A Visit with Kropotkin
Kropotkin’s views on the Russian revolution were unknown in Europe at the time of our visit.
The silence maintained by the master generated various interpretations. For some, it was the sign of conformity and support for the Bolshevik regime; for others, his attitude towards the events that had unfolded in Russia was the only logical and legitimate one.
Was it not natural for us to try to find out what he was thinking, now that we had the opportunity?
Apart from this circumstance, which was certainly very tempting, there was also the personal, intimate and very special satisfaction of having a chance to meet him, to speak with him, to make his acquaintance, for just a few minutes. We went to listen to the words of one of the most vigorous and respected minds of Europe and the world.
Our desire to meet Kropotkin was facilitated by our friend and comrade Souchy, a delegate of the German syndicalists, who was in Russia for the purpose of study and gathering information. Souchy introduced us to Sasha Kropotkin, the daughter of Peter Kropotkin, who lived on Leontyevsky Street.
Through the intercession of Souchy and Sasha, we paid a visit to Sasha and arranged to see Kropotkin in Dimitrov.
We cannot recall whether it was a Sunday at the end of July or at the beginning of August when we left early in the morning to see Kropotkin.
The station was far away; we brought along some packages of food that the comrades of the Anarchist Club had given us for Kropotkin at the last minute before our departure.
We found a car and for five thousand rubles the driver took us to the station.
At the station we had to stand in line to get our tickets. Some people, who occupied the first places in line, had been waiting since the day before. They had spent the night in the station. If we had to stand in line it was most likely that we would not leave until evening.
Sasha told us to approach the Extraordinary Commission of the station and tell them that we were delegates to the Congress of the Third International so that we could leave on the next train.
We had always hated to make use of such privileges and only did so in really exceptional cases.
But we went to see the president of the Commission. All of this trouble could have been avoided if we had requested a travel pass to Dimitrov while we were at the Hotel, but we wanted to dispense with official sanction in the interest of operating with more freedom. As it turned out, as shall be seen, it did not work out that way, although in the end the result was the same.
No sooner had we presented our credentials as delegates to the president of the Extraordinary Commission, than we were given tickets. In addition, we were given seats in the coach of the Extraordinary Commission.
Once the train was underway, we ventured to converse with some of the other passengers, using Sasha as an interpreter.
Our first interlocutor was a soldier, who spoke to us with enthusiasm about the almost messianic mission the Red Army had to fulfill. According to him, the ranks of the Army were being filled with the best possible troops; if it would be provided with the best modern weaponry and thus equipped, under the flag of the red star and under the motto of death to the bourgeoisie!, the Red Army would help to establish communism throughout the entire world. He was possessed, a mystic, a fanatic of an idea that he neither understood nor was even conversant with, but which is instilled in him by other reasons, subjective reasons, without value.
It made us sad to listen to that dialectic of the bulletin of the Red Army, which thus influenced and deranged virgin minds that did not have any kind of ideas at all.
His prophecies, his assertions about the imminent and irresistible march of the Red Army across the world, saluted and greeted by the applause and the rejoicing of the conquered peoples, and the apotheosis with which the peoples would receive it, seemed to be more like the Apocalypse than the reasoning of a person with even one speck of common sense.
This conversation soon came to an end. We did not want to follow the neophyte communist on his triumphal march across the world, much less while traveling on a train that could hardly go faster than twenty kilometers per hour.
Examining the other passengers, we focused on a soldier who was wearing a woman’s “necklace”. It was a gold chain with pearls, with a diamond in the center. This bauble was undoubtedly the product of pillage.
The soldier was the son of some humble villagers, from a village near Dimitrov where we were scheduled to make a short stop.
The very ease with which he wore the necklace proved that he knew neither the use nor the value of the jewelry he was wearing.
The sixty versts that separated Moscow from Dimitrov, seemed to multiply fantastically, since we had already spent more than three hours on the train and still had not set foot on the ground.
The passengers were constantly moving from one car to the other. Everyone was looking for more comfortable seats, in vain.
Since Dimitrov was the last station on the line we were traveling, the numerous passengers had quickly lined up to exit the train before it even stopped.
