THIS was, then, the terrible fortress where so much of the true strength of Russia had perished during the last two centuries, and the very name of which is spoken in St. Petersburg in a hushed voice.
Here Peter I. tortured his son Alexis and killed him with his own hand ; here the Princess Tarakánova was kept in a cell which filled with water during an inundation, — the rats climbing upon her to save themselves from drowning ; here the terrible Minich tortured his enemies, and Catherine II. buried alive those who objected to her having murdered her husband. And from the times of Peter I. for a hundred and seventy years, the annals of this mass of stone which rises from the Nevá in front of the Winter Palace were annals of murder and torture, of men buried alive, condemned to a slow death, or driven to insanity in the loneliness of the dark and damp dungeons.
Here the Decembrists, who were the first to unfurl in Russia the banner of republican rule and the abolition of serfdom, underwent their first experiences of martyrdom, and traces of them may still be found in the Russian Bastille. Here were imprisoned the poets Ryléeff and Shevchénko, Dostoevsky, Bakúnin, Chernyshésky, Pfsareff, and so many others of our best writers. Here Karakózoff was tortured and hanged.
Here, somewhere in the Alexis ravelin, is still kept Necháieff, who was given up to Russia by Switzerland as a common-law criminal, but is treated as a dangerous political prisoner, and will never again see the light. In the same ravelin are also two or three men whom rumor says Alexander II., because of what they know, and others must not know, about some palace mystery, ordered imprisoned for life. One of them, adorned with a long gray beard, was lately seen by an acquaintance of mine in the mysterious fortress.
All these shadows rose before my imagination. But my thoughts fixed especially on Bakúnin, who, though he had been shut up in an Austrian fortress for two years, chained to the wall, after 1848. and then handed over to Nicholas I., who kept him here, yet came out, when the Iron Tsar’s death released him after an eight years’ detention, fresher and fuller of vigor than his comrades who had remained at liberty. “He has lived it through,” I said to myself, “ and I must, too : I will not succumb here ! ” My first movement was to approach the window, which was placed so high that I could hardly reach it with my lifted hand. It was a long, narrow opening, cut in a wall five feet thick, and protected by an iron grating and a double iron window frame. At a distance of a dozen yards from this window I saw the outer wall of the fortress, of immense thickness, on the top of which I could make out a gray sentry box. Only by looking upward could I perceive a hit of the sky.
I made a minute inspection of the room where I had now to spend no one could say how many years. From the position of the high chimney of the Mint I guessed that I was in the southwestern corner of the fortress, in a bastion overlooking the Nevá. The building in which I was incarcerated, however, was not the bastion itself, but what is called in a fortification a reduit ; that is, an inner two-storied pentagonal piece of masonry which rises a little higher than the walls of the bastion, and is meant to contain two tiers of guns. This room of mine was a casemate destined for a big gun, and the window was an embrasure. The rays of the sun might never penetrate it ; even in summer they must be lost in the thickness of the wall. The room held an iron bed, a small oak table, and an oak stool. The floor was covered with painted felt, and the walls with yellow paper. However, in order to deaden sounds, the paper was not put on the wall itself ; it was pasted upon canvas, and behind the canvas I discovered a wire grating, back of which was a layer of felt; only beyond the felt could I reach the stone wall. At the inner side of the room there was a washstand, and a thick oak door in which I made out a locked opening, for passing food through, and a little slit, protected by glass and by a shutter from the outside : this was the “ Judas,” through which the prisoner could be spied upon at every moment. The sentry who stood in the passage frequently lifted the shutter and looked inside, — his boots squeaking as he crept toward the door. I tried to speak to him; then the eye which I could see through the slit assumed an expression of terror and the shutter was immediately let down, only to be furtively opened a minute or two later ; but I could get not a word of reply from the sentry.
Absolute silence reigned all round. I tried to catch some sound from the Nevá, or from the town on the opposite side of the river ; but I could not.
“ The main thing,” I said to myself, “ is to preserve my physical vigor. I will not fall ill. Let me imagine I am compelled to spend a couple of years in a hut in the far north, during an arctic expedition. I will take plenty of exercise, practice gymnastics, and not let myself be broken down by my surroundings. Ten steps from one corner to the other is already something. If I repeat them one hundred and fifty times, I shall have walked one verst ” (two thirds of a mile).
I decided to walk every day seven versts, — about five miles : two versts in the morning, two before dinner, two after dinner, and one before going to sleep. “ If I put on my table ten cigarettes, and move one of them each time that I pass the table, I shall easily count the three hundred times that I must walk up and down. I must walk rapidly, but turn slowly in the corner to avoid becoming giddy, and turn each time a different way. Then, twice a day I shall practice gymnastics with my heavy stool.” I lifted it by one leg, bolding it at arm’s length. I turned it like a wheel, and soon learned to throw it from one hand to the other, over my head, behind my back, and across my legs.
A few hours after I had been brought into the prison the governor came to offer me some books, and among them was an old acquaintance and friend of mine, the first volume of George Lewes’s Physiology, in a Russian translation. I asked, of course, to have paper, pen, and ink, but was absolutely refused. Pen and ink are never allowed in the fortress, unless special permission is obtained from the Emperor himself. I suffered very much from this forced inactivity, and began to compose in my imagination a series of novels for popular reading, taken from Russian history, — something like Eugène Sue’s Mystères du Peuple. I made up the plot, the descriptions, the dialogues, and tried to commit the whole to memory from the beginning to the end. One can easily imagine how exhausting such a work would have been if I had had to continue it for more than two or three months.
But my brother Alexander obtained pen and ink for me. One day I was asked to enter a four-wheeled cab, in company with the same speechless Georgian gendarme officer of whom I have spoken before. I was taken to the Third Section, where I was allowed an interview with my brother, in the presence of two gendarme officers.
