Last month we had an exclusive opportunity of visiting an offbeat city called Chita, in Siberia. Chita has several nicknames but one that struck us as odd was “City of Exiles”.
On the very first day we visited the Decembrists’ Church Museum (originally called the Church of Archangel Michael), where we learned how it had earned that unique sobriquet. In Russian it is called Музей декабристов.
Church of Archangel Michael in Chita, Siberia
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Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich and Siberia
The word Siberia sends shivers down one’s spine and conjures up images of all the year round excessive cold and a terrain swathed in white, for as far as you can see. Most of the pictures and text lay stress on this seemingly uninhabited region Russia. After all wasn’t it the Tundra region?
It also conjures up images of prisons where criminals and political adversaries were transported, many times on a one way trip to Siberia. The Tsar, also called Ivan the Terrible used Siberia as a place for exile, captive labour and imprisonment, in 16th century as a means of quelling riots and punishing the rioters, in the wake of the death of his son and rumors of murder.
Siberia, the then newly acquired territory, was soon needed for building the economy and the Tsars transferred many officials to administer and also used the above methods to populate the region. Later some of people were even given land for farming and others were used as free labour in the booming mining industry. Chita came into the exile map a bit later.
Here is our first hand account of our discovery of quaint Siberian town of Chita thru the Decembrists’ Church Museum.
On the very first day of our arrival in Chita, we found, how the historical events, spanning a few centuries, had shaped Chita, from a small village of indigenous people in the 17th century to a multicultural town with a population of more than 300,000 now.
Of all the historical occurrences, one episode which happened in St Petersburg, seems to have had an enormous impact on how the city has turned out. Late in the 18th century, Tsar Alexander I along with his courtiers began a series of reforms, including political liberalization, economic reforms and abolition of serfdom, which was good. However, due to some petty unrests within the empire, forced the Tsar to return to oppressive measures as before. Gradually, unhappy senior army officers and the intelligentsia, who were the proponent of freedom and political reforms, joined hands to form a revolutionary group called the Union of Salvation. The society decided to revolt, taking advantage of the confusion in the aftermath of the death of the Tsar, in December. Hence they were called the Decembrists.
To cut the long story short, the uprising was quelled after Royal guards resorted to artillery fire, under the order of the new Tsar, Nicholas I. Similar revolt elsewhere was also contained and all the leaders (Decembrists) were rounded up and brought to St Petersburg to stand trial. Some were hanged to death and many were then sent to Siberia and the largest group was sent to Chita.
In those days only way to go to Siberia was on foot. It is said that many hundreds of people died on the way to their prisons. The Trans-Siberian Railway passing via Chita, was built much later.
Since most of the revolutionaries were from the upper class, they were allowed to live as a community and were later even joined by their wives.
These convicts soon interacted with the locals and influenced them culturally, economically and politically too. For this act the revolutionaries were regarded respectfully by the natives. The wives took to teaching the natives and built schools. Even after they received amnesty by the subsequent Tsars, many of the Decembrists chose to live in these parts or moved to Irkutsk region and made it their home. The head of the revolutionaries , Prince Volkonsky was also exiled and eventually moved to Irkutsk and lived with his wife and children.
The renowned Russian Poet, Alexander Pushkin, a contemporary of the revolutionaries once wrote of them “freedom will once again shine, and brothers give you back your sword”. However, the key results sought by the revolutionaries, that is freedom and rule by constitution evaded them.
The wooden Church or the Decembrists’ Church
The Decembrists’ Museum of the Church, also called the Wooden Church, was originally dedicated to Archangel Michael but now there is no service. It has many artifacts and documents relating the revolution. We took a guided tour and we don’t regret it all.
The collection of books, newspaper clippings and magazines stand testimony to the heart rending stories of how the prisoners were treated. There is a romantic story of how a French Fashion designer, Pauline Guebl, traveled for over many months to Ivan Annenkov, one of the Decembrist. They later married in this very church. At least 7 wives and fiancees left the luxury of St. Petersburg to be with their husbands and fiances. These brave Wives of Decembrists became symbols of ideal womanhood, of Russia.
Spread over two floors, there are details of how the prisoners lived and spent their time. It also includes artifacts on how they brought education and culture to the local people to improve their living.
On the first floor there is a small prayer room too, however there is no service.
There is also map of Chita as in the year 1830 CE that shows how Chita looked like in the 19th Century . A few of the original chains and shackles to hold the prisoners along with several other articles are exhibited here.
During the Soviet period, This old wooden church was forgotten and fell into disuse. Only during the 160th anniversary of the uprising , 1985, the wooden church was restored and the museum created.
All the signs are in Russian but English audio guides are available for a nominal fee.
Opening times : 10 Am to 6Pm from Tuesday to Sunday.
Address: Ulitsa Dekabristov, 3Б, Chita, Zabaykalsky Krai, Russia, 672039
Phone Number : +7 302 231-04-08
What to expect in Decembrists’ Church Museum, Wooden Church , Chita, Siberia, Russia
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