IN RUSSIAN AND FRENCH PRISONS by Peter Kropotkin — eBook £1.50 (see eBookshelf)

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“The man who is shut up in a prison is so far from being bettered by the change, that he comes out more resolutely the foe of society than he was when he went in.”

This statement is the animating principle of Peter Kropotkin’s libertarian classic, IN RUSSIAN AND FRENCH PRISONS, first published in 1887 From its pages emerges a portrait of man’s inhumanity to man as old as Socrates of the Phaedo and as new as Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Kropotkin’s first experience with prisons came when he was assigned to collect facts on the penal system of Siberia. But when his findings were completely rejected and all hope of reform dashed, he embarked on a program of revolutionary activity that eventually led to his own arrest and imprisonment, first in St. Petersburg and, later in his life, in France.

In his new Introduction, Paul Avrich writes, “There are a great many books about prison life, some of them of genuine literary distinction. Yet within this vast genre, IN RUSSIAN AND FRENCH PRISONS holds a special place. it is the most eloquent statement of the libertarian view-point written from personal observation and experience.”

Paul Avrich (1931-2006) was Professor of Russian History at Queens College, New York, and the author of The Russian Anarchists (1967) and Kronstadt Nineteen Twenty-One (1970)


THERE are a great many books about prison life, some of them of genuine literary distinction. Yet within this vast genre In Russian and French Prisons holds a special place. For, with Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, a companion volume in this series, it is the most eloquent statement of the libertarian viewpoint written from personal observation and experience.

Its author, Peter Kropotkin, a Russian revolutionary of princely birth, was from the late 1870s until his death in 1921 the foremost leader and theorist of the anarchist movement. His interest in prisons, however, dates back to the 1860s when, as a young officer in Siberia, he was assigned to investigate the penal system. What he found made an indelible impression. He saw the dilapidated lockups, the filthy, overcrowded cells, the brutality of the warders, the wretched, under-fed convicts, doomed to an early death from scurvy, typhus, or sheer exhaustion. Profoundly disturbed, he submitted a report that called for sweeping reforms, only to see it vanish in a bureaucratic maze, an experience that shattered his faith in the virtues of government and led him to shed his hopes that the state, whatever its form, could become a vehicle of social progress. “I began to appreciate the difference between acting on the principle of command and discipline and acting on the principle of common understanding,” he later recalled. “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. I was prepared to become an anarchist.” 1

Resigning his commission, Kropotkin embarked on a future of prison and exile that was to last nearly half a century. In 1872, after a trip to the West that reinforced his libertarian tendencies, he joined the Chaikovsky circle in St. Petersburg and, under an assumed name, disseminated revolutionary propaganda among the workers and peasants. Two years later, however, he was caught in a police dragnet and imprisoned without trial in the notorious Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul, “a true grave, where the prisoner for two, three, five years, hears no human voice and sees no human being, excepting two or three gaolers, deaf and mute when addressed by the prisoners.” His first experience in prison—the silence, the monotony, the crushing isolation—had begun. To raise his spirits, he tells us, he sang his favorite arias from Ruskin and Liudmila, and he tried to keep fit by daily exercise. But after nearly two years in the dungeons his health broke down, and he was transferred to the prison of St. Petersburg Military Hospital, from which his sensational escape in 1876, complete with signals, disguises, and galloping horses, made his name an object of admiration in radical groups throughout Europe.

But his experience with prisons was not over. While in France in 1882, he was arrested, tried, and locked up in a Clairvaux prison, the former Abbey of St. Bernard, on charges of membership in the International Working Men’s Association, which had been outlawed following the Paris Commune of 1871. Conditions at Clairvaux were much better, however, than in the Peter and Paul fortress. As a political prisoner Kropotkin had comfortable rooms, he could receive regular visitors (his wife came every day), he could buy his own food, wear his own clothes, keep his broad beard, and smoke his pipe. Moreover, he could practice bookbinding, play ninepins in the garden, plant lettuce and radishes, and organize classes for his fellow inmates in geometry, physics, and language. But most important, he was allowed to study and write—in fact, the French Academy of Sciences offered to put its library at his disposal—so that it was in prison, ironically, that he developed his celebrated theory of mutual aid, according to which cooperation is more important than competition or brute force in the progressive evolution of species. In addition, he wrote articles for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the journal Nineteenth Century (among them three on Russian prisons included in this book), and revised the manuscript of Words of a Rebel, his first collection of anarchist essays.