Alexander was at Zürich when I was arrested. From early youth he had longed to go abroad, where men think as they like, read what they like, and openly express their thoughts. Russian life was hateful to him. Veracity — absolute veracity — and the most openhearted frankness were part of his creed ; he could not bear deceit or even conceit in any form. The absence of free speech in Russia, the Russian readiness to submit to oppression, the veiled words to which our writers resort, were utterly repulsive to his frank and open nature. Soon after my return from Western Europe he removed to Switzerland, and decided to settle there. After he had lost his two children — one from cholera in a few hours, and another from consumption— St. Petersburg became doubly repugnant to him.
My brother did not take part in our work of agitation. He did not believe in the possibility of a popular uprising, and he conceived a revolution only as the action of a representative body, like the National Assembly of Franco in 1789. As for the socialist agitation, he knew it only by means of public meetings and public speeches, — not as the secret, minute work of personal propaganda which we were carrying on. In England he would have sided with John Bright or with the Chartists. If he had been in Paris during the uprising of June, 1848, he would surely have fought with the last handful of workers behind the last barricade; but in the preparatory period he would have followed Ledru Rollin or Louis Blanc.
In Switzerland he settled at Zürich, and his sympathies went with the moderate wing of the International. Socialist on principle, he carried out his principle in his very frugal and laborious manner of living, and toiled on passionately at his great scientific work. — the main purpose of his life, — a work which was to be a nineteenth-century counterpart to the famous Tableau de la Nature of the Encyclopaedists. He soon became a close personal friend of the old refugee Colonel P. L. Lavrólf, with whom he had very much in common in his Kantian philosophical views.
When he learned about my arrest, Alexander immediately left everything, — the work of his life, the life itself of freedom which was as necessary for him as free air is necessary for a bird, — and returned to St. Petersburg, which he disliked, only to help me through my imprisonment.
We were both very much affected at this interview. My brother was extremely excited. He hated the very sight of the blue uniforms of the gendarmes, — those executioners of all independent thought in Russia, — and expressed his feeling frankly in their presence. As for me, the sight of him at St. Petersburg filled me with the most dismal apprehensions. I was happy to see his honest face, his eyes full of love, and to hear that I should see them once a month ; and yet I wished him hundreds of miles away from that place to which he came free that day, but to which he would inevitably be brought some night under an escort of gendarmes. “ Why did you come into the lion’s den ? Go back at once ! ” my whole inner self cried ; and yet I knew that he would remain as long as I was in prison.
He understood better than any one else that inactivity would kill me, and had already made application to obtain for me pen and ink. The Geographical Society wanted me to finish my work on the glacial period, and my brother turned the whole scientific world in St. Petersburg upside down to move them to support his application. The Academy of Sciences was interested in the matter; and finally, two or three months after my imprisonment, the governor entered my cell and announced to me that I was permitted by the Emperor to complete my report to the Geographical Society, and that I should be allowed pen and ink for that purpose. “ Till sunset only,” he added. Sunset, at St. Petersburg, is at three in the afternoon, in winter time ; but that could not be helped. “ Till sunset " were the words used by Alexander II. when he granted the permission.
So I could work !
I could hardly express now the immensity of relief I then felt at being enabled to resume writing. I would have consented to live on nothing but bread and water, in the dampest of cellars, if only permitted to work.
I was the only one to whom writing materials were allowed. Several of my comrades spent three years and more in confinement before the famous trial of “the hundred and ninety - three ” took place, and all they had was a slate. Of course, even the slate was welcome in that dreary loneliness, and they used it to write exercises in the languages they were learning, or to work out mathematical problems; but what was jotted down on the slate could last only a few hours.
My prison life now took on a more regular character. There was something immediate to live for. At nine in the morning I had already made the first three hundred pacings across my cell, and was waiting for my pencils and pens to he delivered to me. The work which I had prepared for the Geographical Society contained, beside a report of my explorations in Finland, a discussion of the bases upon which the glacial hypothesis ought to rest. Now, knowing that I had plenty of time before me, I decided to rewrite and enlarge that part of my work, which accordingly grew in the fortress to the size of two large volumes. The first of them was printed by my brother and Polakóff (in the Geographical Society’s Memoirs) ; while the second, not quite finished, remained in the hands of the Third Section when I ran away. The manuscript was found only in 1895, and given to the Russian Geographical Society, by whom it was forwarded to me in London.
At five in the afternoon, — at three in the winter, — as soon as the tiny lamp was brought in, my pencils and pens were taken away, and I had to stop my work. Then I used to read, mostly books of history. Quite a library had been formed in the fortress by the generations of political prisoners who had been confined there. I was allowed to add to the library a number of staple works on Russian history, and with the books which were brought to me by my relatives I was enabled to read almost every work and collection of acts and documents bearing on the Moscow period of the history of Russia. I relished, in reading, not only the Russian annals, especially the admirable annals of the democratic mediæval republic of Pskof, — the best, perhaps, in Europe for the history of such cities, — but all sorts of dry documents, and even the Lives of the Saints, which occasionally contain facts of the real life of the masses which, cannot be found elsewhere. I also read during this time a great number of novels, and even arranged for myself a treat on Christmas Eve. My relatives managed to send me then the Christmas stories of Dickens, and I spnt the festival laughing and crying over these beautiful creations of the great novelist.
The worst was the silence, as of the grave, which reigned about me. In vain I knocked on the walls and struck the floor with my foot, listening for the faintest sound in reply. None was to be heard. One month passed, then two, three, fifteen months, but there was no reply to my knocks. We were only six then, scattered among thirty - six casemates. When the non - commissioned officer entered my cell to take me out for a walk, and I asked him, “ What kind of weather have we ? Does it rain ? ” he cast a furtive side glance at me, and without saying a word promptly retired behind the door, where a sentry and another non-commissioned officer kept watch upon him. The only living being from whom I could hear even a few words was the governor, who came to my cell every morning to say “ good-morning ” and ask whether
I wanted to buy tobacco or paper. I tried to engage him in conversation ; but he also cast furtive glances at the non-commissioned officers who stood in the half-opened door, as if to say, “ Yon see, I am watched, too.”
