A Visit to Peter Kropotkin

Kropotkin lives in Dmitrov, a small town sixty versts from Moscow. Owing to the deplorable railroad conditions, traveling from Petrograd to Dmitrov was not to be thought of. But recently I learned that the Government had made special arrangements to enable Lansbury to visit Kropotkin, and with two other friends I took advantage of the opportunity.

Since my arrival in Russia I have been hearing the most conflicting rumors about Old Peter. Some claim that he is favorable to the Bolsheviki; others, that he is opposed to them; it is reported that he is living in satisfactory material circumstances, and again that he is practically starving. I have been anxious to learn the truth of the matter and to meet my old teacher personally. In the years past I had had a sporadic correspondence with him, but we never met. I have admired Kropotkin since my early youth, when I had first heard his name and become acquainted with his writings. One incident, in particular, had left a deep impression on me.

It was about 1890, when the Anarchist movement was still in its infancy in America. We were just a handful then, young men and women fired by the enthusiasm of a sublime ideal, and passionately spreading the new faith among the population of the New York Ghetto. We held our gatherings in an obscure hall in Orchard Street, but we regarded our work as highly successful: every week greater numbers attended our meetings, much interest was manifested in the revolutionary teachings, and vital questions were discussed late into the night, with deep conviction and youthful vision. To most of us it then seemed that capitalism had almost reached the limit of its fiendish possibilities, and that the Social Revolution was not far off. But there were many difficult questions and knotty problems involved in the growing movement, which we ourselves could not solve satisfactorily. We longed to have our great teacher Kropotkin among us, if only for a short visit, to have him clear up many complex points and to give us the benefit of his intellectual aid and inspiration. And then, what a stimulus his presence would be for the movement!

We decided to reduce our living expenses to the minimum and devote our earnings, to defray the expense involved in our invitation to Kropotkin to visit America. Enthusiastically the matter was discussed in the group meetings of our most active and devoted comrades; all were unanimous in the great plan. A long letter was sent to our teacher, asking him to come for a lecture tour to America and emphasizing our need of him.

His negative reply gave us a shock: we were so sure of his acceptance, so convinced of the necessity of his coming. But the admiration we felt for him was even increased when we learned the motives of his refusal. He would very much like to come⁠—Kropotkin wrote⁠—and he deeply appreciated the spirit of our invitation. He hoped to visit the United States sometime in the future, and it would give him great joy to be among such good comrades. But just now he could not afford to come at his own expense, and he would not use the money of the movement even for such a purpose.

I pondered over his words. His viewpoint was just, I thought, but it could apply only under ordinary circumstances. His case, however, I considered exceptional, and I deeply regretted his decision not to come. But his motives epitomized to me the man and the grandeur of his nature. I visioned him as my ideal of revolutionist and Anarchist.

Meeting “celebrities” is generally disappointing: rarely does reality tally with the picture of our imagination. But it was not so in the case of Kropotkin; both physically and spiritually he corresponds almost exactly to the mental portrait I had made of him. He looks remarkably like his photographs, with his kindly eyes, sweet smile, and generous beard. Every time Kropotkin entered the room it seemed to light up by his presence. The stamp of the idealist is so strikingly upon him, the spirituality of his personality can almost be sensed. But I was shocked at the sight of his emaciation and feebleness.

Kropotkin receives the academic pyock which is considerably better than the ration issued to the ordinary citizen. But it is far from sufficient to support life, and it has been a struggle to keep the wolf from the door. The question of fuel and lighting is also a matter of constant worry. The winters are severe, and wood very scarce; kerosene is difficult to procure, and it is considered a luxury to burn more than one lamp at a time. This lack is particularly felt by Kropotkin; it greatly handicaps his literary labors.

Several times the Kropotkin family had been dispossessed of their home in Moscow, their quarters being requisitioned for government purposes. Then they decided to move to Dmitrov. It is only about half a hundred versts from the capital, but it might as well be a thousand miles away, so completely is Kropotkin isolated. His friends can rarely visit him; news from the Western world, scientific works, or foreign publications are unattainable. Naturally Kropotkin feels deeply the lack of intellectual companionship and mental relaxation.

I was eager to learn his views on the situation in Russia, but I soon realized that Peter did not feel free to express himself in the presence of the English visitors. The conversation was therefore of a general character. But one of his remarks was very significant, and gave me the key to his attitude. “They have shown,” he said, referring to the Bolsheviki, “how the Revolution is not to be made.” I knew, of course, that as an Anarchist Kropotkin would not accept any Government position, but I wanted to learn why he is not participating in the economic upbuilding of Russia. Though old and physically weak, his advice and suggestions would be most valuable to the Revolution, and his influence of great advantage and encouragement to the Anarchist movement. Above all, I was interested to hear his positive ideas on the conduct of the Revolution. What I have heard so far from the revolutionary opposition is mostly critical, lacking helpful constructiveness.

The evening passed in desultory talk about the activities on the front, the crime of the Allied blockade in refusing even medicine to the sick, and the spread of disease resulting from lack of food and unhygienic conditions. Kropotkin looked tired, apparently exhausted by the mere presence of visitors. He is old and weak; I fear he may not live much longer under present conditions. He is evidently undernourished, though he said that the Anarchists of the Ukraine have been trying to make his life easier by supplying him with flour and other products. Makhno, also, when still friendly with the Bolsheviki, had sent him provisions.

We left early, spending the night in the train which did not start till morning for lack of an engine. Arriving in Moscow about noon, we found the station swarming with men and women loaded with bundles and waiting for an opportunity to get out of the hungry city. Scores of little children were about, clad in rags and begging bread.

“How pinched and frozen they look,” I remarked to my companions.

“Not so bad as the children of Austria,” Lansbury returned, drawing his big fur coat closer about him.