October 3, 2023

Porträt von Pjotr Kropotkin. (Picture Alliance / Russian Picture Service / akg-images)

Died 100 Years Ago: Pyotr Alexejwich Kropotkin

We have heard so much about the “cruel and ruthless struggle for existence” in recent years that it was necessary first to compare it to a long series of facts that show human and animal life in a different light.

What is meant by this “other light” has already been clarified by the title of the book published by the Russian immigrant Pyotr Aleksjwych Kropotkin in his exile in England in 1902: “Mutual Aid: The Evolution Factor”. In this work, which became his most important work in terms of history, he connected Darwin’s notes, which did not receive much attention in Darwin’s reception.

“Darwin explained how the struggle for means of subsistence among individuals in many animal societies is replaced by cooperation and the development of skills that ensure the best conditions for the survival of the species.”

His father ruled by several serfs

Kropotkin was born in Moscow in 1842. His father belonged to the Russian aristocracy and strictly ruled over 1,200 males and countless female serfs in the family’s estates. At the age of 15, Kropotkin was accepted into the Petersburg Page Corps, which prepared the children of the nobles for positions in the army and administration. What this means is explained later in his book, Memoirs of a Revolutionary.

“In our school everything was aimed at training us to wage war. Nevertheless, we would have directed a railway line or cultivated a field with the same enthusiasm. But all our youth’s desire for real work was ignored.”

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When he joined the army, he chose the state of Amur. He was asked to investigate prison, criminal camp, and administrative system, but his reform proposals were ignored in St. Petersburg court. Then he gladly undertook the task of exploring the still undeveloped parts of Eastern Siberia. In this way he also became an explorer, expedition leader, and ethnographic and geographic scientist. He later said, looking back on the past in Siberia:

“Growing up in the family of a landlord ruling an army of serfs, I realized in Siberia how little leadership and obedience could be in hard work. So I was ready to become an anarchist.”

He was twice sentenced to several years in prison

Kropotkin completed his military service, studied mathematics and geology in Petersburg, traveled to Finland, and published treatises on the physical geography of Central Asia. In 1872 – his father died and became an independent heir – he made the long-awaited voyage to Western Europe. In Switzerland he got to know socialist and anarchist groups for the first time. Back in Russia, join a secret discussion group on public education and awareness. This started a dual career as a scientist and revolutionary.

He was twice sentenced to five years in prison. For the first time in 1874, because of his participation in the secret discussion group. By helping him escape, the anarchist friends cut short the order. The second time in France was in 1883, due to its membership in the international workers’ movement. Public protests by famous scholars confirmed that this sentence had been shortened.

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Tens of thousands followed his coffin

During the next three decades in exile in London, Kropotkin continued to work as a journalist as a historian and advocate of anarchist communism in addition to his scholarly work. In 1917 he returned to Russia. Lenin’s slogan “All power to councils” was exactly what the anarchists wanted. But Lenin only represented them for tactical reasons. In fact, he fought the Russian anarchists. Kropotkin warned in his “Letter to the Workers of the West”:

“I think that this attempt to establish a communist republic on the basis of a central state and under the iron law of the dictatorship of the party will end in great failure. Russia teaches us how communism should not impose itself.”

Kropotkin died on February 8, 1921 in Dmitrov near Moscow. Tens of thousands of people followed his coffin. This was the last great manifestation against the Bolshevik dictatorship.