There were no sounds whatever except the squeak of the sentry’s boots, the hardly perceptible noise of the shutter of the Judas, and the ringing of the bells on the fortress cathedral. They rang a
“ Lord save me ” (“ Gospodi pomilui ) every quarter of an hour, — one, two, three, four times. Then, each hour, the big bell struck slowly, with long intervals between successive strokes. A lugubrious canticle followed, chimed by the bells, which at every sudden change of temperature went out of tune, making at such times a horrible cacophony which sounded like the ringing of bells at a burial. At the gloomy hour of midnight, the canticle, moreover, was followed by the discordant notes of a “ God save the Tsar.” The ringing lasted a full quarter of an hour; and no sooner had it come to an end than a new “ Lord save me ” announced to the sleepless prisoner that a quarter of an hour of his uselessly spent life had gone in the meantime, and that many quarters of an hour, and hours, and days, and months of the same vegetative life would pass, before his keepers, or maybe death, would release him.
Every morning I was taken out for a half hour’s walk in the prison yard. This yard was a small pentagon with a narrow pavement round it, and a little building — the bath house — in the middle. But I liked those walks.
The need of new impressions is so great in prison that, when I walked in our narrow yard, I always kept my eyes fixed upon the high gilt spire of the fortress cathedral. This was the only thing in my surroundings which changed its aspect, and I liked to see it glittering like pure gold when the sun shone from a clear blue sky, or assuming a fairy aspect when a light bluish haze lay upon the town, or becoming steel gray when dark clouds obscured the sky.
Winter is gloomy at St. Petersburg for those who cannot be out in the brightly lighted streets. It was still gloomier, of course, in a casemate. But dampness was even worse than darkness. In order to drive away moisture the casemate was overheated, and I almost suffocated; but when I obtained my request at last, that the temperature should be kept lower than before, the outer wall became dripping with moisture, and the paper was as if a pail of water had been poured upon it every day, — the consequence being that I suffered a great deal from rheumatism.
With all that I was cheerful, continuing to write and to draw maps in the darkness, sharpening my lead pencils with a broken piece of glass which I had managed to get hold of in the yard ; I faithfully walked my five miles a day in the cell, and performed gymnastic feats with my oak stool. So time went on. Then sorrow crept into my cell and nearly broke me down. My brother Alexander was arrested.
Toward the end of December, 1874. I was allowed an interview with him and our sister Hélène, in the fortress, in the presence of a gendarme officer. Interviews, granted at long intervals, always bring both the prisoner and his relatives into a state of excitement. One sees beloved faces and hears beloved voices, knowing that the vision will last but a few moments ; one feels so near to the other, and yet so far off, as there can be no intimate conversation before a stranger, an enemy and a spy. Besides, my brother and sister felt anxious for my health, upon which the dark, gloomy winter days and the dampness had already marked their first effects. We parted with heavy hearts.
A week after that interview, I received, instead of an expected letter from my brother concerning the printing of my book, a short note from Polakóff. He informed me that henceforward he would read the proofs, and that I would have to address to him everything relative to the printing. From the very tone of the note I understood at once that something must be wrong with my brother. If it were only illness, Polakóff would have mentioned it. Days of fearful anxiety came upon me. Alexander must have been arrested, and I must have been the cause of it! Life suddenly ceased to have any meaning for me. My walks, my gymnastics, my work, lost interest. All the day long I went ceaselessly up and down my cell, thinking of nothing but Alexander’s arrest. For me, an unmarried man, imprisonment was only personal inconvenience ; but he was married, be passionately loved his wife, and they now had a boy, upon whom they had concentrated all the love that they had felt for their first two children.
Worst of all was the incertitude. What could he have done? For what reason had he been arrested ? What were they going to do with him? Weeks passed ; my anxiety became deeper and deeper ; but there was no news, till at last I heard in a roundabout way that he had been arrested for a letter written to P. L. Lavróff.
I learned the details much later. After his last interview with me he wrote to his old friend, who at that time was editing a Russian socialist review, Forward, in London. He mentioned in this letter his fears about my health; he spoke of the many arrests which were occurring then in Russia; and he freely expressed his hatred of the despotic rule. The letter was intercepted at the post office by the Third Section, and they came on Christmas Eve to search his apartments. They carried out their search in an even more brutal manner than usual. After midnight half a dozen men made an irruption into his rooms, and turned everything upside down. The very walls were examined ; the sick child was taken out of its bed, that the bedding and the mattresses might be inspected. They found nothing, — there was nothing to find.
My brother very much resented this search. With his customary frankness, he said to the gendarme offlicer who conducted it: “ Against you, captain, I have no grievance. You have received little education, and you hardly understand what you are doing. But you, sir,” he continued, turning toward the procureur, “you know what you are doing. You have received a university education. You know the law, and you know that you are trampling all law, such as it is, under your feet, and covering the lawlessness of these men by your presence ; you are simply — a scoundrel! ”
They swore hatred against him. They kept him imprisoned in the Third Section till May. My brother’s child — a charming boy, whom illness had rendered still more affectionate and intelligent — was dying from consumption. The doctors said he had only a few days more to live. Alexander, who had never asked any favor of" his enemies, asked them this time to permit him to see his child for the last time. He begged to be allowed to go home for one hour, upon his word of honor to return, or to he taken there under escort. They refused. They could not deny themselves that vengeance.
The child died, and its mother was thrown once more into a state bordering on insanity when my brother was told that he was to be transported “for an undetermined term ” to East Siberia, to a small town, Minusinsk. He would travel in a cart between two gendarmes, and his wife might follow later, but could not travel with him.
