Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

An Escape from the Mines of Siberia

The name Siberia calls up to our minds the vision of a stupendous prison, a vast open penitentiary larger than the whole United States, a continental place of captivity which for three centuries past has been the seat of more wretchedness and misery than any other land inhabited by the human race. To that far, frozen land a stream of the best and worst of the people of Russia has steadily flowed, including prisoners of state, religious dissenters, rebels, Polish patriots, convicts, vagabonds, and all others who in any way gave offence to the authorities or stood in the way of persons in power.

Not freedom of action alone, but even freedom of thought, is a crime in Russia. It is a land of innumerable spies, of secret arrest and rapid condemnation, in which the captive may find himself on the road to Siberia without knowing with what crime he is charged, while his friends, even his wife and family, may remain in ignorance of his fate. Every year a convoy of some twenty thousand wretched prisoners is sent off to that dismal land, including the ignorant and the educated, the debased and the refined, men and women, young and old, the horror of exile being added to indescribably by this mingling of delicate and refined men and women with the rudest and most brutal of the convict class, all under the charge of mounted Cossacks, well armed, and bearing long whips as their most effective arguments of control.

It may be said here that the misery of this long journey on foot has been somewhat mitigated since the introduction of railroads and steamboats, and will very likely be done away with when the Transsiberian Railway is finished; but for centuries the horrors of the convict train have piteously appealed to the charity of the world, while the sufferings and brutalities which the exiles have had to endure stand almost without parallel in the story of convict life. The exiles are divided into two classes, those who lose all and those who lose part of their rights. Of a convict of the former class neither the word nor the bond has any value: his wife is released from all duty to him, be cannot possess any property or hold any office. In prison he wears convict clothes, has his head half shaved, and may be cruelly flogged at the will of the officials, or murdered almost with impunity. Those deprived of partial rights are usually sent to Western Siberia; those deprived of total rights are sent to Eastern Siberia, where their life, as workers in the mines, is so miserable and monotonous that death is far more of a relief than something to be feared.

Group of Siberians


Many of the exiles escape,—some from the districts where they live free, with privilege of getting a living in any manner available, others from the prisons or mines. The mere feat of running away is in many eases not difficult, but to get out of the country is a very different matter. The officers do not make any serious efforts to prevent escapes, and can be easily bribed to allow them, since they are enabled then to turn in the name of the prisoner as still on hand and charge the government for his support. In the gold-mines the convicts work in gangs, and here one will lie in a ditch and be covered with rubbish by his comrades. When his absence is discovered he is not to be found, and at nightfall he slips from the trench and makes for the forest.

To spend the summer in the woods is the joy of many convicts. They have no hope of getting out of the country, which is of such vast extent that winter is sure to descend upon them before they can approach the border, but the freedom of life in the woods has for them an undefinable charm. Then as the frigid season approaches they permit themselves to be caught, and go back to their labor or confinement with hearts lightened by the enjoyment of their vagrant summer wanderings. There is in some cases another advantage to be gained. A twenty years' convict who has escaped and lets himself be caught again may give a false name, and avoid all incriminating answers through a convenient failure of memory. If not detected, he may in this way get off with a five years' sentence as a vagrant. But if detected his last lot is worse than his first, since the time he has already served goes for nothing.

There is another peril to which escaping prisoners are exposed. The native tribes are apt to look upon them as game and shoot them down at sight.

It is said that they receive three roubles for each convict they bring to the police, dead or alive. "If you shoot a squirrel," they say, "you get only his skin; but if you shoot a varnak [convict] you get his skin and his clothing too."

Atkinson, the Siberian traveller, tells a remarkable story of an escape of prisoners, which may be given in illustration of the above remarks. One night in September, 1850, the people of Barnaoul, a town in Western Siberia, were roused from their slumbers by the clatter of a party of mounted Cossacks galloping up the quiet street. The story they brought was an alarming one. Siberia had been invaded by three thousand Tartars of the desert, who were marching towards the town. Nearly all the gold from the Siberian gold-mines lay in Barnaoul, waiting to be smelted into bars and sent to St. Petersburg. There was much silver also, with abundance of other valuable government stores. All this would form a rich booty for an army of nomad plunderers, could they obtain it, and the news filled the town with excitement and alarm.

