Part 5: The Fortress; The Escape, Section 1

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Part 5: The Fortress; The Escape, Section 1

This text was taken from the 1st edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1899.





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 filled 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.

Here the Decembrists, who were the first to unfurl in Russia the banner of republican rule and the abolition of serfdom, underwent their first experiences of martyrdom, and traces of them may still be found in the Russian Bastille. Here were imprisoned the poets Ryléeff and Shevchénko, Dostoévsky, Bakúnin, Chernyshévsky, Písareff, and so many others of our best contemporary writers. Here Karakózoff was tortured and hanged.

Here, somewhere in the Alexis ravelin, is still kept Necháieff, who was given up to Russia by Switzerland as a common-law criminal, but is treated as a dangerous political prisoner, and will never again see the light. In the same ravelin are also two or three men whom, rumor says, Alexander II., because of what they knew, and others must not know, about some palace mystery, ordered imprisoned for life. One of them, adorned with a long gray beard, was lately seen by an acquaintance of mine, in the mysterious fortress.

All these shadows rose before my imagination. But my thoughts fixed especially on Bakúnin, who, though he had been shut up in an Austrian fortress, after 1848, for two years, chained to the wall, and then handed over to Nicholas I., who kept him in the fortress for six years longer, yet came out, when the Iron Czar's death released him, fresher and fuller of vigor than his comrades who had remained at liberty. "He has lived it through," I said to myself, "and I must, too: I will not succumb here!"

My first movement was to approach the window, which was placed so high that I could hardly reach it with my lifted hand. It was a long, low opening, cut in a wall five feet thick, and protected by in iron grating and a double iron window frame. At a distance of a dozen yards from this window I saw the outer wall of the fortress, of immense thickness, on the top of which I could make out a gray sentry box. Only by looking upward could I perceive a bit of the sky.

I made a minute inspection of the room where I had now to spend no one could say how many years. From the position of the high chimney of the Mint I guessed that I was in the southwestern corner of the fortress, in a bastion overlooking the Nevá. The building in which I was incarcerated, however, was not the bastion itself, but what is called in a fortification a réduit; that is, an inner two-storied pentagonal piece of masonry which rises a little higher than the walls of the bastion, and is meant to contain two tiers of guns. This room of mine was a casemate destined for a big gun, and the window was an embrasure. The rays of the sun could never penetrate it; even in summer they were lost in the thickness of the wall. The room 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. However, in order to deaden sounds, the paper was not put on the wall itself; it was pasted upon canvas, and behind the canvas I discovered a wire grating, back of which was a layer of felt; only beyond the felt could I reach the stone wall. 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. The sentry who stood in the passage frequently lifted the shutter and looked inside, --- his boots squeaking as he crept toward the door. I tried to speak to him; then the eye which I could see through the slit assumed an expression of terror and the shutter was immediately let down, only to be furtively opened a minute or two later; but I could not get a word of response from the sentry.

Absolute silence reigned all round. I dragged my stool to the window and looked upon the little bit of sky that I could see; I tried to catch any sound from the Nevá or from the town on the opposite side of the river, but I could not. This dead silence began to oppress me, and I tried to sing, softly at first, and louder and louder afterwards.

"Have I then to say farewell to love forever?" I caught myself singing from my favorite opera, Glínka's "Ruslán and Ludmíla." . . .

"Sir, do not sing, please," a bass voice said through the food-window in my door.

"I will sing."

"You must not."

"I will sing nevertheless."

Then came the governor, who tried to persuade me that I must not sing, as it would have to be reported to the commander of the fortress, and so on.

"But my throat will become blocked and my lungs become useless if I do not speak and cannot sing," I tried to argue.

"Better try to sing in a lower tone, more or less to yourself," said the old governor in a supplicatory manner.

But all this was useless. A few days later I had lost all desire to sing. I tried to do it on principle, but it was of no avail. "The main thing," I said to myself, "is to preserve my physical vigor. I will not fall ill. Let me imagine myself compelled to spend a couple of years in a hut in the far north, during an arctic expedition. I will take plenty of exercise, practice gymnastics, and not let myself be broken down by my surroundings. Ten steps from one corner to the other is already something. If I repeat them one hundred and fifty times, I shall have walked one verst" (two thirds of a mile). I determined to walk every day seven versts, --- about five miles: two versts in the morning, two before dinner, two after dinner, and one before going to sleep. "If I put on the table ten cigarettes, and move one of them each time that I pass the table, I shall easily count the three hundred times that I must walk up and down. I must walk rapidly, but turn slowly in the corner to avoid becoming giddy, and turn each time a different way. Then, twice a day I shall practice gymnastics with my heavy stool." I lifted it by one leg, holding it at arm's length. I turned it like a wheel, and soon learned to throw it from one hand to the other, over my head, behind my back, and across my legs.

