The Autobiography of a Revolutionist: Siberia


IN the middle of May, 1862, a few weeks before our promotion, I was told one day to make up the final list of the regiments which each of us intended to join. We had the choice of all the regiments of the Guard, which we could enter with the first officer’s grade, and of the army with the third grade of lieutenant. I took a list of our form and went the rounds of my comrades. Every one knew well the regiment he was going to join, most of them already wearing in the garden the officer’s cap of that regiment.

“ Her Majesty’s Cuirassiers,” “ The Body Guard Preobrazhénsky,” The Horse Guards, 舡 were the replies which I inscribed.

“ But you, Kropótkin ? The artillery ? The Cossacks ? ” I was asked on all sides. I could not stand these questions, and at last, asking a comrade to complete the list, I went to my room to think once more over my final decision.

That I should not enter a regiment of the Guard, and give my life to parades and court balls, I bad settled longago. My dream was to enter the university, — to study, to live the student’s life. That meant, of course, to break entirely with my father, whose ambitions were quite different, and to rely for my living upon what I might earn by means of lessons. Thousands of Russian students live in that way, and such a life did not frighten me in the least. In a few weeks I should have to leave the school, to don my own clothes, to have my own lodging, and I saw no possibility of providing even the little money which would be required for the most modest start. Then, failing the university, I had often thought lately of entering the artillery academy. That would free me for two years from the drudgery of military service, and, besides the military sciences, I could study mathematics and physics. But, with the wind of reaction that was blowing, the officers in the academies had been treated like schoolboys ; a severe discipline was im posed upon them, and in two cases they had revolted and left in a body.

My thoughts went more and more toward Siberia. The Amúr region had recently been annexed by Russia ; I had read all about that Mississippi of the East, the mountains it pierces, the subtropical vegetation of its tributary, the Usurí, and my thoughts went further, — to the tropical regions which Humboldt had described, and to the great generalizations of Ritter, which I delighted to read. Besides, I reasoned, there is in Siberia an immense field for the application of the great reforms which have been made or are coming : the workers must be few there, and I shall find a field of action to my tastes. The worst was that I should have to separate from my brother Alexander ; but he had been compelled to leave the University of Moscow after the last disorders, and in a year or two, I guessed (and guessed rightly), in one way or another we should be together. There remained only the choice of the regiment in the Amúr region. The Usurí attracted me most; but, alas, there was on the Usurí only one regiment, of infantry Cossacks. A Cossack not on horseback, — that was too bad for the boy that I still was, and I settled upon “ the mounted Cossacks of the Amúr.”

This I wrote on the list, to the great consternation of all my comrades. “It is so far,” they said, while my friend Daúroff, seizing the Officers’ Handbook, read out of it, to the horror of all present : 舠Uniform, black, with a plain red collar without braids; far bonnet made of dog’s fur or any other fur ; trousers, gray.”

舠 Only look at that uniform ! ” he exclaimed. “ Bother the cap ! — you can wear one of wolf or bear fur; but think only of the trousers ! Gray, like a soldier of the Train ! ” The consternation reached its climax after that reading.

I joked as best I could, and took the list to the colonel.

“ Kropótkin, always with his jokes ! ” he cried. “ Did I not tell you that the list must be sent to the grand duke today ? ” .

Astonishment was depicted on his face when I told him that the list really showed my intention.

However, all my decisions nearly vanished next day, when I saw the way in which Klasóvsky took my decision. He had hoped to see me in the university, and had given me lessons in Latin and Greek for that purpose. I did not dare to tell him what prevented me from entering the university: I knew that if I told him the truth he would offer to share with me the little that he had.

Then my father telegraphed to the director that he forbade my going to Siberia ; and the matter was reported to the grand duke, who was the chief of the military schools. I was called before his assistant, and talked about the vegetation of the Amúr and like things, because I had strong reasons for believing that if I said I wanted to go to the university, and could not afford it, a bursary would be offered to me by some one of the imperial family, — an offer which by all means I wished to avoid.

It is impossible to say how all this would have ended, but an event of much importance — the great fire at St. Petersburg — brought in an indirect way a solution to my difficulties.

On the Monday after Trinity—the day of the Holy Ghost, which was that year on May 26, Old Style — a terrible fire broke out in the so-called Apráxin Dvor. The Apráxin Dvor was an immense space, more than half a mile square, which was entirely covered with small shops, — mere shanties of wood, — where all sorts of second and third hand goods were sold. Old furniture and bedding, second-hand dresses and books, poured in from every quarter of the city, and were stored in the small shanties, in the passages between them, and even on their roofs. This accumulation of inflammable materials had at its back the Ministry of the Interior and its archives, where all the documents concerning the liberation of the serfs were kept; and in front of it, lined by a row of shops built of stone, was the state bank. A narrow lane, also bordered with stone shops, separated it from a wing of the Corps of Pages, which was occupied by grocery and oil shops in its lower story, and with the apartments of the officers in its upper story. Almost opposite the Ministry of the Interior, on the other side of a canal, there were extensive timber yards. This labyrinth of small shanties and the timber yards opposite took fire at the same time, at four o’clock in the afternoon.

If there had been wind on that day, half the city would have perished in the flames, including the Bank, several Ministries, the Gostínoi Dvor (another great block of shops on the Nevsky Perspective), the Corps of Pages, and the National Library.