“ Tell me, at least, what is my crime,”he demanded ; but there was no accusation of any sort against him beyond the letter. This transportation appeared so arbitrary, so much an act of mere revenge on the part of the Third Section, that none of our relatives could believe that the exile would last more than a few months. My brother lodged a complaint with the minister of the interior. The reply was that the minister could not interfere with the will of the chief of the gendarmes. Another complaint was lodged with the Senate. It was of no avail.
A couple of years later, our sister Helene, acting on her own initiative, wrote a petition to the Tsar. Our cousin Dmitri, governor-general of Khárkoff, aide-de-camp of the Emperor and a favorite at the court, also deeply incensed at this treatment by the Third Section, handed the petition personally to the Tsar, and in so doing added a few words in support of it. But the vindictiveness of the Románoffs was a family trait strongly developed in Alexander II. He wrote upon the petition, “ Pust posidit ” (Let him remain some time more). My brother stayed in Siberia twelve years, and never returned to Russia.
The countless arrests which were made in the summer of 1874, and the serious turn which was given by the police to the prosecution of our circle, produced a deep change in the opinions of Russian youth. Up to that time the prevailing idea had been to pick out among the workers, and eventually the peasants, a number of men who should be prepared to become socialistic agitators. But the factories were now flooded with spies, and it was evident that, do what they might, both propagandists and workers would very soon be arrested and hidden forever in Siberia. Then began a great movement “ to the people,” when several hundred young men and women, disregarding all precautions hitherto taken, rushed to the country, and, traveling through the towns and villages, incited the masses to revolution, almost openly distributing pamphlets, songs, and proclamations. In our circles this summer received the name of " the mad summer.”
The gendarmes lost their heads. They had not hands enough to make the arrest nor eyes enough to trace the steps of every propagandist. Yet not less than fifteen hundred persons were arrested during this hunt, and half of them were kept in prison for years.
One day in the summer of 1875, in the cell that was next to mine I distinctly heard the light steps of heeled boots, and a few minutes later I caught fragments of a conversation. A feminine voice spoke from the cell, and a deep bass voice — evidently that of the sentry — grunted something in reply. Then I recognized the sound of the colonel’s spurs, his rapid steps, his swearing at the sentry, and the click of the key in the lock, He said something, and a feminine voice loudly replied : “ We did not talk. I only asked him to call the noncommissioned officer.” Then the door was locked, and I heard the colonel swearing in whispers at the sentry.
So I was alone no more, I had a lady neighbor, who at once broke down the severe discipline which had hitherto reigned amongst the soldiers. From that day the walls of the fortress, which had been mute during the last fifteen months, became animated. From all sides I heard knocks with the foot on the floor : one, two, three, four, . . . eleven knocks, twenty-four knocks, fifteen knocks ; then an interruption, followed by three knocks and a long succession of thirty-three knocks. Over and over again these knocks were repeated in the same succession, until the neighbor would guess at last that they were meant for “ Kto vy ? ” (Who are you ? ) the letter ʋ being the third letter in our alphabet. Thereupon conversation was soon established, and usually was conducted in the abridged alphabet; that is, the alphabet being divided into six rows of live letters, each letter is marked by its row and its place in the row.
I discovered with great pleasure that I had at my left my friend Serdukdtf, with whom I could soon talk about everything, especially when we used our cipher. But intercourse with men brought its sufferings as well as its joys. Underneath me was lodged a peasant, whom Serdukóff knew. He talked to him by means of knocks; and even against my will, often unconsciously during my work, I followed their conversations. I also spoke to him. Now, if solitary confinement without any sort of work is hard for educated men, it is infinitely harder for a peasant who is accustomed to physical work, and not at all wont to spend years in reading. Our peasant friend felt quite miserable, and having been kept for nearly two years in another prison before he was brought to the fortress, — his crime was that he had listened to socialists,—he was already broken down. Soon I began to notice, to my terror, that from time to time his mind wandered. Gradually his thoughts grew more and more confused, and we two perceived, step by step, day by day, evidences that his reason was failing, until his talk became at last, that of a lunatic. Frightful noises and wild cries came next from the lower story : our neighbor was mad, but was still kept for several months in the casemate before he was removed to an asylum, from which he never emerged. To witness the destruction of a man’s mind, under such conditions, was terrible. I am sure it must have contributed to increase the nervous irritability of my good, true friend Serdukóff. When, after a four years’ imprisonment, he was acquitted by the court and released, he shot himself.
One day I received a quite unexpected visit. The Grand Duke Nicholas, brother of Alexander II., who was inspecting the fortress, entered my cell, followed only by his aide-de-camp. The door was shut behind him. He rapidly approached me, saying, “ Good-day, Kropotkin.” He knew me personally, and spoke in a familiar, good-natured tone, as to an old acquaintance. “ How is it possible, Kropotkin, that you, a page de chambre, a sergeant of the corps of pages, should be mixed up in this business, and now be here in this horrible casemate ? ”
“ Every one has his own opinions,” was my reply.
“Opinions! So your opinions were that you must stir up a revolution ? ”
What was I to reply ? Yes ? Then the construction which would be put upon my answer would be that I, who had refused to give any answers to the gendarmes, “ avowed everything” before the brother of the Tsar. His tone was that of a commander of a military school when trying to obtain “ avowals ” from a cadet. Yet I could not say No : it would have been a lie. I did not know what to say, and stood without saying anything.
“ You see ! You feel ashamed of it now ” —
This remark angered me, and I at once said in a rather sharp way, “ I have given my replies to the inquiring magistrate, and have nothing more to say.”
“ But understand, Kropotkin, please,” he said then in the most familiar tone, “ that I don’t speak to you as an inquiring magistrate. I speak quite as a private person, — quite as a private man,” he repeated, lowering his voice.
