Banished to Siberia: Exiles on the River Ob

ON the last day of their journey north on the river Ob, the small party of prisoners and guards, traveling by horse-drawn sleds, turned from the frozen river onto snowy fields. Among them was my grandfather, a young Protestant pastor from a village in the Caucasus, arrested and banished in 1914 along with other religious and political nonconformists to Siberia. The long journey through the prisons of wartime Russia, the cold so severe that he temporarily lost his hearing, had leftmy grandfather gravely ill. Now on the final leg of their transport, a fellow prisoner made a bed of reeds for him on one of the narrow sleds, and when the horse floundered in the snow drifts, overturning the sled, helped him back on.

For four days they had journeyed on the east branch of the Ob, which flows north through the Siberian forest to the North Sea. Now in the distance across the fields, they saw the large log houses of Alatayevo. Destination in sight, the drivers galloped their ponies, and the race was on. Speeding into the village, sleds overturned, and the prisoners fell out, laughing, into the snow. Laughter was a sound my grandfather had not heard for months.

It was now late February 1915. For six months since his arrest in Odessa, my grandfather had experienced the brutality of the prisons, criminals, and the Black Angels, as the transport guards were known. But this was Siberia, and here, ironically, accompanying the deprivation and cold, they would find a degree of freedom and civility. The change was signaled earlier when their transport crossed the Urals into Siberia.

The Siberian populace reacted to the prisoners with less hostility than in European Russia, perhaps because many of them were descendants of exiles. Leaving the jail in Tomsk for the final 500 mile trek north on the Ob, my grandfather noticed that the Black Angels no longer bared their swords, but sheathed them, and now only two guards watched over the 25 prisoners.

Upon their arrival in the fishing village of Alatayevo, the prisoners were presented to the constable, who counted them and dismissed them to find rooms. In the prison at Samara, my grandfather had cared for a fellow ``sectarian,'' as the Protestants were known, nursing him through illness. Now this pastor, named Gorelic, found a room with a Siberian family for the two of them. They were to report to the village watchman once a day.

Through much of March my grandfather remained sick. In delirium he continued to hear the rattling of prison shackles and the curses of the guards. Gorelic fed him with milk, which they purchased in frozen blocks with a heavy string frozen in it for a handle, and fish broth. By April, however, my grandfather was well enough to walk with help the short distance along the snowy trail to the river.

For my grandfather, the river became a place of refuge and reflection. And in his exile on the Ob he found a peacefulness, drained of harshness, that would touch him for the rest of his life and upon which he would later reflect with a certain longing.

For me, reading about my grandfather's exile in an account published by his church in 1921, the Ob river has become part of my own spiritual imagery.

In 1915 the Ob was the only road in or out of this vast region of Siberian wilderness. Traveled by steamboat in the short summer, and by sled in the winter, the Ob in the spring became impassable. River ice, once 10 feet thick, now started breaking up. Because the river thawed at its source a month before thawing where it flowed into the North Sea, it flooded the forests and tundra. Alatayevo became an island, and the villagers took to canoes. Fish left the river bed and fattened in the flooded fields, often catchable by hand.

Staple diet for the village, the fish were fried, boiled, baked, and dried. My grandfather and Gorelic made a smokehouse in the bank of the river and produced smoked fish, which they sold to the villagers, so they could buy flour and berries.

When the mouth of the Ob finally opened up in June, the tundra drained, leaving a thick mud everywhere. As the floodwaters left, the insects arrived, mosquitoes, and gnats that ``actually dimmed the sunlight,'' my grandfather wrote.

Earlier he and Gorelic had cut saplings to make a bed with legs, which they inserted in cans of water. This attempt to discourage bed vermin amused the villagers. Now my grandfather and Gorelic borrowed a boat and went to the island to cut saplings for a bed frame, from which to hang netting. But the gnats overwhelmed them, and they had to return.

To fight the insects, the Siberians used fire. Tundra and forest fires blackened the sky for days. After the fires, the six-week summer began. Coarse grass sprang up as high as a man. It became fodder for horses and cattle. Also with the warm weather came vast flocks of ducks.

The summer was not uneventful. A female bear began killing the villager's cattle. Tracked to its den, the bear was killed, and the cubs brought back to the village for pets.

Slowly the villagers adjusted to the exiles. Once when most of the village men were away fishing, flames broke out in one of the houses, quickly engulfing the log structure. The exiles rushed into action, watering down the houses around, and my grandfather, hearing that a child was inside, doused himself with water and started to enter. He was shouted back when the child was found outside, but the villagers were amazed that such ``dangerous'' exiles would come to their aid.

By river steamboat came my grandfather's first letter from home, and a Bible. On the bank of the river, he and Gorelic spent their Sabbaths reading, talking, and meditating. Of one evening the latter wrote: ``I was amazed at the beauty of the sunset on the Ob that evening. I have no remembrance of having ever beheld a view more wondrously lovely. A light breeze ... stirred the surface, and as the sun sank below the dark green rim of the forest, sky and river vied with each other in brilliance.''

One day the son of the family with whom they stayed asked my grandfather to read to him from his Bible. Later, others followed the exiles to their river retreat to listen to them reading. Unfortunately, this angered the area Orthodox priest, who warned the villagers in his Sunday sermon to have nothing to do with these sectarians who would not cross themselves, yet dared to interpret the scriptures themselves.

One evening the chief guard appeared in their doorway with an order. Because of their proselytizing, they would be sent north to the island of Kolguyak, the furthest penal station on the Ob. Two miles across, Kolguyak was home to a few traders and fisherman and some 20 exiles, mainly criminals.

The next morning, with two guards, my grandfather and Gorelic pushed off from the shore in a large canoe. The Ob river would later become my grandfather's means of escape from Siberia in an epic flight that would take him up the Ob, down the Volga River, then along the Trans-Siberian railway, on foot across Manchuria and finally to the Chinese port of Shanghai.

But for now, the river only carried them further into banishment. But it was a banishment not without beauty, and the transcendence of this beauty on that Siberian summer morning lifted and changed the spirits of both prisoners and guards.

Wrote my grandfather: ``As we passed out between the great forests that bordered the river, the silence seemed almost holy. So profound was it that even the sound of a drop of water falling from one of our oars was audible.''

Gliding on the soft mirror of the Ob, exiles and guard were entranced by the double images of forest and sky. For a moment in time, there was no longer division. Sky was water and water sky. There was also no division among men. They were neither ``bond nor free,'' Russian or Siberian, believer or unbeliever. They were only four men, transfixed by nature, drifting north on a river in Siberia.

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