Shamanism is strictly prohibited by the Russian Government, although many Yakutes practise its rites in secret, and the Tunguses know no other faith. Only few Europeans have beheld the weird ceremonies performed by these people, generally at night in the depths of the forest or out on the lonely "Tundra," far from the eye of officialdom. The most lucid description of Shamanism which I have been able to obtain is that given by Mr. J. Stadling, the Swedish explorer, who led a few years ago an expedition through Northern Siberia in search of Monsieur Andre. Mr. Stadling writes: "The Universe, according to the Shamans, consists of a number of layers, or strata, which are separated from each other by some kind of intermediate space or matter. Seven upper layers constitute the kingdom of light, and seven or more lower layers the kingdom of darkness. Between these upper or lower layers, the surface of the earth, the habitation of mankind, is situated, whence mankind is exposed to the influence both of the upper and the lower world—i.e., the powers of light and of darkness. All the good divinities, spirits and genii, which create, preserve and support the weak children of men, have their abode in the upper layers, in the world of light. In the layers of the lower world the evil divinities and Spirits lurk, always seeking to harm and destroy mankind. In the highest layers (the 'Seventh Heaven'), the Great Tangara, or 'Ai-Toion,' as he is called in Northern Siberia, is enthroned in eternal light. He is perfect and good, or rather is exalted above both good and evil, and seems to meddle very little with the affairs of the Universe, caring neither for sacrifices nor prayers. In the fifth or ninth layer of the lower world, the fearful Erlik-Khan, the Prince of Darkness, sits on a black throne, surrounded by a court of evil spirits and genii. The intermediate layers are the abode of divinities and spirits of different degrees of light and darkness; most of them are the spirits of deceased men. All spirits exert influence on the destiny of man for good or evil; the children of men are unable to soften or to subdue these spiritual beings, whence the necessity of Shamans or Priests, who alone possess power over the spiritual world."
[Footnote 35: The Tunguses number about 12,000 to 15,000, and inhabit the region lying to the north-west and north-east of Yakutsk.]
[Footnote 36: "Through Siberia," by J. Stadling. London, 1901.]
I met some years ago at Tomsk, in Western Siberia, a fur-trader who had once secretly witnessed a Shaman ceremony, which he thus described to me: "Half a dozen worshippers were gathered in a clearing in a lonely part of the forest and I came on them by accident, but concealed myself behind some dense undergrowth. In a circle of flaming logs I saw the Shaman, clad in pure white and looking considerably cleaner than I had previously thought possible. Round his neck was a circular brass plate signifying the sun, and all over his body were suspended bits of metal, small bells, and copper coins, which jingled with every movement. The ceremony seemed to consist of circling round without cessation for nearly an hour, at the end of which time the Shaman commenced to howl and foam at the mouth, to the great excitement of his audience. The gyrations gradually increased in rapidity, until at last the Priest fell heavily to the ground, face downwards, apparently in a fit. The meeting then dispersed and I made my escape as quickly and as silently as possible, for had I been discovered my life would not have been worth a moment's purchase."
The museum at Yakutsk contains some interesting relics pertaining to Shamanism, amongst others some articles found near the Lena, in the tomb probably of an important personage, for the grave contained valuable jewellery, arms and personal effects. I observed that everything, from garments down to a brass tobacco-box, had been punctured with some sharp instrument, and Mr. Olenin explained that all articles buried with persons of the Shaman faith are thus pierced, generally with a dagger, in order to "kill" them before interment. About twenty miles north-east of Tostach we came across the tomb of a Shaman which, judging by its appearance, had been there about a century, and the shell with the remains had long since disappeared.
The deer were a long time coming at Tostach; one of our drivers accounted for the delay by the fact that wolves had been unusually troublesome this year, and when Stepan suggested that the wolves were two-legged ones, did not appear to relish the joke. For the man was a Tunguse, a race noted for its predatory instincts and partiality for deer-meat. Reindeer in these parts cost only from twelve to fifteen roubles apiece, but farther north they fetch forty to fifty roubles each, and the loss of many is a serious one.
We managed to get away from Tostach that afternoon (March 5) in a dense snowstorm, although on the preceding day the sun had blazed so fiercely into the sleds that we could almost have dispensed with furs. The weather, however, was mostly bright and clear all the way from the Lena to the coast, which was fortunate, for with sunshine and blue sky we could generally afford to laugh at cold and hunger, while on dull, grey days the spirits sank to zero, crushed by a sense of intolerable loneliness, engendered by our dismal surroundings and the daily increasing distance from home. The stage from Tostach was perhaps the hardest one south of the Arctic, for we travelled steadily for twelve hours with a head-wind and driving snow which rendered progress slow and laborious. Finally, reaching the povarnia of Kurtas in a miserable condition, with frost-bitten faces and soaking furs, we scraped away the snow inside the crazy shelter and kindled a fire, for no food had passed our lips for sixteen hours. But time progressed, and there were no signs of the provision-sled which, as usual, brought up the rear of the caravan. Ignorance was bliss on this occasion, for the knowledge that the vehicle in question was at that moment firmly fixed in a drift ten miles away, with one of its team lying dead from exhaustion, would not have improved matters. When our provisions reached Kurtas, we had fasted for twenty-four hours, which, in North-Eastern Siberia, becomes an inconvenience less cheerfully endured than in a temperate climate. Beyond Kurtas the track was almost overgrown, and our narta covers were almost torn to pieces by branches on either side of it. There were places where we had literally to force our way through the woods, and how the drivers held their course remains a mystery. Nearing the Tashayaktak mountain, however, we travelled along the Dogdo River for some distance; but here, although the road was clear, constant overflows compelled us to travel along the centre of the stream, which is about ten times the width of the Thames at Gravesend. Here the sleds occasionally skated over perilously thin ice, and as night was falling I was glad to reach terra firma. The Tashayaktak range is at this point nowhere less than three thousand feet in height, and I was anticipating a second clamber over their snowy peaks when Stepan informed me that the crossing could be easily negotiated by a pass scarcely five hundred feet high. Fortunately the wind had now dropped, for during gales the snow is piled up in huge drifts along this narrow pass, and only the previous year two Yakutes had been snowed up to perish of cold and starvation. However, we crossed the range without much difficulty, although boulders and frozen cataracts made it hard work for the deer, and another one fell here to mark our weary track across Siberia. And we lost yet another of the poor little beasts, which broke its leg in the gnarled roots of a tree, before reaching the povarnia of Siss, a hundred and thirty versts from Tostach. Here both men and beasts were exhausted, and I resolved to halt for twelve hours and recuperate.
[Footnote 37: When the letter "u" is surmounted by two dots it is pronounced like that in "Curtain."]
[Footnote 38: The names of places between Verkhoyansk and Sredni-Kolymsk were furnished by Stepan Rastorguyeff.]
The povarnia of Siss was more comfortable than usual, which means that its accommodation was about on a par with an English cow-shed. But we obtained a good night's rest, notwithstanding icy draughts and melted snow. The latter was perhaps the chief drawback at these places, for we generally awoke to find ourselves lying inch-deep in watery slush occasioned by the warmth of the fire. At Siss the weather cleared, and we set out next day with renewed spirits, which the deer seemed to share, for they, too, had revelled in moss, which was plentiful around the povarnia, while, as a rule, they had to roam for several miles in search of it. Siberian reindeer seem to have an insatiable appetite; whenever we halted on the road (often several times within the hour) every team would set to work pawing up the snow in search of food, with such engrossed energy that it took some time to set them going again. And yet these gentle, patient beasts would labour along for hours, girth-deep in heavy snow, their flanks going like steam-engines, and never dream of stopping to take a rest unless ordered to do so.
It would weary the reader to enumerate in detail the events of the next few days. Suffice it to say that half a dozen povarnias were passed before we reached Ebelach, a so-called village consisting of three mud-huts. Ebelach is more than seven hundred versts from Verkhoyansk, and we accomplished the journey in under a week. Only one place, the povarnia of Tiriak-Hureya, is deserving of mention, for two reasons: the first being that it exactly resembled the valley of Chamonix, looking down it from Mont Blanc towards the Aiguilles. I shall never forget the glorious sunset I witnessed here, nor the hopeless feeling of nostalgia instilled by the contemplation of those leagues of forest and snowy peaks, the latter gradually merging in the dusk from a delicate rose colour to bluish grey. Only the preceding summer I had stood on the principal "place" of the little Swiss town and witnessed almost exactly the same landscape, and the contrast only rendered our present surroundings the more lonesome and desolate. No wonder the Swiss are a homesick race, or that Napoleon, on his distant campaigns, prohibited, from fear of desertion, the playing of their national airs. Smoky cities could be recalled, even in this land of desolation, without yearning or regret, but I could never think of the sunlit Alps or leafy boulevards without an irresistible longing to throw reputation to the winds and return to them forthwith!
