December 9, 1842 – February 8, 1921
Peter Kropotkin was a Russian activist, scientist, and philosopher, who advocated decentralized government and anarchism. Kropotkin was a proponent of a communist society free from central government and based on voluntary associations between workers.
Legends of Anarchism
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Kropotkin was born in Moscow, into the second-highest level of the Russian aristocracy. His mother was the daughter of a Cossack general.] His father, Alexei Petrovich Kropotkin, was a prince in Smolensk, of the Rurik dynasty which had ruled Russia before the rise of the Romanovs. Kropotkin's father owned large tracts of land and nearly 1,200 male serfs in three provinces.
"[U]nder the influence of republican teachings," Kropotkin dropped his princely title at the age of twelve, and "even rebuked his friends, when they so referred to him."
In 1857, at age 14, Kropotkin enrolled in the Corps of Pages at St. Petersburg. Only 150 boys – mostly children of nobility belonging to the court – were educated in this privileged corps, which combined the character of a military school endowed with special rights and of a court institution attached to the Imperial Household. Kropotkin's memoirs detail the hazing and other abuse of pages for which the Corps had become notorious.
In Moscow, Kropotkin had developed an interest in the condition of the peasantry, and this interest increased as he grew older. Although his work as a page for Tsar Alexander II made Kropotkin skeptical about the tsar's "liberal" reputation, Kropotkin was greatly pleased by the tsar's decision to emancipate the serfs in 1861. In St. Petersburg, he read widely on his own account, and gave special attention to the works of the French encyclopædists and to French history. The years 1857–1861 witnessed a growth in the intellectual forces of Russia, and Kropotkin came under the influence of the new liberal-revolutionary literature, which largely expressed his own aspirations.
In 1862, Kropotkin was promoted from the Corps of Pages to the army. The members of the corps had the prescriptive right to choose the regiment to which they would be attached. For some time, he was aide de camp to the governor of Transbaikalia at Chita. Later he was appointed attaché for Cossack affairs to the governor-general of East Siberia at Irkutsk.
Geographical expeditions in Siberia
Administrative work was scarce, and in 1864 Kropotkin accepted charge of a geographical survey expedition, crossing North Manchuria from Transbaikalia to the Amur, and soon was attached to another expedition which proceeded up the Sungari River into the heart of Manchuria. The expeditions yielded valuable geographical results. The impossibility of obtaining any real administrative reforms in Siberia now induced Kropotkin to devote himself almost entirely to scientific exploration, in which he continued to be highly successful.
In 1866, Kropotkin began reading the works of the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and other political thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Alexander Herzen. These readings, along with his experiences amongst the peasantry in Siberia, led him to declare himself an anarchist by 1872.
In 1867, Kropotkin resigned his commission in the army and returned to St. Petersburg, where he entered the Saint Petersburg Imperial University to study mathematics, becoming at the same time secretary to the geography section of the Russian Geographical Society. His departure from a family tradition of military service prompted his father to disinherit him, "leaving him a 'prince' with no visible means of support." In 1871, he explored the glacial deposits of Finland and Sweden for the Society. In 1873, he published an important contribution to science, a map and paper in which he showed that the existing maps entirely misrepresented the physical features of Asia; the main structural lines were in fact from southwest to northeast, not from north to south or from east to west as had been previously supposed. During this work, he was offered the secretaryship of the Society, but he had decided that it was his duty not to work at fresh discoveries but to aid in diffusing existing knowledge among the people at large. Accordingly, he refused the offer and returned to St. Petersburg, where he joined the revolutionary party.
Activism in Switzerland and France
Kropotkin visited Switzerland in 1872 and became a member of the International Workingmen's Association (IWA) at Geneva. It was there that he found that he did not like IWA's style of socialism. Instead, he studied the programme of the more radical Jura federation at Neuchâtel and spent time in the company of the leading members, and adopted the creed of anarchism.
On returning to Russia, Kropotkin's friend Dmitri Klements introduced him to the Circle of Tchaikovsky, a socialist/populist group that had been created in 1872. Kropotkin worked to spread revolutionary propaganda amongst peasants and workers, and acted as a bridge between the Circle and the aristocracy. Throughout this period, Kropotkin maintained his position within the Geographical Society in order to provide cover for his activities.