A few hours after I had been brought into the prison the governor came to offer me some books,and among them was an old acquaintance and friend of mine, the first volume of George Lewes's "Physiology," in a Russian translation; but the second volume, which I especially wanted to read again, was missing. I asked, of course, to have paper, pen, and ink, but was absolutely refused. Pen and ink are never allowed in the fortress, unless special permission is obtained from the Emperor himself. I suffered very much from this forced inactivity, and began to compose in my imagination a series of novels for popular reading, taken from Russian history, --- something like Eugène Sue's "Mystères du Peuple." I made up the plot, the descriptions, the dialogues, and tried to commit the whole to memory from the beginning to the end. One can easily imagine how exhausting such a work would have been if I had had to continue it for more than two or three months.

But my brother Alexander obtained pen and ink for me. One day I was asked to enter a four-wheeled cab, in company with the same speechless Georgian gendarme officer of whom I have spoken before. I was taken to the Third Section, where I was allowed an interview with my brother, in the presence of two gendarme officers.

Alexander was at Zürich when I was arrested. From early youth he had longed to go abroad, where men think as they like, read what they like, and openly express their thoughts. Russian life was hateful to him. Veracity --- absolute veracity --- and the most open-hearted frankness were the dominating features of his character. He could not bear deceit or even conceit in any form. The absence of free speech in Russia, the Russian readiness to submit to oppression, the veiled words to which our writers resort, were utterly repulsive to his frank and open nature. Soon after my return from Western Europe he removed to Switzerland, and decided to settle there. After he had lost his two children --- one from cholera in a few hours, and the other from consumption --- St. Petersburg became doubly repugnant to him.

My brother did not take part in our work of agitation. He did not believe in the possibility of a popular uprising, and he conceived a revolution only as the action of a representative body, like the National Assembly of France in 1789. As for the socialist agitation, he knew it only by means of public meetings and public speeches, --- not as the secret, minute work of personal propaganda which we were carrying on. In England he would have sided with John Bright or with the Chartists. If he had been in Paris during the uprising of June, 1848, he would surely have fought with the last handful of workers behind the last barricade; but in the preparatory period he would have followed Louis Blanc or Ledru Rollin.

In Switzerland he settled at Zürich, and his sympathies went with the moderate wing of the International. Socialist on principle, he carried out his principles in his most frugal and laborious mode of living, toiling on passionately at his great scientific work, --- the main purpose of his life, --- a work which was to be a nineteenth-century counterpart to the famous "Tableau de la Nature" of the Encyclopædists. He soon became a close personal friend of the old refugee Colonel P. L. Lavróff, with whom he had very much in common in his Kantian philosophical views.

When he learned about my arrest, Alexander immediately left everything, --- the work of his life, the life itself of freedom which was as necessary for him as free air is necessary for a bird, --- and returned to St. Petersburg, which he disliked, only to help me through my imprisonment.

We were both very much affected at this interview. My brother was extremely excited. He hated the very sight of the blue uniforms of the gendarmes, those executioners of all independent thought in Russia, and expressed his feeling frankly in their presence. As for me, the sight of him at St. Petersburg filled me with the most dismal apprehensions. I was happy to see his honest face, his eyes full of love, and to hear that I should see them once a month; and yet I wished him hundreds of miles away from that place to which be came free that day, but to which he would inevitably be brought some night under an escort of gendarmes. "Why did you come into the lion's den? Go back at once!" my whole inner self cried; and yet I knew that he would remain as long as I was in prison.

He understood better than any one else that inactivity would kill me, and had already made application to obtain for me permission to resume work. The Geographical Society wanted me to finish my book on the glacial period, and my brother turned the whole scientific world in St. Petersburg upside down to move it to support his application. The Academy of Sciences was interested in the matter; and finally, two or three months after my imprisonment, the governor entered my cell and announced to me that I was permitted by the Emperor to complete my report to the Geographical Society, and that I should be allowed pen and ink for that purpose. "Till sunset only," he added. 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.

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January 21, 2017 17:33:14 :
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