The other circumstance connected with Tiriak-Hureya is that the povarnia, measuring exactly sixteen feet by fourteen feet, was already tenanted by a venerable gentleman of ragged and unsavoury exterior, his Yakute wife, or female companion, three children, and a baby with a mysterious skin disease. We numbered sixteen in all, including drivers, and that night is vividly engraven on my memory. It was impossible to move hand or foot without touching some foul personality, and five hours elapsed before Stepan was able to reach the fire and cook some food. But notwithstanding his unspeakably repulsive exterior the aged stranger excited my curiosity, for his careworn features and sunken eyes suggested a past life of more than ordinary interest. He was an exile, one of the few who have lived to retrace their steps along this "Via Dolorosa." I addressed the poor old fellow, who told us that he had once spoken French fluently, but could now only recall a few words, and these he unconsciously interlarded with Yakute. Captain ——, once in the Polish Army, had been deported to Sredni-Kolymsk after the insurrection of 1863, and had passed the rest of his life in that gloomy settlement. He was now returning to Warsaw to end his days, but death was plainly written on the pinched, pallid face and weary eyes, and I doubt whether the poor soul ever lived to reach the home he had yearned for through so many hopeless years.
Nearing Ebelach the forest became so dense that we travelled almost in darkness, even at midday. Snow had fallen heavily here, and the drifts lay deep, while the trees on every side were weighted down to the earth with a soft, white mantle, that here and there assumed the weirdest resemblance to the shapes of birds and animals. I have never seen this freak of nature elsewhere, although it is mentioned by ancient explorers as occurring in the forests of Kamtchatka. And as we advanced northward optical delusions became constantly visible. At times a snow hillock of perhaps fifty feet high would appear a short distance away to be a mountain of considerable altitude; at others the process would be reversed and the actual mountain would be dwarfed into a molehill. These phenomena were probably due to rarefied atmosphere, and they were most frequent on the Arctic sea-board.
A number of small lakes were crossed between the last povarnia and Ebelach. There must have been quite a dozen of these covering a distance of twenty miles, and fortunately the ice was well covered with snow or it must have considerably impeded the deer. These lakes vary in size, ranging from about one to four miles in diameter, and are apparently very shallow, for reeds were visible everywhere sprouting through the ice. Swamps would, perhaps, better describe these shoaly sheets of water, which in summer so swarm with mosquitoes that deer and even the natives sometimes die from their attacks.
Ebelach was reached on March 9, and as the stancia here was a fairly clean one, I decided, although reindeer were in readiness, to halt for twenty-four hours. For even one short week of this kind of work had left its mark on us, and the catarrh, from which we now all suffered, did not improve the situation. When I look back upon the daily, almost hourly, fatigues and privations of that journey from the Lena River to Bering Straits, I sometimes marvel that we ever came through it at all; and yet this part of the voyage was a mere picnic compared to the subsequent trip along the Arctic coast. And indeed this was bad enough, for in addition to physical hardships there were hundreds of minor discomforts, a description of which would need a separate chapter. Vermin and bodily filth were our chief annoyances, but there were other minor miseries almost as bad as these. One was the wet inside the sleds at night. You lay down to sleep, and in a short time your breath had formed a layer of ice over the face, and the former melting in the warmer region of the neck gradually trickled down under your furs, until by morning every stitch of underclothing was saturated. On very cold nights the eyelids would be frozen firmly together during sleep, and one would have to stagger blindly into a stancia or povarnia before they could be opened. Again, on starting from a stancia at sunset, the hood of the sled is closed down on its helpless occupant, who must remain in this ambulant ice-box for an indefinite period, until it is re-opened from the outside, for no amount of shouting would ever attract the attention of the driver. The midnight hours were the worst, when we lay awake wondering how long it would be before the last remnant of life was frozen out of us. Two or three times during the night there would be a halt, and I would start up and listen intently in the darkness to the low sound of voices and the quick nervous stamp of the reindeer seeking for moss. Then came an interval of suspense. Was it a povarnia, or must I endure more hours of agony? But a lurch and a heave onward of the sled was only too often the unwelcome reply. At last the joyous moment would arrive when I could distinguish those ever-pleasant sounds, the creaking of a door followed by the crackling of sticks. A povarnia at last! But even then it was generally necessary to yell and hammer at the sides of your box of torture for half an hour or so, the drivers having fled to the cosy fireside intent upon warming themselves, and oblivious of every one else. No wonder that after a night of this description we often regarded even a filthy povarnia as little less luxurious than a Carlton Hotel.
The cold was so great that I had not slept for thirty-six hours before reaching Ebelach, but we soon made up for it here, where everything was fairly clean and even the ice windows were adjusted with more than usual nicety. Glazing is cheap in these parts. When the ponds are frozen to a depth of six or eight inches blocks of ice are cut out and laid on the roof of the hut out of reach of the dogs. If a new window is required the old melted pane is removed, and a fresh block of ice is fitted on the outside with wet snow, which serves as putty and shortly freezes. At night-time boards are placed indoors against the windows to protect them from the heat of the fire, but the cold in these regions is so intense that one ice window will generally last throughout the winter. The light filters only very dimly through this poor substitute for glass, which is almost opaque. By the way, here as in every other stancia a wooden calendar of native construction was suspended over the doorway. Some superstition is probably attached to the possession of these, for although I frequently tried to purchase one at a fancy price the owners would never sell this primitive timekeeper which was generally warped and worm-eaten with age. I never saw a new one.
After a square sleep of twelve hours we awoke to find the inmates of the stancia discussing a dish of fine perch caught from the adjacent lake. They had simply thawed the fish out and were devouring it in a raw state, but we managed to secure a portion of the welcome food, which, when properly cooked, was delicious, and a welcome change from Carnyl and the beef (or horse) from Yakutsk, which had lasted us until now. Every lake in this region teems with fish, which are never salted here for export, but only used for local consumption.
The postmaster's family was a large and thriving one. I noticed that the politeness of these natives increased as we proceeded northward, and that at the same time their mental capacity diminished. For instance, two of the people at Ebelach were hopeless idiots and I was prepared for the terrible percentage of insane persons which I afterwards found amongst the exiles of Sredni-Kolymsk by the large number of Yakutes of feeble intellect whom we encountered at the rest-houses beyond Verkhoyansk. Nearly every one contained one or more unmistakable lunatics, and it afterwards struck me that in a land where even the natives go mad from sheer despondency of life, it is no wonder that men and women of culture and refinement are driven to suicide from the constant dread of insanity. Idiocy, however, is more frequent amongst the natives, and in one povarnia we found a poor half-witted wretch who had taken up his quarters there driven away from the nearest stancia by the cruelty of its inmates. This poor imbecile had laid in a store of putrid fish and seemed quite resigned to his surroundings, but we persuaded him to return to his home with us. This was an exceptional case, for the Yakutes are generally kind and indulgent towards mental sufferers, their kindness perhaps arising to a certain extent from fear, for in these parts mad people are credited with occult powers which enable them to take summary vengeance on their enemies.
Leaving Ebelach the lakes became so numerous that the country may also be described as one vast sheet of water with intervals of land. We must have crossed over a hundred lakes of various sizes between the stancia of Khatignak and Sredni-Kolymsk, a distance of about five hundred versts. The majority were carpeted with snow, and afforded good going; but smooth black ice formed the surface of others, swept by the wind, and these worked sad havoc amongst our deer, of which four, with broken legs, had to be destroyed. Nearing Khatignak we crossed the Indigirka river, which rises in the Stanovoi range and flows through many hundred miles of desolation to the Arctic Ocean. The country here is more hilly, but sparse forests of stunted bushes and withered looking pine-trees were now the sole vegetation, and these were often replaced by long stretches of snowy plain. A long stage of seventy-five versts without a break brought us to Khatignak, where another reindeer dropped dead from exhaustion before the door of the stancia.
[Footnote 39: The now obsolete town of Zashiversk was situated on the right bank of this river.]
