Biography

Childhood

Peter Kropotkin was born in 1842 to Major General Prince Alexei Petrovich Kropotkin and Ekaterina Nikolaevna Sulima. He was the youngest sibling of Nicholas (1834), Helene (1835) and Alexander (1841). whose fathers lineage could be traced back to royal descent and the Grand Princes of Smolensk. Due to their fathers military past, the family lived in an affluent quarter of Moscow, the ‘Old Equerries’ Quarter’. The young children had nannies, nurses, cooks, serfs, a privileged education and all that was expected with a typical Russian higher society childhood. The families history had resulted in his father owning altogether nearly 1200 serfs and land throughout Russia. In April 1846 his mother passed away at the age of thirty-five from consumption which meant that Peter and his three siblings were raised by their strict, and often distant, father. Kropotkin wrote that being beside his mother’s deathbed was the earliest memory of his life.

Two years after his first wife had died, Alexei Kropotkin would marry once again, this time to a high ranking officials daughter; Mademoiselle Elisabeth Karandino. With the new marriage came a new house and, although it was in the same Old Eqeurries Quarter, it was not a happy home. All sign of the children’s birth mother was now hidden away, and faithful serfs, teachers and relations of their mother, who tried to shower their vacant mothers love upon them, were discarded. After their new stepmother gave birth to a child of her own, Kropotkin states that he or his siblings did not receive much attention from their stepmother. The young Kropotkin instead found joy in attending the theatre, especially the ballet of Fanny Elssler, which he and his closest brother Alexander enjoyed acting out to their maids. Slight happiness was also found in these serfs and maids, who did their best to sneak treats to the children to make up for their father’s frugality. Kropotkin describes trips to the families country estates as the happiest moments of his childhood, journeys where “there was no end of new and delightful impressions” (35, Memoirs). The family would undertake trips of hundreds of miles out of Moscow through pine forests and along rivers, experiences that surely fuelled his geographical and geological interests. It was also on these journeys that Kropotkin would have first encountered poverty and the life of peasants and rural communes that were free from the government bureaucracy of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

During these early years, Kropotkin was accompanied by his teacher M. Poulain who was of French descent. Although at first Poulain was very strict with the young prince, one day his overzealousness resulted in physical punishment that was overheard by Peter’s sister who intervened. From that day forward their relationship grew and Kropotkin reminisces fondly about his old teacher, even crediting him with the reason why, at the age of twelve, he dropped his princely title after listening to Poulains tales of the 1789 revolution.

Kropotkin began attending classes at Moscow Gymnasium and at this school, under the tutelage of a teacher called Smirnov, his literary taste started to grow. He remembers helping Smirnov copy texts, some of which were banned at the time, of Tolstoy, Lermontov, Gogol and Pushkin. He writes that reading Gogol around the age of eleven “had a powerful effect on my mind” (52), while also listing Yury Miloslavsky by Mikhail Zagoskin and Pushkin’s The Captains Daughter as favourites. These inspired in Kropotkin thoughts about a literary career and at the age of twelve he even began to edit a daily journal, but these thoughts would soon have to be abandoned.

The house where Kropotkin was born

The Corps of Pages

With the outbreak of the Crimean war in 1853, Kropotkin’s older brother Nicholas would join the army. Peter too was destined for a military career. Three years later, at the age of fifteen, he would follow in the footsteps of his father and elder brothers, when in August 1857 he entered the Corps of Pages, a military school in St. Petersburg. This was a highly privileged school and was thought a great honour to attend and therefore included students mainly from children of the nobility.

He struggled to settle in the school and spent most of his time in the library rather than socialising with fellow students. The coldness of St. Petersburg also troubled him and he was a frequent inmate of the school hospital. But, with the death of Nicholas I the culture of education soon changed and so did the Corps of Pages. More emphasis was placed on learning instead of ceremony. University professors were bought in to teach the students and Peter found joy in his lessons, reserving special admiration for a German professor who introduced him to Faust which he soon read and remembered verses from in its original.

During his time in St. Petersburg, his brother Alexander was in a corps of cadets in Moscow and their relationship grew through constant letters. On the occasional time Peter returned home, Alexander would secretly escape his cadet base and meet him in the coachman’s house, against their father’s permission. His sister was now married and also lived in St. Petersburg and Peter would visit her most weekends, diving into her husband’s library which contained many great philosophers and historians.

