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'The power of the taiga... perhaps only migratory birds know where it ends'

Siberia salutes British nurse who set up a leper colony in remote Yakutian village

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15 September 2014


A true hero - the monument to the remarkable British nurse Kate Marsden. Picture: Yakutsk and Lena's Eparchy

Relations maybe icy now between Russia and Britain over the tragic Ukraine crisis, but this is no reason not to commemorate great links of the past between two countries famous for helping each in times of great troubles. In this spirit, the opening of the monument to the remarkable British nurse - who had the support of two royal empresses in her work - was blessed by Roman, Bishop of Yakutsk and the Lena.

He reminded his audience of the need to be thankful and to honour the memory of those who undertake lofty missions to the service of others. He recalled, too, the role of his predecessor Meletios, now glorified as a saint by the Orthodox faith, in helping the nurse organise the colony by setting up a Committee to help the lepers.

The event was part of the celebrations of the 380th anniversary of  the city Vilyuysk, a remote town some 600km from Yakursk, capital of Yakutia, or the Sakha Republic.

The monument was constructed after a local fund raising effort. 

Siberia salutes heroic British nurse and adventurer who set up a leper colony in remote Yakutian village

Kate Marsden all dressed up to leave to Siberia. Picture: 'On Sledge and Horseback' book

Kate Marsden travelled with the active support of both Queen Victoria of England and the Tsarina of Russia, Maria Fedorovna. Much later, after her return, her odyssey would be marred by sexual innuendo, yet this unfair accusation from her detractors can in no way obscure her achievements.

In an era of extraordinary adventurers, hers was especially noteworthy in this era both because she was a woman travelling alone, and due to the sheer scale of her undertaking, to reach one of the remotest areas of Yakutia in search of an elusive herbal cure for leprosy.

By the time of her trip, she had already made her mark, and won the hearts of Russians, as a battle-hardened nurse caring for the wounded during the war between Russia and Turkey in 1878. There are accounts of her, then aged 19, stalking the battlefield at night, bringing relief to soldiers felled during the day's fighting. It was at this time that she had her first contact with lepers, and it was to their cause that she devoted her life's work.

Her plan was to set up a charity to relieve the condition of lepers in India, and to this end she secured the support of both Queen Victoria, the Empress of the sub-continent, and the  Princess of Wales, Alexandra, Maria's sister.

Seeking further patronage, and never fearful of aiming high to secure her ends, she travelled to St Petersburg and sought the assistance of the Russian Empress, with Alexandra's introduction.

At this stage, she had no inkling of her journey to Siberia; her focus was on India. She set off for Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus and Constantinople to study how leprosy was treated in different colonies.

It was in Constantinople that she met an English doctor who told her of a rare and unnamed herb, known only to the Yakut people in this faraway permafrost region. Inspired by its potential, she changed her plans and rushed back to the royal capital of St Petersburg.

Siberia salutes heroic British nurse and adventurer who set up a leper colony in remote Yakutian village

'Sufferings of this journey added twenty years to my age, but I would do it ten times over to aid my poor lepers'. Picture: 'On Sledge and Horseback'

It was said of her that she 'charmed the Tsarina and her ladies in waiting and blasted her way through the embattled bureaucracy of Imperial Russia'.

In November 1890, she not only convinced the Empress to fund her trip to distant Yakutia to find this herb and use it to cure lepers around the world, but also secured from the Tsarina orders to local governors across eastern Russia that they should give Marsden all possible assistance in the name of Her Majesty.

Now in her early 30s, she knew from the start that the herb was a closely guarded secret but she hoped that the audacity of her mission would persuade locals to give up their knowledge. 'Could they be persuaded to reveal all they knew to a woman who came to them for the sake of humanity, and on behalf of Christ?' she wondered.

At the time leprosy - a bacterial infection ravaging the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes - was incurable; its impact was devastating.

On 1 February 1891 with a female companion, a Miss Ada Field, she set out on her journey from Moscow via Samara to the Urals, and in particular Zlatoust, in Chelyabinsk region, at the time the most easterly point of the railway.

