The Russian Aristocratic Anarchist – The Spectator World

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In the latest issue of The new criterionGary Saul Morson writing about Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin was brought up in an “old and highly privileged” Russian family, but he became disillusioned with the aristocracy and came to view serfdom as a great evil. He was recommended for a post in Eastern Siberia early in his life. His five years there, Morson writes, changed him:

When he arrived in Irkutsk, the capital of eastern Siberia, the spirit of reform reigned and the young governor general was delighted to have a liberal on his staff. He commissioned Kropotkin to outline reforms for prisons and the Siberian political exile system. By the time these proposals made their way to the centers of power, however, such reforms were no longer so welcome.

This failure led Kropotkin to dismiss all reforms as futile. This conclusion is all the more remarkable since no Russian leader between Peter the Great and Lenin transformed the country as much as Alexander II. I don’t know if the imperial rescript of February 19, 1861, proclaiming the liberation of the serfs – 70% of the population – was, as some have called it, the most far-reaching legislative act in history, but it changed decisively more lives than any other tsarist reform. And that was only the beginning.

After his conversion to radicalism, Kropotkin eventually traveled to Switzerland, “where he met Bakunin’s anarchist followers, returned to Russia, joined Chaikovsky’s revolutionary circle, was arrested, and staged a dramatic escape from a prison hospital. Back in Europe, he became restless, found himself expelled from Switzerland and France, and finally settled in Great Britain, where this aristocrat was adored and befriended George Bernard Shaw and William Morris. Feeding on articles for scientific publications, he slowed down the agitation so as not to be expelled from this last country of refuge. Instead, he worked out the theoretical basis – he said “scientific” – of the ‘anarchism.

Kropotkin is sometimes considered a human terrorist. In his 1899 Revolutionary memoirs, Kropotkin wrote that the “question is how to achieve the best results with the fewest number of civil wars, the fewest number of casualties and a minimum of mutual bitterness”. In reality, writes Morson, Kropotkin did little to limit the violence:

In fact, Kropotkin never condemned anarchist violence, however gratuitous it was. Even the worst, he said, was an understandable reaction to oppression. At the London Anarchist Congress of 1881, he endorsed the use of chemistry to create bombs for “offensive and defensive purposes”. He financed anarchists who returned to Russia to commit terrorist acts. While he warned his followers against violence “isolated from the masses”, he was “not afraid to proclaim, to do what you want, to act entirely according to your own discretion”.

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