Yet even under such favorable conditions Kropotkin did not relax his opposition to the prison system. It was not merely that life remained monotonous, that his mail was strictly censored, or that he fell ill with malaria, complicated by a return of the scurvy which had afflicted him in the dungeons of St. Peter and St. Paul. What disturbed him most was the compulsory confinement. All prisons, he said, by depriving men of their freedom, were in essence the same, however they might vary in their treatment of the inmates, and he was determined to do his part to abolish them. Toward this end, in 1887, the year after his release from Clairvaux, he published In Russian and French Prisons.

Although he makes extensive use of the memoirs of former convicts and of works by contemporary penologists, it is Kropotkin’s own experience in prison—he spent five years behind bars, two in Russia, three in France—that gives the book its power. He shows from firsthand knowledge the immense human suffering caused by prison life: how it destroys the mind and body, how it degrades and humiliates, how it perverts the prisoner’s character and robs him of his dignity, how it reduces him to the condition of a caged animal, how his whole life is subjected to a deadly mechanical routine, how everything is done to break his spirit, to kill his inner strength, to make him a docile tool in the hands of those who control him. The ideal of prison officials, says Kropotkin, would be a thousand automatons rising and working, eating and going to bed by means of electric currents switched on by a single guard. And the effect on the jailers is no less dehumanizing: they grow callous, corrupt, devoid of human feeling, and all their vices are condoned, indeed encouraged, in the name of justice. Prisons, moreover, punish the innocent—the convict’s family who depend on his earnings and who experience hardships and humiliations often worse than those to which the prisoner himself is subjected.

And all for nothing, says Kropotkin. Abundant data prove the utter futility of prisons as a means of deterring crime. Indeed, far from reforming the offender, they kill the qualities that might adapt him to community life. They are “schools of crime,” subjecting him to brutalizing punishments, teaching him to lie and cheat and generally hardening him in his criminal ways, so that when he emerges from behind bars he is condemned to repeat his transgressions. Every year, says Kropotkin, thousands of convicts are returned to society without hope, without a trade, without any means of subsistence, with nothing but cold hostility and closed doors to greet them. No wonder statistics show that once a man has been in prison he is likely to return. Moreover, the new offense is likely to be more serious than the first : instead of pilfering, a daring holdup ; instead of assault, a murder. Before, he was a petty offender, now, a rebel against society. Kropotkin concludes that prisons are worthless, that the millions alloted each year for so-called rehabilitation are spent to no purpose. Prisons neither improve the prisoners nor prevent crime. They achieve none of the ends for which they are designed.

What then is to be done? Kropotkin’s answer is clear : “No more laws! No more judges! Liberty, equality, and practical human sympathy are the only effectual barriers we can oppose to the anti-social instincts of certain among us.” 2 The first task of the revolution would be to abolish the prisons—those “monuments of human hypocrisy”—and to treat the offenders as brothers. For crime, says Kropotkin, is a social disease that calls for a social cure. Statistics show that when economic conditions improve, the number of crimes decreases. But so long as men are condemned to struggle for their daily bread, so long as millions grow up in filth, decay, and poverty, scorned, rejected, and deprived of self-respect, crime will be inevitable, and the whole legal system will do nothing to reduce—much less to eliminate—it.

Not that Kropotkin denied the genetic or psychological causes of crime, nor that certain types of crime —crimes of jealousy or passion, crimes provoked by the spirit of violence which dominates existing society —would be likely to persist for some time. But with the passing of the conditions that create them, with the elimination of injustice and oppression, even these, he believed, would largely disappear. Ultimately, then, the solution to crime lay in a complete reorganization of society on libertarian lines. In the future anarchist world, founded on cooperation and mutual aid, anti-social behavior would be regarded as a mere survival of former conditions and would be dealt with not by laws and prisons but by human understanding and the moral pressure of the community.

Though nearly a century has passed since Kropotkin wrote In Russian and French Prisons, his criticisms of the penal system have lost none of their relevance :

The incredible duration of preliminary detention; the disgusting circumstances of prison life; the congregation of hundreds of prisoners into small and dirty chambers; the flagrant immorality of a corps of jailers who are practically omnipotent, whose whole function is to terrorize and oppress, and who rob their charges of the few coppers doled out to them by the State; the want of labour and the total absence of all that contributes to the moral welfare of man ; the cynical contempt for human dignity, and the physical degradation of prisoners—these are the elements of prison life in Russia.


