Her remarkable exploits in the saddle made headlines a century ago, but have since ebbed from the public consciousness. CuChullaine O’Reilly chronicles the amazing adventures of Alexandra Kudasheva.
The annals of Long Rider history include a number of brave men. They will have to move aside to make room for Alexandra Kudasheva, one of the most remarkable female equestrian explorers of all time.
Kudasheva’s story is intertwined with that of the Cossacks. She is believed to have been born in 1873 during the Russian military campaign against Khiva.
According to Russian newspaper accounts, after being orphaned at an early age, she was raised by her father’s fellow Cossacks. During subsequent military campaigns, Kudasheva became an excellent rider and learned several Asian languages. As a result, one newspaper observed, “Life in the city was not known to her.”
In 1907 she decided to ride to St Petersburg. Yet her equestrian travel plans were delayed when she married an officer in the 6th Ural Cossack Regiment and then became a mother. After her husband was killed during the Russo-Japanese War, the widowed Kudasheva had to raise her children alone. The journey was postponed until they were old enough to be placed in a military school; at that point Kudasheva began her gallop on to the pages of Long Rider history.
Even equestrian travel legends are influenced by outside events and other riders. In the case of Kudasheva, it is known that the inspiration for her journey sprang from the earlier ride made in 1889 by Cossack Long Rider Dmitri Peshkov.
Like her predecessor, Kudasheva made St Petersburg her goal. Then she set about finding the right horse.
Like Peshkov, she chose one of the hardy native horses which inhabit Siberia, Manchuria and Mongolia. Her mount was an eight-year-old grey horse. Gifted with a fast pace, the horse had lived among an immense Manchurian horse herd until it had been trained by the Cossacks and presented to Kudasheva. She named it Mongolika.
On May 2, 1910, 36-year-old Kudasheva set off alone from Harbin, China. She had cut her hair short (pictured), wore high boots, wide corduroy breeches and a Cossack fur hat. She was armed with a pistol. Her only possessions fitted inside her small saddlebags.
Her route took her across Eurasia and here again Kudasheva was following in the hoofprints of another equestrian traveller. In 1892 the Japanese Long Rider Yasumasa Fukushima set off to ride from Berlin to Tokyo. Like the samurai Long Rider, the Russian woman rode parallel to the railway that stretched across Siberia. But the presence of a rail line was no guarantee of comfort or safety.
In what must be one of the greatest ever understatements, Kudasheva later told a reporter, “On my way I had to go through many adventures.”
She rode through mountains so desolate that she did not encounter another soul for weeks on end. At one point the temperature dropped to 42 degrees below zero. Her passage through the taiga – one of the world’s major ecosystems characterised by vast stretches of coniferous forests – was so perilous that she rode through miles of flooded swamp.
It wasn’t just the terrain or elements that made life difficult. Sceptical Russian peasants didn’t believe Kudasheva was a woman. They worried she might be working for the secret police. Others accused her of being the Antichrist. The villagers in Kartamishev had been told Mongolika spoke to her in German; so they offered to pay the Long Rider if she would make the horse talk.
After riding 12,600 miles, Kudasheva reached St Petersburg on May 30, 1911. One Russian paper reported that she had never taken a step away from her horse. That helped explain Mongolika’s extraordinary condition. Though he had travelled between 15 and 80 miles per day, the Manchurian horse was in superb shape.
When news of Kudasheva’s arrival reached Czar Nicholas II, the Russian monarch decided to meet the Cossack Long Rider. Also in attendance was Alexei Nikolaevich, the six-year-old heir to the throne. Czar Nicholas presented Kudasheva with a diamond brooch. She in turn gave her beloved Mongolika to the Crown Prince.
But Kudasheva’s adventures were far from over. At the conclusion of his 14,000 mile ride, Baron Fukushima had been closely questioned about foreign horses by the Japanese Emperor. Likewise, Czar Nicholas urged his subject to tell him about the horses she had seen among the Japanese, Chinese, Koreans and Mongols. In an age still dependent upon cavalry, the Russian ruler was also interested in improving the horses of his homeland.
It was because of their mutual love of horses that Czar Nicholas asked Kudasheva to set off on her second equestrian journey; only this time she rode the monarch’s personal horse. Though his Central Asian provinces were inhabited by horses, the Czar believed that native horses could be improved by cross-breeding them with faster, stronger animals. One way the ruler determined to test the strength and speed of various horses was by asking Kudasheva to ride his valuable Arabian stallion, Crete, from Vladivostok to St Petersburg.
The second journey differed in several ways from Kudasheva’s first ride. When she set off in 1913 not only was she mounted on the Emperor’s horse, her Cossack saddle, stirrups and bridle were trimmed with gold. Her saddle-blanket was a soft Persian carpet. The beautiful equipment had been a gift from Nikolai Romanov, the Czar’s uncle who commanded the Russian army.
Even though the climate was still harsh, this time Kudasheva did not ride in obscurity. Cossack regiments stationed along her route greeted her warmly. Officers and officials welcomed her arrival. Yet the delays caused by social obligations didn’t slow her progress. The Russian press reported that the female Cossack still averaged more than 25 miles a day. Once again Kudasheva rode into St Petersburg.
Then the world changed.
Kudasheva had ridden alone through China, Manchuria, Siberia and European Russia – twice. She had published a book about her first journey. She had written poetry, studied hypnosis, met Rasputin and travelled to India.
The outbreak of the First World War altered everything for Kudasheva and her royal patrons.
Soon after the conflict began in 1914, Kudasheva enlisted as a volunteer in the Sixth Ural Cossack Regiment. It did not take long for the former Long Rider to distinguish herself. She eagerly took part in mounted combat waged against the German Uhlans stationed in Prussia. After being wounded twice, Kudasheva was awarded the Cross of St George because of her exceptional bravery.
She was then commissioned as a lieutenant and continued to climb through the ranks. In 1915 she was named Commander of one of the first fully integrated combat units, a Cossack regiment consisting of 600 men and women.
Kudasheva emerged from the war with honour; yet fate can be cruel.
Czar Nicholas and his son, Alexei Nikolaevich, were captured by members of the Bolshevik rebellion. Taken to exile in Siberia, the Czar was murdered by communist assassins, along with the other members of the royal family, in 1918.
Kudasheva may have mourned the death of her friends – if she had known. But by then she had troubles of her own.
Russian newspaper articles reported that because of her previous travels in Central Asia, Kudasheva was fluent in the Kazakh language. Some stories suggest that the Long Rider was enlisted by Royalists and sent incognito into what is now Kazakhstan. Tales persist that she also travelled to Afghanistan and may have even reached Persia, in search of military information.
Whether she was spying for the Czar or not is still to be determined. Yet what does appear correct is that Kudasheva was arrested by the Cheka, the Soviet Union’s secret police force. One rumour states that the woman who rode across Siberia twice and led male and female Cossacks into battle was executed in Kazakhstan in 1921.
No one knows the truth. No one knows where Kudasheva’s body was laid to rest.
All we have is a memory of a woman who broke all the rules by riding into history.
CuChullaine O’Reilly’s piece was originally published on the website of the Long Riders’ Guild.
Read Horsetalk’s news report here.