Part 6: Western Europe, Section 15

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Part 6: Western Europe, Section 15

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

Part Six


DEMANDS for our release were continually raised, both in the press and in the Chamber of Deputies,-the more so as about the same time that we were condemned Louise Michel was condemned, too, for robbery! Louise Michel-who always gives literally her last shawl or cloak to the woman who is in need of it, and who never could be compelled, during her imprisonment, to have better food than her fellow prisoners, because she always gave them what was sent to her--was condemned, together with another comrade, Pouget, to nine years' imprisonment for highway robbery! That sounded too bad even for the middle-class opportunists. She marched one day at the head of a procession of the unemployed, and, entering a baker's shop, took a few loaves from it and distributed them to the hungry column: this was her robbery. The release of the anarchists thus became a war-cry against the government, and in the autumn of 1885 all my comrades save three were set at liberty by a decree of President Gréevy. Then the outcry in behalf of Louise Michel and myself became still louder. However, Alexander III, objected to it; and one day the prime minister, M. Freycinet, answering an interpellation in the Chamber, said that diplomatic difficulties stood in the way of Kropótkin's release." Strange words in the mouth of the prime minister of an independent country; but still stranger words have been heard since in connection with that ill-omened alliance of France with imperial Russia.

In the middle of January, 1886, both Louise Michel and Pouget, as well as the four of us who were still at Clairvaux, were set free.

My release meant also the release of my wife from her voluntary imprisonment in the little village at the prison gates, which began to tell upon her health, and we went to Paris to stay there for a few weeks with our friend, Elie Reclus,--a writer of great power in anthropology, who is often mistaken outside France for his younger brother, the geographer, Elisée. A close friendship has united the two brothers from early youth. When the time came for them to enter a university, they went together from a small country place in the valley of the Gironde to Strasburg, making the journey on foot,-accompanied, like true wandering students, by their dog; and when they stayed at some village, it was the dog which got the bowl of soup, while the two brothers' supper very often consisted only of bread with a few apples. From Strasburg the younger brother went to Berlin, whither he was attracted by the lectures of the great Ritter. Later on, in the forties, they were both at Paris. Elie Reclus became a convinced Fourierist, and both saw in the republic of 1848 the coming of a new era of social evolution. Consequently, after Napoleon III.'s coup d'etat they both had to leave France, and emigrated to England. When the amnesty was voted, and they returned to Paris, Elie edited there a Fourierist coöperative paper, which circulated widely among the workers. It is not generally known, but may be interesting to note, that Napoleon III., who played the part of a Cæsar,--interested, as behooves a Cæsar, in the conditions of the working classes,--used to send one of his aides-de-camp to the printing office of the paper, each time it was printed, to take to the Tuileries the first sheet issued from the press. He was, later on, even ready to patronize the International Workingmen's Association, on the condition that it should put in one of its reports a few words of confidence in the great socialist plans of the Cæsar; and he ordered its prosecution when the Internationalists refused point blank to do anything of the sort.

When the Commune was proclaimed, both brothers heartily joined it, and Elie accepted the post of keeper of the National Library and the Louver Museum under Vaillant. It was, to a great extent, to his foresight and to his work that we owe the preservation of the invaluable assures of human knowledge and art accumulated in these two institutions, during the bombardment of Paris by the armies of Thiers and the subsequent conflagration. A passionate lover of Greek art, and profoundly acquainted with it, he had had all the most precious statues and vases of the Louver packed and placed in the vaults, while the greatest precautions were taken to store in a safe place the most precious books of the National Library, and to protect the building from the conflagration which raged round it. His wife, a courageous woman, a worthy companion of the philosopher, followed in the streets by her two little boys, organized in the meantime in her own quarter of the town a system of feeding the people, who had been reduced to sheer destitution during the second siege. In the last few weeks of its existence the Commune finally realized that a supply of food for the people, who were deprived of the means of earning it for themselves, ought to have been the Commune's first care, and volunteers organized the relief. It was by mere accident that Elie Reclus, who had kept to his post till the last moment, escaped being shot by the Versailles troops; and a sentence of deportation having been pronounced upon him,-for having dared to accept so necessary a service under the Commune,-he went with his family into exile. Now, on his return to Paris, he had resumed the work of his life, ethnology. What this work is may be judged from a few, a very few chapters of it, published in book form under the titles of "Primitive Folk" and "The Australians," as well as from the history of the origin of religions, which forms the substance of his lectures at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, at Brussels,-a foundation of his brother. In the whole range of ethnological literature there are not many works imbued to the same extent with a thorough and sympathetic understanding of the true nature of primitive man. As to his history of religions (part of which was published in the review "Société Nouvelle," and which is now being continued in its successor, "Humanité Nouvelle"), it is, I venture to say, the best work on the subject that has yet appeared; undoubtedly superior to Herbert Spencer's attempt in the same direction, because Herbert Spencer, with all his immense intellect, does not possess that understanding of the artless and simple nature of the primitive man which Elie Reclus possesses to a rare perfection, and to which he has added an extremely wide knowledge of a rather neglected branch of folk-psychology,-the evolution and transformation of beliefs. It is needless to speak of Elie Reclus' infinite good nature and modesty, or of his superior intelligence and vast knowledge of all subjects relating to humanity; it is all comprehended in his style, which is his and no one else's. With his modesty, his calm manner, and his deep philosophical insight, he is the type of the Greek philosopher of antiquity. In a society less fond of patented tuition and of piecemeal instruction, and more appreciative of the development of wide humanitarian conceptions, he would be surrounded by flocks of pupils, like one of his Greek prototypes.

