Part 5: The Fortress; The Escape, Section 4

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Part 5: The Fortress; The Escape, Section 4

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

IV

THE countless arrests which were made in the summer of 1874, and the serious turn which was given by the police to the prosecution of our circle, produced a deep change in the opinions of Russian youth. Up to that time the prevailing idea had been to pick out among the workers, and eventually the peasants, a number of men who should be prepared to become socialistic agitators. But the factories were now flooded with spies, and it was evident that, do what they might, both propagandists and workers would very soon be arrested and hidden forever in Siberia. Then began a great movement "to the people" in a new form, when several hundred young men and women, disregarding all precautions hitherto taken, rushed to the country, and, traveling through the towns and villages, incited the masses to revolution, almost openly distributing pamphlets, songs, and proclamations. In our circles this summer received the name of "the mad summer."

The gendarmes lost their heads. They had not hands enough to make the arrest nor eyes enough to trace the steps of every propagandist. Yet not less than fifteen hundred persons were arrested during this hunt, and half of them were kept in prison for years.

One day in the summer of 1875, in the cell that was next to mine, I distinctly heard the light steps of heeled boots, and a few minutes later I caught fragments of a conversation. A feminine voice spoke from the cell, and a deep bass voice --- evidently that of the sentry --- grunted something in reply. Then I recognized the sound of the colonel's spurs, his rapid steps, his swearing at the sentry, and the click of the key in the lock. He said something, and a feminine voice loudly replied: "We did not talk. I only asked him to call the noncommissioned officer." Then the door was locked, and I heard the colonel swearing in whispers at the sentry.

So I was alone no more. I had a lady neighbor, who at once broke down the severe discipline which had hitherto reigned among the soldiers. From that day the walls of the fortress, which had been mute during the last fifteen months, became animated. From all sides I heard knocks with the foot on the floor: one, two, three, four, . . . eleven knocks, twenty-four knocks, fifteen knocks; then an interruption, followed by three knocks and a long succession of thirty-three knocks. Over and over again these knocks were repeated in the same succession, until the neighbor would guess at last that they were meant for "Kto vy?" (Who are you?) the letter v being the third letter in our alphabet. Thereupon conversation was soon established, and usually was conducted in the abridged alphabet; that is, the alphabet being divided into six rows of five letters, each letter is marked by its row and its place in the row.

I discovered with great pleasure that I had at my left my friend Serdukóff, with whom I could soon talk about everything, especially when we used our cipher. But intercourse with men brought its sufferings as well as its joys. Underneath me was lodged a peasant, whom Serdukóff knew. He talked to him by means of knocks; and even against my will, often unconsciously during my work, I followed their conversations. I also spoke to him. Now, if solitary confinement without any sort of work is hard for educated men, it is infinitely harder for a peasant who is accustomed to physical work, and not at all wont to spend years in reading. Our peasant friend felt quite miserable, and having been kept for nearly two years in another prison before he was brought to the fortress, --- his crime was that he had listened to socialists, --- he was already broken down. Soon I began to notice, to my terror, that from time to time his mind wandered. Gradually his thoughts grew more and more confused, and we two perceived, step by step, day by day, evidences that his reason was failing, until his talk became at last that of a lunatic. Frightful noises and wild cries came next from the lower story; our neighbor was mad, but was still kept for several months in the casemate before be was removed to an asylum, from which he never emerged. To witness the destruction of a man's mind, under such conditions, was terrible. I am sure it must have contributed to increase the nervous irritability of my good and true friend Serdukóff. When, after four years of imprisonment, he was acquitted by the court and released, he shot himself.


One day I received a quite unexpected visit. The Grand Duke Nicholas, brother of Alexander II., who was inspecting the fortress, entered my cell, followed only by his aide-de-camp. The door was shut behind him. He rapidly approached me, saying, "Good-day, Kropótkin." He knew me personally, and spoke in a familiar, good-natured tone, as to an old acquaintance. "How is it possible, Kropótkin, that you, a page de chambre, a sergeant of the corps of pages, should be mixed up in this business, and now be here in this horrible casemate?"

"Every one has his own opinions," was my reply.

"Opinions! So your opinions were that you must stir up a revolution?"

What was I to reply? Yes? Then the construction which would be put upon my answer would be that I, who had refused to give any answers to the gendarmes, "avowed everything" before the brother of the Czar. His tone was that of a commander of a military school when trying to obtain "avowals" from a cadet. Yet I could not say No: it would have been a lie. I did not know what to say, and stood without saying anything.

"You see! You feel ashamed of it now" ---

This remark angered me, and I at once said in a rather sharp way, "I have given my replies to the examining magistrate, and have nothing to add."

"But understand, Kropótkin, please," he said then, in the most familiar tone, "that I don't speak to you as an examining magistrate. I speak quite as a private person, --- quite as a private man," he repeated, lowering his voice.

Thoughts went whirling in my head. To play the part of Marquis Posa? To tell the Emperor through the grand duke of the desolation of Russia, the ruin of the peasantry, the arbitrariness of the officials, the terrible famines in prospect? To say that we wanted to help the peasants out of their desperate condition, to make them raise their heads, and by all this try to influence Alexander II.? These thoughts followed one another in rapid succession, till at last I said to myself: "Never! Nonsense! They know all that. They are enemies of the nation, and such talk would not change them."

I replied that he always remained an official person, and that I could not look upon him as a private man.

He then began to ask me indifferent questions. "Was it not in Siberia, with the Decembrists, that you began to entertain such ideas?"

"No; I knew only one Decembrist, and with him I had no talks worth speaking of."

"Was it then at St. Petersburg that you got them?"

"I was always the same."

"Why! Were you such in the corps of pages?" he asked me with terror.

"In the corps I was a boy, and what is indefinite in boyhood grows definite in manhood."

He asked me some other similar questions, and as he spoke I distinctly saw what he was driving at. He was trying to obtain avowals, and my imagination vividly pictured him saying to his brother: "All these examining magistrates are imbeciles. He gave them no replies, but I talked to him ten minutes, and he told me everything." That began to annoy me; and when he said to me something to this effect, "How could you have anything to do with all these people, --- peasants and people with no names?" --- I sharply turned upon him and said, "I have told you already that I have given my replies to the examining magistrate." Then he abruptly left the cell.

Later, the soldiers of the guard made quite a legend of that visit. The person who came in a carriage to carry me away at the time of my escape wore a military cap, and, having sandy whiskers, bore a faint resemblance to the Grand Duke Nicholas. So a tradition grew up among the soldiers of the St. Petersburg garrison that it was the grand duke himself who came to rescue me and kidnapped me. Thus are legends created even in times of newspapers and biographical dictionaries.

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January 21, 2017 17:34:36 :
Part 5: The Fortress; The Escape, Section 4 -- Added to http://www.RevoltLib.com.

September 23, 2017 17:45:30 :
Part 5: The Fortress; The Escape, Section 4 -- Last Updated on http://www.RevoltLib.com.

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