Tsarskoe Selo by Paul Beckendorff | St. Petersburg - Imperial City | Charles Cameron - Imperial Architect by Georges Loukomski | Tsarskoe Selo in 1910

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