“This was the first spark of anarchism.”
Peter Kropotkin was an extraordinary individual whose life spanned a remarkable period of history. Born in 1842 to an aristocratic Russian family, he carved a career as a scientist and a geographer, but above all else, Kropotkin was an anarchist. Like many young people of his time, he rejected the inequities of Russian society and sought alternatives.
Memoirs of a Revolutionist begins with Kropotkin’s childhood, his mother’s early death and his father’s subsequent remarriage. After Tsar Nicholas I decreed that all sons of the aristocracy must have a military career, Kropotkin was a student in the Corps of Pages and eventually a page in the Winter Palace. Kropotkin was slated for a brilliant military career enjoyed by only the highest echelons of Russian society. Why then did the young Kropotkin turn his back on St. Petersburg and the favours of the Tsar in order to purse his military career in Siberia? The idealistic Kropotkin saw Siberia as an “immense field for the application of the great reforms” and yet after joining a mounted Cossack unit, he saw his suggested reforms fall victim to the Reactionary wave that swept through Russia.
Kropotkin charts his interest in radical and forbidden books, the brutality of the Corps of Pages, his initial faith in Tsar Alexander II’s reforms, exactly how and why the Emancipation of the Serfs failed, and the subsequent turbulent Reactionary Period. His vivid detailed descriptions of serfdom go far beyond anything I’ve ever read on the subject, and it’s clear that in spite of the fact that Kropotkin was Russian nobility, his empathy for the serfs began in early childhood. A considerable part of the book is spent detailing exactly how the serfs or “souls” were treated–in essence they were seen as rather like farm animals–except for the tributes they were supposed to conjure up for their ‘masters.’ The medieval system of serfdom, and the nobility’s lifestyle dependency on free labour paints Russian society as tragically doomed to self-destruct. Kropotkin was quite aware of Russian society’s path towards imminent self-destruction, and he hoped–futilely–that reforms would circumvent Russia’s doom.
Kropotkin’s Winter Palace years provide an intimate look at Alexander II and explain the ruler’s dichotomy of actions–on one hand a desire for reform, but on the other hand a blind acceptance of Reactionary decisions. Kropotkin describes his “great admiration for Alexander II, the liberator of Serfs,” but then his attitude shifts as Alexander enacts the suppression of insurrections, and delivers crushing, brutal and unjust punishments towards any shred of defiance to his dictates. Finally, Kropotkin accepts and acknowledges that Alexander is a “despot.”
Memoirs of a Revolutionist charts Kropotkin’s development as one of the world’s greatest revolutionaries, and details exactly why he turned his back on own privileged aristocratic class. It’s quite evident that while the aristocracy controlled the serfs–and later the peasant class–even the uppermost levels of Russian society were subject to the Tsar’s brutal, unjust dictates and whims. The seeds of Kropotkin’s independent thought processes are found in his earliest childhood, but it was when Kropotkin attended the Corps of Pages that he realised the “power of collective action.” He notes that he attended the school as it entered a “transition period” and that shortly before he arrived a “revolution had taken place” in the school, which had begun to subvert the brutal, established hierarchy. The memoir also details Kroptokin’s imprisonment, his daring escape from Russia, his European exile, his involvement with the anarchists of the Jura Federation and the influence of Bakunin. Kropotkin’s gentle, intelligent style flows remarkably clearly through these well-written pages, and ultimately he emerges as a reasonable, thoughtful man who hoped to stave off a global disaster.