Memoirs of a Revolutionist

Author: Peter Alexeivich Kropotkin  | Date: 1899

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P. Kropotkin Houghton Mifflin Boston 1899

Escape from a Russian Prison

[1876]

This was, then, the terrible fortress where so much of the true strength of Russia had perished during the last two centuries, and the very name of which is uttered in St. Petersburg in a hushed voice.

Here Peter I tortured his son Alexis and killed him with his own hand; here the Princess Tarakánova was kept in a cell which fired with water during an inundation,—the rats climbing upon her to save themselves from drowning; here the terrible Minich tortured his enemies, and Catherine II buried alive those who objected to her having murdered her husband. And from the times of Peter I for a hundred and seventy years, the annals of this mass of stone which rises from the Nevá in front of the Winter Palace were annals of murder and torture, of men buried alive, condemned to a slow death, or driven to insanity in the loneliness of the dark and damp dungeons.

I made a minute inspection of the room where I had now to spend no one could say how many years. It held an iron bed, a small oak table, and an oak stool. The floor was covered with painted felt, and the walls with yellow paper. At the inner side of the room there was a washstand, and a thick oak door in which I made out a locked opening, for passing food through, and a little slit, protected by glass and by a shutter from the outside: this was the "Judas," through which the prisoner could be spied upon at every moment.

I was permitted by the Emperor to complete my report to the Geographical Society, and I was allowed pen and ink for that purpose. Sunset, at St. Petersburg, is at three in the afternoon, in winter time; but that could not be helped. "Till sunset" were the words used by Alexander II when he granted the permission.

I read a great number of novels, and even arranged for myself a treat on Christmas Eve. My relatives managed to send me then the Christmas stories of Dickens, and I spent the festival laughing and crying over those beautiful creations of the great novelist.

Conversation was established by means of knocks. Underneath me was lodged a peasant. Now, if solitary confinement without any sort of work is hard for educated men, it is infinitely harder for a peasant who is accustomed to physical work, and not at all wont to spend years in reading. Our peasant friend felt quite miserable, and having been kept for nearly two years in another prison before he was brought to the fortress,—his crime was that he had listened to socialists,—he was already broken down. Soon I began to notice, to my terror, that from time to time his mind wandered. Gradually his thoughts grew more and more confused, and we perceived, step by step, day by day, evidences that his reason was failing, until his talk became that of a lunatic. Frightful noises and wild cries came from the lower story; our neighbor was mad. To witness the destruction of a man’s mind, under such conditions, was terrible.

Two years had passed. Several of my comrades had died, several had become insane, but nothing was heard yet of our case coming before a court.

In March or April, 1876, we were at last told that the Third Section had completed the preliminary inquest. The "case" had been transmitted to the judicial authorities, and consequently we were removed to a prison attached to the court of justice,—the house of detention.

Some ten days later I was transferred to the military hospital which is situated on the outskirts of St. Petersburg.

Various plans were made by my friends to liberate me.

"Ask to be let out for a walk," one of the soldiers whispered to me one day. I did so. The doctor supported my demand, and every afternoon, at four, I was allowed to take an hour’s walk in the prison yard.

At one end of the yard stood the prison,—a narrow building, about one hundred and fifty paces long,—at each end of which was a sentry box. The two sentries paced up and down in front of the building, and had tramped out a footpath in the green. Along this footpath I was told to walk, and the two sentries continued to walk up and down, so that I was never more than ten or fifteen paces from the one or the other.

The whole yard was inclosed by a high fence made of thick boards. Its gate was open to let the carts in and out.

This open gate fascinated me.

At last the day of escape was settled. June 29, Old Style, is the day of St. Peter and St. Paul. My friends, throwing a touch of sentimentalism into their enterprise, wanted to set me free on that day. Something went wrong. The attempt was settled for the the next day.

I came out at four, as usual, and gave my signal. When I got back to the end of my path which was nearest the gate,—about a hundred paces from it,—the sentry was close upon my heels.

I turned around. The sentry had stopped five or six paces behind me; he was looking the other way. "Now or never!" I remember that thought flashing through my head. I flung off my green flannel dressing-gown and began to run.

I did not trust much to my vigor, and began to run rather slowly, to economize strength. But no sooner had I taken a few steps than the peasants who were piling wood at the other end shouted, "He runs! Stop him! Catch him!" and they hastened to intercept me at the gate. Then I flew for my life.

The sentry ran after me, followed by three soldiers who had been sitting on the doorsteps. The sentry was so near to me that he felt ware of catching me. Several times he flung his rifle forward, trying to give me a blow in the back with the bayonet. But I kept my distance, and he had to give up at the gate.

Safe out of the gate, I perceived, to my terror, that the carriage was occupied by a civilian who wore a military cap. He sat without turning his head to me. "Sold!" was my first thought. The comrades had written in their last letter, "Once in the street, don’t give yourself up: there will be friends to defend you in case of need." He turned his face to me, and I knew who it was.

"Jump in, quick, quick!" he shouted in a terrible voice.

The carriage turned sharply into a narrow lane, past the same wall of the yard where the peasants had been piling wood, and which all of them had now deserted in their run after me. The turn was so sharp that the carriage was nearly upset, when I flung myself inward, dragging toward me my friend; this sudden movement righted the carriage.

Everywhere we saw friends, who winked to us or gave us a Godspeed as we passed at the full trot of our beautiful horse. Then we entered the large Nevsky Prospekt, turned into a side street, and alighted at a door, sending away the coachman.

We called in a remote street at a barber’s shop to shave off my beard, which operation changed me, of course, but not very much.

"To Donon!" my friend suddenly called out to the cabman, naming one of the best St. Petersburg restaurants. "No one will ever think of looking for you at Donon," he calmly remarked.

The tsar was furious that such an escape should have taken place in his capital in full daylight, and had given the order, "He must be found."

It was impossible to remain in St. Petersburg. So I determined to travel in a direction where I should be least expected. Armed with the passport of a friend, and accompanied by another friend, I crossed Finland, and went northward to a remote port on the gulf of Bothnia, whence I crossed to Sweden.

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Chicago: Peter Alexeivich Kropotkin, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, ed. P. Kropotkin in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed July 5, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=T5V99F8IKBA9IYZ.

MLA: Kropotkin, Peter Alexeivich. Memoirs of a Revolutionist, edited by P. Kropotkin, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 5 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=T5V99F8IKBA9IYZ.

Harvard: Kropotkin, PA, Memoirs of a Revolutionist, ed. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 5 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=T5V99F8IKBA9IYZ.