In 1858 Peter began an investigation into Russian popular life, creating a statistical description of the Nikolskoe Fair. This bought him into his first close contact with the peasants and about which he states; “the serious good sense and sound judgement of the Russian peasants which I witnessed during this couple of days left upon me a lasting impression” (82). It is from this experience that he first begins to question the division of Russian society, the historical degradation of the peasants and from whom he learns the “spirit of equality” (83) which he argues was evident within them.

Back at the Corps of Pages, Peter continued his studies, becoming especially interested in natural science, mathematics, astronomy, physics and history, subjects where he was regularly top of his class. His interest in geography, geology and topography also grew with surveys of the land surrounding St. Petersburg which allowed him hard to come by isolated hours in nature, a love that would soon grow and motivate trips to Siberia.

Any revolutionary ideas were at this time far from his mind but it is during his latter years at the Corps of Pages were he first comes into contact with such ideas. He remembers his cousin somehow getting her hands on Herzen’s The Polar Star which was banned in Russia for urging reform to the country. Kropotkin speaks of how these ideas deeply affected him and how he would read and reread the review many times over. In early 1860, he began to edit his first revolutionary paper which advocated the necessity of a constitution for Russia. A year later the serfs were emancipated and this fuelled revolutionary hope, evident in the writings of Herzen, Turgenev and Chernyshevsky, all of which no doubt had a powerful effect on Kropotkin’s mind.

His military career still continued and due to him being top of his class for several years, in 1861 he was nominated sergeant of the Corps of Pages. This was a very privileged position and one which put him into personal acquaintance with the emperor as his page de chambre and which involved several trips to the palace. Although Kropotkin at first respected the emperor Alexander II for his emancipation of the serfs, and his seemingly wanting of reform, in his close contact with this world he also saw the wastefulness and charade of the emperor’s huge entourage and courts. He also saw the worst behaviour in the emperors closest circle and from the emperor himself, whether it be ignoring the urgent peasants’ necessary needs, the closing of schools or the flogging, sometimes even shooting, of soldiers.

At Corps of Pages

The Siberian Years

Growing tired of the bureaucratic and ceremonial based military service of St. Petersburg, and coming to the end of his five years study at the Corps of Pages, Kropotkin had to decide where his next step would be. He reasoned that the reforms and social change he sought may be more easily applied in Siberia, and the recently annexed Amur region, and thus decided to join the regiment of the ‘Mounted Cossacks of the Amur’.

In 1862, at the age of nineteen, Kropotkin set out to Siberia. He writes that “the five years I spent in Siberia were for me a genuine education in life and human character” (132). He was submerged into a vastly different life than what he had so far experienced. He saw the peasants daily life and toil, the new climate strengthened his privileged and fragile health, and, away from the luxuries and convenience of the cities, he learnt the value of Stoicism.

Kropotkin settled down not far from Lake Baikal and his work involved being a secretary for the reform of prisons and the exile system as a whole, while also preparing a scheme for municipal self-government. But in 1863, with the uprising in Poland, officials become sceptical of such drastic reform and the idea of self-government was put on hold. Kropotkin saw many of the Polish exiles that were sent to hard labour in Siberia and sympathised with their position, but due to the change of St. Petersbury position, his reforms were no longer needed or acted upon.

This caused in Kropotkin a great dissatisfaction and he came to the realization that the centralized administration meant any change was hard to enact. As of this, he turned away from governmental duty towards scientific exploration. He undertook several explorations along the Amur River, to Manchuria, the Sayan Mountains and many others. His reports and findings from these expeditions were published and positively received, reawakening within him the longing for intellectual life.

Kropotkin states that his time in Siberia taught him the futileness of “the administrative machinery” and the need for direct action; “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, fully appeared before my eyes” (147). It is in Siberia that he “lost whatever faith in state discipline I had cherished before. I was prepared to become an anarchist” (148).

Academic Career

Thoroughly now against a military life, and with a growing hunger for knowledge which could not be found in Siberia, in 1867 Kropotkin decided to return to St. Petersburg and enter university. He originally entered into the mathematical department but still devoted a lot of his time to geography. It is during this time he becomes interested in cartography and spent several years working on new maps of the North Asian mountains and plateaus. These would be published by the Russian Geographical Society and he considered them to be his “chief contribution to science” (152).

