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The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
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  Peter Kropotkin
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This text was taken from the 1st edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1899.





OUR father was very proud of the origin of his family, and would point with solemnity to a piece of parchment which hung on a wall of his study. It was decorated with our arms, --- the arms of the principality of Smolénsk covered with the ermine mantle and the crown of the Monomáchs, --- and there was written on it, and certified by the Heraldry Department, that our family originated with a grandson of Rostisláv Mstislávich the Bold (a name familiar in Russian history as that of a Grand Prince of Kíeff), and that our ancestors had been Grand Princes of Smolénsk.

"It cost me three hundred rubles to obtain that parchment," our father used to say. Like most people of his generation, he was not much versed in Russian history, and valued the parchment more for its cost than for its historical associations.

As a matter of fact, our family is of very ancient origin indeed; but, like most descendants of Rurik who may be regarded as representative of the feudal period of Russian history, it was driven into the background when that period ended, and the Románoffs, enthroned at Moscow, began the work of consolidating the Russian state. In recent times, none of the Kropótkins seem to have had any special liking for state functions. Our great-grandfather and grandfather both retired from the military service when quite young men, and hastened to return to their family estates. It must also be said that of these estates the main one, Urúsovo, situated in the government of Ryazán, on a high hill at the border of fertile prairies, might tempt any one by the beauty of its shadowy forests, its winding rivers, and its endless meadows. Our grandfather was only a lieutenant when he left the service, and retired to Urúsovo, devoting himself to his estate, and to the purchase of other estates in the neighboring provinces.

Probably our generation would have done the same; but our grandfather married a Princess Gagárin, who belonged to a quite different family. Her brother was well known as a passionate lover of the stage. He kept a private theatre of his own, and went so far in his passion as to marry, to the scandal of all his relations, a serf, --- the genial actress Semyónova, who was one of the creators of dramatic art in Russia, and undoubtedly one of its most sympathetic figures. To the horror of "all Moscow," she continued to appear on the stage.

I do not know if our grandmother had the same artistic and literary tastes as her brother, --- I remember her when she was already paralyzed and could speak only in whispers; but it is certain that in the next generation a leaning toward literature became a characteristic of our family. One of the sons of the Princess Gagárin was a minor Russian poet, and issued a book of poems, --- a fact which my father was ashamed of and always avoided mentioning; and in our own generation several of our cousins, as well as my brother and myself, have contributed more or less to the literature of our period.

Our father was a typical officer of the time of Nicholas I. Not that he was imbued with a warlike spirit or much in love with camp life; I doubt whether he spent a single night of his life at a bivouac fire, or took part in one battle. But under Nicholas I. that was of quite secondary importance. The true military man of those times was the officer who was enamored of the military uniform, and utterly despised all other sorts of attire; whose soldiers were trained to perform almost superhuman tricks with their legs and rifles (to break the wood of the rifle into pieces while "presenting arms" was one of those famous tricks); and who could show on parade a row of soldiers as perfectly aligned and as motionless as a row of toy soldiers. "Very good," the Grand Duke Mikhael said once of a regiment, after having kept it for one hour presenting arms, --- "only, they breathe!" To respond to the then current conception of a military man was certainly our father's ideal.

True, he took part in the Turkish campaign of 1828; but he managed to remain all the time on the staff of the chief commander; and if we children, taking advantage of a moment when he was in a particularly good temper, asked him to tell us something about the war, he had nothing to tell but of a fierce attack of hundreds of Turkish dogs which one night assailed him and his faithful servant, Frol, as they were riding with dispatches through an abandoned Turkish village. They had to use swords to extricate themselves from the hungry beasts. Bands of Turks would assuredly have better satisfied our imagination, but we accepted the dogs as a substitute. When, however, pressed by our questions, our father told us how he had won the cross of Saint Anne "for gallantry," and the golden sword which be wore, I must confess we felt really disappointed. His story was decidedly too prosaic. The officers of the general staff were lodged in a Turkish village, when it took fire. In a moment the houses were enveloped in flames, and in one of them a child had been left behind. Its mother uttered despairing cries. Thereupon, Frol, who always accompanied his master, rushed into the flames and saved the child. The chief commandeer, who saw the act, at once gave father the cross for gallantry.