Always guided by Sasha, we took a street or alley that led to the center of the town; but before we reached the town center, we turned right and began going uphill.
After having walked about forty steps, we turned to the left and came upon a street that passed between gardens, in the middle of which were what looked like Swiss Chalets.
Halfway up the street, Sasha pointed out a door and said, “We have arrived. Since papa does not know what day you were coming to see him, he is not here to receive us. But that does not matter. We will take him by surprise and he will be all the more pleased.” And so we entered.
We walked through a spacious garden, lush with greenery, towards a small Chalet in the middle, and when we had gone a few steps, Sasha’s mother came to greet us.
Mother and daughter tenderly embraced.
After the compulsory introductions, Kropotkin’s inseparable companion, who had become a gardener to help meet the needs of survival, firmly shook our hands, showing her lively satisfaction with our visit.
While Peter’s companion and I exchanged a few words, Sasha entered the house and greeted her father and announced our arrival.
He quickly appeared, framed against the doorway, the great figure of the master.
He was somewhat gaunt, and reflected on his face was an ironic grimace impressed by his moral suffering.
In the presence of this world-renowned figure, whose white beard gave him a somewhat apostolic look, we were profoundly moved.
While Kropotkin’s companion prepared chairs for us to sit on the broad porch of the house, Peter came to us and firmly embraced us. We were overcome by emotion.
We were face to face with one of the most powerful intellects of European thought, and the full sense of our insignificance made us feel like little children.
Kropotkin, who was quite familiar with the Spanish anarchist and syndicalist movement, asked us to fill him in on the latest news.
We spoke at length, explaining in detail the intense activity of the anarchist movement during the last five years, carefully avoiding any mention of its position on the war.
Sasha had carefully coached us in advance. The heart attacks to which Kropotkin was prone were triggered when he became engaged in heated debates. And since any mention of his position on the war would force us into a heated debate, the best thing to do was to avoid any mention of it. And although Peter did refer to the question, we managed to avoid any serious discussion on the issue by merely saying that we had adopted a different position because we thought that it was more in accord with our approach to anarchism.
We spent the whole day in the company of the Kropotkin family, who devoted all their attention and interest to us.
We returned to Moscow that night.
Twice more we visited Kropotkin; once in Dimitrov, where we went to see him again, and once in Moscow, at Sasha’s house.
He had traveled to Moscow, despite all the difficulties and hardships of the journey, in order to visit Lenin and speak with him. But Lenin did not want to see him. On the pretext of pressing business, he did not want to set aside a few minutes to listen to him. While it is true that Lenin sent his personal secretary to see what Peter wanted, it was nonetheless a haughty insult to refuse to see the man who was going to request that Lenin not allow a horrible crime to take place. It was not carried out thanks to Kropotkin’s intervention.
The crime involved the death penalty that the Soviet Tribunal was seeking to enforce against ten cooperative members who were denounced by an agent of the Cheka as counterrevolutionary conspirators.
This Cheka agent had fantasized a wicked terrorist plot where there was nothing but the mild protest of a few discontented individuals.
From what Kropotkin told us, we understood that the accused, who faced a possible death sentence, were having a friendly conversation in their local social center. One subject led to another, and finally the conversation came around to politics, and someone ventured to suggest, which was agreed with by the others, that a conspiracy of all those who are discontented with the Bolshevik regime would be necessary in order to destroy that regime.
These words reached the ears of the Cheka agent and he transmitted them to the Extraordinary Commission, which ordered the arrest and trial of the ten individuals.
When Peter found out about what happened, and he discovered that they were going to be tried and that the Soviet prosecutor was seeking to impose the death penalty, he sought an audience with Lenin in order to tell him that “the shooting of those ten men would be the greatest shame, the blackest stain that Bolshevism has ever incurred”.
And he was successful. They were spared the death penalty; but not the ten years in prison to which each of the men was condemned.
Concerning the topics of our discussions with Kropotkin, I have omitted a great deal in order to assure the quality of these pages, but I would like to state that they were very interesting.
The concept of revolution that we owe to Kropotkin was very rich in insights and lessons for everyone, but especially for us anarchists.