Thoughts went whirling in my head. To play the part of Marquis Posa? To tell the Emperor through the grand duke the desolation of Russia, the ruin of the peasantry, the arbitrariness of the officials, the terrible famines in prospect ? To say that we wanted to help the peasants out of their desperate condition, to make them raise their heads, — and by all this try to influence Alexander II. ? These thoughts followed one another in rapid succession, till at last I said to myself : “Never! Nonsense! They know all that. They are enemies of the nation, and such talk would not change them.”
I replied that he always remained an official person, and that I could not look upon him as a private man.
He then began to ask me indifferent questions. “ Was it not in Siberia, with the Decembrists, that you came to such ideas? ”
“ No ; I knew only one Decembrist, and with him I had no talks worth speaking of.”
“ Was it then at St. Petersburg that you got them ? ”
“ I always was the same.”
“ Why ! Were you such in the corps of pages ? ”
“ In the corps I was a boy, and what is indefinite in boyhood grows definite in manhood.”
He asked me some other similar questions, and as he spoke I distinctly saw what he was driving at. He was trying to obtain avowals, and my imagination vividly pictured him saying to his brother : All these examining magistrates are imbeciles. He gave them no replies, but I talked to him ten minutes, and he told me everything.” That began to annoy me ; and when he said to me something to this effect, “ How could you have anything to do with all these people, — peasants and people with no names?” — I sharply turned upon him and said, " I have told you already that I have given my replies to the examining magistrate.” Then he abruptly left the cell.
Later, the soldiers of the guard made quite a legend of that visit. The person who came in a carriage to carry me away at the time of my escape wore a military cap, and, having sandy whiskers, bore a faint resemblance to the Grand Duke Nicholas. So a tradition grew up amongst the soldiers of the St. Petersburg garrison that it was the grand duke himself who came to rescue me and kidnapped me. Thus are legends created even in times of newspapers and biographical dictionaries.
Two years had passed. Several of my comrades had died, several had become insane, but nothing was heard yet of our case coming before a court.
My health gave way before the end of the second year. The oak stool now seemed heavy in my hand, and the five miles became an endless distance. As there were about sixty of us in the fortress, and the winter days were short, we were taken out for a walk in the yard for twenty minutes oidy every third day. I did my best to maintain my energy, but the arctic wintering ” without an interruption in the summer got the better of me. I had brought back from my Siberian journeys slight, symptoms of scurvy ; now, in the darkness and dampness of the casemate, they developed more distinctly ; that scourge of the prisons had taken hold of me.
In March or April, 1876, we were at last told that the Third Section had completed the preliminary inquest. The “ case ” had been transmitted to the judicial authorities, and consequently we were removed to a prison attached to the court of justice, — the house of detention.
It was an immense show prison, recently built on the model of the French and Belgian prisons, consisting of four stories of small cells, each of which had a window overlooking an inner yard and a door opening on an iron balcony; the balconies of the several stories were connected by iron staircases.
For most of my comrades the transfer to this prison was a great relief.
There was much more life in it than in the fortress; more opportunity for correspondence, for seeing one’s relatives, and for mutual intercourse. Tapping on the walls continued all day long undisturbed, and I was able in this way to relate to a young neighbor the history of the Paris Commune from the beginning to the end. It took, however, a whole week’s tapping.
As to my health, it grew even worse than it had lately been in the fortress.
I suffocated in the close atmosphere of the tiny cell, which measured only four steps from one corner to another, and where, as soon as the steam pipes were set to work, the temperature changed from a glacial cold to an unbearable heat. Having to turn so often, I became giddy after a few minutes’ walk, and ten minutes of outdoor exercise, in the corner of a yard inclosed between high brick walls, did not refresh me in the least. As to the prison doctor, who did not want to hear the word “scurvy ” pronounced “ in his prison,” the less said of him the better.
I was allowed to receive food from home, it so happening that one of my relatives, married to a lawyer, lived a few doors from the court. But my digestion had become so bad that I was soon able to eat nothing but a small piece of bread and one or two eggs a day. My strength rapidly failed, and the general opinion was that I would not live more than a few months. When climbing the staircase which led to my cell in the second story, I had to stop two or three times to rest, and I remember an elderly soldier from the escort once commiserating me and saying,
“ Poor man, you won’t live till the end of the summer.”
My relatives now became very much alarmed. My sister Hélène tried to obtain my release on bail, but the procureur, Shúbin, replied to her, with a sardonic smile, “ If you bring me a doctor’s certificate that he will die in ten days, I will release him.” He had the satisfaction of seeing my sister fall into a chair and sob aloud in his presence. She succeeded, however, in gaining her request that I should be visited by a good physician, — the chief doctor of the military hospital of the St. Petersburg garrison. He was a bright, intelligent, aged general, who examined me in the most scrupulous manner, and concluded that I had no organic disease, but was suffering simply from a want of oxidation of the blood. “ Air is all that you want,” he said. Then he stood a few minutes in hesitation, and added in a decided manner, “ No use talking, you cannot remain here ; you must be transferred.”
Some ten days later I was transferred to the military hospital, which is situated on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, and has a special small prison for the officers and soldiers who fall ill when they are under trial. Two of my comrades had already been removed to this hospital prison, when it was certain that they would soon die of consumption.
In the hospital I began at once to recover. I was given a spacious room on the ground floor, close by the room of the military guard. It had an immense grated window looking south, which opened on a small boulevard with two rows of trees ; and beyond the boulevard there was a wide space where two hundred carpenters were engaged in building wooden shanties for typhoid patients. Every evening they gave an hour or so to singing in chorus, — such a chorus as is formed only in large carpenters’ artels. A sentry marched up and down the boulevard, his box standing opposite my room.
My window was kept open all the day, and I battened in the rays of the sun, which I had missed for such a long time. I breathed the balmy air of May with a full chest, and my health improved rapidly, — too rapidly, I began to think.
I was soon able to digest light food, gained strength, and resumed my work with renewed energy. Seeing that by no means should I finish the second volume of my work, I wrote a résumé of it, which was printed in the first volume.