'The next part of the journey, from Zlatoust to Ekaterinburg, was made by carts', unsprung and uncomfortable, drawn by horses, recounts Yuri Bessonov, a Russian physician, independent researcher and historian, in RN Journal. 'In Ekaterinburg Miss Marsden met a couple of Englishmen, who, having known about her intentions, advised her to visit Irbit, a small town where a popular trade fair was traditionally held in February, which would be a chance to meet some Yakut merchants in order to inquire about the lepers in the Yakut area and about the healing herb.

'Miss Marsden and Miss Field did meet one of the Yakut merchants in Irbit and had a thorough talk with him. Although this merchant did not know much about the herb, he provided some useful information about the Yakut area and he also told about horrible conditions in the places where the lepers lived'.

On they went in to Tyumen and Tobolsk. And to Omsk, 'riding on a sleigh along a very poor road, exposed to biting frosts and chilling-to-the-marrow winds', wrote Bessonov.

Siberia salutes heroic British nurse and adventurer who set up a leper colony in remote Yakutian village

'Exposed to biting frosts and chilling-to-the-marrow winds'. Picture: The Siberian Times 

The women were 'exhausted and frozen to death' but acting on Maria Fedorovna's instructions they received a warm welcome and were cared for by Governor General Sannikov, and his family. Now disaster struck, though, because Marsden's Russian-speaking companion was too ill to go on.  

'From that moment Miss Marsden did not hear a single word in her mother tongue until the end of the journey and had to communicate with the people she met through a French-speaking interpreter and by gestures'.

Marsden paused for two weeks before proceeding to Krasnoyark, accompanied now by a young French-speaking Russia officer tasked with ensuring the British nurse was able to complete her mission. According to Bessanov's gripping account the roads 'were worsening with every mile the horses made.

'The sledges were often stuck in deep snow, despite being driven by up to seven horses. Besides, the travellers had to cross numerous rivers, which was really hazardous, because the ice had already started to melt, as the spring was coming to this part of Siberia. In Krasnoyarsk the sledges were substituted for the carts, but it did not make the trip more comfortable, as the road was in fact a perpetual chain of pits and bumps, so that the travellers had to experience interminable jerks and pushes'.

By April, the Marsden odyssey had reached Irkutsk, and from here she made her way to the Lena River. Her sleigh gave way to a pauzok, or open barge, offering no shelter or comforts, as she now followed the flow for a tortuous three weeks. The vessel was normally used for transporting grain.

'Having undergone a terrible ordeal of storms and pouring rains, cold and wet nights, myriads of mosquitoes and centipedes, and all the inconveniences of travelling on the open deck, Miss Marsden arrived at Yakutsk.

'The local General Governor met her at the riverbank and invited her to his steamer, where he expressed his gratitude for the feats she had made and gave her a very warm and hospitable reception.

'The Governor spoke for a long time about the leprosy that affected many local people and made necessary arrangements for the further journey'.

Siberia salutes heroic British nurse and adventurer who set up a leper colony in remote Yakutian village

Siberia salutes heroic British nurse and adventurer who set up a leper colony in remote Yakutian village

Modern-day Yakutsk. Pictures: The Siberian Times 

Here she was warned about the appalling condition of local lepers condemned to live in colonies in the local taiga. Locals, as in other civilizations, regarded leprosy as a punishment visited on sinful people by higher powers.

'Being scared of any contacts with lepers, the Yakuts would expel their relatives or neighbours with any suspicious manifestations of the disease far away into the taiga, where these miserable people soon turned into living corpses, doomed to spend the rest of their lives in a desolate place among similar wretched sufferers,' wrote Bessonov.

'Having been driven out from their families, the lepers were deprived of any rights and were banned from any communication with the outer world. They had to live alone or in small groups in primitive shelters away from the settlements, being exposed to terrible frosts of about minus 50C degrees in winters and tropical heat in summers, when billions of bloodthirsty insects attacked their festering wounds, torturing them until total exhaustion.'

Undaunted, she resolved to go on to visit the lepers and to find for herself this herb, now guided by a Mr Petroff.

The following is an account by Marsden in her own words, penned soon after her trip, and later included in a book she wrote entitled 'Riding through Siberia':

'We left Yakutsk for Vilyuysk June 22nd, 1891, to begin our long journey....on horseback, for the purpose of visiting the lepers living in forests unknown, even to the Russians. Our cavalcade was somewhat curious, consisting of about fifteen men and thirty horses; all those around me were talking in a language which I could not understand, though Mr. Petroff did, who also knew a little French.

