If you are interested in Russian personalities of the 20th century, you definitely need to know about Prince Pyotr Kropotkin, a remarkable supporter of anarchism and author of numerous academic works on politics, economics, geography and geology. Pyotr Kropotkin was a major 19th– century Russian scholar, whose extraordinary life might make a good subject for a novel or a film.
Those who knew him were quick to point out Kropotkin’s great personal qualities – his aversion to conflict, his aspiration to live according to his own teachings and his ability to communicate with people with diverse outlooks and visions. Kropotkin hated it when people called him ‘Prince’. The French writer Romain Rolland described him in the following terms: ‘I like Tolstoy very much, but I have always had the impression that Kropotkin was, indeed, what Tolstoy only wrote about. He realized – simply and naturally – in his own life the ideal of moral purity, of serene abnegation and of perfect love of humanity that the tormented genius of Tolstoy desired all his life, achieving it only in his art’.
Sources of the anarchist prince’s life
Pyotr Kropotkin was born in Moscow in 1842 in a family home on former Shtatny LaneRussian: Shtatnyi pereulok or Штатный переулок (present-day Kropotkinsky LaneRussian: Kropotkinskiy pereulok or Кропоткинский переулок). His father, Alexei, was married twice, and this had a strong impact on the life of little Petya as neither he nor his brother Alexander got along well with their stepmother.
Kropotkin’s father came from a wealthy royal family dating back to the dynasty of Smolensk Rurikids. He was a 30th generation descendant of Prince Rurika Varangian chieftain of the Rus' who in the year 862 gained control of Ladoga, the founder of the Russian State. The dynasty was founded in the 15th century by Dmitry of Smolensk, nicknamed Krapotka, or a ‘fidgety and grouchy’ person, hence the surname Kropotkin. Alexei Kropotkin served in the Imperial Guard, participated in a Russian-Turkish war and retired with the rank of major general. His first wife Yekaterina, the mother of Peter and Alexander, came from a well-known Cossack family of the Sulimas.
The old house in which the future revolutionary was born belonged to his mother. The construction of the house was commissioned by Kropotkin’s grandmother Praskovya Sulima (nee Princess Gagarina). This one-storey house which still stands today was built in the classical style. It is located not far from the Garden Ring at 26, Kropotkinsky Lane. The façade features 12 windows and is decorated with a 6-columned portico. The walls are covered with rustication. One of the walls bears a plaque by sculptor S. Merkurov portraying Kropotkin.
‘In these quiet streets,’ Pyotr Kropotkin recalled in his memoirs, ‘far away from the noise and the bustle of commercial Moscow, all the houses looked very much alike. They were mostly built of wood, with bright green iron roofs and columned façades painted in gay colors. Nearly every house had but one story, with seven or nine big, merry-looking windows facing the street. Behind the façade was an ‘enfilade’ of staterooms. The great hall was an ample, empty and cold room with two or three windows overlooking the street and the other four the yard, with rows of chairs lined up along the walls and a grand piano by the wall. Its aim was to host dance events, gala dinners and card games’. After Yekaterina’s death, Alexei Kropotkin sold the house that reminded him of his late wife. Pyotr Kropotkin gave a detailed description of this house, with its well-ordered life, its beautiful garden and guardian always on duty at the gate, in his Memoirs of a RevolutionistRussian: Zapiski revolyutsionera or Записки революционера. It was here that the young prince formed his views on the world, and his education began here, too.
Kropotkin continued his studies at the nearby First Moscow GymnasiumRussian: Pervaya gradskaya gimnaziya or Первая градская гимназия (16-18, Volkhonka StreetRussian: ulitsa Volkhonka or улица Волхонка) which was then known as Dvoryansky InstitutRussian: Дворянский институт, or the Nobility Institute. This structure still stands, and the buildings that make up the old institute stretch along Bolshoy Znamensky LaneRussian: Bolshoy Znamenskiy pereulok or Большой Знаменский переулок. The main building, also known as Count Peter Rumyantsev-Zadunaysky’s estate, is an old mansion designed for Prince Dolgoruky. This and the adjacent buildings served as Catherine the GreatEmpress of Russia from 1762 until 1796, the country's longest-ruling female leader and its most renowned’s residence during her visit to Moscow in 1774.
