Peter Kropotkin’s (1842-1921) autobiographical account of his journey from privileged childhood, through military service and two years in prison to anarchist thinker and activist; it was originally serialised in The Atlantic Monthly from September 1898 to September 1899, and provides a fascinating account of his intellectual development and radicalisation, of life under tsarist rule, and of the early European socialist movement.
The following footage is of Kropotkin’s funeral procession from the village of Dmitrov, where he died, to Moscow on 13 February 1921. It turned into a protest — the last anarchist demonstration in Russia until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The accompanying sound track is a choral rendition of a traditional Russian folk song: ‘The Sun Descends Over the Steppe’.
‘WHEN I reached Moscow in January, 1921, I learned that Peter Kropotkin had been stricken with pneumonia. I immediately offered to nurse him, but as one nurse was already in attendance and the Kropotkin cottage was too small to accommodate extra visitors, it was agreed that Sasha Kropotkin, who was then in Moscow, should go to Dmitrov to find out whether I was needed. I had previously arranged to leave for Petrograd the next day. Till the moment of departure I waited for a call from the village; none coming, I concluded that Kropotkin was improving. Two days later, in Petrograd, I was informed by Ravitch that Kropotkin had grown worse and that I was asked to come to Moscow at once. I left immediately, but unfortunately my train was ten hours overdue, so that I reached Moscow too late to connect with Dmitrov. There were at the time no morning trains to the village and it was not till the eve of February 7th that I was at last seated in a train bound or the place. Then the engine went off for fuel and did not return until 1 A. M. of the next day. When I finally arrived at the Kropotkin cottage, on February 8th, I learned the terrible news that Peter had died about an hour before. He had repeatedly called for me, but I was not there to render the last service to my beloved teacher and comrade, one of the world’s greatest and noblest spirits. It had not been given to me to be near him in his last hours. I would at least remain until he was carried to his final resting place.
‘Two things had particularly impressed me on my two previous visits to Kropotkin: his lack of bitterness toward the Bolskeviki, and the fact that he never once alluded to his own hardships and privations. It was only now, while the family was preparing for the funeral, that I learned some details of his life under the Bolshevik regime. In the early part of 1918 Kropotkin had grouped around him some of the ablest specialists in political economy. His purpose was to make a careful study of the resources of Russia, to compile, these in monographs and to turn them to practical account in the industrial reconstruction of the country. Kropotkin was the editor-in-chief of the undertaking. One volume was prepared, but never published. The Federalist League, as this scientific group was known, was dissolved by the Government and all the material confiscated.
‘On two occasions were the Kropotkin apartments in Moscow requisitioned and the family forced to seek other quarters. It was after these experiences that the Kropotkins moved to Dmitrov, where old Peter became an involuntary exile. Kropotkin, in whose home in the past had gathered from every land all that was best in thought and ideas, was now forced to lead the life of a recluse. His only visitors were peasants and workers of the village and some members of the intelligentsia, whose wont it was to come to him with their troubles and misfortunes. He had always kept in touch with the world through numerous publications, but in Dmitrov he had no access to these sources. His only channels of information now were the two government papers, Pravda and Izvestia He was also greatly handicapped in his work on the new Ethics while he lived in the village. He was mentally starved, which to him was greater torture than physical malnutrition. It is true that he was given a better payck than the average person, but even that was insufficient to sustain his waning strength. Fortunately he occasionally received from various sources assistance in the form of provisions. His comrades from abroad, as well as the Anarchists of the Ukraina, often sent him food packages. Once he received some gifts from Makhno, at that time heralded by the Bolsheviki as the terror of counter-revolution in Southern Russia. Especially did the Kropotkins feel the lack of light. When I visited them in 1920 they were considering themselves fortunate to be able to have even one room lit. Most of the time Kropotkin worked by the flicker of a tiny oil lamp that nearly drove him blind. During the short hours of the day he would transcribe his notes on a typewriter, slowly and painfully pounding out every letter.
‘However, it was not his own discomfort which sapped his strength. It was the thought of the Revolution that had failed. the hardships of Russia, the persecutions, the endless raztrels, which made the last two years of his life a deep tragedy. On two occasions he attempted to bring the rulers of Russia to their senses: once in protest against the suppression of all non-Communist publications; the other time against the barbaric practice of taking hostages. Ever since the Tcheka had begun its activities, the Bolshevik Government had sanctioned the taking of hostages. Old and young, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, even children, were kept as hostages for the alleged offence of one of their kin, of which they often knew nothing. Kropotkin regarded such methods as inexcusable under any circumstances.
‘In the fall of 1920, members of the Social Revolutionist Party that had succeeded in getting abroad threatened retaliation if Communist persecution of their comrades continued. The Bolshevik Government announced in its official press that for every Communist victim it would execute ten Social Revolutionists. It was then that the famous revolutionist Vera Figner and Peter Kropotkin sent their protest to the powers that be in Russia. They pointed out that such practices were the worst blot on the Russian Revolution and an evil that had already brought terrible results in its wake: history would never forgive such methods.