In the fortress I had heard from a comrade who had been in the hospital prison that it would not be hard for me to escape from it, and I made my presence there known to my friends. However, escape proved far more difficult than I had been told. A stricter supervision than had ever been heard of before was exercised over me. The sentry in the passage was placed at my door, and I was never let out of my room. The hospital soldiers and the officers of the guard who occasionally entered it seemed to be afraid to stay more than a minute or so.
Various plans were made by my friends to liberate me, — some of them very amusing. I was, for instance, to file through the iron bars of my window. Then, on a rainy night, when the sentry on the boulevard was dozing in his box, two friends were to creep up from behind and overturn the box, so that it would fall upon the sentry and catch him like a mouse in a trap, while I, in the meantime, was to jump out of the window. But a better solution came in an unexpected way.
“Ask to be let out for a walk,” one of the soldiers whispered to me one day.
I did so. The doctor supported my demand, and every afternoon, at four, I was allowed to take an hour’s walk in the prison yard. I had to keep on the green flannel dressing gown which is worn by the hospital patients, but my boots, my vest, and my trousers were delivered to me every day.
I shall never forget my first walk. When I was taken out, I saw before me a yard full three hundred paces long and more than two hundred paces wide, all covered with grass. The gate was open, and through it I could see the street, the immense hospital opposite, and the people who passed by. I stopped on the doorsteps of the prison, unable for a moment to move when I saw that yard and that gate.
At one end of the yard stood the prison, — a narrow building, about one hundred and fifty paces long, — at each end of which was a sentry box. The two sentries paced up and down in front of the building, and bad tramped out a footpath in the green. Along this footpath I was told to walk, and the sentries walked beside me, — so that I was never more than ten or fifteen paces from the one or the other. Three hospital soldiers took their seats on the doorsteps.
At the opposite end of this spacious yard wood for fuel was being unloaded from a dozen carts, and piled up along the wall by a dozen peasants. The whole yard was inclosed by a high fence made of thick boards. Its gate was open to let the carts in and out.
This open gate fascinated me. “ I must not stare at it, I said to myself; and yet I looked at it all the time. As soon as I was taken back to my cell I wrote to my friends to communicate to them the welcome news. “ I feel wellnigh unable to use the cipher,” I wrote with a tremulous hand, tracing almost illegible signs instead of figures. “This nearness of liberty makes me tremble as it I were in a fever. They took me out to-day in the yard ; its gate was open, and no sentry near it. Through this unguarded gate I will run out; my sentries will not catch me,” — and I gave the plan of the escape. " A lady is to come in an open carriage to the hospital. She is to alight, and the carriage to wait for her in the street, some fifty paces from the gate. When I am taken out, at four,
I shall walk for a while with my hat in my hand, and somebody who passes by the gate will take it as the signal that all is right within the prison. Then you must return a signal: ‘ The street is clear.’
Without it I shall not start: once beyond the gate I must not be recaptured. Light or sound only can be used for your signal. The coachman may send a flash of light, — the sun’s rays reflected from his lacquered hat upon the main hospital building ; or, still better, the sound of a song that goes on as long as the street is clear ; unless you can occupy the little gray bungalow which I see from the yard, and signal to me from its window. The sentry will run after me like a dog after a hare, describing a curve, while I run in a straight line, and I will keep live or ten paces in advance of him. In the street, I shall spring into the carriage and we shall gallop away. If the sentry shoots — well, that cannot be helped ; it lies beyond our foresight; and then, against a certain death in prison, the thing is well worth the risk.”
Counter proposals were made, but that plan was ultimately adopted. The matter was taken in hand by our circle ; people who never had known me entered into it, as if it were the release of the dearest of their brothers. However, the attempt was beset with difficulties, and time went with terrible rapidity. I worked hard, writing late at night; but my health improved, nevertheless, at a speed which I found appalling. When I was let out into the yard for the first time, I could only creep like a tortoise along the footpath ; now I felt strong enough to run. True, I continued to go at the same tortoise pace, lest my walks should be stopped; but my natural vivacity might betray me at any moment. And my comrades, in the meantime, had to enlist more than a score of people in the affair, to find a reliable horse and an experienced coachman, and to arrange hundreds of details which always spring up like mushrooms around such conspiracies. The preparations took a month or so, and any day I might be moved back to the house of detention.
At last the day of the escape was settied. June 29, old style, is the day of St. Peter and St. Paul. My friends, throwing a touch of sentimentalism into their enterprise, wanted to set me free on that day. They had let me know that in reply to my signal “ All right within ” they would signal “ All right outside ” by sending up a red toy balloon. Then the carriage would come, and a song would be sung to let me know when the street was open.
I went out on the 29th, took off my hat, and waited for the balloon. But nothing of the kind was to be seen. Half an hour passed. I heard the rumble of a carriage in the street; I heard a man’s voice singing a song unknown to me; but there was no balloon.
The hour was over, and with a broken heart I returned to my room. “ Something must have gone wrong,” I said to myself.
The impossible had happened that day. Hundreds of children’s balloons are always sold at St. Petersburg, near the Gostinoi Dvor. That morning there were none ; not a single balloon was to be found. One was discovered at last, in the possession of a child, but it was old and would not fly. My friends rushed then to an optician’s shop, bought an apparatus for making hydrogen, and tilled the balloon with it; but it would not fly any better : the hydrogen had not been dried. Time pressed. Then a lady attached the balloon to her umbrella, and, holding the umbrella high over her head, walked up and down in the street along the high wall of our yard ; but I saw nothing of it, — the wall being too high, and the lady too short.
As it turned out, nothing could have been better than that accident with the balloon. When the hour of my walk had passed, the carriage was driven along the streets which it was intended to follow after the escape ; and there, in a narrow street, it was stopped by a dozen or more carts which were carrying wood to the hospital. The horses of the carts got into disorder, — some of them on the right side of the street, and some on the left, — and the carriage had to make its way at a slow pace amongst them ; at a turning it was actually blocked. If I had been in it, I should have been caught.
