Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin died 100 years ago, on the 8th of February 1921.
The anarchists of Moscow organised his funeral, refusing to accept assistance from the Government, and tens of thousands of workers, intellectuals and students followed the cortege in demonstration of their solidarity with his opposition to the Communist dictatorship. True to character, the Bolsheviks, having promised to release all the many anarchist political prisoners for the funeral, released only a few of them for one day only.
Incidentally, this would be the last time that anarchism was to be tolerated by the Soviet Union. Back in 1920, peasants in Andalucía had been collecting donations to provide finalcial help for Kropotkin. The last four years of his life were spent in poverty and as much obscurity as his enemies could induce. In many small ways the authorities made his life unpleasant; but they did not dare to use their ordinary Cheka methods against so great and famous a revolutionary.
Born in 1842 into an ancient Russian aristocratic family, he first rejected his privileged background at the age of 12, when he decided to drop his princely title. He was educated for a commission in the Tsarist army, and served in the early 1860’s as an officer in a Cossack regiment stationed on the Amur river.
Later he travelled extensively on scientific expeditions in Siberia and Northern Manchuria, and his observations of natural history and primitive society during this period were to have a profound influence on his scientific and sociological ideas of later years.
In 1867 he returned to St. Petersburg and spent four years there in the study of mathematics. He also began to attain an international reputation as a geographer, and was offered – but rejected – the Secretaryship of the St. Petersburg Geographical Society, under whose commission he made in 1871 a journey of exploration into the ice fields of Finland and Sweden.
During his various geographical journeys into the remoter parts of Russia, Kropotkin was deeply impressed by the miserable conditions under which the poorer classes lived. He presented reports on the subject to various government departments, but his representations failed to break down their apathy towards the misery of the peasants and the landless poor. It was this lack of elementary humanity in the governmental system of Tsarist Russia that drove Kropotkin steadily towards the realisation of the necessity for a social revolution.
He became an active revolutionary in 1872. In that year he made a journey to Western Europe and stayed some time in Belgium and Switzerland. There he made contact with revolutionary movements and became converted to anarchism during a visit to the militant watchmakers of the Jura. In Switzerland he joined the International, which in that region was under the influence of the Bakuninists.
On his return to Russia in the same year, he took up secret revolutionary activity, and joined Tschaikowsky’s conspiratorial group. The activities of the group were discovered by the Okhrana in 1874, and for his participation Kropotkin was imprisoned in the Peterand Paul Fortress. Kropotkin was one of the very few men ever to escape from this infamous prison, which he did in 1876, after two years of confinement.