He wrote this in the 1880s. And anyone who reads the haunting descriptions of Soviet prisons and labor camps by Alexander Solzhenitsyn,3 Evgenia Ginzburg,4 or Anatoly Marchenko5 will find that little has changed, indeed, that conditions have become worse since the Bolshevik Revolution and have remained so even after Stalin’s death, than they had been when Kropotkin was imprisoned under the tsar.

In the United States, too, riots from The Tombs to Soledad have once again made prisons a national issue. Kropotkin’s advice was to “go into the jails and study what man becomes when he is deprived of freedom and shut up with other depraved beings, steeped in the vice and corruption which ooze from the very walls of our existing prisons.” 6 When a group of American judges recently inspected the Nevada State Prison, they were so appalled by the “soul-shattering bitterness,” by the sight of “men raving, screaming, and pounding on the walls,” that one of them urged the governor to “send two bulldozers out there and tear the damn thing to the ground.”7

Our prisons, said Kropotkin, are a reflection of our social system. American prisons today swallow a billion dollars a year, yet the crime rate is rising, and most offenses, as Kropotkin pointed out, are committed for social and economic reasons by the poor, the blacks, and other outcast elements of a society which has failed to relieve their distress. “Are our prisons worth the enormous outlay in human labour yearly devoted to them? Do they guarantee Society against the recurrence of the evils which they are supposed to combat?” Kropotkin’s answer was an emphatic no. And today, nearly a hundred years later, the answer has not changed.

PAUL AVRICH , New York, April 1971

  1. Peter Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist (Boston 1899), pp. 216-17.
  2. “Law and Authority,” in Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, ed. Roger N. Baldwin (New York 1927), p. 218.
  3. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (New York and London 1963) and The First Circle (New York 1968).
  4. Into the Whirlwind (New York and London 1967).
  5. My Testimony (New York and London 1969).
  6. Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 217.
  7. Time, Jan. 18, 1971.


MOST of In Russian and French Prisons, which Kropotkin wrote in English, first appeared in The Nineteenth Century during the early 1880s. It was published in book form in London in 1887, but the whole edition was immediately bought up and destroyed by the Russian secret police, so that Kropotkin himself was unable to locate a copy, and the book had to be reissued the same year. The present edition, to which Kropotkin’s interesting preface to the Russian translation (St. Petersburg 1906) has been added, is the first reprint of the book since that time.

Of Kropotkin’s related writings, the articles entitled “Prisons” and “Law and Authority” are included in Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, edited by Roger N. Baldwin (New York 1927) and reprinted by Dover Publications in 1970. See also Kropotkin’s classic autobiography, Memoirs of a Revolutionist (Boston 1899) , reprinted by Dover in 1971 with an introduction and notes by Nicolas Walter. The best biography of Kropotkin, with a useful account of his prison experiences, is The Anarchist Prince by George Woodcock and Ivan AvakumoviC (London 1950), reprinted by Schocken Books in 1971. Another libertarian classic on prison life, Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (New York 1912), has also been reprinted in 1970 in the Schocken series Studies in the Libertarian and Utopian Tradition.


In Russian and French Prisons consists for the most part of articles which I wrote for the English journal Nineteenth Century at the beginning of the 1880s. In England at that time there was an awakening of interest in the Russian liberation movement, and the press, long under the influence of agents of the Russian government, began at last to carry accurate information regarding the horrors to which arrested or condemned revolutionaries were being subjected while in prison. I was thus asked to write about Russian prisons, but I took the opportunity to describe the frightful state of prisons in general.

“The revolutionaries,” I reasoned, “are waging a war against the government, and however their ene-mies may be treating them, to lament over their fate can only harm them. They know what they are fighting for and ask no mercy. Right is on their side, and they believe in the success of their struggle.

“But there are hundreds of thousands of ordinary men who lose every year in vain and for naught, who languish in jails, are banished to Siberia, and are tormented by whoever puts on a uniform. It is about them that one must write,” I thought, and I set out to describe to the English and the Americans the terrible system of Russian jails, central prisons, deportation centers, way stations, and labor camps in Siberia and on Sakhalin Island.

It was necessary, of course, to do this in brief compass, since foreign readers could have only a tangential interest in Russian prisons. There was no lack of materials at that time. For the Russian press, taking advantage of the monetary freedom under Loris-Melikov,* published many startling facts. Yet most probably I would have said nothing in my essays of how political prisoners are treated in Russia if the agents of the Russian government had not compelled me to do so. Alarmed by the reports that began to penetrate the English press, they undertook to deny the most well-established facts about brutalities committed in the central prisons, and began to depict the Peter and Paul fortress as a model of efficient, humane treatment for the wicked revolutionaries—and this at the very time when in the Alexis Ravelin were taking place the horrors recently described in the press by Polivanov.