In the early 19th century, the Ministry of Education one of Moscow’s best secondary schools (‘gymnasiums’) in this building. This school graduated many notable figures besides Kropotkin, such as famous historians M. Pogodin, S. Solovyov and P. Milyukov, academic A. Sobolevsky, playwright A. Ostrovsky, Soviet statesman N. Bukharin, and many others. Young Pyotr Kropotkin was especially fond of geography and Russian language classes. Together with a classmate, he even jokingly created the ‘The Gymnasium’s Geography’ indicating, among other things, that the school “borders” Prechistenka StreetRussian: ulitsa Prechistenka or улица Пречистенка in the south.
The school building has changed a lot and now accommodates offices. It is still possible to see, however, massive cast iron stairs leading to the second floor and a vast assembly hall crowned with a gorgeous chandelier.
At one of the balls held at the Assembly of the Nobility, eight-year-old Pyotr Kropotkin was introduced to Emperor Nicholas Ithe Emperor of Russia from 1825 until 1855 himself, who offered him sweets and put him in the Imperial Corps of Pages in St. Petersburg. There, the young prince distinguished himself as one of the most talented students in the school and found favour with another emperor, Alexander II.the Emperor of Russia from 1855 until his assassination in 1881 The building of the Assembly of the NobilityRussian: Blagorodnoe sobranie or Благородное собрание (renamed in Soviet times as House of the UnionsRussian: Dom soyuzov or Дом союзов, 1, Bolshaya Dmitrovka StreetRussian: ulitsa Bolshaya Dmitrovka or улица Большая Дмитровка) is still there. Seventy years after the events in question, it is in this building that the last respects were paid to the deceased revolutionary Kropotkin, whose funeral started the tradition of farewell ceremonies for Communist Party leaders, such as Vladimir Lenin, Sergey Kirov and Joseph Stalin.
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Tribute to science
In St. Petersburg, Kropotkin was trained to become a page de chambre at the emperor’s court; however, he decided to go into science instead. To the great surprise of his classmates, he joined the Amur Cossack regimentRussian: Amurskoe kazache voysko or Амурское казачье войско in Siberia and spent years in service and fruitful scientific expeditions, laying the foundations for modern geology. Kropotkin also contributed greatly to the geographical research on Eastern Siberia: he travelled all over the Khingan and the Eastern Sayan Mountains and explored the Amur mountain ridge and the Vitim River. Kropotkin developed a theoretical basis for the existence of Franz Joseph Land and introduced the term ‘permafrost’. The prince noticed that these wild regions were in a state of utter misery. ‘…All around me was nothing but misery and struggle for a mouldy bit of bread’, he wrote.
Upon retiring from military service, Pyotr Kropotkin entered the Department of Physics and Mathematics at the Saint Petersburg Imperial University and simultaneously joined the Statistics Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where he soon became a member of the Imperial Russian Geographical SocietyRussian: Imperatorskoe geograficheskoe obschestvo or Императорское географическое общество and secretary of the Physical Geography Department. A brilliant academic career seemed to take off for Kropotkin, but he became fascinated with revolution. A trip to Switzerland was a turning point for him. As he later remembered: ‘The egalitarian relations which I found in the Jura Mountains, the independence of thought and expression which I saw developing in the workers, and their unlimited devotion to the cause appealed far more strongly to my feelings; and when I came away from the mountains, after a week’s stay with the watchmakers, my views upon socialism were settled. I was an anarchist’.
