Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants (by Lucy Atkinson, 1863)
Many of our readers will no doubt remember Mr. Atkinson's Travels in Siberia, published a year or two ago, and the beautiful illustrations by which they were ornamented, and which it had been the principal object of the author's travels to collect. Mrs. Atkinson, his widow, has just published her recollections of the same journey. They are on a much smaller scale, and naturally relate to a different set of subjects. They form a small and unpretending, but highly interesting little volume, written in a very pleasant unaffected style, and describing journeys which, even in these days of adventure, are out of the common way. As she informs us in her preface, Mrs. Atkinson was in early life a governess in the family of General Mouravioff. There she made the acquaintance of Mr. Atkinson, whom she married in 1847 at Moscow. She accompanied him on his travels from 1848 to 1854, and in the present volume gives an account of her adventures.
Her travels began from Moscow, in March 1848, and extended as far as the frontiers of China. They were conducted in the most adventurous manner. For upwards of a fortnight, at the beginning of them, she seems to have travelled day and night in a sledge, for which the travellers were not always so fortunate as to find a sufficiency of ice and snow. After this she changed her mode of travelling, and rode over mountains and steppes from July till November. The concluding ride was a remarkable one. For several days the party traversed steppes, where the only thing to be bed which even externally resembled food was salt; and, on lucky occasions, brackish water. Once, indeed, they got a bowl of liquid mutton fat, which they were not able to drink. The last stage was one of about a hundred miles, which was performed in the course of a night and part of two days, during which Mrs. Atkinson “tasted nothing, either solid or liquid, with the exception” of a glass of rum and some water-melon, the horses having nothing at all. This leasing journey brought the party to a place called Kopal, at the foot of a mountain called Alatau, where, on November 4, 1848, Mrs. Atkinson gave birth to a son about two months before the proper time, whose premature birth, as the doctor profoundly observed, was “caused by excessive exercise on horseback ”—not a very improbable opinion. The remainder of the period during which Mrs. Atkinson accompanied her husband appears to have been spent partly in journeys in different directions about the Tartar Steppes, and partly in returning to the comparative civilization of the towns of Siberia, where, during the intervals of their journeys, she and her husband were courteously and hospitably entertained. The scenery which they visited has been sufficiently illustrated by Mr. Atkinson's pencil. His wife’s contribution to the account of the journey is composed principally of sketches of the habits of the different classes of people whom they were brought into contact, and accounts of the incidents of their journey.
Some of the most interesting observations made by Mrs. Atkinson refer to the state of women amongst the tribes. They appear to be viewed almost exclusively in the light of property. Her husband's treatment of her was a subject of astonishment in the steppe. One chief told him that he had no occasion to bring a wife with him when he came next into that part of the world, as he (the chief) would give him as many wives as be pleased, apparently either as a permanent or as a temporary arrangement. Another chief, struck by Mrs. Atkinson’s skill as a needlewoman, asked her husband what he would take for her. Mrs. Atkinson, who appears to have a very proper notion of what is due to her sex, observed on one occasion, of a chief who wanted to buy her, that he would have found her a very bad bargain, as she would have done her best to get up a mutiny amongst his womankind. The wives appear to be treated in the most wonderful manner. When a woman is about to be confined, “it is stated she is possessed of the Devil, and they beat her with sticks to drive him away, and as the moment approaches they call on the Evil Spirit to leave her." When boys are left orphans, they are married by their guardians to women who are old enough to be their nurses, and keep them out of mischief. Mrs. Atkinson saw a wife of thirty married on this principle to a mere child, whom she used to six when he misbehaved himself, in the manner practised in nations.