But what particularly compelled me to act was a certain English priest, Lansdell (Tolstoy superbly characterized him in Resurrection), who dashed about Siberia at top speed, seeing of course nothing, yet writing an abominable book about Russian prisons. Our prisons were at that time under the direction of a certain Galkin-Vrassky, an ambitious bureaucrat who tried to summon an international congress on prisons in St. Petersburg in order to strengthen his influence in the Anichkov Palace, and who found in Lansdell a useful source of praise for his “penal reforms.”

The Minister of the Interior, Tolstoy, also took this flatterer under his wing, and even allowed him to be shown the Peter and Paul fortress—not the dungeons, to be sure, but the Trubetskoy Bastion. When I exposed Lansdell’s book in the English press, the answer to my remarks was written, as I subsequently learned, in St. Petersburg. Mr. Galkin-Vrassky himself sent the reply, which the English priest published under his own signature in the Contemporary Review. My answer to this article makes up Chapter VII of this book.

A few words in passing about this answer. I wrote it in the Lyons prison. A reply to Lansdell—to this Russian agent—was essential. Sergei Kravchinsky was no longer in England, and I hastened to draft my reply before going to trial, immediately after which I would surely be sent off to some central prison. My article was ready. But the French government was concerned at all costs to prevent anything I wrote against the Russian government from leaving a French prison. I was therefore told, when I tried to send my article to London, that this was impossible, that it had to be sent for inspection to the ministry in Paris, where it would be held if it was against the Russian government.

Fortunately, however, the doctor of the Lyons prison was M. Lacassane, a writer on anthropology who had twice visited my cell to talk about anthropo-logical questions. His wife knew English well, and he proposed that she be the one to censor my article. The prison director consented, if only to shirk his own responsibility. Mme. Lacassane, of course, saw at once that the article was precisely one of those which should not be allowed to leave the prison, yet, assuming the risk, hastened the next day to send my article to London. If only I could now thank her in person. There are good people everywhere.

It is well known that the Russian ministers sought to make the same use of the Americans Kennan and Frost, who were sent by an American journal to check the condition of Russian prisons on the spot. But they were foiled. For Kennan learned Russian, got acquainted with the exiles in Siberia, and truthfully recorded what he learned.

And now banishment to Siberia—at least through the courts—has been abolished, and at certain places inside Russia “reformatory” prisons have been established. Thus, with regard to Russian prisons, my book would seem primarily of historical interest. Yet let it serve then as historical testimony to the unimaginable ferocity with which our bureaucrats treated the Rus-sian people for thirty or forty years after the abolition of serfdom. Let everyone know what they upheld, how they resisted even the pettiest changes over thirty years, how they trampled on all the most fundamental rights of humanity.

Besides, is it really true that Russian prisons have changed for the better? That more has been spent in various “reformatories” and model prisons to whitewash old bricks is beyond dispute. But the essence remains the same. How many hundreds of horrible antiquated jails, deportation centers, and lockups remain to this day in the hands of uniformed scoundrels! How many thousands are banished as before to Siberia, and a bit farther, by administrative decree! How many atrocities are being perpetrated now, at this very moment, in impossibly crowded jails! The floors per-haps are cleaner, but the Arakcheev system remains, or has even grown worse, having been made more cunning, more malicious than before. Who, after all, administers these prisons if not the worst enemies of the Russian people?

One of the chapters of this book is devoted to a description of what I saw in French prisons—in both the Lyons provincial prison and the central prison at Clairvaux. To those who may feel that what I say is an exaggeration, I would only note that when this essay appeared in Le Temps it was considered in France so objective that it was used in the Chamber of Deputies as a document in the debates on prison reform. In France, as elsewhere, the whole prison system, rests on a false foundation and demands a total reexamination, an honest, serious, thoughtful reexamination, from the social standpoint.

The last two chapters of my book are thus devoted to an analysis of the profoundly harmful influence which prisons everywhere exert on social morality, and also to the question : Must contemporary humanity support these undeniably pernicious institutions?

If I had now to write afresh about this last question, I would describe conditions much more fully, on the basis of a whole mass of new observations and materials and new studies which have enriched the literature. But this very abundance of materials compels me to abandon any thought of reexamining this exceedingly important question. It is so urgent, however, that it will doubtless find young forces that will undertake the task along the lines indicated herein. In America such work has already begun.

Bromley, England, February 1906

* For this and other references see explanatory note at end. (P. A.)