I was that afternoon at the Corps, dining at the house of one of our officers, and we dashed to the spot as soon as we noticed from the windows the first clouds of smoke rising in our close neighborhood. The sight was terrific. The fire, truly like an immense snake, rattling and whistling, threw itself in all directions, right and left, enveloped the shanties, and suddenly rose in a huge column, sending its whistling tongues to swallow more shanties with their contents. Whirlwinds of smoke and fire were formed; and when the whirls of burning feathers from the bedding shops began to sweep the space, it became impossible to remain any longer inside the burning market. The whole had to be abandoned.

The authorities had entirely lost their heads. There was not, at that time, a single steam fire engine in St. Petersburg, and it was workmen who suggested bringing one from the iron works of Kólpino, situated twenty miles by rail from the capital. When the engine reached the railway station, it was the people who dragged it to the conflagration. Of its four lines of hose, one was damaged by an unknown hand, and the other three were directed upon the Ministry of the Interior.

The grand dukes came to the spot and went away again. Late in the evening, when the Bank was out of danger, the Emperor also made his appearance, and said, what every one knew already, that the Corps of Pages was now the key of the battle, and must be saved by all means. It was evident that if the Corps had taken fire, half of the Nevsky Perspective would have been burned too.

It was the crowd, the people, who did everything to prevent the fire from spreading further and further. There was a moment when the Bank was seriously menaced. The goods cleared from the shops opposite were thrown into the Sadóvaya street, and lay in great heaps upon the walls of the left wing of the Bank. The articles which covered the street itself continually took fire, but the people, roasting there in an almost unbearable heat, prevented the fire from being communicated to the piles on the other side. They swore at all the authorities, seeing that there was not a pump on the spot. “ What are they all doing at the Ministry, when the Bank and the Foundlings’ House are going to burn ? They have all lost their heads ! ”

“ We must hunt up the chief of police and ask him to send a fire brigade here! ” they cried. I knew the chief, General Annenkoff, personally, as I had met him several times at our sub-inspector’s house, and I volunteered to find him. I found him,indeed, walking aimlessly in a street; and when I reported to him the state of affairs, incredible though it may seem, it was to me, a boy, that he gave the order to move one of the fire brigades from the Ministry to the Bank. I exclaimed, of course, that the men would never listen to me, and asked for a written order; but he had not, or pretended not to have, a scrap of paper, so that I asked one of our officers, L. L. Gosse, to come with me to transmit the order. We at last prevailed upon one fire master — who swore at all the world and at his chiefs — to move his brigade to the Bank.

The Ministry itself was not burning ; it was the archives which took fire, and many boys, chiefly cadets and pages, carried bundles of papers out of the burning building and loaded them into cabs. Often a bundle would fall out, and the wind, taking possession of its leaves, would strew them about the square. Through the smoke a sinister fire could be seen raging in the timber yards on the other side of the canal.

The narrow lane which separated the Corps of Pages from the Apráxin Dvor was in a deplorable state. The shops which lined it were full of brimstone, oil, turpentine, and the like, and immense tongues of fire of many hues, thrown out by explosions, licked the roofs of the wing of the Corps, which bordered the lane on its other side. The windows and the pilasters under the roof began already to smoulder, while the pages and some cadets, after having cleared the lodgings, pumped water through a small fire engine, which received at long intervals scanty supplies from old-fashioned barrels which had to be filled with ladles. A couple of firemen who stood on the hot roof continually shouted out, “Water! Water! " in tones which were simply heart-rending. On all sides my comrades urged me, " Go and find somebody, — the governor, the grand duke, any one, — and tell them that without water we shall have to abandon the Corps to the fire.” “Shall we not report to our director ? ” somebody would remark. “ Bother the whole lot! you won’t find them with a lantern. Go and do it yourself.”

I went and found at last the governor-general of St. Petersburg, Prince Suvóroff, in the court of the Bank. When I reported to him the state of affairs, his first question was, “ Who has sent you ? 舡 “Nobody— the comrades,” was my reply. “ So you say the Corps is going to burn ? ” " Yes.” He started at once, and seizing an empty hatbox covered his head with it, and ran full speed to the lane. Empty barrels, straw, wooden boxes, and the like covered the lane, between the flames of the oil shops on the one side and the buildings of our Corps, of which the window frames and the pilasters were smouldering, on the other side. Prince Suvóroff acted resolutely. “ There is a company of soldiers in your garden,” he said to me : “ take a detachment and clear that lane — at once. A hose from the steam engine will be brought here immediately. Keep it playing. I trust it to you personally.”

It was not easy to move the soldiers out of our garden. They had cleared the barrels and boxes of their contents, and with their pockets full of coffee, and with conical lumps of sugar concealed in their képis, they were enjoying the warm night under the trees, cracking nuts. No one cared to move till an officer interfered. The lane was cleared, and the pump was kept pouring water. The comrades were delighted, and every twenty minutes we relieved the men who directed the jet of water, standing there in a terrible scorching heat.

About three or four in the morning it was evident that bounds bad been put to the fire ; the danger of its spreading to the Corps was over, and after having quenched our thirst with half a dozen glasses of tea, in a small “ white inn ” which happened to be open, we fell, half dead from fatigue, on the first bed that we found unoccupied in the hospital of the Corps.

Next morning I met the Grand Duke Michael, and accompanied him on his round. The pages, with their faces quite black from the smoke, with swollen eyes and inflamed lids, some of them with their hair burned, raised their heads from the pillows. It was hard to recognize them. They were proud, though, of feeling that they had not been merely “ white hands,” and had worked as hard as any one else.