Some miles beyond Khatignak another chain of mountains was crossed, although downs would more aptly describe the Alazenski range. But the snow lay deep and we were compelled to make the ascent on foot, a hard walk of five hours in heavy furs under a blazing sun. On the summit is a wooden cross marking the boundary between the Kolyma and Verkhoyansk districts. The cross was hung with all kinds of rubbish, copper coins, scraps of iron, and shreds of coloured cloth suspended by horse-hair, which had been placed there by Yakute travellers to propitiate the gods and ensure a prosperous journey. The cross, as a Christian symbol, did not seem to occur to the worshippers of the Shaman faith, who had left these offerings. We slept on the northern side of the mountain at a povarnia renowned even amongst the natives for its revolting accommodation. In the Yakute language "Siss-Ana" signifies literally "one hundred doors," and the name was given to this sieve-like structure on account of the numberless and icy draughts which assail its occupants. The place is said to be accursed, and I could well believe it, for although a roaring fire blazed throughout the night, the walls and ceiling were thickly coated with rime in the morning, and towards midnight a bottle of "Harvey's Sauce" exploded like a dynamite shell, not ten feet from the hearth! The condiment was far too precious to waste, so it was afterwards carried in a tin drinking-cup, in a frozen state, and not poured out, but bitten off, at meals!
Between Siss-Ana and the stancia of Malofskaya the country becomes much wilder, and forests dwindle away as we near the timber line. Occasionally not a tree would be visible from sled to horizon, only a level plain of snow, which under the influence of wind, sunshine and passing clouds would present as many moods and aspects as the sea. On one day it would appear as smooth and unbroken as a village pond, on another the white expanse would be broken by ripples, solid wavelets stirred up by a light breeze, while after a storm, billows and rollers in the shape of great drifts and hillocks would obstruct our progress. As we neared the frozen ocean many storms were encountered, and approaching Sredni-Kolymsk these occurred almost daily as furious blizzards. On such occasions we always lay to, for it was impossible to travel against the overwhelming force of the wind. Frequently these tempests occurred in otherwise fine weather, and on such days the snow did not fall but was whirled up from the ground in dense clouds, and during the lulls, a momentary glance of sunshine and blue sky had a strange effect. And, as we gradually crept further and further north, a sense of unspeakable loneliness seemed to increase with every mile we covered. Let the reader try and realise that during the journey from Verkhoyansk of over one thousand miles, we had seen perhaps fifty human beings and—a dead ermine! When at Irkutsk I spoke of journeying to Sredni-Kolymsk I was regarded as a lunatic by the majority of my hearers. Yakutsk was their end of the world! And now that cold, monotony and silence were gradually telling upon the brain and nerves, I sometimes questioned, in moments of despondency, whether my Irkutsk friends were not right when they exclaimed: "You are mad to go there." There were compensations, notwithstanding, for a lover of Nature—the sapphire skies and dazzling sunshine, the marvellous sunsets under which the snowy desert would flash like a kaleidoscope of delicate colours, and last, but not least, the glorious starlit nights, when the little Pleiades would seem to glitter so near that you had but to reach out a hand and pick them out of the inky sky.
On March 14 a large caravan hove in sight, composed of perhaps a score of horse-sleds, which, as we neared it, halted, and a European emerged from the leading sled to greet us. This bearded giant in tattered furs proved to be the Russian naturalist, Yokelson, returning to Europe after a two years' exploration in North-Eastern Siberia—principally in the neighbourhood of Kamtchatka and the Okhotsk Sea. From Gijiga, Yokelson had struck in a north-westerly direction to Sredni-Kolymsk, and was bringing home a valuable collection for the society which had employed him in the United States. The Russian could only give us the worst of news from the Kolyma, where my expedition was expected by the ispravnik, although the latter had assured Yokelson that our projected journey to Bering Straits was out of the question. A famine was still raging, there were very few dogs, and those half starved and useless, and neither this official nor any one else in the place knew anything about the country east of Sredni-Kolymsk. Three years previously a Russian missionary had started with a driver on a dog-sled to travel from the Kolyma along the coast to the nearest Tchuktchi settlement, about 600 miles away, and the pair had never been heard of since. This was the cheerful information which, happily, the Russian traveller imparted to me in strict privacy.
Shortly after leaving Yokelson we crossed the Utchingoikel, or "Beautiful Lake," so called from its picturesque surroundings in summer time. At Andylach horses were harnessed to the sleds and we used no more deer, there being no moss between here and Sredni-Kolymsk. The change was not a desirable one, for the Yakute horse is a terrible animal. "Generally he won't move until your sled is upset, and then he runs away and it's impossible to stop him." So wrote Mr. Gilder, the American explorer, and his experience was ours. But Gilder was compelled to ride several stages and thus graphically describes his sufferings: "The Yakute horse can scarcely be called a horse, he is a domesticated wild animal. A coat or two was placed under the wooden saddle, so that the writer was perched high in the air like on a camel. The stirrups were of wood, and it was an art to mount, for they depended immediately from the pommel. When you mounted ten to one that you fell in front of the pommel, and as you could not get back over a pommel ten inches high you slid over the horse's head to the ground and tried again. Yakute horses are docile, provokingly so, for they have not enough animation to be wicked. The favourite gait is a walk so slow and deliberate that you lose all patience, and, if possible, raise a trot which is like nothing known to the outside world; your horse rises in the air and straightens out his legs and then comes down upon the end which has the foot on it, the recoil bouncing you high up from your seat just in time to meet the saddle as it is coming up for the next step. It's like constant bucking, and yet you don't go four miles an hour!"
I could sympathise with the writer of the above, for during the first day's work with these brutes I was upset five times, and felt towards evening like an invalid after a hard day with hounds.
Crossing lake after lake (this is a Siberian Finland) with intervals of forest and barren plain, we reached the last stancia of any size, Ultin. This is about two hundred miles from Sredni-Kolymsk, and the rest-house showed signs of approaching civilisation, or rather Russian humanity. For the floor was actually clean, there was a table and two chairs, and a cheap oleograph of his Majesty the Emperor pinned to the plank wall. The place seemed palatial after the miserable shelters we had shared, and I seized the opportunity of a wash in warm water before confronting the authorities at Sredni-Kolymsk.
On March 17 Atetzia was reached. This is, indeed, a land of contradictions, for, although only ten miles from Sredni-Kolymsk, the povarnia here was the filthiest we entered throughout the journey from Verkhoyansk. It contained two occupants, an old and ragged Yakute woman and a dead deer in an advanced state of decomposition. The former lay upon the mud floor groaning and apparently in great pain, with one arm around the neck of the putrid carcase beside her, and I inferred that she had been poisoned by partaking of the disgusting remains, probably in a raw condition, for there were no signs of a fire. But the medicine-chest alleviated her sufferings, and we left the poor wretch full of gratitude and in comparative comfort. The same afternoon we reached our destination, having accomplished the journey from Verkhoyansk in eighteen days, although four months had been freely predicted as its probable duration!
AN ARCTIC INFERNO
NOTE.—The information contained in the following chapter was chiefly obtained from Government officials stationed at Sredni-Kolymsk, the facts being afterwards verified, or otherwise, by political exiles at the same place by my request.
We reached Sredni-Kolymsk early in March on a glorious day, one of those peculiar to the Arctic regions, when the pure, crisp air exhilarates like champagne, and nature sparkles like a diamond in the sunshine. But as we neared it, the sight of that dismal drab settlement seemed to darken the smiling landscape like a coffin which has been carried by mistake into a brilliant ball-room. I once thought the acme of desolation had been reached at Verkhoyansk, but to drive into this place was like entering a cemetery. Imagine a double row of squalid log-huts, with windows of ice, some of which, detached by the warm spring sunshine, have fallen to the ground. This is the main "street," at one extremity of which stands a wooden church in the last stage of decay, at the other the house of the Chief of Police, the only decent building in the place. So low indeed are these in stature that the settlement is concealed, two or three hundred yards away, by the stunted trees around it. Only the rickety spire of a chapel is visible, and this overtops the neighbouring dwellings by only a few feet. Picture perhaps a score of other huts as squalid as the rest scattered around an area of half a mile, and you have before you the last "civilised" outpost in Northern Siberia. All around it a desolate plain, fringed by grey-green Arctic vegetation and bisected by the frozen river Kolyma; over all the silence of the grave. Such is Sredni-Kolymsk, as it appeared to me even in that brilliant sunshine—the most gloomy, God-forsaken spot on the face of this earth.
At first sight the place looked like an encampment deserted by trappers, or some village decimated by deadly sickness; anything but the abode of human beings. For a while our arrival attracted no attention, but presently skin-clad forms emerged here and there from the miserable huts, and haggard faces nodded a cheerless welcome as we drove past them towards the police office. Here a dwelling was assigned to us, and we took up our residence in quarters colder and filthier than any we had occupied since leaving Verkhoyansk. And yet our lodgings were preferable to many of those occupied by the exiles.