In 1874 Kropotkin was arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress for subversive political activity, as a result of his work with the Circle of Tchaikovsky. Because of his aristocratic background, he was granted special privileges while in prison, such as being allowed to continue his geographical work in his cell. He delivered his report on the subject of the Ice Age, where he argued that it had taken place in not as distant a past as originally thought. In 1876, just before his trial, Kropotkin was moved to a low-security prison in St. Petersburg, from which he escaped with the assistance of his friends. On the night of the escape, Kropotkin and his friends celebrated by dining in one of the finest restaurants in St. Petersburg, assuming correctly that the police would not think to look for them there. After this, he boarded a boat, and headed to England. After a short stay there, he moved to Switzerland where he joined the Jura Federation. In 1877 he moved to Paris, where he helped start the socialist movement. In 1878 he returned to Switzerland where he edited the Jura Federation's revolutionary newspaper Le Révolté, and published various revolutionary pamphlets.
In 1881, shortly after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, he was expelled from Switzerland. After a short stay at Thonon (Savoy), he went to London where he stayed nearly a year. He attended the Anarchist Congress that met in London from July 14, 1881. Other delegates included Marie Le Compte, Errico Malatesta, Saverio Merlino, Louise Michel, Nicholas Tchaikovsky and Émile Gautier. While respecting "complete autonomy of local groups" the congress defined propaganda actions that all could follow and agreed thatpropaganda by the deed was the path to social revolution. The Radical of July 23, 1881 reported that the congress met on July 18 at the Cleveland Hall, Fitzroy Square, with speeches by Marie Le Compte, "the transatlantic agitator", Louise Michel, and Kropotkin. Later Le Compte and Kropotkin gave talks to the Homerton Social Democratic Club and to the Stratford Radical and Dialectical Club
Kropotkin returned to Thonon in late 1882. Soon he was arrested by the French government, tried at Lyon, and sentenced by a police-court magistrate (under a special law passed on the fall of the Paris Commune) to five years' imprisonment, on the ground that he had belonged to the IWA (1883). The French Chamber repeatedly agitated on his behalf, and he was released in 1886. He was invited to Britain by Charlotte Wilson, with whom he co-founded the Freedom Press, an anarchist newspaper which continues to this day. Kropotkin was a regular contributor. He settled near London, living at various times in Harrow – where his daughter, Alexandra, was born – Ealing and Bromley (6 Crescent Road 1886–1914). He also lived for a number of years in Brighton. While living in London, Kropotkin became friends with a number of prominent English-speaking socialists, including William Morris and George Bernard Shaw.
Return to Russia
In 1917 after the February Revolution, Kropotkin returned to Russia again after years of exile. Upon his arrival, he was greeted by crowds of tens of thousands of people, cheering his return. He was offered the ministry of education in the provisional government, which he promptly refused, feeling that working with them would be a violation of his anarchist principles.
His enthusiasm for the changes happening in the Russian Empire turned to disappointment when the Bolsheviks seized power in the October Revolution. "This buries the revolution," he said. He thought that the Bolsheviks had shown how the revolution was not to be made; by authoritarian rather than libertarian methods. He had spoken out against authoritarian socialism in his writings (for example The Conquest of Bread), making the prediction that any state founded on these principles would most likely see its own breakup and the restoration of capitalism.
Kropotkin's friend and comrade Emma Goldman delivered a eulogy before crowds at his funeral, accompanied by Alexander Berkman.
Kropotkin died of pneumonia on February 8, 1921, in the city of Dmitrov, and was buried at the Novodevichy Cemetery. Thousands of people marched in his funeral procession, including, with Vladimir Lenin's approval, anarchists carrying banners with anti-Bolshevik slogans. It was to become the last public demonstration of anarchists, which saw engaged speeches by Emma Goldman and Aron Baron. In 1957 the Dvorets Sovetov station of the Moscow Metro was renamed Kropotkinskaya in his honor.