This visit of the grand duke settled my difficulties. He asked me what fancy of mine if was to go to the Amúr, — whether I had friends there ; and learning that I had no relatives in Siberia, and that the governor-general did not know me, he exclaimed, “ But how are you going, then ? They may send you to a lonely Cossack village. I had better write about you to the governor-general, to recommend you.”

After such an offer I was sure that my father’s objections would be removed. I could go to Siberia.

This great conflagration became a turning point not only in the policy of Alexander II., but also in the history of Russia for that part of the century. That it was not a mere accident was self-evident. Trinity and the day of the Holy Ghost are great holidays in Russia, and there was nobody inside the market except a few watchmen; besides, the Apráxin market and the timber yards took fire at the same time, and the conflagration at St. Petersburg was followed by similar disasters in several provincial towns. The fire was lit by somebody, but by whom ? This question remains unanswered to the present time.

Katkóff, the ex-Whig, who was inspired with personal hatred of Hérzen, and especially of Bakúnin, with whom he had once to tight a duel, on the very day after the fire accused the Poles and the Russian revolutionists of being the cause of it; and that opinion prevailed at St. Petersburg and at Moscow.

Poland was preparing then for the revolution which broke out in the following January, and the secret revolutionary government had concluded an alliance with the London refugees, and had its men in the very heart of the St. Petersburg administration. Only a short time after the conflagration occurred, the lord lieutenant of Poland, Count Lüders, was shot at by a Russian officer ; and when the Grand Duke Constantine was nominated in his place (with the intention, it was said, of making Poland a separate kingdom for Constantine), he also was immediately shot at, on June 26. Similar attempts were made in August against the Marquis Wielepdlsky, the Polish leader of the pro-Russian Union party. Napoleon III. maintained then among the Poles the hope of an armed intervention in favor of their independence. In such conditions, judging from the ordinary narrow military standpoint, to destroy the Bank of Russia and several Ministries and to spread a panic in the capital might have been considered a good plan of warfare ; but there never was the slightest scrap of evidence forthcoming to support this hypothesis.

On the other side, the advanced parties in Russia saw that no hope could any longer be placed in Alexander’s reformatory initiative: he was clearly drifting into the reactionary camp. To men of forethought it was evident that the liberation of the serfs, under the conditions of redemption which were imposed upon them, meant their certain ruin, and revolutionary proclamations were issued in May, at St. Petersburg, calling the people and the army to a general revolt, while the educated classes were asked to insist upon the necessity of a national convention. Under such circumstances, to disorganize the machine of the government might have entered into the plans of some revolutionists.

Finally, the indefinite character of the emancipation had produced a great deal of fermentation among the peasants, who constitute a considerable part of the population in all Russian cities ; and through all the history of Russia, every time such a fermentation has begun it has resulted in anonymous letters foretelling fires, and eventually in incendiarism.

It was possible that the idea of setting the Apráxin market on fire might occur to isolated men in the revolutionary camp; but neither the most searching inquiries nor the wholesale arrests which began all over Russia and Poland immediately after the fire revealed the slightest indication in that direction. If anything of the sort had been found, the reactionary party would have made capital out of it. Many reminiscences and volumes of correspondence from those times have since been published, but they contain no hint whatever in support of this suspicion.

On the contrary, when similar conflagrations broke out in several towns on the Vólga, and especially at Sarátoff, and when Zhdánoff, a member of the Senate, was sent by the Tsar to make a searching inquiry, he returned with the firm conviction that the conflagration at Sarátoff was the work of the reactionary party. There was among that party a general belief that it would be possible to induce Alexander II. to postpone the final abolition of serfdom, which was to take place on February 19, 1863. They knew the weakness of his character, and immediately after the great fire at St. Petersburg they began a violent campaign for postponement, and for the revision of the emancipation law in its practical applications. It was rumored in wellinformed lawyers’ circles that Senator Zhdánoff was really bringing in positive proofs of the culpability of the reactionaries at Sarátoff; but he died on his way back, and his portfolio disappeared ; it has never been found.

Be it as it may, the Apráxin fire had the most deplorable consequences. After it Alexander II. surrendered to the reactionaries, and — what was still worse — the public opinion of that part of society at St. Petersburg, and especially at Moscow, which carried most weight with the government suddenly threw off its liberal garb, and turned against not only the more advanced section of the reform party, but even its moderate wing. A few days after the conflagration, I went on Sunday to see my cousin, the aide-decamp of the Emperor, in whose apartment I had often seen the Horse Guard officers in sympathy with Chernyshévsky, and who himself was an assiduous reader of the Contemporary (the organ of the advanced reform party). He brought several numbers of the Contemporary, and, putting them on the table I sat at, said to me, “ Well, now, after this I will have no more of that incendiary stuff; enough of it,” — and these words expressed the opinion of “ all St. Petersburg.” It became improper to talk of reforms. The whole atmosphere was laden with a reactionary spirit. The Contemporary and other similar reviews were suppressed; the Sunday - schools were prohibited under any aspect; wholesale arrests began. The capital was placed under a state of siege.

A fortnight later, on June 13 (25), the time which we pages and cadets had so long looked for came at last. The Emperor gave us a sort of military examination in all kinds of evolutions, — during which we commanded the companies, and I paraded on a horse before the battalion, — and we were promoted officers.

When the parade was over, Alexander II. loudly called out, 舠 The promoted officers to me ! ” and we gathered round him. He remained on horseback.

