The Atkinsons and the Decembrists

Amongst the papers held by Thomas Atkinson’s direct descendant Paul Dahlquist in Hawaii is one remarkable document about a final book he had intended to publish. The document is a draft contract in Thomas’ own handwriting, dated 1861, for a book to be entitled The Exiles of Siberia. He spells out his structure of the book, noting it would contain “about six hundred pages and (give) an account of the Russian political exiles, the Polish and the criminals sent to work in the mines. Also an account of the mode in which they are employed in the gold mines and their colonization, with illustrations by the said T W Atkinson”.

The only reason Thomas Atkinson did not write this book is that he died in August the same year. He had not been able to write anything before then, despite his and Lucy’s close and warm contacts with many of the Decembrist exiles during their years of travel in Siberia, because he was so indebted to the Russian Tsars for permission to travel in the remotest parts of their empire. Indeed, his book Oriental and Western Siberia, published in 1858, is dedicated by special permission “To His Imperial Majesty, Alexander the Second”. In the preface he also notes that he was “deeply indebted” to Alexander’s predecessor, Tsar Nicholas I, “for without his passport I should have been stopped at every government and insurmountable difficulties would have been thrown in my way.”

Both emperors, father and son, must have been impressed by Thomas too because each gave him a valuable jewel-encrusted ring, one of which is still retained by the family. We know he met Tsar Alexander and it is very likely he also met Nicholas before he died in 1855. Lucy also mentions being in the same room as Tsar Nicholas, possibly when he came to visit her employer in St Petersburg, General Mikhail Nikolaevitch Muravyev.

A diamond and emerald ring presented to Thomas Atkinson by Tsar Nicholas I

The idea that Thomas could have written about the Decembrists in his books would have been unthinkable in the light of the special privileges they had given him that allowed him to travel so extensively throughout Siberia and Central Asia.

It was the connection with the Muravyev family that gave Thomas and Lucy such remarkable – possibly unprecedented – access to the Decembrist exiles in Siberia. At least five members of the family had taken part in the attempted coup in December 1825. One of them, Sergei Muravyev-Apostol, was one of the five Decembrists who were hanged on the orders of the new Tsar, Nicholas I.

In February 1848, when family members heard that Thomas and Lucy were setting out for Siberia, they begged them to take gifts and goods for those members of the family still living in exile after more than 20 years, including Sergei’s brother, Mattvei Muravyev-Apostol, who they found in the town of Jaloutroffsky, to the east of Ekaterinburg. As Lucy recalled in her book Recollections of Tartar Steppes (1863):
On entering the dwelling, a gentleman in the prime of life came forward to meet us; he appeared not a little surprised at seeing strangers, Jaloutroffsky being off the great post road. I enquired for Mouravioff; he said he was the person I required. I told him I had come from Petersburg, and gave him my maiden name; I was instantly received with open arms; he then hurried us into his sitting-room, giving me scarcely time to introduce my husband. I was divested of all my wrappings, although we stated that our stay would be short; he then seated me on a sofa, ran himself to fetch pillows to prop against my back, placed a stool for my feet; indeed, had I been an invalid, and one of the family, I could not have been more cared for, or the welcome more cordial.

A painting of Mattvei Muravyev-Apostol by Nikolai Utkin

Later, in Eastern Siberia, the Atkinsons were to meet more of the Decembrist exiles, including the artist Nikolai Bestuzhev and his brother Mikhail at their home in Selenginsk. Whilst in Irkutsk, Thomas even gave some of his precious Winsor and Newton watercolour paints to Prince Sergei Volkonsky, another of the exiles.

By the time Lucy published her book in 1863, she was free of the political constraints that had bound her husband. The emancipation of the serfs in Russia had taken place and most of the surviving Decembrist exiles – but not the Poles or criminals – had been allowed to return to European Russia. Indeed, some of them had actually come to London to meet her. Thus we find many stories about the Decembrists in her book.

This is not the place to go into a full discussion of Thomas and Lucy’s connections with the Decembrist exiles, but we cannot over-estimate the importance of their meetings. One or two other travellers, including Charles Cottrell and Samuel Hill, also met some of the exiles, but none experienced the level of intimacy over such a long period of time that was conferred on Thomas and Lucy, due to the latter’s employment in the household of General Muravyev in St Petersburg. The intriguing question is did Thomas ever paint any of the Decembrists? The fact that he mentions that his proposed book was to contain illustrations strongly suggests this to be the case. If so, where are these illustrations now?

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