Now a whole system of signals was established along the streets through which we should have to go after the escape, in order to give notice if the streets were not clear. For a couple of miles from the hospital my comrades took the position of sentries. One was to walk up and down with a handkerchief in his hand, which at the approach of the carts he was to put into his pocket ; another was to sit on a stone and eat cherries, stopping when the carts came near ; and so on. All these signals, transmitted along the streets, were finally to reach the carriage. Friends had also hired the gray bungalow that I had seen from the yard, and at an open window of that little house a violinist stood with his violin, ready to play when the signal “Street clear” reached him.
The attempt had been settled for the next day. Further postponement would have been dangerous. In fact, the carriage had been taken notice of by the hospital people, and something suspicious must have reached the ears of the authorities, as on the night before my escape I heard the patrol officer ask the sentry who stood opposite my window, “ Where are your ball cartridges ? ” The soldier began to take them in a clumsy way out of his cartridge pouch, spending a couple of minutes before he got them. The patrol officer swore at him. “ Have you not been told to-night to keep four hall cartridges in the pocket of your coat ? ” And he stood by the sentry till the latter put four cartridges into his pocket. “ Look sharp ! ” he said as he turned away.
The new arrangements concerning the signals had to be communicated to me at once ; and at two on the next day a lady — a dear relative of mine—came to the prison, asking that a watch might be transmitted to me. Everything had to go through the hands of the procureur ; but as this was simply a watch, without a box, it was passed along. In it was a tiny cipher note which contained the whole plan. When I read it I was seized with terror, so daring was the feat. The lady, herself under pursuit by the police for political reasons, would have been arrested on the spot, if any one had chanced to open the lid of the watch. But I saw her calmly leave the prison and move slowly along the boulevard.
I came out at four, as usual, and gave my signal. I heard next the rumble of the carriage, and a few minutes later the tones of the violin in the gray house sounded through our yard. But I was then at the other end of the building. When I got back to the end of my path which was nearest the gate, — about a hundred paces from it,— the sentry was close upon my heels. “ One turn more,”
I thought; but before I reached the farther end of the path the violin suddenly ceased playing.
More than a quarter of an hour passed, full of anxiety, before I understood the cause of the interruption. Then a dozen heavily loaded carts entered the gate and moved to the other end of the yard.
Immediately, the violinist — a good one, I must say — began a wildly exciting mazurka from Kontsky, as if to say, “ Straight on now, — this is your time ! ” I moved slowly to the nearer end of the footpath, trembling at the thought that the mazurka might stop before I reached it.
When I was there I turned round. The sentry had stopped five or six paces behind me ; he was looking the other way. “Now or never! ” I remember that thought flashing through my head.
I flung off my green flannel dressing gown and began to run.
For many days in succession I had practiced how to get rid of that immeasurably long and cumbrous garment. It was so long that I carried the lower part on my left arm, as ladies carry the trains of their riding habits. Do what I might, it would not come off in one movement. I cut the seams under the armpits, but that did not help. Then I decided to learn to throw it off in two movements: one casting the end from my arm, the other dropping the gown on the floor. I practiced patiently in my room until I could do it as neatly as soldiers handle their rifles. “ One, two,” and it was on the ground.
I did not trust much to my vigor, and began to run rather slowly, to economize my strength. But no sooner had I taken a few steps than the peasants who were piling the wood at the other end shouted. “ He runs ! Stop him ! Catch him ! " and they hastened to intercept me at the gate. Then I flew for my life. I thought of nothing but running, — not even of the pit which the carts had dug out at the gate. Run ! run ! full speed !
The sentry, I was told later by the friends who witnessed the scene from the gray house, ran after me, followed by three soldiers who had been sitting on the doorsteps. The sentry was so near to me that he felt sure of catching me. Several times he flung his rifle forward, trying to give me a blow in the back with the bayonet. One moment my friends in the window thought he had me. He was so convinced that he could stop me in this way that, he did not fire. But I kept my distance, and he had to give up at the gate.
Safe out of the gate. I perceived, to my terror, that the carriage was occupied by a civilian who wore a military cap. He sat without turning his head to me. “ Sold ! ” was my first thought. The comrades had written in their last letter, “ Once in the street, don’t give yourself up: there will be friends to defend you in case of need,” and I did not want to jump into the carriage if it was occupied by an enemy. However, as I got nearer to the carriage I noticed that the man in it had sandy whiskers which seemed to be those of a warm friend of mine. He did not belong to our circle, but we were personal friends, and on more than one occasion I had learned to know his admirable, daring courage, and how his strength suddenly became herculean when there was danger at hand. “ Why should he be there ? Is it possible ? ” I reflected, and was going to shout out his name, when I caught myself in good time, and instead clapped my hands, while still running, to attract his attention. He turned his face to me — and I knew who it was.
“ Jump in, quick, quick ! ” he shouted in a terrible voice, calling me and the coachman all sorts of names, a revolver in his hand and ready to shoot. “ Gallop ! gallop ! I will kill you ! ” he said to the coachman. The horse — a beautiful racing trotter, which had been bought on purpose — started at full gallop. Scores of voices yelling, “ Hold them ! Get them! ” resounded behind us, my friend meanwhile helping me to put on an elegant overcoat and an opera hat. But the real danger was not so much in the pursuers as in a soldier who was posted at the gate of the hospital, about opposite to the spot where the carriage had to wait. He could have prevented my jumping into the carriage or could have stopped the horse by simply rushing a few steps forward. A friend was consequently commissioned to divert this soldier by talking? He did this most successfully. The soldier having been employed at one time in the laboratory of the hospital, my friend gave a scientific turn to their chat, speaking about the microscope and the wonderful things one sees through it. Referring to a certain parasite of the human body, he asked, “ Did you ever see what a formidable tail it has?” “What, man, a tail?” “ Yes, it has ; under the microscope it is as big as that.” “ Don’t tell me any of your tales ! ” retorted the soldier. " I know better. It was the first thing I looked at under the microscope.” This animated discussion took place just as I ran past them and sprang into the carriage. It sounds like a fable, but it is a fact.