'The photographer in Yakutsk took our photograph; but someone moved before it was finished, and therefore it was a failure. It might have given an idea of our costumes. As to mine, it was not very elegant: a sun-hat, over it a network arrangement as a protection from the mosquitoes, a jacket with very long sleeves, with the badge of the red cross on my left arm. Very full trousers down to my knees, and high boots above my knees. A revolver, a whip, and a little travelling bag.

Siberia salutes heroic British nurse and adventurer who set up a leper colony in remote Yakutian village

 'The jerky movements of the untrained horse gave me dreadful pain'. Picture: 'On Sledge and Horseback' book

'I was obliged to ride as a man for many reasons. First, because the Yakutsk horses were so wild that it was impossible for me to ride otherwise; second, no woman could ride on a lady's saddle for 3000 versts (3200 km); and thirdly, as there were no roads, the horse constantly stumbles on the roots that are in the forest, threatening to throw the rider over its head; then it sinks into the mud till the rider's feet are on earth; having somehow recovered its footing, it rushes along between the branches of the trees and shrubs, utterly regardless of the fact that they were tearing and making mincemeat of the rider's dress.

'The first day we did five versts; the second, fifteen; the third, twenty; and after that, 80 versts without stopping for sleep. One's sufferings were far worse than even when travelling in the tarantass (springless carriage); the stiffened position of my body being altogether contrary to its usual free and easy habit; and the jerky movements of the untrained horse gave me dreadful pain.

'We were obliged to take food with us for three months; some black and white dried bread, some dried prunes, some tea and sugar, and other indispensable articles for so long a journey; for, excepting at Vilyuysk, you can get absolutely nothing, not even bread and tea.

'Before leaving Yakutsk, His Grace the Archbishop asked us to go to his house, that he might give us his blessing. When we went, His Grace, dressed in all his most brilliant robes, blessed us and pronounced over us his benediction. All the time I was in Yakutsk he took care of me like a father, tenderly and lovingly.

'We left there very quietly, so as not to attract attention. I had a very great objection to make any parade of our starting to my work, for it was serious; and it is my desire that it should be finished as it was begun, with the blessing of God on us at every step, whether that step be difficult or easy.

Siberia salutes heroic British nurse and adventurer who set up a leper colony in remote Yakutian village

Town of Vilyuisk at the beginning of 20th century. Picture: 'On Sledge and Horseback' book

'When you are travelling through marshes in which your horse, without a moment's warning, sinks up to his stomach, you are obliged to hold on by the reins and by your knees and hands and every way, as best you can.

'The only thought in my mind at the time was to keep on and not fall off, and to keep my horse on his feet, for if my horse fell I must fall with it, and find myself in the mud. The first ten marshes it was not so difficult; but after we had passed hundreds of them all the body ached; I felt as though I had spent fifty years on the tread-mill. It was then, that, to keep in the saddle, was a feat worthy of a hero.

'On the official maps there is a road traced leading from Yakutsk to Vilyuysk, but in reality there is no such road~so do not be misled by official maps if you should go there. You will have to pass through unnamed marshes, and never find any such road.

'During the summer the mosquitoes are frightful, both in the night and in the day; and when you arrive at a yourta [yurt], which serves as a post-station, the dirt and vermin and smell are simply disgusting; bugs, lice, fleas, etc., cover the walls, as well as the benches on which you have to sleep.

'Even on the ground you will find them, and, as soon as a stranger comes in, it seems as if the insects make a combined assault on him in large battalions; and, of course, sleep is a thing never dreamed of. After a few days the body swells from their bites into a form that can neither be imagined nor described.

'They attack your eyes and your face, so that you would hardly be recognised by your dearest friend. Yet with all these pains and penalties we had still to continue riding from forty to eighty versts in one day; we did even 100 versts without sleep. The fatigue, and the want of rest were dreadful. Cows and calves were in the same yourta with us, and the smell from them and from everything else was horrible.

'We would, indeed, have made very funny pictures of miserable travellers'.