Here I saw him in a quite new light. The man who the next year appeared in the role of a bloodthirsty and vindictive crusher of the insurrection in Poland rose now, full size, before my eyes, in the speech he addressed to us.

He began in a quiet tone. “ I congratulate you : you are officers.” He spoke about military duty and loyalty as they are usually spoken of on such occasions. “ But if any one of you,” he went on, distinctly shouting out every word, his face suddenly contorted with anger, “ but if any one of you — which God preserve you from—should under any circumstances prove unloyal to the Tsar, the throne, and the fatherland, know — I tell you — that he will be treated with all the se-ve-ri-ty of the laws, without the slightest com-mi-se-ra-tion ! ”

His voice failed ; his face was peevish, full of that expression of blind rage which I saw in my childhood on the faces of landlords when they threatened their serfs “ to skin them under the rods.舡 He abruptly gave the spurs to his horse, and rode out of our circle. Next morning, the 14th of June, by order of the Emperor, three officers were shot at Módlin in Poland, and one soldier, Szur by name, was killed under the rods.

“ Reaction, full speed backwards,” I said to myself as we made our way back to the Corps.

I saw Alexander II. once more before leaving St. Petersburg. Some days after our promotion, all the newly promoted officers were at the palace, to be presented to him. My more than modest uniform, with its prominent gray trousers, attracted universal attention, and every moment I had to satisfy the curiosity of officers of all ranks, who came to ask me what was the uniform that I wore. The Amúr Cossacks being then the youngest regiment of the Russian array, I stood somewhere near the end of the hundreds of officers who were present. Alexander II. found me, and asked, “ So you go to Siberia ? Did your father consent to it, after all ? ” I answered in the affirmative. “ Are you not afraid to go so far ? ” I hotly replied, “ No, I want to work. There must be so much to do in Siberia to apply the great reforms which are going to be made.” He looked straight at me ; he became pensive ; at last he said, “ Well, go ; one can be useful everywhere; ” and his face took on such an expression of fatigue, such a character of complete surrender, that I thought at once, “ He is a used-up man ; he is going to give it all up.”

St. Petersburg had assumed a gloomy aspect. Soldiers marched in the streets. Cossack patrols rode round the palace, the fortress was filled with prisoners. Wherever I went I saw the same thing, — the triumph of the reaction. I left St. Petersburg without regret.

I went every day to the Cossack administration to ask them to make haste and deliver me my papers, and as soon as they were ready I hurried to Moscow to join my brother Alexander.


The five years that I spent in Siberia were for me a genuine education in life and human character. I was brought into contact with men of all descriptions : the best and the worst; those who stood at the top of society and those who vegetated at the very bottom, — the tramps and the so-called incorrigible criminals.

I had ample opportunities to watch the ways and habits of the peasants in their daily life, and still more opportunities to appreciate how little the state administration could give to them, even though it was animated by the very best intentions. Finally, my extensive journeys, during which I traveled over fifty thousand miles in carts, on board steamers, in boats, and especially on horseback, had a wonderful effect in strengthening my health. They also taught me how little man really needs as soon as he comes out of the enchanted circle of conventional civilization. With a few pounds of bread and a few ounces of tea in a leather bag, a kettle and a hatchet hanging at the side of the saddle, and under the saddle a blanket, to be spread at the camp fire upon a bed of freshly cut spruce twigs, a man feels wonderfully independent, even amidst unknown mountains thickly clothed with woods, and in winter time. A book might be written about this part of my life, but I must rapidly glide over it here, there being so much more to say about the later periods.

Siberia is not the land buried in snow and peopled with exiles only, that it is imagined to be, even by many Russians. In its southern parts it is as rich in natural productions as are the southern parts of Canada, which it resembles so much in its physical aspects ; and beside half a million of natives, it has a population of more than four millions as thoroughly Russian as that to the north of Moscow. In 1862 the upper administration of Siberia was far more enlightened and far better all round than that of any province of Russia proper. For several years the post of governor-general of East Siberia had been occupied by a remarkable personage, Count N. N. Muravióff, who annexed the Amúr region to Russia almost against the will of the St. Petersburg authorities, and certainly without any help from them. He was very intelligent, very active, extremely amiable, and desirous to work for the good of the country. Like all men of action of the governmental school, he was a despot at the bottom of his heart; but he held advanced opinions, and a democratic republic would not have quite satisfied him. He had succeeded to a great extent in getting rid of the old staff of civil service officials, who considered Siberia a camp to be plundered, and he had gathered around him a number of young officials, quite honest, and many of them animated by the same excellent intentions as himself. In his own study, the young officers, with the exile Bakúnin among them (he escaped from Siberia in the autumn of 1861), discussed the chances of creating the United States of Siberia, federated across the Pacific Ocean with the United States of America.

When I came to Irkútsk, the capital of East Siberia, the wave of reaction which I saw rising at St. Petersburg had not yet reached these distant dominions. I was very well received by the young governor-general, Korsákoff, who had just succeeded Muravióff, and he told me that he was delighted to have about him men of liberal opinions. As to the commander of the general staff, Kúkel, — a young general not yet thirty-five years old, whose personal aide-de-camp I became, — he at once took me to a room in his house, where I found, together with the best Russian reviews, complete collections of the London revolutionary editions of Hérzen. We were soon warm friends.