A very animated socialist and anarchist movement was going on at Paris while we stayed there. Louise Michel lectured every night, and aroused the enthusiasm of her audiences, whether they consisted of workingmen or were made up of middle-class people. Her already great popularity became still greater, and spread even among the university students, who might hate advanced ideas, but worshiped in her the ideal woman. While I was at Paris a riot, caused by some one speaking disrespectfully to Louise Michel in the presence of students, took place in a café The young men took up her defense and made a great uproar, smashing all the tables and glasses in the café. I also lectured once, on anarchism, before an audience of several thousand people, and left Paris immediately after that lecture, before the government could obey the injunctions of the reactionary and pro-Russian press, which insisted upon my being expelled from France.

From Paris we went to London, where I found once more my two old friends, Stepniák and Tchaykóvsky. Life in London was no more the dull, vegetating existence that it had been for me four years before. We settled in a small cottage at Harrow. We cared little about the furniture of the cottage, a good part of which I made myself with, the aid of Tchaykóvsky,-he had been in the United States and had learned some carpentering,-but we rejoiced immensely at having a small plot of heavy Middlesex clay in our garden. My wife and I went with much enthusiasm into gardening, the admirable results of which I had before realized after having made acquaintance with the writings of Toubeau, and some Paris market-gardeners, and after our own experiment in the prison garden at Clairvaux. As for my wife, who had typhoid fever soon after we settled at Harrow, the work in the garden during the period of convalescence was more completely restorative than a stay at the very best sanatorium would have been.

Near the end of the summer a heavy blow fell upon me. I learned that my brother Alexander was no longer living.

During the years that I had been abroad before my imprisonment in France we had never corresponded with each other. In the eyes of the Russian government, to love a brother who is persecuted for his political opinions is itself a sin. To maintain relations with him after he has become a refugee is a crime. A subject of the Czar must hate all the rebels against the supreme ruler's authority, and Alexander was in the clutches of the Russian police. I persistently refused, therefore, to write to him or to any other of my relatives. After the Czar had written on the petition of our sister Hélène, " Let him remain there," there was no hope of a speedy release for my brother. Two years after that a committee was nominated to settle terms for those who had been exiled to Siberia without judgment, for an undetermined time, and my brother got five years. That made seven, with the two which he had already been kept there. Then a new committee was nominated under Lóris Mélikoff, and added another five years. My brother was thus to be liberated in October, 1886. That made twelve years of exile, first in a tiny town of East Siberia, and afterwards at Tomsk,-that is, in the lowlands of West Siberia, where he had not even the dry and healthy climate of the high prairies further east.

When I was imprisoned at Clairvaux he wrote to me, and we exchanged a few letters. He wrote that though our letters would be read by the Russian police in Siberia, and by the French prison authorities in France, we might as well write to each other even under this double supervision. He spoke of his family life, of his three children, whom he described interestingly, and of his work. He earnestly advised me to keep a watchful eye upon the development of science in Italy, where excellent and original researches are conducted, but remain unknown in the scientific world until they have been exploited in Germany; and he gave me his opinions about the probable progress of political life in Russia. He did not believe in the possibility with us, in a near future, of constitutional rule on the pattern of the West Wuropean parliaments; but he looked forward-and found it quite sufficient for the moment-to the convocation of a sort of deliberative National Assembly (Zémesky Sobór or Etats Généraux). It would not make laws, but would only work out the schemes of laws, to which the imperial power and the Council of State would give definitive form and final sanction.

Above all he wrote to me about his scientific work. He had always had a decided leaning towards astronomy, and when we were at St. Petersburg he had published in Russian an excellent summary of all our knowledge of the shooting stars. With his fine critical mind he soon sau the strong or the weak points of different hypotheses; and without sufficient knowledge of mathematics, but endowed with a powerful imagination, he succeeded in grasping the results of the most intricate mathematical researches. Living with his imagination among the moving celestial bodies, he realized their complex movements often better than some mathematicians,especially the pure algebraists,who are apt to lose sight of the realities of the physical world and see nothing but their own formulas. Our St. Petersburg astronomers spoke to me with great appreciation of that work of my brother's. Now, he undertook to study the structure of the universe; to analyze the data and the hypotheses about the worlds of suns, star-clusters, and nebulce in the infinite space, and to work out the problems of their grouping, their life, and the laws of their evolution and decay. The Púlkova astronomer, Gyldén, spoke highly of this new work of Alexander's, and introduced him by correspondence to Mr. Holden in the United States, from whom, while at Washington lately, I had the pleasure of hearing an appreciative estimate of the value of these researches. Science is greatly in need, from time to time, of such scientific speculations of a higher standard, made by a scrupulously laborious, critical, and, at the same time, imaginative mind.

But in a small town of Siberia, far away from all the libraries, unable to follow the progress of science, he had only succeeded in embodying in his work the researches which had been made up to thc date of his exile. Some capital work had been done since. He knew it, but how could he get access to the necessary books, so long as he remained in Siberia? The approach of the time of his liberation did not inspire him with hope either. He knew that he would not be allowed to stay in any of the university towns of Russia, or of Western Europe, but that his exile to Siberia would be followed by a second exile, perhaps even worse than the first, to some hamlet of Eastern Russia.

"A despair like Faust's takes hold of me at times," he wrote to me. When the time of his liberation was at hand, he sent his wife and children to Russia, taking advantage of one of the last steamers before the close of navigation, and, on a gloomy night, this despair put an end to his life.

A dark cloud hung upon our cottage for many months, until a flash of light pierced it, when, the next spring, a tiny being, a girl who bears my brother's name, came into the world, and with her helpless cry set new strings vibrating in my heart.

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