Russia has always attracted a certain breed of foreigner: adventurers, drawn to the country’s vastness and emptiness; chancers, seeking fortunes and new beginnings in the Russian rough and tumble. Romantics, all of them, men and women in search of soulfulness and authenticity — the experience of life lived on and beyond the edge of the civilised world’s conventions.
Thomas Atkinson was all those things — in addition to being a self-taught architect and stonecutter of middling skills, a decent watercolourist, a stoic traveller of apparently inexhaustible curiosity, and a bigamist. In Thomas, Lucy and Alatau, John Massey Stewart, himself an experienced traveller and Russia-lover, recounts the forgotten story of Atkinson’s extraordinary adventures in Siberia and the Kazakh steppes between 1846 and 1855.
Most of Atkinson’s 40,000 miles of travels were undertaken in the company of his wife Lucy and their son, Alatau Tamchiboulac, born in November 1848 in a remote Cossack fort and named after some of his parents’ favourite spots. Over their many years of travel the family encountered outlaws, brigands and warring steppe tribes; they escaped murder plots and frequent robbery attempts; and they managed to visit and chronicle some of the remotest and loveliest corners of the Russian empire.
During his travels Atkinson produced some 560 watercolour sketches, which somehow managed to survive years of travel on horseback through difficult terrain, across rivers and often in torrential rain. Some were given to the Tsar and are now in the Hermitage collection; most of them were handed down through Alatau’s family. Atkinson’s illustrations of waterfalls, scenic mountain passes and picturesque natives may not be of great artistic merit, but they bring his traveller’s tale to magnificent life.
And what a tale it is. Nights spent wrapped in a bearskin cloak among opium-smoking Kazakh raiders; a raging wild boar, which ‘received nine balls before he fell’; a wild ride in a runaway sleigh that hurtles, driverless, towards a ravine; the intrepid couple facing down highway robbers with cocked pistols in the dead of a Siberian night. The ringing prose of Atkinson’s account of a storm over Ala-kul lake in Altai is a splendid Gothic period piece:
Turning westward, the Effect was awfully grand. The Clouds were rolling on in black masses, covering the craggy summits near us in darkness, while above these, white clouds were Rolling and curling like steam from some mighty Chauldron.
Atkinson’s travels are not all derring-do. Stewart shows us charming glimpses of the long-suffering Lucy’s domestic life on the endless road gleaned from her own diaries and letters. She sews ‘a little hat from a small piece of red merino’ for her toddler, ‘embroidered it with a little silk from her work-box, placing an eagle’s feather in the front’. Their local Kazakh guide likes the hat so much that he begs Lucy to make him a similar one, which she renders ‘perfectly grand by decorating it with beads and earrings’.
The rigours of travel in 19th-century Russia sound, to the modern ear, frankly hellish. Mosquitoes and lice plague them all summer, bitter cold and storms all winter, and they face the constant risk of violence and sudden death. They discover that a cook has been using his filthy foot-cloths to boil their rice in (the unfortunate man receives 20 lashes in punishment from his employer). Yet the Atkinsons brave all with an almost comically English stoicism. One Christmas finds them in a small Siberian settlement, where Lucy struggles to make the single dress she owns presentable with ‘the only iron in Kopal’, in preparation for a ball given by the local governor. A buran — a sudden steppe wind-storm — collapses the Atkinsons’ tents and blows out Lucy’s only candle as she irons. But the couple finally make it to the party, to find their host and all the local officers in full dress uniform as the servants struggle outside in the raging storm ‘with screams and cries’ to salvage flying tents and tables. Inside, the guests are entertained with polkas played on Kazakh drums, two violins and a fife.
On their travels in Siberia the family also meet several surviving Decembrists, rebel noblemen exiled to the wilderness after an abortive mutiny in 1825. One is Peter Fahlenberg, an educated gentleman reduced to growing a patch of tobacco to make ends meet. Lucy is moved ‘to find a talented man with a highly cultivated mind placed in such a position’.
Atkinson himself, though a self-proclaimed nature lover, artist and romantic, comes across as personally rather callous. In his later published accounts of his journeys he makes no mention of Lucy or of his little son. ‘Presumably travelling with a wife and small child would greatly diminish the intrepidity of his extraordinary story,’ Stewart notes drily.
There was also the matter of Atkinson’s first wife Rebekah, whom he left back in England and of whom he made no mention when he married Lucy Finley, a 29-year-old English governess, in St Petersburg. Lucy only became aware of the existence of her husband’s first wife after his death in 1861. Atkinson had also left Rebekah all his money.
But at least the family, against all odds, made it back to England in one piece. It is an extraordinary story, unjustly forgotten, but now brought back to vibrant life in this beautifully illustrated account.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free