Reminiscences of Kropotkin

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Alexander Berkman

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Peter Kropotkin

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Our comrade Alexander Berkman has kindly sent us the following translation of an article which he wrote specially for the "Freie Arbeiter Stimme, of New York.

Soon after I came to Russia I began to hear rumours about Peter Kropotkin. They were very conflicting: some said he was favourable to the Bolsheviki, others that he was against them; that he was living in comparatively satisfactory material circumstances, and again that he was practically starving; and so forth. I was anxious to learn the truth of the matter. Besides, I was very eager to see him personally. In the years past I had had a sporadic correspondence with'him, but we had never met. I was a great admirer of his since my early youth, when I first heard his name and became acquainted with his writings. One incident, in particular, had left a very deep impression on me, characteristic as it was of the whole man, and had won my love and esteem.

It was in the year 1890, I believe. The Jewish Anarchist movement was in its infancy in America. We were just a handful then, and we used to hold our weekly public meetings in a very modest hall in Orchard Street. We were few, but we were fired by the enthusiasm of a sublime ideal and we were most wholeheartedly consecrating all our young energies and ability, and most of our very small earnings, to the propaganda of Anarchist ideas among the population of the Ghetto. And we were very successful; every week greater numbers attended our gatherings, much interest was manifested in the revolutionary teachings, and the vital questions were discussed passionately, though often with greater conviction than intelligence. To some of us it then seemed that cursed Capitalism had about reached the limit of its fiendish possibilities, and that the Social Revolution could not be very far off. But there were many difficult questions and knotty problems involved in the growing movement and in the approaching Social Revolution, which we ourselves could not solve quite satisfactorily. We longed to have our great teacher Kropotkin among us, if only for a short visit, to have him clear up many complex points and give us the benefit of his intellectual aid and inspiration. And then, what a stimulus his presence would be for the movement!

Ww were only a handful, I said, but each and every one of us was most willing to reduce his living expenses to the lowest minimum and devote his earnings of weeks, even of months, if necessary, to defray the expenses involved in our invitation to Kropotkin to visit America. Thoroughly the matter was discussed in several little group meetings of the most active and devoted comrades; we were all enthusiastically unanimous in the great plan. A long letter was sent to our dear teacher, asking him to come for a lecture tour to America, assuring him of the great field awaiting him, and emphasising our need of him. His reply was negative. It threw us all for awhile into a state of depression; we had been so sure of his acceptance, so convinced of the necessity of his coming and of the great results to the movement. But the great admiration we felt for him was heightened almost to a halo when we learned the motives for his refusal. He would very much like to come— Kropotkin wrote—and he appreciated deeply the spirit of our invitation. He hoped to visit the United States some time in the future, and it would give him great joy to be among such good comrades. But just now he could not afford to come at his own expense, and he would not use the money of the movement even for such a purpose.

I pondered deeply over his words. His viewpoint was just, I thought, but it could apply only under ordinary circumstances. His case, however, was not an ordinary one; it was exceptional. His considerations were weighty, indeed; but the importance of a Kropotkin propaganda tour in America was to me more vital than oven those considerations. I regretted his decision not to come. But his motives epitomised to mo the whole man and all the grandeur of his nature. I visioned him as my ideal of rnvolutionist and Anarchist.

  • * * * * *

It was not till March, 1920, that I was given an opportunity to visit Peter Kropotkin . He was living in Dmitroff, a small town 60 versts from Moscow. The railroad situation of Russia was then in a most deplorable state; travelling from Petrograd to Dmitroff merely for the purpose of a visit was not to be thought of. But the arrival in Petrograd of George Lansbury, the editor of the London Daily Herald, brought mo tho possibility of reaching Moscow, Lansbury was given a special car, and as his interpreter I accompanied him to the capital. After spending some time in Moscow, the English visitor was enabled by the Government to travel to Dmitroff. With two other Moscow comrades I took advantage of the opportunity.

Meeting "celebrities" is very often a great disappointment. Somehow, the picture of our imagination does not tally with the reality. But it was not so in the case of Kropotkin; both physically and spiritually he corresponded, almost exactly, to the mental portrait I had made of him. He looked remarkably like his photographs, with his kindly eyes, sweet smile, and generous beard. It may sound strange, but every time that Kropotkin entered the room it seemed to light up in some peculiar manner by his presence. The stamp of the idealist was so strikingly upon him, the spirituality of his personality could actually be sensed. But I was shocked at the sight of his emaciation and his evident feebleness; he looked systematically undernourished, half-starved, and too old for his age.