‘The other protest was made in reply to the plan of the Government to “liquidate” all private publishing establishments, including even those of the coöoperatives, The protest was addressed to the Presidium of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, then in session. It is interesting to note that Gorki, himself an official of the Commissariat of Education, had sent a similar protest. In this statement_ Kropotkin called attention to the danger of such a policy to all progress, in fact, to all thought, and emphasized that such State monopoly would make creative work utterly impossible. But the protests had no effect. Thereafter Kropotkin felt that it was useless to appeal to a government gone mad with power.
‘During the two days I spent in the Kropotkin household I learned more of his personal life than during all the years that I had known him. Even his closest friends were not aware that Peter Kropotkin was an artist and a musician of much talent. Among his. effects I discovered a collection of drawings of great merit. He loved music passionately and was himself a musician of unusual ability. Much of his leisure he spent at the piano.
‘And now he lay on his couch, in the little workroom, as if peacefully asleep, his face as kindly in death as it had been in life. Thousands of people made pilgrimages to the Kropotkin cottage to pay homage to this great son of Russia. When his remains were carried to the station to be taken to Moscow, the whole population of the village attended the impressive funeral procession to express their last affectionate greeting to the man who had lived among them as their friend and comrade.
‘The friends and comrades of Kropotkin decided that the Anarchist organizations should have exclusive charge of the funeral, and a Peter Kropotkin Funeral Commission was formed in Moscow, consisting of representatives of the various Anarchist groups. The Committee wired Lenin, asking him to order the release of all Anarchists imprisoned in the capital in order to give them the opportunity to participate in the funeral.
‘Owing to the nationalization of all public conveyances, printing establishments, etc., the Anarchist Funeral Commission was compelled to ask the Moscow Soviet to enable it to carry out successfully the funeral programme. The Anarchists being deprived of their own press, the Commission had to apply to the authorities for the publication of the matter necessary in connection with the funeral arrangements. After considerable discussion permission was secured to print two leaflets and to issue a four-page bulletin in commemoration of Peter Kropotkin. The Commission requested that the paper be issued without censorship and stated that the reading matter would consist of appreciations of our dead comrade, exclusive of all polemical questions. This request was categorically refused. Having no choice, the Commission was forced to submit and the manuscripts were sent in for censorship. To forestall the possibility of remaining without any memorial issue because of the delaying tactics of the Government, the Funeral Commission resolved to open, on its own responsibility, a certain Anarchist printing office that had been sealed by the Government. The bulletin and the two leaflets were printed in that establishment.
‘In answer to the wire sent to Lenin the Central Committee of the All-Russian Executive of the Soviets resolved “to propose to the All-Russian Extraordinary Commissin (Veh-Tcheka)to release, according to its judgment, the imprisoned Anarchists for participation in the funeral of Peter A. Kropotkin.” The delegates sent to the Tcheka were asked whether the Funeral Commission would guarantee the return of the prisoners. They replied that the question had not been discussed. The Tcheka thereupon refused to release the Anarchists. The Funeral Commission, informed of the new development in the situation, immediately guaranteed the return of the prisoners after the funeral. Thereupon the Tcheka replied that “there are no Anarchists in prison who, in the judgment of the Chairman of the Extraordinary Commission, could be released for the funeral.”
‘The remains of the dead lay in state in the Hall of Columns in the Moscow Labour Temple. On the morning of the funeral the Kropotkin Funeral Commission decided to inform the assembled people of the breach of faith on the part of the authorities and demonstratively to withdraw from the Temple all the wreaths presented by official Communist bodies. Fearing public exposure, the representatives of the Moscow Soviet definitely promised that all the Anarchists imprisoned in Moscow would immediately be released to attend the funeral. But this promise was also broken, only seven of the Anarchists being released from the “inner jail” of the Extraordinary Commission. None of the Anarchists imprisoned in the Butyrki attended the funeral. The official explanation was that the twenty Anarchists incarcerated in that prison refused to accept the offer of the authorities. Later I visited the prisoners to ascertain the facts in the case. They informed me that a representative of the Extraordinary, Commission insisted on individual attendance, making exceptions in some cases. The Anarchists, aware that the promise of temporary release was collective, demanded that the stipulations be kept. The Tcheka representative went to the telephone to consult the higher authorities, so he said. He did not return.
‘The funeral was a most impressive sight. It was a unique demonstration never witnessed in any other country. Long lines of members of Anarchist organizations, labour unions, scientific and literary societies and student bodies marched for over two hours from the Labour Temple to the burial place, seven versts [nearly five miles] distant. The procession was headed by students and children carrying wreaths presented by various organizations. Anarchist banners of black and scarlet Socialist emblems floated above the multitude. The mile-long procession entirely dispensed with the services of the official guardians of the peace. Perfect order was kept by the multitude itself spontaneously forming in several rows, while students and workers organized a live chain on both sides of the marchers. Passing the Tolstoi Museum the cortege paused, and the banners were lowered in honour of the memory of another great son of Russia. A group of Tolstoians on the steps of the Museum rendered Chopin’s Funeral March as an expression of their love and reverence for Kropotkin.
‘The brilliant winter sun was sinking behind the horizon when the remains of Kropotkin were lowered into the grave, after speakers of many political tendencies had paid the last tribute to their great teacher and comrade.’
Emma Goldman, My Disillusionment in Russia