Memoirs of a Revolutionist


Show Summary


The Revolutionary Movement


In Russia the struggle for freedom was taking on a more and more acute character. . . . The youth had gone to the peasants and the factory workers, preaching socialism to them; socialist pamphlets, printed abroad, had been distributed; appeals had been made to revolt — in some vague, indeterminate way — against the oppressive economical conditions. In short, nothing was done that does not occur in socialist agitations in every other country of the world. No traces of conspiracy against the tsar, or even of preparations for revolutionary action, were found; in fact, there were none. The great majority of our youth were at that time hostile to such action. Nay, looking now over that movement of the years 1870-’78, I can say in full confidence that most of them would have felt satisfied if they had been simply allowed to live by the side of the peasants and the workers, to teach them, to collaborate in any of the thousand capacities — private or as a part of the local self-government in which an educated and earnest man or woman can be useful to the masses of the people. I knew the men, and say so with full knowledge of them.

Yet the sentences were ferocious, — stupidly ferocious, because the movement, which had grown out of the previous state of Russia, was too deeply rooted to be crushed down by mere brutality. Hard labor for six, ten, twelve years in the mines, with subsequent exile to Siberia for life, was a common sentence. There were such cases as that of a girl who got nine years’ hard labor and life exile to Siberia for giving one socialist pamphlet to a worker; that was all her crime. Another girl of fourteen, Miss Gukóvskaya, was transported for life to a remote village of Siberia, for having tried . . . to excite an indifferent crowd to deliver Koválsky and his friends when they were going to be hanged, — an act the more natural in Russia, even from the authorities’ standpoint, as there is no capital punishment in our country for common-law crimes, and the application of the death penalty to "politicals" was then a novelty, a return to almost forgotten traditions. Thrown into the wilderness, this young girl soon drowned herself in the Yeniséi. Even those who were acquitted by the courts were banished by the gendarmes to little hamlets in Siberia and northeast Russia, where they had to starve on the government’s monthly allowance, one dollar and fifty cents (three rubles). There are no industries in such hamlets, and the exiles were strictly prohibited from teaching.

As if to exasperate the youth still more, their condemned friends were not sent direct to Siberia. They were locked up, first, for a number of years, in central prisons, which made them envy the convict’s life in Siberia. These prisons were awful indeed. In one of them — "a den of typhoid fever," as a priest of that particular jail said in a sermon — the mortality reached twenty per cent in twelve months. In the central prisons, in the hard-labor prisons of Siberia, in the fortress the prisoners had to resort to the strike of death, the famine strike, to protect themselves from the brutality of the warders, or to obtain conditions — some sort of work, or reading, in their cells — that would save them from being driven into insanity in a few months. The horror of such strikes, during which men and women refused to take any food for seven or eight days in succession, and then lay motionless, their minds wandering, seemed not to appeal to the gendarmes. At Khárkov the prostrated prisoners were tied up with ropes and fed by force, artificially.

Information of these horrors leaked out from the prisons, crossed the boundless distances of Siberia, and spread far and wide among the youth. There was a time when not a week passed without disclosing some new infamy of that sort, or even worse.

Sheer exasperation took hold of our young people. "In other countries," they began to say, "men have the courage to resist. An Englishman, a Frenchman, would not tolerate such outrages. How can we tolerate them? Let us resist, arms in hands, the nocturnal raids of the gendarmes; let them know, at least, that since arrest means a slow and infamous death at their hands, they will have to take us in a mortal struggle." At Odessa, Koválsky and his friends met with revolver shots the gendarmes who came one night to arrest them.

The reply of Alexander II to this new move was the proclamation of a state of siege. Russia was divided into a number of districts, each of them under a governor-general, who received the order to hang offenders pitilessly. Koválsky and his friends — who, by the way, had killed no one by their shots were executed. Hanging became the order of the day. Twenty-three persons perished in two years, including a boy of nineteen, who was caught posting a revolutionary proclamation at a railway station; this act — I say it deliberately — was the only charge against him. He was a boy, but he died like a man.

Then the watchword of the revolutionists became "self-defense": self-defense against the spies who introduced themselves into the circles under the mask of friendship, and denounced members right and left, simply because they would not be paid if they did not accuse large numbers of persons; self-defense against those who ill-treated prisoners; self-defense against the omnipotent chiefs of the state police.

However, the personality of the emperor was kept out of the struggle, and down to the year 1879 no attempt was made on his life. The person of the "Liberator" of the serfs was surrounded by an aureole which protected him infinitely better than the swarms of police officials. If Alexander II had shown at this juncture the least desire to improve the state of affairs in Russia; if he had only called in one or two of those men with whom he had collaborated during the reform period, and had ordered them to make an inquiry into the conditions of the country, or merely of the peasantry; if he had shown any intention of limiting the powers of the secret police, his steps would have been hailed with enthusiasm. A word would have made him the "Liberator" again. . . . But just as during the Polish insurrection the despot awoke in him, and, inspired by Katkóv, he resorted to hanging, so now again, following the advice of his evil genius, Katkóv, he found nothing to do but to nominate special military governors — for hanging.

Then, and then only, a handful of revolutionists, — the Executive Committee, — supported, I must say, by the growing discontent in the educated classes, and even in the tsar’s immediate surroundings, declared that war against absolutism which, after several attempts, ended in 1881 in the death of Alexander II.

1 Kropótkin, , pp. 425–429.


Related Resources

Russian Civil War

Download Options

Title: Memoirs of a Revolutionist

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Memoirs of a Revolutionist

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: "The Revolutionary Movement," Memoirs of a Revolutionist in Readings in Modern European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1926), 403–405. Original Sources, accessed November 29, 2022,

MLA: . "The Revolutionary Movement." Memoirs of a Revolutionist, in Readings in Modern European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, D.C. Heath, 1926, pp. 403–405. Original Sources. 29 Nov. 2022.

Harvard: , 'The Revolutionary Movement' in Memoirs of a Revolutionist. cited in 1926, Readings in Modern European History, ed. , D.C. Heath, Boston, pp.403–405. Original Sources, retrieved 29 November 2022, from