It is a curious fact that, notwithstanding the tyranny to which the women are thus subjected, love between the sexes is by no means unknown in Tartary. Mrs. Atkinson saw a Calmuck girl throw herself into a river, from which she was rescued with great difficulty, to avoid marrying a rich old man to whom her mother had engaged, or rather contracted, to sell her, when she was attached to another man. So, too, during their residence at Kopal, a Cossack servant-girl fell vehemently in love with the Russian governor, whose affections she tried to secure by him a love potion which would have assuredly poisoned him. Love, indeed, would appear to accommodate itself to the customs of the country. Every peasant hangs a whip at the head of his bed as a sym ol of his conjugal authority, nor is it a symbol only—
‘A nursemaid of mine (says Mrs. Atkinson) left me to be married, and some short time after she went to the Natchalnick of the place to make a complaint against her husband. He inquired into the matter, when she coolly told him her husband did not love her. He asked her how she knew he did not love her. “Because," she replied, “he never whip her." The instrument of castigation hung over the bed, and had never once been used since the marriage.’Perhaps the most interesting of the subjects on which Mrs. Atkinson touches is that of the exiles who, when she was in Siberia, were still undergoing the punishment of their conspiracy on the accession of Nicholas in 1825. She left Moscow loaded with messages to them—for opportunities of communicating with them are rare—and she fell in at different points of her journey with a considerable number of them. They are, as a rule, by no means unkindly treated, being a patently allowed to associate together pretty freely, and even to absent themselves for a certain distance from their places of confinement for various purposes, especially for sporting; but under particular circumstances they have a great deal to undergo, as they are sometimes separated from their friends and obliged to lead the lives of more peasants, supporting themselves by daily labour. Mrs. Atkinson gives an affecting account of one old man whom she found in this situation —a Mr. Fahlenberg. He had supported himself by keeping a school, which was succeeding remarkably well, when the authorities, for some reason, forbade it, and he had to make a livelihood by cultivating a small lot of tobacco. He had lived so long in exile that his wife had been persuaded of his death and had married again. He himself, according to a practice not very uncommon with the exiles, had married a peasant woman, and had two children by her, one of whom, a girl, he made it his business to educate. The boy grew up like the other peasants of the neighbourhood.
Attempts to escape were not very uncommon amongst the exiles, and were most severely punished when they occurred, the penalty being public flogging and banishment to the mines for life. One young Pole got away whilst Mrs. Atkinson was in the country. He was supposed to have escaped into the Kirghis Steppe. Sn an escape would in itself be a questionable benefit, as the Tartars would probably sell him as a slave. Mrs. Atkinson saw a Russian on the Steppe whom they had taken prisoner. They made a cut in his heel, put a horse air in it, and allowed the cut to unite over the horsehair. The effect of this (which was the usual way of treating Russian prisoners in the Caucasus) was to disable him for life from taking long or difficult journeys, though it left him the power of waiting for moderate distances. Hence he could never escape, so long as they kept horses out of his reach.
One attempt at escape described by Mrs. Atkinson is an affecting instance of a slip between the cup and the lip. A German exile disappeared, his clothes being found by the bank of a river. This was supposed to be a device intended to make the authorities believe that he had drowned himself, and accordingly a strict search was made for him, but without success. After a time, his wife (also a German) asked leave to return to her own home. This, after long formalities, was at last agreed to, and she set out on her journey under the charge of a gendarme. When they were within a mile of the German frontier, the gendarme thought he heard a voice in the carriage, and, on searching, found the husband. He had been concealed below the bed and mattress until his wife got permission to return, and had made the journey in the bottom of the carriage. In half an hour more he would have been safe.
Upon the whole, Mrs. Atkinson's impressions of Russia and the Russians seem to be very pleasant. The people amongst whom she travelled were simple almost to a childish degree, and were under the absolute dominion of the priests and the Government. Their superstition is at times something wonderful. Two travellers stopped at a post-house, where they had their supper and went to bed. In the middle of the night, one of the peasants who kept the house got up and murdered them both. He went next day to the magistrates and gave himself up, saying that his object had been to save them from the repetition of the sin which they had just committed in his presence of eating meat in Lent.
Mrs. Atkinson's book is full of interesting sketches of the different scenes which she saw, of which those given above are but specimens. Her little volume is one of the liveliest, most interesting, and unaffected which have fallen under our notice for a considerable time.
Saturday Review, May 2, 1863.