I learned that the food problem was a very severe one in the Kropotkin household, as indeed it was in every home throughout the length and breadth of starving Russia. (With the usual exception, of course, of some unprincipled commissars and the secret speculators.) Kropotkin was receiving the so-called academic pah-yok, or its equivalent, given to a certain number of scientists and old revolutionists. It was considerably more, in quantity and quality, than the ration issued to the ordinary citizen. But it was far from sufficient to support life. Fortunately, Kropotkin was receiving, from time to time, food packages from the comrades abroad and from the Ukraine. But with all that, the Kropotkin household (his wife and daughter Sasha) had great difficulty in keeping the wolf from their door. The question of fuel and lighting also was a matter of constant worry. The winters were severe, and wood very scarce. Kerosine was difficult to procure, and it was considered a great luxury, that could rarely be indulged in, to burn more than one lamp at a time. This lack was especially felt by Kropotkin : it greatly handicapped his literary labours.

All this I learned, of course, from Sophie Grigoryevna and Sasha. Not a word would Kropotkin himself say about the difficulties of his existence. But it was evident that his isolation weighed heavily upon him. Several times the Kropotkin family had been dispossessed of their home in Moscow, their quarters being requisitioned for Government purposes. They decided to move to Dmitroff. It was only about half a hundred versts from the capital, but it might as well have been thousands of miles away, for it cut Kropotkin off as completely as a prison, almost. Owing to the critical condition of the transport system, and to the general situation at that period, the friends of Kropotkin could but rarely visit him. News from the Western world, scientific works, foreign publications—all that was unattainable. Kropotkin felt deeply the lack of intellectual companionship and mental relaxation.

Twice I visited Peter Kropotkin in Dmitroff: in March and again in July, 1920. On the second occasion he looked much improved; not so emaciated, a healthier colour in his face, stronger and mote active. The sunshine of the splendid summer was benefitting him tremendously. He was walking about in the little garden adjoining the Kropotkin cottage, and proudly pointing out to his visitors the fine results of Sophie's handiwork, the vegetable patches in full bloom. His eyes shone brightly; the clear blue of tho sky seemed reflected in them. They were peculiar eyes that charmed one by a smile of upwelling goodwill. They were a human camera lens, instantaneously mirroring the whole personality of Kropotkin : his love of man and of Nature, and his innate sacred respect for all life.

We discussed many subjects. I found Kropotkin emphatically, irrevocably opposed to the Bolsheviki. Or, rather, as he repeatedly insisted, he was an uncompromising enemy of State Socialism, of Communism imposed by country-wide violence, and of Marxism in general. Nothing else could have been expected of the Bolsheviki, ho stated. They were Marxians in theory and in aims; they were bent upon creating an all-powerful, absolute State. Their revolutionary slogans of the October-November days (1917) have sorely misled the proletariat and the peasantry, and particularly the Anarchists. The Anarchists had known, of course, that a State, a Government based on force, whatever its euphonious name, is always a wrong and an evil; but in 1917 they saw in the Bolsheviki a great revolutionary factor, and they blinded themselves to the dangers inherent in the very philosophy of Marxism. The Anarchists of Russia worked hand in hand with the Bolsheviki for the success of the Revolution, they fought side by side, fought devotedly, heroically. Hundreds of them laid down their lives —and now? Now they are persecuted, hounded, every expression forbidden them, many of them in prison for their ideas, mid some oven. shot. And what have tho Bolsheviki, now for almost three years in complete control of the government and of the entire economic and social life of the country, what have they done for the people? "I am not speaking of the starved and ruined condition of Russia, though that is by no means due entirely to intervention and the blockade. State Communism and the methods of the Bolsheviki have no small share of responsibility for that. Their mad passion for centralisation, their inefficiency in the practical affairs of life—not to speak of corruption — above all, their entire ignorance of agrarian questions and of peasant psychology, all that is in great measure responsible for the present economic condition of Russia. But not this I am emphasising just now. "What I want particularly to point out to you at this time"—and Kropotkin looked at me with eyes full of pain, and indignation trembled in his voice—"is the attitude of the Bolshevik State to the people—to the individual and to the collectivity. I can hardly speak of it quietly. Suppression and terrorism, these are Bolshevik means, applied even to tho friends of the Revolution. Instead of deepening the Revolution, they are now concerned only in securing their governmental power. They have entirely lost sight of the very essentials of the Revolution: continuous, progressive revolutionising of the masses; the largest oppor- tunity and encouragement for the people's initiative, self-expression, organisation, and their voluntary co-operation. Lost sight of it, did I say? No, they are deliberately and systematically suppressing, even exterminating every symptom of it. That is the terrible tragedy of the "Russian Revolution."