"But, father," we exclaimed, "it was Frol who saved the child!"

"What of that? " replied he, in the most naïve way. "Was he not my man? It is all the same."

He also took some part in the campaign of 1831, during the Polish Revolution, and in Warsaw he made the acquaintance of, and fell in love with, the youngest daughter of the commander of an army corps, General Sulíma. The marriage was celebrated with great pomp, in the Lazienki palace; the lieutenant-governor, Count Paskiéwich, acting as nuptial godfather on the bridegroom's side. "But your mother," our father used to add, "brought me no fortune whatever."

This was true. Her father, Nikolái Semyónovich Sulíma, was not versed in the art of making a career or a fortune. He must have had in him too much of the blood of those Cossacks of the Dnyéper, who knew how to fight the well-equipped, warlike Poles or armies of the Turks, three times more than themselves, but knew not how to avoid the snares of the Moscow diplomacy, and, after having fought against the Poles in the terrible insurrection of 1648, which was the beginning of the end for the Polish republic, lost all their liberties in falling under the dominion of the Russian Tsars. One Sulíma was captured by the Poles and tortured to death at Warsaw, but the other "colonels " of the same stock only fought the more fiercely on that account, and Poland lost Little Russia. As to our grandfather, during Napoleon I's invasion he had cut his way, at the head of his regiment of cuirassiers, into a French infantry square bristling with bayonets, and, after having been left for dead on the battlefield, had recovered with a deep cut in his head; but he could not become a valet to the favorite of Alexander I., the omnipotent Arakchéeff, and was consequently sent into a sort of honorary exile, first as a governor-general of West Siberia, and later of East Siberia. In those times such a position was considered more lucrative than a gold mine, but our grandfather returned from Siberia as poor as he went, and left only modest fortunes to his three sons and three daughters. When I went to Siberia, in 1862, I often heard his name mentioned with respect. He was driven to despair by the wholesale stealing which went on in those provinces, and which he had no means to repress.

Our mother was undoubtedly a remarkable woman for the times she lived in. Many years after her death, I discovered, in a corner of a store-room of our country-house, a mass of papers covered with her firm but pretty handwriting: diaries in which she wrote with delight of the scenery of Germany, and spoke of her sorrows and her thirst for happiness; books which she had filled with Russian verses, prohibited by censorship, --- among them the beautiful historical ballads of Ryléeff, the poet, whom Nicholas I. hanged in 1826; other books containing music, French dramas, verses of Lamartine, and Byron's poems that she had copied; and a great number of water-color paintings.

Tall, slim, adorned with a mass of dark chestnut hair, with dark brown eyes and a tiny mouth, she looks quite lifelike in a portrait in oils that was painted con amore by a good artist. Always lively and often careless, she was fond of dancing, and the peasant women in our village would tell us how she would admire from a balcony their ring-dances, --- slow and full of grace, --- and how finally she would herself join in them. She had the nature of an artist. It was at a ball that she caught the cold that produced the inflammation of the lungs which brought her to the grave.

All who knew her loved her. The servants worshipped her memory. It was in her name that Madame Búrman took care of us, and in her name the Russian nurse bestowed upon us her love. While combing our hair, or signing us with the cross in our beds, Uliána would often say, "And your mamma must now look upon you from the skies, and shed tears on seeing you, poor orphans." Our whole childhood is irradiated by her memory. How often, in some dark passage, the hand of a servant would touch Alexander or me with a caress; or a peasant woman, on meeting us in the fields, would ask, "Will you be as good as your mother was? She took compassion on us. You will, surely." "Us" meant, of course, the serfs. I do not know what would have become of us if we had not found in our house, among the serf servants, that atmosphere of love which children must have around them. We were her children, we bore likeness to her, and they lavished their care upon us, sometimes in a touching form, as will be seen later on.

Men passionately desire to live after death, but they often pass away without noticing the fact that the memory of a really good person always lives. It is impressed upon the next generation, and is transmitted again to the children. Is not that an immortality worth striving for?


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