In 1871 the Geographical Society also sent him on expeditions to Finland and Sweden to explore glacial deposits. During this year he was also offered the position of secretary to the Society but during his time away social problems had been growing in his mind, his thoughts turned more towards the peasants’ toil than the land, and he declined their offer. This would also be the year when his father, Alexei Petrovich Kropotkin, passed away and this would free Peter from his father’s watchful eye and military expectations.

With Finish expedition companion Rebinder

Revolutionary

Throughout his travels, Kropotkin had always been drawn to the peasant. He had noticed their hard work, their peaceful spirit and, most of all, their communal kinship. In his life, he had also borne witness to the other side, the lavish and luxuriousness of the emperor and the elite, and of course his own privileged upbringing. The inequalities weighed heavy upon his mind; “what right had I to these highest joys, when all around me was nothing but misery and struggle for a mouldy bit of bread?” (157). After years of searching, Kropotkin finally realised his calling; he would strive for social change and to help the working classes. With this revolutionary spirit, he returned St. Petersburg. This was a dangerous time to hold such an attitude, with other revolutionaries, such as Chernyshevsky and Bakunin, either in exile or being held by authorities in the Peter and Paul Fortress. Peter, and his similarly thinking brother, thus struggled to find like-minded comrades who would help. Fear of revolution after an attempted assassination of Alexander II gave the state police more control and harsher powers of punishment over anything, or anyone, they perceived as ‘radical’.

Revolutionary movements were still to be found in the city, Kropotkin notes that the women’s educational movement was inspiring. Although banned from entering men’s universities, the women of St. Petersburg set up their own educational institutions or secretly attended lectures where they soon won over the most esteemed professors.

Longing for more possibility of change and direct action, Kropotkin left Russia and headed to Western Europe, travelling through Prussia and Germany to Switzerland. It is in Zurich where Kropotkin first makes acquaintance with, and joins, the International Workingmens Association. He spends a lot of time reading socialist pamphlets and newspapers, many that would not have been available in Russia, stating about this time; “the more I read, the more I saw that there was before me a new world, unknown to me, and totally unknown to the learned makers of sociological theories – a world that I could know only by living in the Workingmens Association and by meeting the workers in their every-day life” (180). Kropotkin also spent time with the Geneva branch of this movement and joined in its hope “that a great social revolution, peaceful or not, would soon come and totally change the economic conditions” (181). He saw during this time the sacrifices made by the working class to support their cause and his feeling to help and support such causes grew. It was at this moment that he gave a personal oath to support the revolutionary cause.

Conversion to Anarchism

But, Kropotkin soon grew tired of the bureaucracy he found when he became more involved with the group and soon requested to join another faction of the International Association; the ‘Bakunists’. Kropotkin then travelled to the Jura Mountains to spend time with the Jura Federation and the watchmakers. These played an important role in developing what would become known as ‘anarchism’ with their scepticism towards any kind of governmental rule. This brought them into conflict with the centralized and hierarchical International. It was here that Kropotkin met who would become long term associates; James Guillaume and Adhemer Schwitzguebel. It was also here Kropotkin where saw anarchism in practice first hand; there was no division between workers and leaders but only comrades with mutual respect, equalitarian relations and a strongly held fear of centralised state socialism. These practices would become theorized by Mikhail Bakunin, a fellow Russian revolutionary who was exiled in Switzerland. Kropotkin states that “after a weeks stay with the watchmakers, my views upon socialism were settled. I was an anarchist” (188). He writes with regret at never having the chance to meet with Bakunin himself, with them during this time being geographically close, praising him for the inspiration and enthusiasm he gave the watchmakers, as well as the vital, and continuing, influence he played in the development of anarchism. Kropotkin now had a foundation from which he could develop his own ideas, and with these, he returned to Russia.

The Rebel

Kropotkin returned to Russia eager to spread his newfound beliefs but to do so he would have to smuggle banned literature into his country. His return journey took him through Vienna, Warsaw and Krakow in the hope of finding a smuggler, which he successfully managed. Upon returning to Russia, he now viewed his native country differently, sickened by the wealth and tyranny of the elite, a view in which he was not alone. ‘Nihilism’ was on the rise in Russia more than anywhere else in Europe, there was a divide growing between the new generation and the old, between, as Turgenev called the title of his seminal novel, Fathers and Sons. The emancipation of the serfs, the rise of science, disillusionment with the Tsar, rise of women rights, the youths abandonment of tradition, the forming of cooperative associations, the educating of the peasants, all of these and more, stirred a fervent of hope in the revolutionary Kropotkin and his contemporaries.