During our visit Sredni-Kolymsk had a population of about three hundred souls, of whom only fourteen were political offenders. The remainder were officials, criminal colonists, and natives of the Yakute, Lamute, or Tunguse races. The Cossacks here subsist chiefly by trapping and fishing, but are also nominally employed as guards—a useless precaution, as starvation would inevitably follow an attempt to escape. The criminal colonists are allotted a plot of ground in this district after a term of penal servitude, and I have never beheld, even in Sakhalin, such a band of murderous-looking ruffians as were assembled here. They were a constant terror to the exiles, and even officials rarely ventured out after dark.
The police officials here were sour, stern-visaged individuals, and our welcome was as frigid as it had been warm at Verkhoyansk. The Chief of Police had recently met his death under tragic circumstances, which I shall presently describe, and I was received by the acting ispravnik, whose grim manners and appearance were in unpleasant contrast to those of our kind old friend Katcherofsky. Although this natural prison had no bolts and bars or other evidences of a penal system, the very air seemed tainted with mystery and oppression, and the melancholy row of huts to scrawl the word "captivity" across the desolate landscape. Even the ispravnik's room, with its heavy black furniture and sombre draperies, was suggestive of the Inquisition, and I searched instinctively around me for the rack and thumbscrews. How many a poor wretch had stood in this gloomy apartment waiting patiently, after months of unspeakable suffering, for some filthy hovel wherein to lay his head. It seemed to me that crape and fetters would more fittingly have adorned those whitewashed walls than a sacred Ikon encrusted with jewels, and heavily gilt oil-paintings of their Imperial Majesties! A couple of tables littered with papers occupied the centre of the room, and at one of these sat the ispravnik, a wooden-faced peremptory person in dark green tunic and gold shoulder straps. A couple of clerks, also in uniform, were busily engaged at the other desk, sorting the mail which our Cossack had brought, and in expectation of which a group of poorly clad, shivering exiles were already waiting in the piercing cold outside. But when we left this place ten days later not a single letter had reached its destination, although the post-bag contained over a hundred addressed to the various politicals.
Even the Governor-General's all-powerful document produced little effect here, for the ispravnik appeared to regard himself as beyond the reach of even the Tsar's Viceroy, which, indeed, from an inaccessible point of view, he undoubtedly was. "You cannot possibly go," was the curt rejoinder to my request for dogs and drivers to convey us to the Bering Straits. "In the first place, a famine is raging here and you will be unable to procure provisions. Stepan tells me that you have barely enough food with you to last for two weeks, and it would take you at least twice that time to reach the nearest Tchuktchi settlement, which we know to be beyond Tchaun Bay, six hundred miles away. A year ago two of our people tried to reach it, and perished, although they left here well supplied with dogs and provisions. For all I know the Kor (which has decimated this district) may have killed off the coast natives or driven them into the interior of the country, and then where would you be, even supposing you reached Tchaun Bay, with no shelter, no food, and another month at least through an icy waste to Bering Straits. As for dogs, most of ours have perished from the scarcity of fish caught last summer; I don't think there are thirty sound dogs in the place, and you would need at least three times that number. Reindeer, even if we could get them, are out of the question, for there is not an ounce of moss on the coast. But even with dogs forthcoming I doubt whether you would find drivers to accompany you, for all our people are in deadly terror of the Tchuktchis. No, no! Take my advice and give up this mad project even if you have to remain here throughout the summer. It will at any rate be better than leaving your bones on the shores of the Arctic Ocean."
My experience of Russian ispravniks is varied and extensive, and I therefore realised that argument was useless with this adamantine official, whose petty tyranny was evidently not confined to his dealing with his exiles. I therefore returned to our cheerless quarters in anything but a pleasant frame of mind, and almost convinced that our overland expedition was now finally wrecked. The outlook was not a cheerful one, for the homeward journey would in itself be miserable enough, without the addition of floods and a possible detention through a sultry, mosquito-infested summer at Verkhoyansk. It has seldom been my lot to pass such a depressing evening as that which followed my interview with the ispravnik, but the prospect of an entire summer's imprisonment in Arctic wilds affected us far less than the failure of the expedition. Harding probably echoed the feelings of all when he exclaimed with a gesture of despair: "When we set out on this job the devil must have taken the tickets!"
Stepan alone was silent and taciturn. When I awoke next morning at daybreak he had disappeared, presumably to procure reindeer for the return journey. But the season was now so far advanced that the ispravnik called during the day to beg me not to risk a spring journey to Yakutsk. It was far better, he averred, to remain here and travel back in safety and comparative comfort in the late fall. It would even be preferable to attempt the summer journey down the Kolyma River and over the Stanovoi Mountains to Ola on the Okhotsk Sea. The trip had certainly never been made, but then no more had our projected one to America, and how infinitely preferable to arrive at Ola, where we might only have to wait a few days for a steamer, than to start off on a wild goose chase to Bering Straits which we should probably never reach at all. "Besides," continued the ispravnik, "the Ola trip would be so easy by comparison with the other. No drivers and dog-sleds to be procured, merely a flat-bottomed boat which could be put together in a few days." From my friend's eagerness to avoid trouble of any kind I now strongly suspected that laziness was the chief cause of our present dilemma, although this official's demeanour was so much more conciliatory than on the previous day, that I fancied that a night's reflection had revealed the unpleasant results that might follow my unfavourable report of his conduct at Irkutsk. Although we sat for hours that day consuming tea and innumerable cigarettes, I was no nearer the solution of the problem at sunset than at dawn. And had I but known it, all the time I was vainly urging this stolid boor to reconsider his decision, help was arriving from a totally unexpected quarter. I discussed a cheerless and silent meal with my companions, and we were turning in that night when Stepan strolled in, cool and imperturbable as usual. He even divested himself of furs and helped himself to food before making an announcement which sent the blood tingling through my veins with excitement and renewed hope.
"I have got the dogs," said the Cossack quietly, with his mouth full of fish and black bread. "Sixty-four of them; we can go on now!" The news seemed too good to be true, until Stepan explained that he had travelled thirty miles down the river that day to obtain the animals from a friend. The dogs were poor, weakly brutes, and the price asked an exorbitant one, but I would gladly have paid it thrice over, or pushed on towards our goal, if need be, with a team of tortoises. Even now I anticipated some difficulty with the ispravnik, and was relieved when, the next morning, he consented without demur to our departure. Indeed, I rather fancy he was grateful to the Cossack for ridding him so easily of his troublesome guests. The indefatigable Stepan had also procured three drivers, so that I had no further anxiety on that score. But several days must elapse before sufficiently strong sleds for our purpose could be constructed. I therefore resolved to utilise the time by making the acquaintance of the exiles and studying the conditions of their existence in this out-of-the-way corner of creation. This was at first no easy matter, for if the officials here were suspicious the politicals were a thousand times more so, of one who had invariably written in favour of Russian prisons. Most of these "politicals" were familiar with Mr. Kennan's indictment and my subsequent defence of the Russian exile system, but the fact that my party was the first to visit this place for a period of over thirty years imbued an investigation of its penal system with such intense interest that, notwithstanding many rebuffs, I finally gained the confidence of all those who had been banished to this Arctic inferno. And the information which I now place before the reader is the more valuable in that it was derived, in the first place, from an official source.
I should perhaps state that my experience of Russian prisons dates from the year 1890. Mr. Kennan's report on the conditions of the penal establishments throughout Siberia was then arousing indignation throughout civilised Europe, and his heart-rending accounts of the sufferings endured by political and criminal offenders obviously called for some sort of an explanation from the Tsar's Government. A mere official denial of the charges would have been useless; a disinterested person was needed to report upon the prisons and etapes which had been described as hells upon earth, and to either confirm or gainsay the statements made by the American traveller. The evidence of a Russian subject would, for obvious reasons, have met with incredulity, and it came to pass, therefore, that through the agency of Madame de Novikoff, herself a prison Directress, I was selected for a task, which although extremely interesting, subjected me to much unfavourable criticism on my return to England. Some yellow journals even went so far as to suggest that I had received payment from the Russian Government for "whitewashing" its penal system, but I fancy the following pages should conclusively disprove the existence of any monetary transactions, past or present, between the Tsar's officials and myself, to say nothing of the fact that my favourable account of the prisons of Western Siberia has been endorsed by such reliable and well-known English travellers as Dr. Lansdell and Mr. J. Y. Simpson. In fairness, however, to Mr. Kennan, I should state that my inspection of the Tomsk forwarding prison and similar establishments was made fully five years after his visit.
In 1894 I again proceeded to Siberia (under similar conditions) to report upon the penal settlement on the Island of Sakhalin, the political prison of Akatui, and the mines, where only convict labour is employed, of Eastern Siberia. On this occasion I travelled from Japan to the Island of Sakhalin on board a Russian convict ship, a voyage which convinced me that the Russian criminal convict is as humanely treated and well cared for at sea as he is on land, which says a great deal. I have always maintained that were I sentenced to a term of penal servitude I would infinitely sooner serve it in (some parts of) Siberia than in England. It is not now my intention, however, to deal with the criminal question, but to describe, as accurately as I can, the life led by a handful of political exiles.