General Kukel temporarily occupied at that time the post of governor of Transbaikália, and a few weeks later we crossed the beautiful Lake Baikál and went further east, to the little town of Chitá, the capital of the province. There I had to give myself, heart and soul, without loss of time, to the great reforms which were then under discussion. The St. Petersburg ministries had applied to the local authorities, asking them to work out schemes of complete reform in the administration of the provinces, the organization of the police, the tribunals, the prisons, the system of exile, the selfgovernment of the townships, — all on broadly liberal bases laid down by the Emperor in his manifestoes.

Kúkel, supported by an intelligent and practical man, Colonel Pedashénko, and a couple of well-meaning civil service officials, worked all day long, and often a good deal of the night. I became the secretary of two committees, — for the reform of the prisons and the whole system of exile, and for preparing a scheme of municipal self-government, — and I set to work with all the enthusiasm of a youth of nineteen years. I read much about the historical development of these institutions in Russia and their present condition abroad, excellent works and papers dealing with these subjects having been published by the ministries of the interior and of justice ; but what we did in Transbaikália was by no means merely theoretical. I discussed first the general outlines, and subsequently every point of detail, with practical men, well acquainted with the real needs and the local possibilities; and for that purpose I met a considerable number of men both in town and in the province. Then the conclusions we arrived at were re-discussed with Kúkel and Pedashénko ; and when I had put the results into a preliminary shape, every point was again very thoroughly thrashed out in the committees. One of these committees, for preparing the municipal government scheme, was composed of citizens of Chitá, elected by all the population, as freely as they might have been elected in the United States. In short, our work was very serious ; and even now, looking back at it through the perspective of so many years, I can say in full confidence that if municipal self-government had been granted then, in the modest shape which we gave to it, the towns of Siberia would be very different from what they are. But nothing came of it all, as will presently be seen.

There was no lack of other incidental occupations. Money had to be found for the support of charitable institutions ; an economic description of the province had to be written in connection with a local agricultural exhibition; or some serious inquest had to be made. “ It is a great epoch we live in ; work, my dear friend ; remember that you are the secretary of all existing and future committees,” Kúkel would sometimes say to me, — and I worked with doubled energy.

There was in our province a “ district chief ” — that is, a police officer invested with very wide and indeterminate rights — who was simply a disgrace. He robbed the peasants and flogged them right and left, — even women, which was against the law ; and when a criminal affair fell into his hands, it might lie there for months, men being kept in the meantime in prison till they gave him a bribe. Kúkel would have dismissed this man long before, but the governor-general did not like the idea of it, because he had strong protectors at St, Petersburg. After much hesitation, it was decided at last that I should go to make an investigation on the spot, and collect evidence against the man. This was not by any means easy, because the peasants, terrorized by him, and well knowing an old Russian saying, “ God is far away, while your chief is your next-door neighbor,” did not dare to testify. Even the woman he had flogged was afraid at first to make a written statement. It was only after I had stayed a fortnight with the peasants, and had won their confidence, that the misdeeds of their chief could be brought to light. I collected crushing evidence, and the district chief was dismissed. We congratulated ourselves on having got rid of such a pest. What was my astonishment when, a few months later, I learned that this same man had been nominated to a higher post in Kamchátka ! There he could plunder the natives free of any control, and so he did. A few years later he returned to St. Petersburg a rich man. The articles he occasionally contributes now to the reactionary press are. I must say, full of high “ patriotic ” spirit.

The wave of reaction, as I have already said, had not then reached Siberia, and the political exiles continued to be treated with all possible leniency, as in Muravióff’s time. When, in 1861, the poet Mikháiloff was condemned to hard labor for a revolutionary proclamation which he had issued, and was sent to Siberia, the governor of the first Siberian town on his way, Tobolsk, gave a dinner in his honor, in which all the officials took part. In Transbaikalia he was not kept at hard labor, but was allowed officially to stay in the hospital prison of a small mining village. His health being very poor, — he was dying from consumption, and did actually die a few months later, — General Kúkel gave him permission to stay in the house of his brother, a mining engineer, who had rented a gold mine from the Crown on his account. Unofficially that was well known all over Siberia. But one day we learned from Irkútsk that, in consequence of a secret denunciation, the general of the gendarmes (state police) was on his way to Chitá, to make a severe inquiry into the affair. An aide-de-camp of the governor-general brought us the news. I was dispatched in great haste to warn Mikháiloff, and to tell him that he must return at once to the hospital prison, while the general of the gendarmes was kept at Chitá. As that gentleman found himself every night the winner of considerable sums of money at the green table in Kúkel’s house, he soon decided not to exchange this plea, sant pastime for a long journey to the mines in a temperature which was then a dozen degrees below the freezing point of mercury, and eventually went back to Irkútsk, quite satisfied with his lucrative mission.

The storm, however, was coming nearer and nearer, and it swept everything before it soon after the insurrection broke out in Poland.


In January, 1863, Poland rose against Russian rule. Insurrectionary bands were formed, and a war began which lasted for full eighteen months. The London refugees had implored the Polish revolutionary committees to postpone the movement. They foresaw that it would be crashed, and would put to an end the reform period in Russia. But it could not be helped. The repression of the nationalist manifestations which took place at Warsaw in 1861, and the cruel, quite unprovoked executions which followed, exasperated the Poles. The die was cast.