COMMITMENT TO THE CAUSE OF JUSTICE
Pyotr Kropotkin joined the First InternationalRussian: Pervyi internatsional or Первый интернационал (the International Workmen’s Association) headed by M. Bakunin. Upon his return to Russia, while continuing his intense scientific work, he joined the Narodnaya Volya‘people’s will’ movement and eventually fell under police surveillance. In March 1874, he was arrested and sent to the Peter and Paul FortressRussian: Petropavlovskaya krepost or Петропавловская крепость, which was used as a political prison at the time. Two years later, he managed, however, to escape from the military hospital (this was one of the few prison escapes from the Peter and Paul Fortress), which led to his wanderings abroad: first in Great Britain, and later in Switzerland, England, and France. What Kropotkin saw as the outcome of the upcoming revolution was the establishment of ‘stateless communism’. He pictured the post-revolutionary society as a free federal union of self-governing units, based on the principles of voluntarism and anarchy. In total, Pyotr Kropotkin spent 40 years abroad. Those were the years of his revolutionary struggle, scientific research, creative work and periods of confinement in European prisons.
It was only in May 1917 that the seasoned revolutionary, anarchist and great scholar was able to return to his home country. This fateful year for Russia seemed to be the perfect time for implementing the ideas of anarchist communism that he had developed. Russia was, however, a completely different country to the one he had left. The head of the Provisional Governmentan emergency governmental authority set up to manage a political transition, generally in the cases of new nations or following the collapse of the previous governing administration A. Kerensky suggested that Kropotkin should take any ministerial post he wished, but Kropotkin turned down this offer saying that he considered ‘a shoe-shiner’s trade more honest and useful’.
Kropotkin refused to accept Bolshevikmembers of a wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, which, led by Lenin, seized control of the government in Russia (October 1917) and became the dominant political power authority and bitterly observed, looking at arrogant young anarchists: ‘This is what I worked my whole life on the theory of anarchism for!’ Kropotkin enjoyed such high prestige among the revolutionaries that Vladimir Lenin issued him a writ of protection: ‘This certificate is given … to a most widely known Russian revolutionary… Soviet authorities… are to make every effort to ease the life of Pyotr Alexeyevich to the best of their ability’. Kropotkin, however, refused an apartment at the Kremlin, material support and, consequently, all active participation in Russia’s political life. Then M. Olsufyev, the former marshal of nobility of the city of Dmitrov, offered Kropotkin his abandoned house (95, Kropotkinskaya StreetRussian: Kropotkinskaya ulitsa or Кропоткинская улица, DmitrovRussian: Дмитров, Moscow RegionRussian: Moskovskaya oblast or Московская область), which he soon purchased. By that time, Kropotkin was over 80 years old, but he was still full of energy and continued to work on his last book, Ethics: Origins and DevelopmentRussian: Etika or Этика. It is at this house that he met with delegations of Swedish socialists and British labourists, received anarchists such as A. Atabekian and E. Goldman, and carried on voluminous correspondence. This house in Dmitrov now houses Kropotkin’s Memorial Museum.
Kropotkin also played a significant part in the foundation of the Dmitrov Regional MuseumRussian: Dmitrovskiy kraevedcheskiy muzey or Дмитровский краеведческий музей (16-18, Istoricheskaya SquareRussian: Istoricheskaya ploschad or Историческая площадь, Dmitrov, Moscow Region), created between 1914 and 1918 with the aid of Dmitrov’s Union of CooperativesRussian: Dmitrovskiy Soyuz kooperativov or Дмитровский Союз кооперативов, which Kropotkin supported in every possible way. For instance, at a meeting of the museum’s paludology section he gave a presentation about the Glacial and the Lacustrine periods. Interestingly, it is from the members of the Dmitrov Union of Cooperatives that Kropotkin accepted financial support, persuaded that the cooperatives, as a free cooperation institution amongst the people, could become a basis for real communism and even addressed Vladimir Lenin on this issue.
The first exhibition opened at the museum on 1 May, 1918. As well as Kropotkin, Princess A. Shakhovskaya and graduates of the Moscow State UniversityRussian: Moskovskiy gosudarstvennyi universitet or Московский государственный университет K. Solovyov and M. Tikhomirov contributed to the creation of this museum. Many artefacts collected with the participation of Kropotkin are currently on display in his memorial museum. In 1996, the Dmitrov Regional Museum was renamed the Dmitrov Kremlin Museum ReserveRussian: Muzey-zapovednik “Dmitrovskiy kreml” or Музей-заповедник “Дмитровский кремль”.