The complexity of the Russian revolutionary movement is crystallized in its most eminent intellect, its most sincere and truthful interpreter.
It is so unfortunate that Kropotkin had not lived a few more years, so that his thought could have been distilled in a few more pages!
He did not have much to say about the Bolsheviks. He considered them to be consummate Babeufistes. For him, Lenin and his theories, like the communism of Karl Marx and all the Marxists, were nothing but Babeuf’s theories dressed up with a few fashionable expressions.
One day he asked us if we would write about Russia after we returned to Spain.
“If you write a book about Russia, call it Comment on fait pas une revolution [“How Not to Make a Revolution”]. Because every critique directed against the Bolsheviks and their interpretation of the revolution must aim precisely at proving that it is not possible to make a revolution by adopting their systems and premises.”
Anxious to discover what questions he was most interested in at the moment, he responded to our questions as follows:
“Fearing that the Bolsheviks would neutralize anything I could write about the revolution, I wrote nothing about it; I stopped taking notes. We are also too close to the events and to its people for the thinker to avoid being excessively influenced by one or the other. This is the principle reason for my abstention.”
“But in order to make some use of my time, I wrote on ethics, for reading a page of Bakunin gave me the idea of doing this, and it is to this project that I have devoted my hours and my days; but the work has proved most burdensome for me.”
“The lack of contact with the intellectual world outside Russia and the difficulties caused by the regime and by my health have accumulated, so that I cannot work as much as I should, and it is only by means of extraordinary efforts that I can achieve what I have set out to do.”
We asked about his financial situation, which was not very comfortable. He managed to survive, not only on the ration assigned to him by the Commissariat of Food Supply (the intellectual’s ration), but also from what was sent to him by comrades from all over Russia.
“I don’t live well,” he told us, “but even so I consider myself fortunate. Millions of Russians are much worse off than me.”
“Don’t you want to go to England or some other country?”
“Passionately,” he replied.
“Why don’t you submit an emigration request to the Council of People’s Commissars?”
“Because I don’t want to get a negative answer from the Cheka, from that shameful blot that will dishonor the Bolshevik regime, the master and mistress of the actions of all the Russians.”
“Only those who have the favor of the Cheka, even if they were miserable bandits under the Czarist regime, can obtain a permit to emigrate.”
“I prefer to die in Russia, to waste away in this inactivity, to endure hunger and cold, rather than submit to the commands of that institution.”
It was time to leave.
The samovar, with its potbellied shape rising above the table shooting steam towards the ceiling, cast a small shadow between us.
The day came to an end. The evening added a note of sadness to Kropotkin’s words. Did it presage his approaching death?
The previous winter had been very cruel for Kropotkin. Without firewood, almost without light and food, the privations had scourged his constitution, which had also been undermined by his advanced age.
What was about to happen would be even more cruel.
Russia’s economic situation was becoming more serious and worse every day. Take heed, Kropotkin!
The generosity of the comrades, the solidarity and support they gave by sending him what they could, was the barometer that signaled a notable decline.
The packets of food became less frequent. Sometimes they were accompanied by apologetic letters. “We would have sent these little gifts sooner,” they would say, “but we could not. If you only knew, Peter, the hardships we had to go through to feed ourselves in this little one-horse town!....”
With such words those generous comrades would ask forgiveness, lost in some little village in the immense spaces of Russia, for not being able to give him more effective assistance, and they mention the privations they have had to undergo in order to fulfill an elementary duty of solidarity.
When we were getting ready to return to Moscow, we shook hands firmly; we embraced and received his fraternal kiss.
“Give my regards,” he told us, “to all the anarchists of Spain, of whom I have such fond memories. Look,” he added, displaying a beautiful gold watch, “I don’t know if you will remember….”
“Yes, we will remember,” we interjected.
“Tell them that I still have it. That I will never forget this beautiful memento of the Spanish anarchists, thanks to the initiative of the comrades of La Coruña.”
“The inscription on its inside cover [“From the anarchists of La Coruña, to Peter Kropotkin, on the occasion of his silver wedding anniversary”] will always be a pleasant reminder of the Spanish comrades.”