Never before had the Polish cause so many sympathizers in Russia as at that time. I do not speak of the revolutionists ; but even among the more moderate elements of Russian society it was thought, and was openly said, that it would be a benefit for Russia to have in Poland a friendly neighbor instead of a hostile subject. Poland will never lose her national character, it is too strongly developed ; she has, and will have, her own literature, her own art and industry. Russia can keep her in servitude only by means of sheer force and oppression, — a condition of things which has hitherto favored, and necessarily will favor, oppression in Russia herself. Even the peaceful Slavophiles were of that opinion ; and while I was at school, St. Petersburg society greeted with full approval the “ dream ” which the Slavophile Iván Aksákoff had the courage to print in his paper, The Day. His dream was that the Russian troops had evacuated Poland, and he discussed the excellent results which would follow.

When the revolution of 1863 broke out, several Russian officers refused to march against the Poles, while others openly took their part, and died either on the scaffold or on the battlefield. Funds for the insurrection were collected all over Russia, — quite openly in Siberia, — and in the Russian universities the students equipped those of their comrades who were going to join the revolutionists.

Then, amidst this effervescence, the news spread over Russia that, during the night of January 10, bands of insurgents had fallen upon the soldiers who were cantoned in the villages, and had murdered them in their beds, although on the very eve of that day the relations of the troops with the Poles seemed to be quite friendly. There was some exaggeration in the report, but unfortunately there was also truth in it, and the impression it produced in Russia was most disastrous. The old antipathies between the two nations, so akin in their origins, but so different in their national characters, woke once more.

Gradually the bad feeling faded away to some extent. The gallant fight of the always brave sons of Poland, and the indomitable energy with which they resisted a formidable army, won sympathy for that heroic nation. But it became known that the Polish revolutionary committee, in its demand for the reëstablishment of Poland with its old frontiers, included the Little Russian or Ukraínian provinces, the Greek Orthodox population of which hated the Poles, and had maintained terrible wars of extermination against them. Moreover, Napoleon III. began to menace Russia with a new war, — a vain menace, which did more harm to the Poles than all other things put together. And finally, the radical elements of Russia saw with regret that now the purely nationalist elements of Poland had got the upper hand, the revolutionary government did not care in the least to grant the land to the serfs, — a blunder of which the Russian government did not fail to take advantage, in order to appear in the position of protector of the peasants against their Polish landlords. “ Go to Poland ; apply there your Red programme against the Polish landlords,” Alexander II. said to Nicholas Milútin ; and Milútin, with Prince Cherkássky and many others, really did his best to take the land from the landlords and give it to the peasants.

The disastrous consequences for Poland of this revolution are known ; they belong to the domain of history. How many thousand men perished in the battles, how many hundreds were hanged, and how many scores of thousands were transported to various provinces of Russia and Siberia is not yet fully known. But even the official figures which were printed in Russia a few years ago show that in the Lithuanian provinces alone — not to speak of Poland proper — that terrible man, Mikhail Muravióff, to whom the Russian government has just erected a monument at Wílno, hanged by his own authority 128 Poles, and transported to Russia and Siberia 9423 men and women. Official lists, also published in Russia, give 18,672 men and women exiled to Siberia from Poland, of whom 10,407 were sent to Last Siberia. I remember that the governor-general of East Siberia mentioned to me the same number, about 11,000 persons, sent to hard labor or exile in his domains. I saw them there, and witnessed their sufferings. Altogether, something like 60,000 or 70,000 persons, if not more, were torn out of Poland and transported to different provinces of Russia, to the Urals, to Caucasus, and to Siberia.

For Russia the consequences were equally disastrous. The Polish insurrection was the definitive close of the reform period. True, the law of provincial self-government (Zémstvos) and the reform of the law courts were promulgated in 1864 and 1866 ; but both were ready in 1862, and, moreover, at the last moment Alexander II. gave preference to the scheme of self-government which had been prepared by the reactionary party of Valúeff, as against the scheme that had been prepared by Nicholas Milútin ; and immediately after the promulgation of both reforms, their importance was reduced, and in some cases destroyed, by the enactment of a number of by-laws.

Worst of all, public opinion itself took a further step backward. The hero of the hour was Katkdff, the leader of the serfdom party, who appeared now as a Russian “ patriot,” and carried with him most of the St. Petersburg and Moscow society. After that time, those who dared to speak of reforms were at once classed by Katkóff as ” traitors to Russia.”

The wave of reaction soon reached our remote province. One day in March a paper was brought by a special messenger from Irkútsk. It intimated to General Kúkel that he was at once to leave the post of governor of Transbaikália and go to Irkútsk, waiting there for further orders, and that he was not to reassume the post of commander of the general staff.

Why ? What did that mean ? There was not a word of explanation. Even the governor-general, a personal friend of Kúkel, had not run the risk of adding a single word to the mysterious order. Did it mean that Kúkel was going to be taken between two gendarmes to St. Petersburg, and immured in that huge stone coffin, the fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul ? All was possible. Later on we learned that such was indeed the intention ; and so it would have been done but for the energetic intervention of Count Nicholas Muravióff, “ the conqueror of the Amúr,” who personally implored the Tsar that Kúkel should be spared that fate.

Our parting with Kúkel and his charming family was like a funeral. My heart was very heavy. I not only lost in him a dear personal friend, but I felt also that this parting was the burial of a whole epoch, full of long-cherished hopes, — " full of illusions,” as it became the fashion to say.