In the spring of 1872, Kropotkin joined the ‘Circle of Tchaikovsky’, a socialist group committed to spreading literature among youth, peasants and workers throughout Russia. Its aim was to spread the ideas of freedom and revolt which led to suspicion, raids and arrests for many of its members from the state.

Under such a strict regime the circle struggled in how to implement direct social and political action. Pamphlets were written and speeches were given throughout the country but as such ideas were spreading, so was the force the state used in trying to stop them. In 1874 the circle’s main settlements and propagandists were shutdown or arrested and the group’s activities gradually become less and less.

Arrest and Escape From Prison

During these years Kropotkin had still been working on his report on the glacial formations of Finland and Sweden for the Geographical Society. The presentation of this report kept on being delayed and therefore meant that, unlike others, Kropotkin could not flee St. Petersburg. On the night after he had presented his work he returned home and sought to destroy all incriminatory literature and suspicion of his activity with the group. Once this was completed he left his home and fled in a cab but this was to be swiftly stopped and he was then arrested. He was charged with belonging to a secret society with the aim of overthrowing the government and transferred to the Peter and Paul Fortress where he would spend the next two years.

To get through this dark period Kropotkin thought of Bakunin, himself a prisoner inside the Fortress, or tried to imagine himself in a hut on an arctic expedition. To keep his health he walked seven miles a day in a cell that was ten steps in diameter and practised gymnastics. Although he was allowed to read selected books provided by the officers he was at first denied any writing materials until, with permission from the King himself, he was allowed to continue working on his book concerning his report on Finland and Iceland. His brother Alexander, who was residing in Switzerland at the time of Peter’s arrest, now returned to St. Petersburg to support his brother during his imprisonment.

Alexander would soon be arrested himself for a letter expressing his unhappiness with the state for the arrest and holding of his brother. During Alexanders imprisonment, his son would die of consumption and he would not be granted permission to see him as he was soon to be transported to Siberia. Alexander would spend twelve years in Siberia, all for simply sending a letter. Outside the Fortress the state crackdown continued and over 1500 people were arrested, most of whom would be sent to Siberia.

Two years later, Kropotkin was finally transferred from the Fortress to a prison but his health began to decline. This led to another transfer, this time to a military hospital on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. It was in these more relaxed surroundings where Kropotkin was told by comrades that escape may be possible. During a walk in the hospital yard, Kropotkin spied an open gate which could lead to his possible liberty and wrote to friends with an escape plan which would see them distract the guards while he fled through the gate into a carriage. The first attempt was made on July 11th 1876 but this was unsuccessful due to the failure to release a red balloon which would signal to Kropotkin the safety of the escape. The next day, at a violins signal and his friends outside disguised as sentries, Kropotkin made his dash for freedom. After a chase through St. Petersburg, a change of clothes and shave on Nevsky Prospekt, Kropotkin and a few comrades drove to the islands of St. Petersburg which were frequently visited by the aristocracy. From here they took a cab to Donon Restuarant which was one of most expensive restaurants in the city, with the idea being that the authorities would not look for an escaped convict in such a place. The apartment where he had changed and those of all his friends were searched within hours but their quick thinking was correct, the Donon was never searched.

Over the next few days, the streets were full of police and posters trying to recover from the embarrassment of a convicted criminal having escaped midday. Although the original plan had been to rent a St. Petersburg apartment for Kropotkin to hide, the rented apartment was soon surrounded by spies so he fled to the country before it was decided to flee abroad. A journey now began which would take Kropotkin through Finland, Sweden and Denmark before eventually landing in Hull, England.

Self-portrait of Kropotkin in prison

In Exile

Although only originally intending to stay abroad for a matter of weeks or months, Kropotkin spends over forty years away from Russia in Western Europe, helping to develop the anarchist movement. He first went to Edinburgh, which was deemed safer than London, and supported himself writing articles for Nature and the Times. After a few weeks, he moved to London and introduced himself to the editor of Nature and secured a job in their offices. Still frightened of being discovered by Russian spies, he had adopted the name Levashov since arriving in Britain and this led to a humorous tale of him being asked to review his own geographical works by the editor of Nature.

But, Kropotkin did not want to spend all his time on geographical matters and longed for the possibility of helping social change. Such a possibility was not easy in England and so he returned to Switzerland and the Jura Federation, travelling through France where he spent time with Turgenev. Back home the authorities were still applying more pressure to any hint of radical change, more arrests were made and with some of these resulting in hanging, creating an environment which would result in Alexander II being assassinated in March 1881.