There are now only two prisons throughout the Russian Empire where political prisoners are actually incarcerated, one is the fortress of Schlusselburg on Lake Ladoga within a short journey of St. Petersburg, the other the prison of Akatui, in the trans-Baikal province, about three hundred miles east of Irkutsk. Schlusselburg I have never visited, but I inspected the prison of Akatui, and conversed freely with the politicals within its walls. The majority were men of education, but dangerous conspirators, condemned to long terms of penal servitude. The strictest prison discipline, the wearing of fetters, hard labour in the silver mines, and association at night in public cells with the vilest criminals was the lot of those whom I saw at Akatui, and yet I doubt if any of these men would willingly have changed places with their exiled comrades "domiciled" in comparative liberty at Sredni-Kolymsk. For the stupendous distance of the latter place from civilisation surrounds it with even more gloom and mystery than the Russian Bastille on Lake Ladoga, which is the most dreaded prison of all.
[Footnote 40: Political prisoners are no longer confined in the fortress of SS. Peter and Paul. Short terms of imprisonment previous to banishment to Siberia are served in the citadels of Warsaw and other cities, but Schlusselburg and Akatui are the only establishments now used as political prisons in the real sense of the word.]
At the time of our visit, the exiles here numbered twelve men and two women, only two of whom had been banished for actual crime. One of these was Madame Akimova, who was found with explosives concealed about her person at the coronation of Nicholas II., and the other, Zimmermann, convicted of complicity in the destruction of the public workshops at Lodz by dynamite a few years ago. With these two exceptions the Sredni-Kolymsk exiles were absolutely guiltless of active participation in the revolutionary movement, indeed, most of them appeared to be quiet, intelligent men, of moderate political views who would probably have contributed to the welfare and prosperity of any country but their own. Only one or two openly professed what may be called anarchistic views, and these were young students, recent arrivals, who looked more like robbing an orchard than threatening a throne. So far as I could see, however, most of these so-called political offenders had been consigned to this living tomb merely for openly expressing opinions in favour of a constitution and freedom of speech. And strange as it may seem, some of them were occasionally almost cheerful under circumstances that would utterly annihilate the health and spirits of an average Englishman. But even European Russia is an unutterably dreary land in a stranger's eyes, which perhaps accounts for this remarkable fact.
The most pitiable characteristic about Sredni-Kolymsk is perhaps the morbid influence of the place and its surroundings on the mental powers. The first thing noticeable amongst those who had passed some years here was the utter vacancy of mind, even of men who in Europe had shone in the various professions. Amongst them was a well-known Polish author, who, upon his arrival here, only three years ago, set to work upon an historical novel to lighten the leaden hours of exile. But it must be more than disheartening to realise that your work, however good it may be, will never reach the printer's hands. In six months the book was thrown aside in disgust, and in less than a year afterwards the writer's mind had become so unhinged by the maddening monotony of life, that he would, in civilisation, have been placed under restraint. I met also a once famous professor of anatomy (who had been here for seven years), and who, although completely indifferent to the latest discoveries of surgical science, displayed an eager interest as to what was going on at the Paris music-halls. Indeed, I can safely state that, with three exceptions, there was not a perfectly sane man or woman amongst all the exiles I saw here.
[Footnote 41: I was requested to suppress the name.]
"A couple of years usually makes them shaky," said an official, "and the strongest-minded generally become childish when they have been here for five or six."
"But why is it?" I asked.
My friend walked to the window and pointed to the mournful street, the dismal hovels, and frozen river darkening in the dusk.
"That," he said, "and the awful silence. Day after day, year after year, not a sound. I have stood in that street at mid-day and heard a watch tick in my pocket. Think of it, Mr. de Windt. I myself arrived here only a few months ago, but even I shall soon have to get away for a change, or——" and he tapped his forehead significantly.
The insanity which I found so prevalent amongst the exiles here is no doubt largely due to physical privation. When a man is banished for political reasons to Siberia, his property is confiscated to the uttermost farthing by the Russian Government, which provides a fixed monthly allowance for his maintenance in exile. At Sredni-Kolymsk it is nineteen roubles a month, or about L1 16s., an absurdly inadequate allowance in a place where the necessaries of life are always at famine prices. During our stay here flour was selling at a rouble a pound, and an abominable kind of brick tea at two roubles a pound, while candles, sugar, and salt cost exactly five times as much as at Yakutsk, where European prices are already trebled. The price of deer-meat was, therefore, prohibitive, and the exiles were living throughout the winter upon fish caught the preceding summer, unsalted, and therefore quite unfit for human consumption. And this at mid-day was their sole nourishment, breakfast and supper consisting of one glass of weak tea and a small piece of gritty black bread! Sugar was such a luxury that a lump was held in the teeth while the liquid was swallowed, one piece thus serving for several days in succession. Were a house and clothing provided, even the miserable pittance provided by the Government might suffice to keep body and soul together, but this is not the case. Some of the exiles were accordingly occupying almost roofless sheds that had been vacated by the Yakutes, while many were so poorly clad that in winter time they were unable to leave their miserable huts.
The house occupied by Monsieur Strajevsky, a Polish gentleman, whose personality I shall always recall with sincere regard and sympathy, will serve as a type of the better class of dwelling occupied by these exiles. It consisted of a low, mud-plastered log hut about 6 ft. in height, 14 ft. by 10 ft. was the measurement of the one room it contained, with a floor of beaten earth, glistening with the filth of years. A yellow light filtered dimly, even on the brightest day, through the slab of ice which formed the solitary window, but it revealed only too clearly the dirt and squalor of the room. Some planks on trestles formed my friend's sleeping-place, and more planks strewn with books and writing materials, his table. An old kerosene tin was the only chair, and as I seated myself my friend went to the mud hearth and kindled a few sticks, which burned brightly for a few moments and then flickered out. He then left the hut, climbed on to the roof, and closed the chimney with a bundle of rags. This is the Yakute mode of warming an apartment, and it is practised for economy, for Sredni-Kolymsk is near the tree line, and firewood, like everything else, is an expensive article. Even timber is so costly here that towards sunset every inhabitant of Sredni-Kolymsk fired up preparatory to blocking up his chimney for the night. The outlook from our hut was at this hour a weird and unique one, as an avenue of fires rose from the mud hovels and ascended in sheets of flame to the starlit sky. But this illumination was stifled in a few seconds by dense clouds of smoke. This method of obtaining warmth is scarcely a success, for I sat during my visit to Strajevsky in an atmosphere minus 47 deg. Fahrenheit by my thermometer. And in this miserable den my Polish friend, once a prosperous barrister in Warsaw, had passed eight of the best years of his life, and is still, if alive, dragging out a hopeless existence.
In summer time life here is perhaps less intolerable than during the winter, for the Kolyma River teems with fish, and edible berries are obtainable in the woods. Geese, duck, and other wild fowl are plentiful in the spring, and as fire-arms are not prohibited, game at this season is a welcome addition to a generally naked larder. Manual labour, too, is procurable, and an exile may earn a few roubles by fishing, trapping, wood-cutting, &c.; but the dark winter months must be passed in a condition of inactive despair. During the winter season there are two mails from Russia brought by the Cossacks in charge of the yearly consignment of exiles, but in spring, summer, and early autumn Sredni-Kolymsk is as completely cut off from the outer world, as a desert island in mid-ocean, by swamps and thousands of shallow lakes which extend landwards on every side for hundreds of miles. A reindeer-sled skims easily over their frozen surface, but in the open season a traveller sinks knee-deep at every step into the wet spongy ground.
Summer here is no glad season of sunshine and flowers, only a few brief weeks of damp and cloudy weather, for even on fine days the sun looms through a curtain of mist. Rainy weather prevails, and the leaky huts are often flooded for days together by an incessant downfall. Swarms of mosquitoes and sand flies are added to other miseries, for there is no protection against these pests by night or day, save by means of dimokuris, a bundle of leaves, moss, and damp pine logs which is ignited near a hut and envelops it in a perpetual cloud of pungent and stifling smoke. At this season of the year there is much sickness, especially a kind of low fever produced by the miasma from the surrounding marshes. Epidemics are frequent, and during our stay smallpox was raging, but chiefly amongst the native population. Leprosy is as prevalent here as in Central Asia, but Russians suffer chiefly from bronchitis and diphtheria, which never fail to make their appearance with the return of spring. Every one suffers continually from catarrh, irrespective of age or race, indeed we all had it ourselves. And yet in this hotbed of pestilence there is no Government infirmary, nor is any provision whatever made for the sick. Mr. Miskievitch (a young medical student and himself an exile) was attending the community, but a total lack of medical and surgical appliances rendered his case a hopeless one. I inquired for the old hospital and was shown a barn-like construction partly open to the winds and occupied by a family of filthy but thriving Yakutes. The new infirmary for which a large sum of money was subscribed in St. Petersburg ten years ago adjoined the older building, but the former was still in its initial stage of foundations and four corner posts, where it will probably reign, the silent witness of a late ispravnik's reign and rascality.