So it was. A new governor came, — a good-natured, “ leave - me - in - peace ” man. With renewed energy I completed my plans of reform, seeing that there was no time to lose. The governor made a few objections here and there for formality’s sake, but finally signed the schemes, and they were sent to headquarters. But at St. Petersburg reforms were no longer wanted. There our projects lie buried still, with hundreds of similar ones from all parts of Russia. A few 舠 improved ” prisons, even more terrible than the old unimproved ones, have been built in the capitals, to be shown during prison congresses to distinguished foreigners ; but the remainder, and the whole system of exile, were found by George Kennan in 1886 in exactly the same state in which I left them in 1862. Only now, after thirty-five years have passed away, the authorities are introducing the reformed tribunals and a parody of self-government in Siberia, and committees have been nominated again to inquire into the system of exile.

When Kennan came back to London from his journey to Siberia, he managed, on the very next day after his arrival in London, to hunt up Stepniák, Chaykóvsky, myself, and another Russian refugee. In the evening we all met at Kennan’s room in a small hotel near Charing Cross. We saw him for the first time, and having no excess of confidence in enterprising Englishmen who had previously undertaken to learn all about the Siberian prisons without even learning a word of Russian, we began to cross-examine Kennan. To our astonishment, he not only spoke excellent Russian, but he knew everything worth knowing about Siberia. One or another of us had been acquainted with the greater proportion of all political exiles in Siberia, and we besieged Kennan with questions : “ Where is So and So ? Is he married ? Is he happy in his marriage ? Does he still keep fresh in spirit ? ” It was soon evident that Kennan knew all about every one of them.

When this questioning was over, and we were preparing to leave, I asked. Do you know, Mr. Kennan, if they have built a watchtower for the fire brigade at Chitá ? ” Stepniák looked at me, as if to reproach me for abusing Kennan’s good will. Kennan, however, began to laugh, and I soon joined him. Amidst our hearty laughter we tossed each other questions and answers : “ Why, do you know about that ? ” “ And you too ? ” “ Built ? ” 舠 Yes, double estimates! ” and so on, till at last Stepuiak interfered, and in his most severely good - natured way objected : “ Tell us at least what you are laughing about.” Whereupon Kennan told the story of that watchtower which his readers must remember. In 1859 the Chitá people wanted to build a watchtower, and collected the money for it; but their estimates had to be sent to St. Petersburg. So they went to the ministry of the interior ; but when they came back, two years later, duly approved, all the prices for timber and work had gone up in that rising young town. This was in 1862, while I was at Chitá. New estimates were made and sent to St. Petersburg, and the story was repeated for full twenty-five years, till at last the Chifá people, losing patience, put in their estimates prices nearly double the real ones. These fantastic estimates were solemnly considered at St. Petersburg, and approved. This is how Chitá got its watchtower.

It has often been said that Alexander II. committed a great fault, and brought about his own ruin, by raising so many hopes which later on he did not satisfy. It is seen from what I have just said — and the story of little Chitá was the story of all Russia —that he did worse than that. It was not merely that he raised hopes. Yielding for a moment to the current of public opinion around him, he induced men all over Russia to set to work, to issue from the domain of mere hopes and dreams, and to touch with the finger the reforms that were required. He made them realize what could be done immediately, and how easy it was to do it; he induced them to sacrifice of their ideals what could not be immediately realized, and to demand only what was practically possible at the time. And when they had framed their ideas, and had shaped them into laws which merely required his signature to become realities, then he refused that signature. No reactionist could raise, or ever has raised, his voice to assert that what was left — the unreformed tribunals, the absence of municipal government, or the system of exile — was good and was worth maintaining: no one has dared to say that. And yet, owing to the fear of doing anything, all was left as it was ; for thirty-five years those who ventured to mention the necessity of a change were treated as “ suspects ; ” and institutions unanimously recognized as bad were permitted to continue in existence only that nothing more might be heard of that abhorred word “ reform.”


Seeing that there was nothing more to be done in the direction of reform, I tried to do what seemed to be possible under the existing circumstances, — only to become convinced of the absolute uselessness of such efforts. In my new capacity of attaché to the governor-general for Cossack affairs, I made, for instance, a most thorough investigation of the economical conditions of the Usurí Cossacks, whose crops used to be lost every year, so that the government had every winter to feed them in order to save them from famine. When I returned from the Usurí with my report, I received congratulations on all sides, I was promoted, I got special rewards. All the measures I recommended were accepted, and special grants of money were given for aiding the emigration of some and for supplying cattle to others, as I had suggested. But the practical realization of the measures went into the hands of some old drunkard, who would squander the money and pitilessly flog the unfortunate Cossacks for the purpose of converting them into good agriculturalists. So it went in all directions, beginning with the winter palace at St. Petersburg, and ending with the Usurí and Kamchátka.

Gradually I turned my energy more and more toward scientific exploration. In 1864 I went with twelve unarmed trading Cossacks to discover a direct communication across the great Khingán, through northern Manchuria, between Transbaikália and the middle Amúr. In the treaty with China only merchants were mentioned, so I bought quantities of various goods and went disguised as a merchant. The governorgeneral delivered me a passport “ to the Irkútsk second guild merchant, Peter Alexéiev, and his companions,” and warned me that if the Chinese arrested me and took me to Pekin, and thence across the Gobi to the Russian frontier, — in a cage, on a camel’s back, was their way of conveying prisoners, — I must not betray him by naming myself. The temptation of visiting a country which no European had ever seen was so great that I accepted all the conditions. We discovered the route and many interesting things besides, as for instance the tertiary volcanoes of the Uyun Holdontsi. We were thus the pioneers of the Manchurian railway. I cannot say that I was a sharp tradesman, for I once persisted (in broken Chinese) in asking thirty-five rubles for a watch, when the Chinese buyer had already offered me forty-five ; but the Cossacks traded all right, and the expedition covered its expenses.