Under orders of his successor Alexander III, pressure would be applied to Switzerland which led Kropotkin’s expulsion from the country. He would return to London where in July he would attend the International Anarchist Congress and begin writing several articles for the Newcastle Chronicles. As Kropotkin’s wife was about the pass her examinations at Geneva University, they settled for a while in Thonon, France, where he wrote articles for Le Révolté, Newcastle Chronicles and Britannica Encyclopedia. With growing discontent among the French working class, and Russian spies everywhere, Kropotkin was advised to leave France but refused. This turned out to be a mistake as in late December 1882, a few days after the death of his oldest brother Nicholas, he was arrested by French authorities and was taken to a prison in Lyon. In January 1883, he was charged as having belonged to the International Workingmen’s Association and in March was transferred to Clairvaux Prison.

In 1882

The Prolific Prince of Anarchy

In January 1886 Kropotkin was released from prison and with his wife travelled to Paris where they spent several weeks before returning to London. A few months later he would learn that his brother Alexander had committed suicide during his Siberian imprisonment in Tomsk. A year later Kropotkin and Sofia would have their first child which they named Alexandra, after his departed brother.

After his release from prison and return to England Kropotkin set about his work once again. Alongside Charlotte Wilson, he founded the monthly anarchist journal Freedom, which continues to this day. In this, and La Révolte, which had to be changed to the feminine name after the former was shut down, Kropotkin began to construct concretely his anarcho-communist principle which would eventually be bought together in the book La Conquête du Pain (The Conquest of Bread) (1892). These ideas would be further worked out and supported in articles for The Nineteenth Century, with these once again being bought together and published in book form as Fields, Factories and Workshops (1899). He would also become interested in applying his anarchist ideas to biology and could find no satisfaction in the understanding of Darwin’s formula of ‘the struggle for existence’. Influenced by Profesor Kessler, Kropotkin would reformulate Darwin’s formula and reveal ‘the law of mutual aid’, writing several articles that appeared again in The Nineteenth Century which would go onto create another of his works; Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902).

These books were published alongside many essays, pamphlets and articles, all which helped propel Kropotkin to being one of the most prominent and respected anarchist thinkers. He would also give lectures throughout the UK when his health allowed and travelled to the US and Canada.

In the early 20th century, sensing the social change that was coming to Russia, he started to get more involved with the politics in his native country. In 1903, he helped to start the anarchist paper Khleb i volia (Bread and Liberty) which ran for two years. He considered returning to Russia during the 1905 revolution but this was eventually quelled by the state. His renewed intest in Russia would be furthered with his book Russian Literature (1905), followed years later by The Great French Revolution (1909).

All the while his health was deteriorating. A slight southward move to Brighton did little to help and he eventually managed to convince the Swiss government to allow him to reside in the country, only on the condition that he would refrain from any anarchist activity. He would reside here during WWI where he lectured and wrote, when his health permitted, calling for the resistance and rise of arms against Germany.

During final years of exile

Return to Russia and Death

As soon as the success of the Russian Revolution of February 1917 was becoming apparent, Kropotkin made plans to return to his native country for the first time in over forty years. His return was met with fanfare, a reported 60,000 according to one newspaper, and also government officials who were keen for Kropotkin to have an influence in the formation of government policy. This offer was refused and he instead spent time amongst the workers and continued with his work. He would translate many books, essays and articles that had been previously banned in the country before the revolution but also work on new pieces such as The Place of Anarchism in Social Evolution.

In October 1917 the Bolsheviks would claim power and with their centralization of power Kropotkin began to become sceptical of the results and outcome of the revolution. There were rumours that Kropotkin had been arrested by the Bolsheviks, rumours that Kropotkin himself had to quash. A process of disarmament began with the anarchists, a process that many times ended in bloodshed between the previous allies of anarchists and Bolsheviks.

This ever-growing disillusionment led to Kropotkin leaving Moscow and moving 40 miles north to the town of Dmitrov. Here he began to renew his interest in geography, spending time in the local museum and collecting results about the local environment. In these last years, he would work on Ethics, a book that remained unfinished and would be published posthumously. On February 8th 1921, Peter Kropotkin died at the age of 78. With the state’s approval, a mass funeral was arranged which led to a reported 30,000 people attending and would be the last allowed gathering of anarchists in Russia.

References

Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Kropotkin

Kropotkin, V.A. Markin

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