But there exists a mental disease far more dreaded than any bodily affliction, or than even death itself, by this little colony of martyrs. This is a form of hysteria chiefly prevalent amongst women, but common to all, officials, exiles, and natives alike, who reside for any length of time in this hell upon earth. The attack is usually unexpected; a person hitherto calm and collected will suddenly commence to shout, sing, and dance at the most inopportune moment, and from that time the mind of the patient becomes permanently deranged. A curious phase of this disease is the irresistible impulse to mimic the voice and actions of others. Thus I witnessed a painful scene one night in the home of an exile who had assembled some comrades to meet me, and, in the street one day, a peasant woman, born and bred here, seized my arm and repeated, with weird accuracy, a sentence in French which I was addressing to de Clinchamp. This strange affliction is apparently unknown in other Arctic settlements. It is probably due to gloomy surroundings and the eternal silence which enfolds this region. The malady would seem to be essentially local, for the daughter of a Sredni-Kolymsk official who was attacked, immediately recovered on her removal to Yakutsk. On the other hand, sufferers compelled to remain here generally become, after a few years, hopelessly insane. In the opinion of Dr. Miskievitch the affliction is largely due to a total inertia of the reasoning faculties, which after a time becomes a positive torture to the educated mind.
[Footnote 42: The Russian explorer, Von Wrangell, mentions an apparently similar mental disease as existing in these regions in 1820. He writes: "There is here, indeed (Sredni-Kolymsk), as in all Northern Siberia, that singular malady called mirak, which, according to the universal superstition of the people, proceeds from the ghost of a much-dreaded sorceress, which is supposed to enter into and torment the patient. The mirak appears to me to be only an extreme degree of hysteria; the persons attacked are chiefly women."—"Siberia and the Polar Sea," by Von Wrangell, 1829.]
This evil could undoubtedly be remedied. For instance, were mental work of any kind, even unremunerative, provided by the Government it would be eagerly welcomed by every exile with whom I conversed, but the authorities seem to consider apathy of the mind as essential a punishment as privation of the body. Some years ago the exiles here were permitted to instruct young children of the Free Community, and their life was thus rendered infinitely less unbearable than before, but shortly afterwards, and for no apparent reason, an order was issued from St. Petersburg to cancel this "privilege."
I found, oddly enough, an almost total lack of resentment amongst the victims consigned here by an infamous travesty of justice. Madame Akimova, for instance, a plain but homely-looking person, seemed devoted to the care of her miserable little household to the exclusion of all mundane matters. I sometimes wondered, as I sat in her hut, and watched the pale, patient little woman clad in rusty black ceaselessly striving to make his home less wretched for her husband, whether this could really be Theisa Akimova, the famous Nihilist, whose name had one time, and not so very long ago, electrified Europe. We often spoke of Paris, which Akimova knew well, but she evinced little or no interest in the political questions of the day, and I never once heard her murmur a word of complaint. Nevertheless she is here for life. Zimmermann was another example of mute resignation, but I fancy that in his case years of exile had somewhat dulled the edge of a once powerful intellect. Strajevsky, Miskievitch, and the others were enduring a life of captivity and suffering for offences which, in any country but Russia, would scarcely have subjected them to a fine, and yet they never in my hearing showed vindictiveness towards those who had sent them into exile. And it is a significant fact that, although the higher officials of State were sometimes execrated, I never once heard a member of the Imperial family spoken of with the slightest animosity, or even disrespect. A reason for this is perhaps to be found in the following incident: Upon one occasion I expressed my surprise to an exile that his Majesty the Tsar, a ruler renowned for his humanity and tolerance, should sanction the existence of such a place of exile as Sredni-Kolymsk.
"The Emperor!" was the answer with a bitter laugh; "you may be quite sure that the Emperor does not know what goes on, or we should not be here for a day longer."
Although the expedition remained here for only ten days, it seemed, on the day of our departure, as though as many months had elapsed since our arrival. Each day seemed an eternity, for my visit to the huts of the exiles always took place, for obvious reasons, after dark. During the hours of daylight there was absolutely nothing to do but to stare moodily out of the window at the wintry scene as cheerless as a lunar landscape. Outdoor exercise is undesirable in a place where you cannot walk three hundred yards in any direction without floundering into a snow-drift up to your waist. So during the interminable afternoons I usually found my way to the tiny hut known as the Library. It contained seven or eight hundred books on dull and dreary subjects which, however, had been read and reread until most of the volumes were torn and coverless. Amongst the numerous photographs of exiles past and present that were nailed to the log wall one object daily excited my curiosity. This was a funeral wreath composed of faded wild flowers secured by a black silk ribbon, and bearing the golden inscription "Auf Wiedersehen" in German characters. One evening at the house of an official I happened to mention this withered garland, and learned that it had been laid upon the coffin of a young exile by his comrades only a few weeks previously. The sad circumstances under which this youth met his death, and the startling denouement which followed the latter, form one of the darkest tragedies that has occurred of recent years in the annals of Siberian exile. I give the story word for word as it was related to me by the successor of the infamous Ivanoff who figures in the tale.
In the winter of 1900 there came to Sredni-Kolymsk one Serge Kaleshnikoff, who, previous to his preliminary detention at the prison of Kharkoff, had held a commission in the Russian Volunteer Fleet. For alleged complicity with a revolutionary society known as the "Will of the People" Kaleshnikoff was sentenced to imprisonment for twelve months in a European fortress, and subsequent banishment for eight years to Siberia.
[Footnote 43: Russian: Narodna-Volya.]
Kaleshnikoff was a young man of about twenty-three years of age, whose sympathetic nature and attractive manners soon rendered him a universal favourite. Even the officials regarded him more as a friend than a prisoner—with one exception. This was Ivanoff, the Chief of Police, whose marked aversion to the young sailor was noticeable from the first day the latter set foot in the settlement. But as Ivanoff was an ignorant and surly boor, disliked even by his colleagues, Kaleshnikoff endured his petty persecutions with comparative equanimity.
One day during the summer of 1901, while fishing from a canoe on the Kolyma, Kaleshnikoff espied the barge of Ivanoff returning from Nijni-Kolymsk, a settlement about three hundred miles down the river. The exile, who was expecting a letter from a fellow "political" domiciled at the latter place, paddled out into mid-stream and boarded the barge, leaving his canoe to trail astern. Ivanoff, who met him at the gangway, had been drinking heavily, as was his wont. His only answer to Kaleshnikoff's polite inquiry was an oath, and a shameful epithet, to which the other naturally replied with some warmth. An angry discussion followed, with the result that the Chief of Police, now livid with rage, summoned the guard. By Ivanoff's orders Kaleshnikoff was then bound hand and foot, flogged with rope's ends into a state of insensibility, and flung, bruised and bleeding, into his boat. The latter was then cast adrift, and the police barge proceeded on her way up the river.
The incident occurred some miles below Sredni-Kolymsk. The next evening, as Madame Boreisha and M. Ergin (both exiles, and the latter an intimate friend of Kaleshnikoff) were strolling by the riverside, they met the latter, who, weakened by exhaustion and loss of blood, had taken more than twenty-four hours to return to the settlement. Ergin, shocked by his friend's wild and blood-stained appearance, pressed him for an explanation, but Kaleshnikoff, with a vacant stare, waved him aside, and with a despairing gesture disappeared into his hut, only a few yards distant. A few minutes later a pistol-shot was heard, and Ergin, instinctively fearing the worst, rushed to his friend's assistance, only to find that the latter had taken his life. Beside the dead man was a sheet of paper bearing the words, hastily scrawled in pencil: "Farewell! I go to a happier land."
[Footnote 44: I was told that the majority of the suicides amongst the exiles here occur towards the end of their term of banishment, a fact which seemed incredible until I learned that sentences are frequently prolonged for an indefinite period, just at the time when the exile is expecting release. The suspense and uncertainty attending the last months of captivity are thus a frequent cause of self-destruction, especially amongst women and the younger men.]