The carriage turned sharply into a narrow lane, past the same wall of the yard where the peasants had been piling wood, and which all of them had now deserted in their run after me. The turn was so sharp that the carriage was nearly upset, when I flung myself inward, dragging toward me my friend ; this sudden movement righted the carriage.
Two gendarmes were standing at the door of a public house, and gave to the military cap of my companion the military salute. “ Hush ! hush! ” I said to him, for he was still visibly excited. “ All goes well; the gendarmes salute us ! ” The coachman thereupon turned his face toward me, and I recognized in him another friend, who smiled with happiness.
Everywhere we saw friends, who winked to us or gave us a Godspeed as we passed at the full trot of our beautiful horse. Then we entered the large Nevsky Perspective, turned into a side street, and alighted at a door, sending away the coachman. I ran up a staircase, and at its top fell into the arms of my sister-in-law, who had been waiting in painful anxiety. She laughed and cried at the same time, bidding me hurry to put on another dress and to crop my conspicuous beard. Ten minutes later my friend and I left the house and took a cab.
In the meantime, the officer of the guard at the prison and the hospital soldiers had rushed out into the street, doubtful as to what measures they should take. There was not a cab for a mile round, every one having been hired by my friends. An old peasant woman from the crowd was wiser than all the lot. “ Poor people,” she said, as if talking to herself, “ they are sure to come out on the Perspective, and there they will be caught if somebody runs along that lane, which leads straight to the Perspective.” She was quite right, and the officer ran to the tramway car that stood close by, and asked the men to let him have their horses to send somebody on horseback to the Perspective. But the men obstinately refused to give up their horses, and the officer did not use force.
As to the violinist and the lady who had taken the gray house, they too rushed out and joined the crowd with the old woman, whom they heard giving advice, and when the crowd dispersed they went also.
It was a fine afternoon. We drove to the islands where all the St. Petersburg aristocracy goes on bright spring days to see the sunset, and called on the way, in a remote street, at a barber’s shop to shave off my beard, which operation changed me, of course, but not very much. We drove aimlessly up and down the islands, but, having been told not to reach our night quarters till late in the evening, did not know where to go. “ What shall we do in the meantime ? ” I asked my friend. He also pondered over that question. “ To Donon ! ” he suddenly called out to the cabman, naming one of the best St. Petersburg restaurants. " No one will ever think of looking for you at Donon,” he calmly remarked. “ They will hunt for you everywhere else, but not there ; and we shall have our dinner, and a drink too, for the success of your escape.”
What could I reply to so reasonable a suggestion ? So we went to Donon, passed the halls flooded with light and crowded with visitors at the dinner hour, and took a separate room, where we spent the evening till the time came when we were expected. The house where we had first, alighted was searched less than two hours after we left, as were also the apartments of nearly all our friends. Nobody thought of making a search at Donon.
A couple of days later I was to take possession of an apartment which had been engaged for me, and which I could occupy under a false passport. But the lady who was to go with me took the precaution of visiting it first by herself. It was thickly surrounded by spies. So many of my friends had come to inquire whether I was safe there that the suspicions of the police had been aroused. Moreover, my portrait had been printed by the Third Section, and hundreds of copies had been distributed to policemen and watchmen. All the detectives who knew me by sight were looking for me in the streets; while those who did not were accompanied by soldiers and warders who had seen me during my imprisonment. The Tsar was furious that such an escape should have taken place in his capital in full daylight, and he had ordered, “ He must be found. ”
It was impossible to remain at St. Petersburg, and I concealed myself in country houses in its neighborhood. In company with half a dozen friends, I stayed at a village frequented at this time of the year by St. Petersburg people bent on picnicking. Then it was decided that I should go abroad. But from a foreign paper we had learned that all the frontier stations and railway termini in the Baltic provinces and Finland were closely watched by detectives who knew me by sight. So I determined to travel in a direction where I would be least expected. Armed with the passport of a friend, I crossed Finland, and went northward to a remote port on the Gulf of Bothnia, whence I crossed to Sweden.
After I had gone on board the steamer, and it was about to sail, the friend who was to accompany me to the frontier told me the St. Petersburg news, which he had promised our friends not to tell me before. My sister Hélène had been arrested, as well as the sister of my brother’s wife, who had visited me in prison once a month after my brother and his wife went to Siberia.
My sister knew absolutely nothing of the preparations for my escape. Only after I had escaped a friend had told her the welcome news. She protested her ignorance in vain : she was taken from her children, and was kept imprisoned for a fortnight. As to the sister of my brother’s wife, she had known vaguely that something was to be attempted, but she had had no part in the preparations. Common sense ought to have shown the authorities that a person who had officially visited me in prison would not be involved in such an affair. Nevertheless, she was kept in prison for over two months. Her husband, a wellknown lawyer, vainly endeavored to obtain her release. “ We are aware now,” he was told by the gendarme officers, " that she has had nothing to do with the escape; but, you see, we reported to the Emperor, on the day we arrested her, that the person who had organized the escape was discovered and arrested. It will now take some time to prepare the Emperor to accept the idea that she is not the real culprit.”
I crossed Sweden without stopping anywhere, and went to Christiania, where I waited a few days for a steamer to sail for Hull, gathering information in the meantime about the peasant party of the Norwegian Storthing. As I went to the steamer I asked myself with anxiety, “ Under which flag does she sail, — Norwegian, German, English?” Then I saw floating above the stern the union jack, — the flag under which so many refugees, Russian, Italian, French, Hungarian, and of all nations, have found an asylum. I greeted that flag from the depth of my heart.