On the night of 9 February, 1921, Peter Kropotkin died of pneumonia in Dmitrov. His funeral was the last episode in the history of Soviet Russia that united former fighters against tsarist – the anarchists and the communists. The Soviet government even agreed to temporarily release the imprisoned anarchists so they could attend the funeral. They were let out on parole, promising to return to prison after the ceremony; it is said that all of them kept the promise.
Pyotr Kropotkin was buried at Novodevichye CemeteryRussian: Novodeviche kladbische or Новодевичье кладбище in Moscow (2, Luzhnetsky LaneRussian: Luzhnetskiy proezd or Лужнецкий проезд). His grave is located in Section 4, Row 24.
Lest we forget
In the same year, the Peter Kropotkin Memorial Committee began its work in Moscow. As early as 1921, a street and a lane were renamed in his honour. For example, Prechistenka Street was known as Kropotkinskaya Street in Soviet times. On 9 December, 1923, a permanent exhibition dedicated to Kropotkin’s life was opened at his home (26, Kropotkinksy Lane). The same building boasted the extensive library that Kropotkin’s widow brought from London, along with his archives. Anarchists from all over the world helped compile the museum’s collection, and renowned English writers Herbert Wells and Bernard Shaw participated in its inauguration. A nearby embankment of the Moskva RiverRussian: Moskva-reka or Москва-река and Kropotkinskaya Russian: КропоткинскаяMetro Station in Moscow (since 1957) were also named after Kropotkin.
In 1939, Stalin the museum to be closed. Many of its employees were subject to reprisals, and most exhibits and the archives were lost. In 1972, the building of the former museum accommodated the Palestinian Embassy, which is still there today. When approaching the fence, you’ll see a depiction of Al-Aqsa Mosque and Yasser Arafat’s portrait.
The world’s only Memorial Museum dedicated to Pyotr KropotkinRussian: dom-muzey P. A. Kropotkina or дом-музей П. А. Кропоткина, in the subdivision of the Dmitrov Kremlin Museum Reserve, opened in Dmitrov on 6 September, 2014 (95, Kropotkinskaya Street). A commemorative plaque showing Kropotkin’s profile sculpted by S. Merkurov was installed on the building in the 1920s. It is one of the few buildings of direct relevance to Pyotr Kropotkin. His widow Sophia lived here until her death in 1941, when Dmitrov became a frontline city. The museum was then closed but reopened a few years ago. In the intervening years, it housed a kindergarten, a branch of the Department of People’s Education, and the Department of Culture affiliated with the Dmitrov City Council.
Today, the museum boasts a collection of Kropotkin’s personal effects, books, furniture, along with early editions of his works, photographs and documents. The interior has been recreated from photographs, and the surviving rooms consist of the original dining room, sitting room, bedroom, and study with Kropotkin’s typewriter. The museum also presents Kropotkin’s wardrobe and armchair, and A. Bebela Russian language journalist, playwright, literary translator, and short story writer’s memoirs – the book he was reading in the final years of his life – lie on top of a magazine table. In the Lecture HallRussian: Lektsionnyi zal or Лекционный зал, you can hear about the origins, the evolution and the current state of the anarchism movement. Another room on the second floor is devoted to Kropotkin’s research work on natural sciences.
On Kropotkinskaya Street, there is a monument to Pyotr Kropotkin by A. Rukavishnikov, one of the best-known sculptors in modern Russia. The monument depicts an elderly man sitting on a bench. The monument conveys the image of a radiant person who, as asserted by the French writer H. Barbusse, ‘refused to tolerate injustice and fought against it for many years’, and whose life ‘is a role model for all kinds of liberation movements, no matter what form they take’.© 2016-2021 moscovery.com