An inquiry followed, and Ivanoff was placed under temporary arrest. Unfortunately for the Chief of Police, this order did not entail confinement to the house, or he might have escaped the tragic fate which overtook him on the afternoon of the very day that his victim was laid to rest in a lonely grave in the suicides' graveyard on the banks of the river. As luck would have it, the hated official was lounging outside his doorway, smoking a cigarette, as Ergin, a gun on his shoulder, strolled homeward from the marshes. The latter asserts that the act was unpremeditated, for at the time his thoughts were far away. But Ergin adds: "The sudden appearance of that evil face and the recollection of its owner's foul and inhuman cruelty suddenly inspired me with uncontrollable fury, and I raised my fowling-piece and shot the man dead, just as he had divined my purpose and turned to rush indoors." Ergin has ere this been tried for murder at Yakutsk, but I was assured that he would be acquitted, for Ivanoff's conduct would in any case have met with severe punishment at the hands of the authorities in St. Petersburg. Physical brutality is, as regards Russian political exiles, a thing of the past, and an official guilty of it now lays himself open to instant dismissal, or even to a term of imprisonment.
[Footnote 45: Only suicides are buried in this plot of ground, which contains over a score of graves.]
Such is a plain and unvarnished account of the penal settlement of Sredni-Kolymsk, an accursed spot which should assuredly and without delay be erased from the face of civilisation. The above tragedy is but one of many that have occurred of recent years, and although space will not admit of my giving the details of others, I can vouch for the fact that since the year 1898 no fewer than three cases of suicide and four of insanity have occurred here amongst about a score of exiles. And yet every winter more miserable hovels are prepared for the reception of comrades; every year Sredni-Kolymsk enfolds fresh victims in her deadly embrace. "You will tell them in England of our life," said one, his eyes dim with tears, as I entered the dog-sled which was to bear me through weeks of desolation to the Bering Straits. And the promise then made in that lifeless, forsaken corner of the earth, where, as the exiles say, "God is high and the Tsar is far away," I have now faithfully kept. For the first time in thirty years I am able to give an "unofficial" account of the life of these unfortunates, and to deliver to the world their piteous appeal for deliverance. May it be that these pages have not been written in vain, that the clemency of a wise and merciful Ruler may yet be extended towards the unfortunate outcasts in that Siberian hell of famine, pestilence, and darkness, scarcely less terrible in its ghastly loneliness than those frozen realms of eternal silence which enshrine the mystery of the world.
THE LOWER KOLYMA RIVER
"Why don't you try to escape," I once asked an exile at Sredni-Koylmsk, "and make your way across Bering Straits to America?" For I was aware that, once in the United States, a Russian "political" is safe from the clutch of the bear.
[Footnote 46: A political exile escaping to the United States can become (in ten years) an American citizen.]
"You do not know the coast," was the reply, "or you would not ask me the question." My friend was right. A month later I should certainly not have done so.
Indeed, had I been aware, at this stage of the journey, of the formidable array of obstacles barring the way to the north-easternmost extremity of Asia, I might perhaps even now have hesitated before embarking upon what eventually proved to be the most severe and distressing of all my experiences of travel. It does not look much on the map, that strip of coast-line which extends from the Kolyma River to Bering Straits (especially when viewed from the depths of a cosy armchair); and yet I don't think there is a mile throughout its length which is not associated in my mind with some harassing anxiety, peril or privation.
Provisions of all kinds had become so scarce that a special permit from the ispravnik was necessary in order to enable us to purchase even a pound of flour. Luckily a relief convoy had arrived from Yakutsk during the week preceding our departure or a total lack of food must have brought the expedition to a final standstill. However, after endless difficulties and a lavish expenditure of rouble-notes, I managed to procure provisions enough to last us on short rations, with the addition of our own remaining stores, for about three weeks. I also secured a cask of vodka (or rather pure alcohol) to trade with the Tchuktchis, for a sum which, in England, would have stocked a moderate-sized cellar. Within three weeks I hoped to reach the first native settlement, said to be six hundred miles distant. Should we fail to do so starvation seemed unpleasantly probable, or death from exposure, our sole shelter being a flimsy canvas tent more suitable for a Thames picnic than an Arctic clime. And so we set out from Sredni-Kolymsk with seven men, five sleds and sixty-four dogs. One of the sleds was loaded down with provisions, our precious cask of vodka, and sundry deal cases containing clasp-knives, cheap revolvers, glass beads, wooden pipes, &c., for the natives, who do not use money. A sack of mahorka was also taken along for the same purpose. This is a villainous leaf tobacco so rank and sour that it must be soaked in warm water before smoking; and yet, long before we reached the Straits, it became far too precious to waste on the Tchuktchis! Another sled was packed with dog-food, consisting of inferior salt-fish, which we were also compelled to share with the teams before Tchaun Bay was reached. My greatest anxiety, next to the food supply, was regarding fuel. Every drop of oil had been exhausted some days before reaching Sredni-Kolymsk, where no more was procurable, so that artificial heat, that essential of Arctic travel, would have to be entirely derived from the sodden drift-wood occasionally found on the shores of the Polar Sea. I did not care to think much about what would happen if this commodity failed us for any length of time. All things considered, it is no exaggeration to say that my expedition was about as suitably equipped for the work before it as a man who, in England, goes out duck shooting in the depth of winter in a silk night-shirt!
Here, as at Verkhoyansk, our departure was witnessed by officials, exiles and natives. Even the politicals took an active interest in this hitherto unattempted journey, although perhaps this was partly due to the fact that certain sealed missives, destined for Europe, were snugly concealed about my person. Poor Strajevsky, whom I had learned to regard more as a friend than as an acquaintance, made a sketch of our departure which he promised to forward to me, but of course the drawing never reached its destination. Where is now, I often wonder, the unfortunate artist? He had lived for some time at Montrouge, in Paris, in order to study the French language, but I was unable to trace any of the friends there to whom he sent messages announcing his terrible fate.
From Sredni-Kolymsk, which we left on March 22, our way lay along the Kolyma River to Nijni-Kolymsk, an almost deserted collection of log huts surrounding a ruined wooden chapel. Our sleds were now lightly built, uncovered contrivances to carry two men, about a dozen dogs being harnessed to each. With a good team one may cover a long distance during the day over level ground, but our poor half-starved brutes travelled so slowly that my heart sank when I thought of the distance before them. Throughout that dismal time America used to seem as unattainable as the North Pole itself! I now directed that the sleds should travel in a certain order. Mine was the leading narta, and Nos. 2, 3 and 4 were occupied by de Clinchamp, Harding and Stepan respectively. Numbers 4 and 5 were provision-sleds which should have headed, not brought up the rear of the caravan, although I did not discover this mistake, which nearly cost us dearly, until after the passage across Tchaun Bay.
[Footnote 47: The River Kolyma, like the Indigirka, has its source in the Stanovoi Mountains.]
[Footnote 48: "Sredni" signifies "Middle," and "Nijni" "Lower" Kolymsk, according to their situations on the Kolyma River.]
Harding and Stepan each drove a sled, the three other drivers being half-breed Kolyma-Russians, of whom two were of the usual stolid, sulky type. The third, who accompanied me, was a character. A squat little bundle of furs, with beady black eyes twinkling slyly from a face to which incessant cold and bad brandy had imparted the hues of a brilliant sunset. Local rumour gave Mikouline forty years, but he might have been any age, certainly an octogenarian in such primitive vices as were feasible within the restricted area of his Arctic home. Mikouline had once travelled some distance down the coast, and was therefore installed as guide. He and the other drivers agreed to accompany us as far as the first Tchuktchi settlement, where I hoped to procure assistance and transport from the natives. And at first I believed in my driver, for he was a cheery, genial little fellow, so invariably facetious that I often suspected his concealment of a reserve stock of vodka. And although Mikouline's casual methods concerning time and distance were occasionally disquieting, he was a past master in the art of driving dogs, which is not always an easy one. The rudiments of the craft are soon picked up, but, as I afterwards found to my cost, a team will discover a change of driver the moment the latter opens his mouth, and become accordingly unmanageable. Illustrations of dog-sleds in the Arctic generally depict the animals as bounding merrily away at full speed, to be restrained or urged on at the will of their driver, but this is a pure fallacy, for a sled-dog's gallop is like a donkey's, short and sweet. The average gait is a shuffling trot, covering from five to seven miles an hour over easy ground; and even then desperate fights frequently necessitate a stoppage and readjustment of the traces. There are no reins, the dogs being fastened two abreast on either side of a long rope. To start off you seize the sled with both hands, give it a violent wrench to one side, and cry "Petak!" when the team starts off (or should start off) at full gallop, and you jump up and gain your seat as best you may. To stop, you jab an iron brake into the snow or ice and call out "Tar!" But the management of this brake needs some skill, and with unruly dogs an inexperienced driver is often landed on his back in the snow, while the sled proceeds alone upon its wild career. Laplanders and the Eskimo have each their method of dog driving, but the above was that practised by ourselves and by the Tchuktchis on the Siberian coast.