Siberia salutes heroic British nurse and adventurer who set up a leper colony in remote Yakutian village

At the time leprosy, a bacterial infection ravaging the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes was incurable. Picture: 'On Sledge and Horseback' book

'As there is only one yourta at a post-station, ladies and gentlemen are obliged to sleep all together, and any traveller that may be present at the same time; a gentleman might put up with it, but it is impossible for a lady.

'After riding on horseback for the first time, my body was in constant pain, and complete rest with the possibility of undressing was indispensable; but as they say in French, 'A la guerre comme a la guerre'. As undressing was not possible, I was obliged to rest the best way I could.

'Really, I think the sufferings of this journey have added twenty years to my age. But I would willingly do it ten times over to aid my poor lepers who are placed in the depths of these unknown forests. 

When she reached the lepers, nothing she had seen before in her life prepared her for the shock. With it dawned a realisation that if the Yakut people indeed possessed a cure for leprosy, it was not being used on their own lepers who lived in utter destitution and misery.

She saw that whatever other purpose she had, her first task was to improve the lot of the lepers here, and this became her immediate goal. It is one for which she is still remembered with affection and admiration in this remote corner of Siberia, despite attempts elsewhere to to sully her work and her memory.

In one of many observations, she recorded how 'a scene met my eyes too horrible to describe fully. Twelve men, women and children, scantily and filthily clothed, were huddled together in two small yourtas (huts), covered with vermin. The stench was dreadful; one man was dying, two men had lost their toes and half of their feet'.

She met some 80 lepers in all. Though herself exhausted, she set about finding a location for a civilised home for these outcasts, and on her return through Siberia, starting in Irkutsk, began raising money for a colony where the lepers could be properly cared for.

Siberia salutes heroic British nurse and adventurer who set up a leper colony in remote Yakutian village

Monument to Kate Marsden unveiled in Sosnovka village 123 years after she set out on her epic work. Picture: Yakutsk and Lena Eparchy

'The General-Governor of Irkutsk summoned a meeting where Miss Marsden reported her observations and appealed to the participants for the immediate help. The first donation of 1,500 rubles was collected right at the meeting.

'Very soon, owing to Miss Marsden's steadfast activity, the total sum of the fund rose to 20,000 rubles,' recounted Bassonov.

'In the beginning of October Miss Marsden left Yakutsk and headed for Tomsk, where she arrived in November. In Tomsk she continued appealing to the local authorities, trying to raise more funds for the Yakut lepers. She also had a meeting with the Mother Superior of the local Orthodox convent and told her about the terrible conditions of the lepers in the taiga. The Mother Superior promised to send some nuns to the Yakutsk area to take care of the lepers.'

Her journey back was both easier and successful. On her travels back across Russia, and on her return to the UK, she raised raised the 90,000 roubles needed to build a colony for Vilyuysk.

'It was planned that the colony would comprise ten houses for ten lepers in each, two hospitals for men and women, a church, a house for a doctor and two assistants, a house for nurses and other staff of the colony, a workshop, a bathhouse, and a mortuary. It was supposed that each of the houses would also have a small garden and a cattle-shed for two cows. Besides, a big kitchen garden was supposed to provide enough vegetables for the whole colony,' wrote Bassonov.

Russian nurses, inspired by Marsden, staffed the colony when it was opened and consecrated on 5 December 1892, the year after her visit. It was completed six years after she left. Astonishingly, it survived not only the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the ensuing Civil War, but lasted to the early 1960s, pioneering the extermination of leprosy in Yakutia.

Siberia salutes heroic British nurse and adventurer who set up a leper colony in remote Yakutian village

The monument to Kate Marsden was constructed after a local fund raising effort. Picture: Yakutsk and Lena Eparchy 

'Hailed as a compassionate hero, she was presented to Queen Victoria and became one of the first female Fellows of the Royal Geographical Society,' wrote Felicity Ashton in Geographic magazine, who in 2008 retraced some of Marsden's steps in eastern Siberia.

In Vilyuysk, she found locals more than a century after Marsden's epic trip continuing to regard her as a 'hero' in stark contrast to the character assassination that befell the nurse in the West, of which more below.

Ashton's driver took her to a sign on a house reading 3, Kate Marsden Street, solemnly telling her: 'The people of Vilyuysk think that Kate Marsden did a great thing for the region. It is similar to what Lenin did for the Soviet people. That is why they named the street after her.'

