From the Archive
In 1891, Union Chapel hosted exactly the kind of meeting we are hosting today in our church. Refugees, victims of human rights abuses were listened to and supported. This fascinating article is from the Islington Gazette.
9th October 1891
A RUSSIAN EXILE AT HIGHBURY
HOW HE ESCAPED TO FREEDOM.
In connection with the special course of three lectures to be given at Union Chapel aid of the Union Debating Society’s fund for supplying dinners in the winter to the poor of the district, Moos. Felix Volkhoosky, editor of the Free Russia newspaper, and Russian political refugee, on Tuesday evening described to a large and deeply - interested audience the way in which he escaped from Siberia to the land of the stars and stripes. It had been expected that Dr. Allon would preside, but the inclemency of the night rendered it unsafe for him to leave his residence. Mr. Lee, who presided, referred sympathetically to the death, just announced, of the late Right W. H. Smith MP.
Mr. M. Volkhoosky, who is a man of forty-five, and bears a startling resemblance to Principal Brown, of Tollington Park College—so startling that Mr. Brown will do wisely if he keep outside the Czar’s dominions for the present, read his lecture, with excellent elocution and sufficient distinctness of pronunciation to render him quite intelligible except in a few passages. began with the remark that the time was, not long ago, when the mere description of a man as a Russian Nihilist, or a Russian revolutionist, was sufficient to make an Englishman turn his back with aversion and horror. Yet here was he (the speaker) who had suffered solitary confinement for seven years, and spent eleven years in Siberia, lecturing to English audiences, who received him with respect, and applauded his sentiments. Why this great change? It was because the English people, who formerly did not understand the great struggle going on in Russia, had at last come to understand it, and to realise that it was a struggle for freedom, just such a struggle as England has passed through before arriving her inheritance of liberty and personal privilege. (Hear, hear.)
But while England had those blessings, Russia was still without them. The greatest of blessings was the right to struggle for the improvement of the conditions of life. Nothing of this kind was allowed in Russia. The Czar claimed his authority to reign as from heaven, not from the people. Anyone who dared question that doctrine was liable, under section 252 of the Russian Penal Code, to the deprivation of all civil rights, to imprisonment for a term of years, and then to banishment for life to Siberia. All public meetings of every description were strictly prohibited. A prosecution could not be brought against officials for offences committed while on duty. The only redress was a complaint to his superior, often no redress at all. Such facts as these the English were beginning to realise, and they could not but side with the men who were striving to do their duty by their fellows and by their country. (Applause.)
But it was his duty to tell for the first time the story of the way in which escaped from Siberia. After imprisonment for two and a half years in one prison, and then three years in another, the whole ending in a mock trial, he was found guilty of being a member of a society formed with the intention of bringing about, at some more or less distant date, a change the government of the country, and of circulating literature to that end. He was sentenced to deprivation of all civil privileges and exiled to Siberia.
This meant that for the rest of his life he must be at the mercy of every official. It meant that, if he were to go for day’s recreation, even outside the boundaries of the village of his residence, the police of the village would regard him offender, and lodge him in the local gaol, reeking with vermin, to be at the mercy of local felons, who might rob him with impunity. It meant that the police could visit his house any time of day or night, on the most trifling pretext. It meant that nothing was safe, nothing sacred from the brutality of the police. It meant that a man must live his life in the maddening consciousness that his honour and the honour of his family depended upon the mercy of a scoundrel whom he must endeavour to conciliate.
The village to which he was sent had a population of 1,500. He could do nothing for a livelihood except to be in the lowest forms of labour and was forced to earn his living as a bookbinder and a builder of houses. About three pounds a month could be earned this way.