As the night passed and the day came on, other Cossacks arrived with still more alarming news. The three thousand had grown to seven thousand, many of them armed with rifles, who were burning the Kalmuck villages as they advanced, and murdering every man, woman, and child who fell into their hands. Some thought that the wild hordes of Asia were breaking loose again, as in the time of Genghis Khan, and the terror of many of the people grew intense.

By noon the enemy had increased to ten thousand, and the people everywhere were flying before their advance. Hasty steps were taken for defence and for the safety of the gold and silver, while orders were despatched in all directions to gather a force to meet them on their way. But as the days passed on the alarm began to subside. The number of the invaders declined almost as rapidly as it had grown. They were not advancing upon the town. No army was needed to oppose them, and Cossacks were sent to stop the march of the troops. In the course of two days more the truth was sifted from the mass of wild rumors and reports. The ten thousand invaders dwindled to forty Circassian prisoners who had escaped from the gold-mines on the Birioussa.

These fugitives had not a thought of invading the Russian dominions. They were prisoners of war who, with heartless cruelty, had been condemned to the mines of Siberia for the crime of a patriotic effort to save their country, and their sole purpose was to return to their far-distant homes.

By the aid of small quantities of gold, which they had managed to hide from their guards, they succeeded in purchasing a sufficient supply of rifles and ammunition from the neighboring tribesmen, which they hid in a mountain cavern about seven miles away. There was no fear of the Tartars betraying them, as they had received for the arms ten times their value, and would have been severely punished if found with gold in their possession.

On a Saturday afternoon near the end of July, 1850, after completing the day's labors, the Circas- sians left the mine in small parties, going in different directions. This excited no suspicion, as they were free to hunt or otherwise amuse themselves after their work. They gradually came together in a mountain ravine about six miles south of the mines. Not far from this locality a stud of spare horses were kept at pasture, and hither some of the fugitives made their way, reaching the spot just as the animals were being driven into the enclosure for the night. The three horse-keepers suddenly found themselves covered with rifles and forced to yield themselves prisoners, while their captors began to select the best horses from the herd.

The Circassians deemed it necessary to take the herdsmen with them to prevent them from giving the alarm. Two of these also were skilful bunters and well acquainted with the surrounding mountain regions, and were likely to prove useful as guides. In all fifty-five horses were chosen, out of the three or four hundred in the herd. The remainder were turned out of the enclosure and driven into the forest, as if they had broken loose and their keepers were absent in search of them. This done, the captors sought their friends in the glen, by whom they were received with cheers, and before midnight, the moon having risen, the fugitives began their long and dangerous journey.

Sunrise found them on a high summit, which commanded a view of the gold-mine they had left, marked by the curling smoke which rose from fires kept constantly alive to drive away the mosquitoes, the pests of the region. Taking a last look at their place of exile, they moved on into a grassy valley, where they breakfasted and fed their horses. On they went, keeping a sharp watch upon their guides, day by day, until the evening of the fourth day found them past the crest of the range and descending into a narrow valley, where they decided to spend the night.

Thus far all had gone well. They were now beyond the Russian frontier and in Chinese territory, and as their guides knew the country no farther, they were set free and their rifles restored to them. Venison had been obtained plentifully on the march, and fugitives and captives alike passed the evening in feasting and enjoyment. With daybreak the Siberians left to return to the mine and the Circassians resumed their route.

From this time onward difficulties confronted them. They were in a region of mountains, precipices, ravines, and torrents. One dangerous river they swam, but, instead of keeping on due south, the difficulties of the way induced them to change their course to the west, alarmed, probably, by the vast snowy peaks of the Tangnou Mountains in the distance, though if they had passed these all danger from Siberia would have been at an end. As it was, after more than three weeks of wandering, the nature of the country forced them towards the northwest, until they came upon the eastern shore of the Altin Kool Lake.