The journey of three hundred miles to Nijni-Kolymsk was accomplished in five days, and it was pleasant enough, for every night was passed in the hut of some fisherman or trapper who regaled us with tea and frozen fish. The Kolyma settler is generally a half-breed; an uncouth but hospitable being who leads a queer existence. During the short summer his days are passed on the river in canoes, fishing and trapping, but in winter furs are donned and dog-sled and rifle become a means of livelihood. Fish is the staple article of food, and when the summer catch has been a poor one a winter famine is the invariable result, and this is what had marred our progress. Nevertheless, a famine here is generally due to laziness, for the river teems with fish of all kinds, sturgeon and salmon-trout predominating, and there is also the tchir, a local delicacy. The busiest fishing season is in the early autumn, when herrings ascend the river in such shoals that forty or fifty thousand are frequently taken in a couple of days with a single net. Our dogs were fed on this fish, which appeared to be much larger than the European species. In the spring-time the Kolyma settler can revel in game, for swans, geese, duck and snipe abound, although weapons here are very primitive and the muzzle-loader prevails. Elk and Polar bear are occasionally shot in the winter, but the former have become scarce, and the latter only frequent the sea-coast.
Every hut, or even shed, we passed on the Kolyma had a name, which duly appears on the table of distances in the Appendix, but there are only two so-called villages between Middle and Lower Kolymsk, Silgisit and Krest, making the stages of the journey 90, 180, and 240 miles respectively. A little drive like the final stage of, say, London to Durham with such short rests would probably knock up an English horse, but even our weakly teams were fit to continue after twenty-four hours at Lower Kolymsk. Krest, so named from a large wooden cross which stands amidst a few log huts, was reached on March 24, and here we were hospitably entertained by the inhabitants, who all appeared to live in one house, the interior of which was cosy enough; and I here noticed for the first time that the windows were made, not of ice, but of fish skin. The other huts were deserted, for Krest is a fishing village only fully populated in summer-time. There seemed to be a fair lot of cattle and horses about the inhabited dwelling, where we shared the usual evening meal of frozen fish, to which a goodly portion of roast deer had been added in our honour. The meat would have been excellent had it not reeked of wild thyme, a favourite ingredient on the Kolyma, but the frozen berries served with it as a compote were delicious. These were a species of bilberry, but my host informed me that a dozen edible kinds are found within a couple of miles of the village, a kindly provision of nature, as vegetables are here unknown. There were also edible roots, one of which I tasted, but have no desire to repeat the experiment. I was surprised at the sleek appearance of my host's cattle, but he told me that the plains around Krest afforded good, but coarse, pasturage, and sufficient hay to last throughout the winter months.
When we left Krest the night was bitterly cold, but clear and starlit, and that evening is memorable on account of a strange dream which disturbed my slumbers as I lay snugly ensconced in the sleeping-bag which was now my nightly couch. Perhaps the roast deer and bilberries had transported my astral self to the deck of a P. and O. liner at Colombo, where the passengers were warmly congratulating me on a successful voyage across Asia. "You have now only Bering Straits to get over," said one, pledging me in champagne, and the geographical inconsistency did not strike me until a captain in gold lace, with the face of a Yakute, pointed out the little difference of several thousand miles lying between Ceylon and our projected goal. The shock of this discovery awoke me in terror, to shiver until dawn, yet heartily thankful that Colombo and I were still where we should be! Not that a short interval of tropical warmth would have been unwelcome that night, for although the cold was not so severe as it had been inland, I found on halting for breakfast that a mirror in a small bag under my pillow was coated with a thin film of ice.
Grey skies and frequent snow-flurries were experienced as we neared Nijni-Kolymsk, and as each mile was covered the vegetation on either side grew scantier, for even at Srendi-Kolymsk the pine forests had lost their grandeur. Here they dwindled away to scanty fir-trees, stunted larches and grey-green willows drooping in the snow. There is no sadder sight in creation than a sunset in these regions, when the heart seems to sink in sympathy with the dying day, and a dull despair to deaden the mind, as darkness creeps over a frozen world.
On the morning of Friday, March 28, we reached Nijni-Kolymsk, about thirty log huts in various stages of decay. This settlement, which was founded by Cossacks about the middle of the seventeenth century, is surrounded by low scrub, and, as at Sredni-Kolymsk, the buildings left standing are so low that they are invisible from the level of the river, which is here about two miles wide. The surroundings, however, are more picturesque than those of Middle Kolymsk, for a picturesque chain of mountains breaks the horizon to the eastward, although the remainder of the landscape consists of level and marshy tundra. In the reign of the Empress Catherine Nijni-Kolymsk contained over five hundred sturdy Cossacks and their families; it was peopled at the time of our visit by about fifty poor souls, whose gaunt and spectral appearance told of a constant struggle against cold, hunger and darkness. Nijni-Kolymsk had once apparently boasted of a main street, but the wooden huts had fallen bodily, one by one, till many now formed mere heaps of mud and timber; those still erect being prevented from utter collapse by wooden beams propped against them.
We found the entire community, consisting of half-breeds, Yakutes and Tunguses, gathered outside the hut of the only Russian in the place, one Jacob Yartsegg, who was banished here for life for smuggling rifles for revolutionary purposes into Russia. Yartsegg, a tall elderly man in ragged deerskins, informed me that the village possessed no ispravnik but himself, at which I could scarcely restrain a smile. There was something so "Gilbertian" in the idea of a prisoner acting as his own jailer! This man spoke a little English and apologised for the damp and darkness of the only hut he had to offer us. And in truth it was a piteous hovel half filled with snow, which was soon melted by the heat of our fire, rendering the floor, as usual, a sea of mud. There was not a mouthful of food to spare in the place, and we ate from our own stores. Yartsegg's dwelling was shared by a miserable creature who had lost a hand and leg in a blizzard the previous year. The wounds, with no treatment, had not even yet healed, and it made me shudder to think of the agony the poor fellow must have endured, with cold and hunger to add to his misery. But although the sufferer was a young man, now maimed for life, he never complained save when pain in the festering limbs became excruciating. Under such conditions a European would probably have succumbed in a few weeks, but Arctic Siberia must be visited to thoroughly realise the meaning of the words "suffering" and "patience."
The cold is not generally so severe at Nijni-Kolymsk as at the settlement up river (Yartsegg's record showed 42 deg. F. as the minimum temperature of the month of March), but the climate here is less endurable on account of violent snowstorms which occasionally occur even in summer, and dense fogs which, during spring and autumn, continually sweep in from the Polar Sea. The sun remains above the horizon for fifty-two days, and the rest of the year varies from twilit nights in June to almost complete darkness in midwinter. The village was certainly not an attractive one, and as its occupants evinced a decided tendency to encroach on our provisions I resolved to remain in it only a couple of days. But here occurred the first of a series of contretemps which dogged my footsteps throughout the coast journey, for the drivers now refused to carry out their contract, urging that even if a Tchuktchi settlement were safely reached the natives there would certainly murder us. Here was an apparently insurmountable difficulty, for Mikouline, who acted as spokesman, simply snapped his fingers at Yartsegg's authority. Threats were therefore useless, and kindness equally futile where this little scoundrel was concerned. In vodka lay my sole hope of victory, and the "exile-jailer" luckily possessed a limited store, some of which I purchased, and set to work to subjugate the unruly Mikouline by the aid of alcohol; an immoral proceeding no doubt, but no other course was open. For I knew that my driver's example would at once be followed by the others who, like sheep, blindly followed him in everything. It would weary the reader to describe my hopes and fears during the ten interminable days and nights that the war was waged. But he will appreciate what they meant to the writer from the fact that every day, even every hour, was now of utmost importance, owing to the late season and probable break up of the sea-ice at no distant date. Also we were rapidly consuming the provisions which were to form our sole subsistence in the desolate Arctic. It therefore became necessary to place each man on half rations, consisting of two frozen fish, one pound of black bread and a quarter of a pound of Carnyl per diem. My triumph over Mikouline cost me several gallons of vodka, to say nothing of hours of disgust and annoyance passed in close companionship with the now maudlin, now abusive, little half-breed. To make matters worse, the weather during that wasted fortnight was still, clear, and perfect for travelling, and the very morning of our departure it broke up with a gale and blinding snowstorm which occasioned another irksome delay down river. Just as we were starting, the now sober Mikouline again showed symptoms of weakening, until I plied him with bumpers of vodka. So long as "the spirit moved him" my driver was all right; but alas! the Vodka would not last for ever, and where should we be then?