Move over Turgenev and Dostoevsky. Here comes Maria.
Maria Rodziewiczówna, a Polish girl from today's Belarus, was exiled with her parents to Siberia as a newborn. (Like Assyrians and Babylonians, Russians have practiced internal exile for centuries and continue to do so today, sending millions of Ukrainians away).
After her return, aged 27, she put pen to paper to describe what she had seen: the suffering, the struggle, the misery, the many souls lost, and the few who have made a success of it and even found love. And, in a language worthy of Turgenev, she described the strangeness of that world and its otherworldly beauty.
Here is how the book opens:
THIRTY degrees below did not feel very painful owing to the absence of all wind. It seemed that the currents of air were frozen, and on the white ocean of snow, no movement could be seen nor the slightest whisper heard.
The government road leading across this vast space, and marked at every verst by a post, shone like a mirror; here and there on the horizon, some small bush could be made out, but nowhere a larger tree, nor any trace of men; it was light because of the snow, but neither moon nor stars showed in the heavens: it seemed as though their rays were also frozen.
A man walked alone along this endless road. He was warmly clad and walked briskly; he still had some warmth in him, gained at the last post-station, where he had stopped before nightfall.
And here is the steppe:
THE grass was ready for mowing and the whole steppe, from Tobolsk to Tashkent, was one beautiful sea of greens and flowers. It stood in the blazing sun, completely motionless, unstirred by even the faintest breeze. Here and there stood an island of birches, hawthorn, or the snow-white meadowsweet on which the eye, tired by the monotony of the green verdure, rested with relief.
The villages were scattered all over the steppe and far apart from one another, often separated by dozens and scores of versts of utter wilderness. And in-between, people, laws, and boundaries were forgotten, and one was reminded of the pre-historic times of which the Bible speaks—of million-headed herds, ancient patriarchs, and a virgin country that had never seen a man. Here, without count or measure, the soil yielded an abundance of grass, in which lurked innumerable birds and beasts. And over everything stood the burning sun, the cloudless sky, and not a breath of air was stirring.
What people were obliged to work hard for in other lands was given here freely, sowed by the munificent hand of Nature, which, like the hand of a rich man, cares not where it throws its riches. There was an abundance of flax, wild asparagus, beans, wild strawberries and cherries which belonged to nobody but the birds of the sky or the man who would extend his hand for them. In some places, the earth, burned by the sun, and bulging from the excess of power, split into deep crevices, whilst in others, the grass shone with drops of dew, glistening like jewels. In some places, the steppe, as though hiding from the sun, ran into deep ravines, where it was quickly entangled in the thickets of hawthorn and meadowsweet. These ravines were noisy with the cries of the white partridge and red-breasted galanduks.
The government road, marked with posts, ran over the steppe, branching out constantly into thousands of smaller tracks. It extended over hundreds and thousands of versts and, like a great artery, and carried the strength, the life, and thought of the steppes far, far away to China.
The steppe cared not for borders or human roads but extended toward the Tobol, its other powerful artery, also carrying the strength and thought of Nature: water. The steppe was thirsty and therefore reached out toward the river, which fortified itself against the onslaught of the thirsty aggressor behind a chain of alluvial hills, thickly clad with pine trees, as though it were afraid of being devoured by the grass and thickets of the steppe.