It was evident how deeply Kropotkin was suffering from the way the Bolsheviki were "managing" the Revolution, as he bitterly characterised the whole situation. He condemned their attitude of suppression of all other revolutionary parties and movements, and he was especially indignant at their policy of imprisoning and even shooting the Anarchists. It was barbarism, not revolution, he said. He spoke at length of the destruction by the Bolsheviki of the great Co-operative movement of Russia, pointing out the fatal consequences in their economic and politico-social aspects; they had helped to bring the country to the verge of economic ruin, on the one hand, and, on the other, had antagonised great masses of the politically neutral element to the point of counter-revolution. The Co operative movement of Russia had been a tremendous force in the life of the country, not only economically but also in the cultural sense. Their activities included not only manufacturing, financing peasant undertakings, buyiDg and selling, but they also conducted an effective educational campaign, especially among the peasantry. True, tho co-operatives were by no means revolutionary organisations. They comprised the most various political elements, but the active reactionaries were generally in the higher official strata of the movement and could have been eliminated without destroying the organisation as a whole. The economic machinery of the co-operatives was a highly efficient apparatus, absolutely necessary to the vital interests of the Revolution. In January. 1918, the co-operatives consisted of 25,000 branches, scattered all over Russia, and had a membership of 9.000 000. Their invested capital at that time amounted to over 15,000,000 roubles, while the business tiansacted the previous year exceeded 200,000,000 roubles. This powerful organisation functioned most effectively in practically every city, town, and village of Russia.

The Bolsheviki first paralysed, then entirely "liquidated,"destroyed, the co-operatives. This was suicidal to the Revolution. It hastened the economic breakdown, for the Bolshevik State could neither effectively organise the collection of foodstuffs, nor properly distribute them. Millions of tons of precious foodstuffs were rotting away, lying exposed on the roads—the co-operatives had been abolished, the machinery of local distribution destroyed, and the Communist State unprepared, inexperienced, and absolutely inefficient in the matter. Moreover, this criminal stupidity of the Bolshevik policy toward the co-operatives, in reality the logical result of their centralised, State Socialist philosophy, necessarily involved numerous other fatal steps that ultimately led to the undoing of the Revolution and of the country. Unable to procure the food supplies required by the army and the population, the Bolshevik Government soon resorted to the system of razvyorstka, collection by force. It was a drastic method, characterised by violence and extreme brutality. . It could not fail to antagonise the people, particularly the peasantry. It was too vivid a reminder of Tsarist times. The peasants at first protested against the injustice ;ind the autocracy of this economic policy of the Bolsheviki, 'out their protests weie in vain. As a rule, they were followed by repressive measures. The Bolsheviki were determined to prove themselves a "strong power," one "not to be trifled with," as was the popular Governmental phrase. Appeals, complaints, and protests failirg, the peasants began to resist forced collection. The Government sent punitive expeditions against them, wreaking terrible vengeance upon whole villages. These punitive expeditions, always led by Communists and Tchekists, repiesented the extreme of brutality; olten the whole population of a village would be whipped, everything taken from the peasant homes, and s( metimes even the village destroyed. This policy toward the Russian peasantry was, in the words of Kropotkin , the blackest page of Bolshevism.

These things, teriible as they were, were not new to me; I had heard about them, from various sources, even before my visits to Kropotkin. But I was very friendly to the Bolsheviki at that time, and I was inclined to think that the reports of Bolshevik cruelty were highly exaggerated, and their peasant policy misinterpreted or misunderstood.