Here was their final chance. Had they followed the lake southerly they might still have reached a place of safety. But ill fortune brought them upon it at a point where it seemed easiest to round it on the north, and they passed on, hoping soon to reach its western shores. But the Ba, the impassable torrent that flows from the lake, forced them again many miles northward in search of a ford, and into a locality from which their chance of escape was greatly reduced.

More than two months had passed since they left the mines, and the poor wanderers were still in the vast Siberian prison, from which, if they had known the country, they might now have been far away. The region they had reached was thinly inhabited by Kalmuck Tartars, and they finally entered a village of this people, with whose inhabitants they unluckily got into a broil, ending in a battle, in which several Kalmucks were killed and the village burned.

To this event was due the terrifying news that reached Barnaoul, the alarm being carried to a Cossack fort whose commandant was drunk at the time and sent out a series of exaggerated reports. As for the fugitives, they had in effect signed their death-warrant by their conflict with the Kalmucks. The news spread from tribe to tribe, and when the real number of the fugitives was learned the tribesmen entered savagely into pursuit, determined to obtain revenge for their slain kinsmen. The Circassians were wandering in an unknown country. The Kalmucks knew every inch of the ground. Scouts followed the fugitives, and after them came well-mounted hunters, who rapidly closed upon the trail, being on the evening of the third day but three miles away.

The Circassians had crossed the Ba and turned to the south, but here they found themselves in an almost impassable group of snow-clad mountains. On they pushed, deeper and deeper into the chain, still closely pursued, the Kalmucks so managing the pursuit as to drive them into a pathless region of the hills. This accomplished, they came on leisurely, knowing that they had their prey safe.

At length the hungry and weary warriors were driven into a mountain pass, where the pursuers, who had hitherto saved their bullets, began a savage attack, rifle-balls dropping fast into the glen. The fugitives sought shelter behind some fallen rocks, and returned the fire with effect. But they were at a serious disadvantage, the hunters, who far out-numbered them, and knew every crag in the ravines, picking them off in safety from behind places of shelter. From point to point the Circassians fell back, defending their successive stations desperately, answering every call to surrender with shouts of defiance, and holding each spot until the fall of their comrades warned them that the place was no longer tenable.

Night fell during the struggle, and under its cover the remaining fifteen of the brave fugitives made their way on foot deeper into the mountains, abandoning their horses to the merciless foe. At day-break they resumed their march, scaling the rocky heights in front. Here, scanning the country in search of their pursuers, not one of whom was to be seen, they turned to the west, a range of snow-clad peaks closing the way in front. A forest of cedars before them seemed to present their only chance of escape, and they hurried towards it, but when within two hundred yards of the wood a puff of white smoke rose from a thicket, and one of the fugitives fell. The hunters had ambushed them on this spot, and as they rushed for the shelter of some rocks near by five more fell before the bullets of their foes.

The fire was returned with some effect, and then a last desperate rush was made for the forest shelter. Only four of the poor fellows reached it, and of these some were wounded. The thick underwood now screened them from the volley that whistled after them, and they were soon safe from the effects of rifle-shots in the tangled forest depths.

Meanwhile the clouds had been gathering black and dense, and soon rain and sleet began to fall, accompanied by a fierce gale. Two small parties of Kalmucks were sent in pursuit, while the others began to prepare an encampment under the cedars. The storm rapidly grew into a hurricane, snow falling thick and whirling into eddies, while the pursuers were soon forced to return without having seen the small remnant of the gallant band. For three days the storm continued, and then was followed by a sharp frost. The winter had set in.

No further pursuit was attempted. It was not needed. Nothing more was ever seen of the four Circassians, nor any trace of them found. They undoubtedly found their last resting-place under the snows of that mountain storm.