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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

The Story of my Life by F. Volkhovski

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

This article is a report of the Upper Norwood Literary and Scientific Society published in The Norwood News on 4 february 1893.

Report of a lecture about The Story of my Life, by a Russian Exile held on 25 january 1893 presided by Arthur Conan Doyle where he spoke.


The Norwood News (4 february 1893, p. 5)

On Wednesday evening in last week a large assembly of the members and friends of the Upper Norwood Literary Society met to hear Mr. Felix Volkhovski, the Russian exile, relate the story of his life.

The PRESIDENT (Dr. Conan Doyle) was in the chair, and warmly commended Mr. Volkhovski and the cause he represents to the sympathy and attention of the audience.

The lecturer, who spoke very clearly and fluently in good English, narrated his experience as follows:—

At the time of my first arrest, I was a student at Moscow. One night we were aroused by a colonel of gendarmes with two of his men, and two citizens, who attended according to the custom of the country as witnesses. He came to my room, and told me I was suspected of having papers of a seditious character, and my cabinets must be searched. I took him to my escritoire, and he took out most of my papers. There was one left at the bottom of a drawer containing statements that would have incriminated my friends, but it was written on the back of an advertisement, the printed side being upward; the colonel, when I offered it him, threw it aside as not wanted. I was taken to St. Petersburg. My examination lasted nearly two years, during which I was kept in solitary confinement. At the end of that time I was acquitted. I went to South Russia, and afterwards returned to Moscow. I was afterwards again arrested and imprisoned in the fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul. During this time we only saw each other in our daily walks round the exercise ground, where we had to march in order with two soldiers in the rear. Despite all precautions this exercise was particularly grateful to most of the prisoners, as it gave them an opportunity of intercourse. Letters were written in almost invisible characters on diminutive scraps of cigarette paper, which were enclosed in morsels of rye-bread or other material. Pens and pencils were picked up and secreted as opportunity offered. Huckleberry juice served for ink. But the usual mode of communication was by raps on the wall. An alphabetic code was formed. (The lecturer illustrated this by rapping out "Who are you?" the most usual question on striking up an acquaintance.) This is somewhat laborious, as it requires 60 raps. A counter-rap from the auditor indicates that he has heard enough to recognise the word, and the rapper may proceed to the next. This has saved many a man from going mad, though it cannot save him from the loss of memory, loss of appetite, nervous derangement, &c., caused by solitary confinement. I spent thus about two years, and was then brought to trial and acquitted. After a dangerous fever I settled in Odessa. Here I became a member of a secret propagandist society, which sought by pamphlets and preaching to awaken the peasantry to the inconsistency of the present state of affairs, and the necessity of radical reforms. Unfortunately, the more successful a propagandist, the greater his danger. So with me. In about two years I was arrested for the third time. My diseases returned. I became deaf, and thus completely cut off from intercourse. To save my reason, I composed a poem of 278 verses. And thus, though I had not yet been convicted, my detention, including the time spent in the enquiry, was three years — by no mean, an extreme case. Numbers go mad or die before they are brought to trial. I was condemned to perpetual exile in Siberia. My first place of exile was Tukalinsk, near the European frontier. It has 1,500 inhabitants, and scarcely half-a-dozen town houses. I was handed over to the local chief, who explained to me the regulations under which I had to live: not to pass the boundaries on any occasion: all my correspondence to be inspected by the police; a daily visit from the police, and a weekly visit to report myself at the police office. However, after my previous experiences, I felt for a time happy enough. But I soon felt the lack of congenial occupation. I had to turn house painter and bookbinder for my living, and could make at the outside no more than £3 a month. At last I got permission to have to Tonisk, a city of about 45,000 inhabitants. While here I lost my wife and child, and I do not care to recall that time. I afterwards got a situation in a bank at Irkutsk — political exiles have a good reputation in Siberia — but the manager received notice to dismiss me, as the bank was under the patronage of the Empress. I then moved to Kiakhta. It is on the Chinese frontier, and there are no sentinels to guard the pass; but the Chinese dread the Russians, and immediately give up any man who has not a pass. I managed at last to get a temporary passport. The police have a private doomsday-book of each exile's conduct, which is forwarded to every place to which he moves. I managed to make them suppose I was going to cross to China, and I thus anticipated them in making my journey to the Pacific coast, which had to be done in all haste, as no navigation is possible in winter. I had to travel more than 800 miles by post-waggon, and to sail 1,900 miles more in a river steamer. When the boat lands, the first person to come on board is a police officer, and I once had a narrow escape. When taking a fresh ticket, I had to show my passport, but the clerk, after carefully scrutinising it, gave me the ticket. At length I reached Vladivostock, after more than two months' travelling. I there found a British ship which was going to Japan. My colloquial English was scarcely sufficient for me to explain my position to the captain, but when I showed him the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. George Kennan, he at once expressed himself satisfied. There was, however, a delay in starting, and when the time came a storm had arisen, and it was with difficulty I at last found a Chinese lad to row me to the vessel. When I got on board the steward whispered to me to follow him, and he found me a safe hiding-place — my last solitary confinement. Next day I stood on deck and watched the fast receding shore. The day after we were in the open sea; looking up, I saw the English flag, and knew I was safe. Since then I have crossed the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic, but have never forgotten my debt to the Russian peasant. I cannot go back to tight his cause, but I can strengthen the hands of those who are working here for his emancipation. Let me commend to you the Society of the Friends of Russian Freedom, of which Dr. Spence Watson is president.

The PRESIDENT, in proposing a vote of thanks to the lecturer, expressed his admiration of his pluck, not only in his adventures but in thus addressing an audience in a foreign language. As signs of the times, we had had in three successive years three great books on Russia, by George Keenan, Harold Friedrichs, and E. B. Lanim. The next great war will be the turning point of Russian freedom. The nation may come safely through it, but the Government will find themselves entered on a contest which will not leave them.

Mr. JUDD, in seconding the vote of thanks, congratulated the lecturer not only on what he had said but on what he had had the wisdom to omit.

The LECTURER, in replying, pointed out that, though the Russian peasant lacked education, he had already had considerable political training in matters of local administration.