I had come to Russia with a passionate enthusiasm for the Revolution and a deep faith in its possibilities. I realised the stupendous difficulties of the situation, the constant menace of tho interventionists, the inevitable results of the blockade, and the many complex new problems that demanded solution. I was determined to contribute to the best of my ability to the great work. I knew, of course, that the Bolsheviki were Marxists, adherents of a strong centralised State power. But their truly revolutionary attitude in the October days of the Revolution, their frequently Anarchistic watchwords, their initial activities —all these led me to believe that not mere Socialist theory but the best interests of the Revolution itself were their guiding star. True, I had observed considerable injustice and much inequality during even the first weeks of my presence in Russia, but I sought to stifle within me any doubt of the revolutionary integrity of the Bolsheviki. I stood close to the leaders of the movement, met them frequently, and felt very friendly to them and their work. Even as my stay in the country lengthened, and I saw much that seemed to contradict my conception of revolutionary aim and effort, still I clung to my faith in the Bolsheviki as a revolutionary factor. The accumulating evidence to the contrary I tried to explain away, even to myself. Tho unpleasant facts were sporadic, I tried to believe; accidental, frequently; or else inci- dental to the inevitable confusion of tho transitory stage, unfortunate results of revolutionary necessity, mostly due to the pressing need of the critical moment.

It is so painful, so hard to be robbed of a cherished illusion! I could not, I would not, believe what I heard on every side about the Bolshevik methods, about their repressive measures and brutality. I would not form too hasty an opinion from the evidence even of my own eyes. Nor would I take for granted what Kropotkin related to me. He may be misinformed, or his attitude coloured by partisan feeling. But all that I heard from him and from others, especially in reference to the agrarian policy of the Bolsheviki, served to strengthen my determination to investigate the whole situation for myself, and learn at first hand. I was then on my way to the Ukraina; the journey would afford me the opportunity to study the situation thoroughly. The circumstances were particularly favourable. I was the predsedatel (chairman) of a special expedition by the Museum of the Revolution, our purpose being to collect all available data of the Revolution itself, as well as all historic material pertaining to the revolutionary movement of Russia during the last hundred years. We had a special car at our disposal, with the right of travel throughout Southern Russia, and the rare opportunity of visiting any place wo pleased and communicating with persons in every walk of life. Moreover, it was my particular function to get in touch with the Labour organisations, as well as with illegal and underground revolutionary elements. In short, it was a most exceptional and ideal opportunity to study the Russian Revolution, to learn the condition of the country, to get in touch with the workers and the peasants, and even to investigate the prisons and the concentration camps.

It is not within the scope of the present article to detail the rich experience of that journey, lasting four months, I intend to do that later, fully and completely, and as impartially as possible. But here I want to state, most emphatically, that what I had heard in Petrograd and in Moscow, and all that Kropotkin had told me, pale almost into insignificance when compared with what I saw in my various journeys, first to the Ukraina, then to the North of Russia, and finally in the West. Sad as it is to relate, it was all true; indeed, more and worse things had happened and were continuing to happen. The Bolshevik razvyorstka did things which Tsardom at its worst had never surpassed. It seemed absolutely incredible that a revolutionary Government, even if Marxist, could degenerate to such depths of revolting brutality and barbaric ver geance. Vengeance—that alone characterises adequaiely the mad Bolshevik policy toward the peasantry. Razvyorstka—forcible food collection run amuck. Whole villages had been devastated, depopulated. I visited villages bare of all adult male population; the men had been shot, and only the women and boys under the age of fourteen remained. In others, the men had been whipped, one by one, and then forcibly drafted into the army, irrespective of their ages. In some villages the men, after repeated experiences with the " punitive Communists," had run away into the mountains or the forests, there to become the so-called "Greens" and wage merciless guerilla warfare in revenge against the Bolsheviki. I saw villages where the razvyorstka had carried off the last pood of flour, and even the seeds the peasant had saved for the next planting. Cows and horses, over and above the lawful tax, had been taken, even the last domestic fowl, blankets and pillows torn to shreds, leaving the villages as bare as a dry bone. Whole villages had been razed to the ground by artillery of the punitive Bolshevik expeditions, both as a punishment and as a terrifying example to the peasantry of the neighbourhood. I found that the word "Communism" had become synonymous in the popular mind with Tchekism, with injustice, oppression, and violence. The name of Communist was hated, in the cities and towns generally, and in the villages universally, with a hatred deep, lasting, and passionate; a hatred terrifyingly intense, born of cheated hopes and duped martyrdom.

This agrarian "policy" of the Bolsheviki sounded the death-knell of the Revolution. How just were Kropotkin's words, repeatedly emphasised in letter sand to visitors: "The Bolsheviki have demonstrated to the world how not to make a Revolution."

Stockholm, January, 1922.

  • Alexander Berkman, “Reminiscences of Kropotkin,” Freedom 36, no. 393 (March 1922): 14-15.