Locals, ancestors of those who came here to work in the colony, still remember stories about Marsden passed down through the generations.

Ashton met one who told her: 'One of my ancestors was a personal assistant to her. She called him John. When she was very tired from riding, he used to put two horses parallel and place material between them so that she could travel while having a rest. In every place they stayed, he made a fire to make smoke, just to keep the mosquitoes away from Kate Marsden.

'She really thanked him at the end. She wanted him to come with her to England, but he refused to leave his country.'

Siberia salutes heroic British nurse and adventurer who set up a leper colony in remote Yakutian village

Siberia salutes heroic British nurse and adventurer. Picture: Yakutsk and Lena Eparchy

Most intriguingly, the author clears up a mystery which Marsden herself chose not to explain: the name of the herb she sought and ultimately found. In all probability protecting the secrets of the Yakutian healers who divulged the name of the secret herb to her, and gave her some samples.

Vladimir Kandakov, the chief shaman and head of the Association of Traditional Healers in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), rejected speculation on other herbs and told Ashton in certain terms that it was named Katchutka.

'It is a very rare herb and I only found three stems', he told her. He produced a dictionary written eight years after Marsden's visit which said: 'This herb is used by the Yakut (Sakha) for curing leprosy'. Locals mixed it with other herbs and sometimes with vodka. It was sadly not the cure that Marsden had sought, though of course leprosy is now cured by antibiotics, she did send it to India and by some accounts it had a soothing impact on sufferers.

Marsden's trip would seem to have all the components of a Hollywood film, but when she returned to her homeland, her name was muddied for reasons that are still not entirely clear.

Siberia salutes heroic British nurse and adventurer who set up a leper colony in remote Yakutian village

Locals, ancestors of those who came here to work in the colony, still remember stories about Marsden passed down through the generations. Picture: Yakutsk and Lena Eparchy

She was accused of embezzling funds from her leprosy foundation. Sexual innuendo was spread about her. And doubt was cast on details of her epic trip, with questions raised even about whether she had made it at all.

'For many of the British public, her sensational journey with its Dante-like landscapes and extremes of climate and hardship simply seems incredible for a woman to have undertaken: some disbelieved that she had travelled in Siberia at all, others that she could not have ridden the distance. or if she did, there must have been some sexual impropriety on the way', wrote Avril Maddrell in the book 'Complex Locations: Women's Geographical Work in the UK'.

Geographers later verified her remarkable accounts of her travels in Siberia. Equally, it did seem that she had been careless if not dishonest with her charitable funds. One contemporary investigation found her 'utterly unbusiness-like' and 'extremely careless in dealing with money'.

Some authorities (Middleton, 2004) still find it hard to explain the strong antipathy she engendered.  

'Hints of financial impropriety and lesbianism cannot explain why Isabel Hapgood, an American translator worked... for her destruction'.

The London Times also joined the crusade against her. At the time such accusations were, of course, deeply damaging, yet for a time she seemed to overcome them. Later she was in America again raising money for leprosy but she was falsely accused of suffering from leprosy, leading to legal bills to clear her name.

At some point the vitriol seemed to wear her done.

Siberia salutes heroic British nurse and adventurer who set up a leper colony in remote Yakutian village

Kate Marsden's grave in England. Picture: Jacki Hill Murphy

Later in life she would settle on the south coast of England and was instrumental in setting up a local museum in Bexhill-on-Sea. She died in 1931 in poverty in a hospital that was formerly a lunatic asylum.

While the RGS made her a fellow for life, her memory remained tarnished in her own country in a way it was not in Siberia, where it is even said a diamond was named after her.

In 2009, the 150th anniversary of her birth was marked by dedicating a stone monument near Yakutsk Medical Colledge.

The vice president of the republic, Evgenia Mikhailova, was present and the health minister Vyacheslav Alexandrov said: 'Kate Marsden gave us an example how one can sacrifice yourself to the treatment of sick people which is the main thing for every doctor.'

The town of Vilyuysk marked the 120th anniversary of her visit with a re-enactment of her arrival. 

Comments (1)

wonderful story. I plan to read the book. Thank you so much
Peggy Lee, Englewood, FL USA
21/09/2014 00:04

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