Stephanie Williams Author
Stephanie Williams Author

Siberia – as Olga knew it

Olga grew up in a small town in Siberia called Troitskosavsk – now known as Kyakhta --some 200 miles south of Lake Baikal, a place of extraordinary remoteness on the border with Chinese Outer Mongolia. Troitskosavsk had been built to service the needs of the only official trading post – Kyakhta -- between the whole of the Russian empire and China. The region on the border was unlike anywhere else in Siberia. The fringes of the great Gobi desert were only three days ride to the south. The surrounding hills were parched and dry, the pine forests thin, the soil underfoot soft and sandy. A courier on horseback could do the trip from Kyakhta to Beijing in ten days; a merchant caravan in thirty.

Kyakhta Kyakhta

Under the treaty of Kyakhta signed with the Russians in 1728, the Chinese decreed that only merchants who were directly engaged in trade with China could live in Kyakhta; their Chinese counterparts – exclusively male -- were in an adjacent town across the border: Mai-mai-c’hen. Subsequently Troitskosavsk, a mile north, was founded. Its entire livelihood came from the profits of less than twenty companies based in Kyakhta, each with turnovers of millions of roubles in the tea trade alone. Thriving hotels and coach businesses, shops, schools and a hospital had been established. There were businesses hiring horses and carts, tanneries producing leather sacks and sheepskins.

Trade at Kyakhta was devoted to luxury. Furs and ginseng from Siberia; carpets and precious gems from central Asia and Persia, wines from France, German china, English wool, and goods from Japan and America were exchanged for Chinese silks, velvets, silver, porcelain, ivory and above all, tons and tons of tea, from China. ‘Kyakhta tea’, in its familiar solid black bricks, was renowned across the continent. The trade dominated the town. At its heart was the Customs House where every day hundreds of men unpacked the tea from the bamboo boxes in which it crossed the Gobi Desert, sorted and weighed it. It was then repacked into cowhide bags – their hides turned inside out to keep it waterproof on its long journey across Russia.

Anyone who travelled overland from Russia to China stopped to stay in Kyakhta. Well-known people from all over the world: from England, France, Germany, America and Japan; writers and poets, explorers and geographers, royalty, ambassadors, and clergy to the Orthodox Mission in Peking all stayed there. Many accounts remain of the liberal hospitality and the great wealth of the merchants of Kyakhta, their prodigious feasts and enlightened views. Visitors often remarked on the interesting and emancipated women they met there: on the one hand riding out on horseback astride and taking a serious interest in trade; on the other, sitting demurely with their mothers and other ladies in a room apart until it was time for dinner. A visitor from England, noting the sober demeanour of the women cloistered in a separate room at the beginning of a party was astonished to be treated to well-informed conversation in English at table later. They were great authorities within the household, sometimes even joining their husbands in business. Those who had attended the gymnasium were particularly independent. Several went on to university in St Petersburg, to study in Germany and Switzerland. One was to study sculpture in Paris with Rodin.

Siberia A Siberian village near Kyakhta today

Yet the place was set down in the middle of nowhere. Kyakhta means ‘couch grass’ in the language of the Buryats. With Troitskosavsk it lay in the arid valley of the River Kyakhta, never much more than a trickle in spring or after the summer rains. The climate was harsh and unpredictable: scorching heat one day, and freezing cold the next. Winters were bitter, with scarcely any snow, but thaws could begin as early as the middle of January. The centre of Troitskosavsk boasted a few good shops and a handful of stone houses, schools, a cathedral, two churches, a large market place and public gardens. It was surrounded by log houses and timber yards. The outskirts were scattered with the poorer shanties and the yurts of the Buryats and Mongols.

The trading post of Kyakhta however, was grand. A boulevard ran from a huge domed cathedral -- with crystal columns and an iconostasis covered in gold and jewels -- at one end, to public gardens at the other. It was lined with the large compounds of stone and stucco, the homes of the merchant families: Kokovin and Basov, Lushnikov, and wealthiest of all, Molchanov, Nemchinov and Shvetsov and Sons. Their homes operated like caravanserai: built round large courtyards and equipped with the facilities to service the China trade: warehouses, stables and accommodation for drivers and visitors. Their own quarters were tastefully furnished. Paintings, tapestries and libraries were brought all the way from St Petersburg, London and Paris. Every once in a while a shipment of iron chests from Europe, filled with shoes, clothes, wine and delicacies for the table, champagne and furniture would be delivered to a family. The whole household – family and servants, and priests like Anna’s father and all their friends – would celebrate.

‘We have to pay so much for shipping,’ the merchants used to say, ‘there is no reason not to buy the best!’ Many had special commissionaires in Moscow, exclusively devoted to catering for their domestic requirements. The women were dressed by Vorte in Paris; the men by the best tailors from St Petersburg who travelled to Kyakhta once a year to measure them for suits. Actors and musicians on tour of Siberia rarely hesitated to make a side tour down to the border to Kyakhta. Pianos were imported from the finest manufacturers from Europe and the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky sounded from the windows. The cost of outfitting a house in Kyakhta in 1890 was in the order of £20,000; the annual household budget of the greatest merchants, like Molchanov, Shvetsov, Nemchinov and Lushnikov ran to over 50,000 roubles.

The culture of the place was openly egalitarian. The community was small. Everyone knew everyone else. The merchants were self-made men, keen to know more of literature and the world. They opened their homes to exiled revolutionaries who had been condemned to live in the surrounding region. Among them were several of Siberia’s most celebrated exiles, the Decembrists, a group of members of the nobility who plotted to overthrow the Tsar in 1825. Almost all were men of considerable talent and accomplishment – chemists, writers, astronomers, painters, musicians, historians, who in time, developed a keen interest in the people and the region in which they found themselves. In turn, their opposition to the Tsar and stories of their incarceration attracted sympathy in the region. Several, in particular two brothers, the Bestuzhevs -- struck up close friendships with the merchants of Kyakhta. They introduced to the community the value of education, intellectual inquiry and a tradition of liberal thinking and political iconoclasm that made the political climate very different from European Russia.

By the late 1880s, Troitskosavsk, Kyakhta and the surrounding region were home to a number of exiled revolutionaries – among them teachers, intellectuals, and a remarkable woman doctor, who despite shocking local inhabitants by dressing in high boots and quasi-masculine attire, was immensely respected for her medicine, education and beautiful manners. Her name was Ekaterina Breshkovskaya, and she would later go on to be a popular heroine, known as ‘The Grandmother of the Revolution’. Another was Ivan Popov who was to become editor of the newspaper Eastern Review in Irkutsk. Exiled from St Petersburg for his association with the revolutionary group the ‘People’s Will’ – a handful of whom assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Popov had met and married Vera Lushnikova, the daughter of one of Kyakhta’s most prominent merchants, in the course of teaching workers and printing inflammatory pamphlets. She had been a student at the Bestuzhev Courses, the women’s university in St Petersburg. Men and women like Vera and Popov lectured and wrote, and provided the energy to found Kyakhta’s library and museum.