In 1882 he got a commission to remove the provincial capital of Torusk (? Tomsk) Here there was a population of 45,000; he got some better employment and could hide better from the police. But his life was not much easier, for the exile was absolutely barred from any participation in public work. In 1888 the Siberian University was in operation, and the Government decided to expel all the exiles. Of course, he had no passport, without which man is not suffered to be a man. After a deal of trouble and expense he got a commission to move to Orusk. (? Omsk) Here he was appointed to a position in a bank, which he held for twelve months. Just when he had won the confidence of the bank people, the director received official intimation that was not consistent with the majesty of the empress, a patron of the bank, that Volkhoosky should be employed there any longer. He was discharged. What to do he did not know. With his daughter he travelled 1,010 miles in a very cold winter, in the hope of reaching a southern Siberian town near China, His future was a blank. Fearful of exposing his daughter to nameless perils, he contrived to entrust her to faithful friends, and began to seek for a passport. This came at last, with a permit to live any town in Siberia. He settled in the Transcaval province.
Suddenly he was told that must leave in three days. He showed his passport, but it was of no avail. Having appealed for advice to a friendly official, he was advised to go away quietly. From remarks which fell from the officials, he gathered that it was entered in the records - a sort of Russian Domesday Book - as a seditious person. He knew then that there was no hope of rest or peace in Siberia.
He resolved then to make a desperate attempt to deliver himself from bondage. He had heard of what England was beginning to say of Russian tyranny and took heart of hope. Could he get to England? Fortunately, the bank, dismissing him, gave him 400 roubles in compensation for his losses. Without this he could not have escaped. He was 2,300 miles from the Pacific coast. This was no easy task for a man in shattered health, even if he could escape the vigilance of the Siberian police. It was now the middle of August, and he must reach the coast by the end of October, where the last steamer would sail. The risks were enormous, but he was determined to take them all for the sake of a chance of freedom. (Applause.)
He travelled for ten days by post horses. Then, at a village where he passed the night, he was thrown into a just state of alarm by confronting a Siberian policeman, who had known him in another part of the country. By a mere accident, there chanced to be a vehicle of three horses draught in front of the inn. He made a quick bargain with the driver and went flying out of the town at a rate which nearly reduced his body to a beef-steak condition, but which brought wondrous rest to his heart and mind. At last he reached a river, where he took a steamer. Here, again, he was alarmed by the curiosity he seemed to awaken in the minds of the officials, and by the close interrogation as to his movements and intentions. The captain tricked him and left him with his luggage on a barren island in the midst of a river.
When he reached the nearest town, had another narrow escape; for he met a man who called him by name. He threw this man off his guard by telling him intended to settle down there. After getting a ticket for another steamer, which was a task of the highest possible danger to his plans, and making another river trip, he took a horse across the country for 140 miles, and reached the Pacific hill at a Siberian port. It had taken two months to make the entire journey.
But he had now to face the greatest difficulty - to get on board an outward -bound vessel without betraying the fact that it was escaping. After thrilling escapes from discovery, he got a personal interview with one of the captains, who consented to take him as a passenger without a passport. Not, however, until he had taken the captain into full confidence—no easy task with his very limited knowledge of English. One terribly stormy day a Chinese lad rowed him to the vessel. On its deck were two Russian police-men, but the captain took them below to his cabin. (Applause.)
Once on deck the steward found a hiding place for him. 'Twas his last solitary confinement. He landed in Japan. Here, again, he narrowly escaped discovery for the Japanese Government to surrender Siberian exiles. His mental agony was intense. He had an American five-shooter and determined not to be taken alive to be transported to a Siberian dungeon. But the danger passed, and in a few days, he was on the decks of the British steamer Batavia bound for Vancouver. On board he met a Canadian, who guessed his character, and took a genuine interest in his movements.
A subscription was got up for him, and employment was given him Vancouver. Ten years had passed away, and was now free and happy in England, anxious above all else to render some service to his unfortunate fellow-countrymen. (Applause.)
The lecture, which this report gives but a meagre account, was of intense interest. We have purposely avoided giving the exact details of M. Volkhoosky’s devices to elude the Siberian police.‹ back