The same summer I went up the Sungarí with Colonel Tchernyáieff’s expedition, on board the first steamer which touched the waters of the great river of Manchuria, and we reached the capital of Manchuria, Kirin. The next year I explored the western Sayáns, where I came upon another important volcanic region on the Chinese frontier. Finally, in 1866, I undertook a long journey to discover a direct communication between the gold mines of northern Siberia (on the Vitím and the Olókma) and Transbaikália. For many years the members of the Siberian expedition had tried to find such a passage, and had endeavored to cross the terrible mountain region, which consists of a series of the wildest stony parallel ridges ; but when they reached that region, coming from the south, and saw before them these dreary mountains spreading for hundreds of miles northward, all of them, save one who was killed by natives, returned southward. It so happened that while I was preparing for the expedition, I was shown a map which a native had traced with his knife on a piece of bark. This little map—a splendid specimen, by the way, of the usefulness of the geometrical sense in the lowest stages of civilization, and one which would consequently interest A. R. Wallace — so struck me by its seeming truth to nature that I fully trusted to it, and began my journey from the north, following the indications of the map. This time the passage was found. For three months we wandered in the almost totally uninhabited mountain deserts and over the marshy plateau, till at last we reached our destination, Chitá. I am told that this passage is now of value for bringing cattle from the south to the gold mines; as for me, the journey helped me immensely afterward in finding the key to the structure of the mountains and plateaus of Siberia — but I am not writing a book of travel, and must stop.

The years that I spent in Siberia taught me many lessons which I could hardly have learned elsewhere. I began to understand not only men and human character, but also the inner springs of the life of human society. The constructive work of the unknown masses, which so seldom finds any mention in books, and the importance of that constructive work in the growth of forms of society, appeared before my eyes in its full import. To witness, for instance, the ways in which the communities of Dukhobórtsy (brothers of those who are now going to settle in Canada, and who find such a hearty support in the United States) migrated to the Amúr region, to see the immense advantages which they got from their semi-communistic brotherly organization, and to realize what a wonderful success their colonization was, amidst all the failures of state colonization, was learning something which cannot be learned from books. Again, to live with natives, to see at work all the complex forms of social organization which they have elaborated far away from the influence of any civilization, was, as it were, to store up floods of light which illuminated my subsequent reading. The part which the unknown masses play in the accomplishment of all important historical events, and even in war, became evident to me from direct observation, and I came to hold ideas similar to those which Tolstoy expresses concerning the leaders and the masses in his monumental work, War and Peace.

Having been brought up in a serfowner’s family, I entered active life, like all young men of my time, with a great deal of confidence in the necessity of commanding, ordering, scolding, punishing, and the like. But when, at an early stage, I had to manage serious enterprises and to deal with men, and when each mistake would lead at once to heavy consequences, I began to appreciate the difference between acting on the principle of command and discipline and acting on the principle of common understanding. The former works admirably in a military parade, but it is worth nothing where real life is concerned, and the aim can be achieved only through the severe effort of many converging wills. Although I did not then formulate my observations in terms borrowed from party struggles, I may say now that I lost in Siberia whatever faith in state discipline I had cherished before.

At the age of from nineteen to twentyfive I had to work out important schemes of reform, to deal with hundreds of men in bringing barges down the Amúr, to take command one day of a steamer whose captain fell ill, to prepare and to make risky expeditions with ridiculously small means, and so on ; and if all these things ended more or less successfully, I account for it only by the fact that I soon understood that in serious work commanding and discipline are of little avail. Men of initiative are required everywhere ; but once the impulse has been given, the enterprise must be conducted, especially in Russia, not in military fashion, but in a sort of communal way, by means of common understanding. I wish that all framers of plans of state discipline might first pass through the school of real life : we should then hear far less than at present of schemes of military and pyramidal organization of society.

Life in Siberia became less and less attractive, although my brother Alexander had joined me in 1864 at Irkútsk, where he commanded a squadron of Cossacks. We were happy to be together ; we read a great deal, and discussed all the philosophical, scientific, and sociological questions of the day ; but we both longed after intellectual life, and there was none in Siberia. The occasional passage through Irkútsk of Raphael Pumpelly or of Adolph Bastian — the only two men of science who visited our capital during my stay there — was quite an event for both of us. The scientific and political life of Western Europe, of which we heard through the papers, attracted us, and the return to Russia was the subject to which we continually came back in our conversations. Finally, the insurrection of the Polish exiles in 1866 opened our eyes to the false position we both occupied as officers of the Russian army.

I was far away, in the Vitím Mountains, when the Polish exiles, who were employed in piercing a new road in the cliffs round Lake Baikál, made a desperate attempt to break their chains and to force their way to China across Mongolia ; but my brother was at Irkútsk, and his squadron was dispatched against the insurgents. Happily, the commander of the regiment to which my brother belonged knew him well, and, under some pretext, he ordered another officer to take command of the mobilized part of the squadron. Otherwise, Alexander, of course, would have refused to march ; and such a refusal meant a sentence of death, or, in the most favorable case, degradation. If I had been at Irkútsk, I should have done the same.

We decided then to leave the military service and to return to Russia. This was not an easy matter, especially as Alexander had married in Siberia; but at last all was arranged, and early in 1867 we were on our way to St. Petersburg.

P. Kropotkin.