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


As there was nothing more to be done in the direction of reform, I tried to do what seemed to be possible under the existing circumstances, -- only to become convinced of the absolute uselessness of such efforts. In my new capacity of attaché to the governor-general for Cossack affairs, I made, for instance, a most thorough investigation of the economical conditions of the Usurí Cossacks, whose crops used to be lost every year, so that the government had every winter to feed them in order to save them from famine. When I returned from Usurí with my report, I received congratulations on all sides, I was promoted, I got special rewards. All the measures I recommended were accepted, and special grants of money were given for aiding the emigration of some and for supplying cattle to others, as I had suggested. But the practical realization of the measures went into the hands of some old drunkard, who would squander the money and pitilessly flog the unfortunate Cossacks for the purpose of converting them into good agriculuralists. And thus it went on in all directions, beginning with the Winter Palace at St Petersburg, and ending with the Usurí and Kamchátka.

The higher administration of Siberia was influenced by excellent intentions, and I can only repeat that, everything considered, it was far better, far more enlightened, and far more interested in the welfare of the country than the administration of any other province of Russia. But it was an administration, -- a branch of the tree which had its root at St Petersburg, and that was quite sufficient to paralyze all its excellent intentions, and to make it interfere with all beginnings of local spontaneous life and progress. Whatever was started for the good of the country by local men was looked at with distrust, and was immediately paralyzed by hosts of difficulties which came, not so much from the bad intentions of men, -- men, as a rule, are better than institutions, -- but simply because they belonged to a pyramidal, centralized administration. The very fact of its being a government which had its source in a distant capital caused it to look upon everything from the point of view of a functionary of the government who thinks, first of all, about what his superiors will say, and how this or that will appear in the administrative machinery, and not of the interests of the country.

Gradually I turned my energy more and more toward scientific exploration. In 1865 I explored the western Sayáns, where I got a new glimpse into the structure of the Siberian highlands, and came upon another important volcanic region on the Chinese frontier; and finally, next year, I undertook a long journey to discover a direct communication between the gold mines of the Yakútsk province (on the Viím and the Olókma) and Transbaikália. For several years (1860-64) the members of the Siberian expedition had tried to find such a passage, and had endeavored to cross the series of very wild stony parallel ridges which separate these mines from Transbaikália; but when they reached that region, coming from the south, and saw before them these dreary mountains spreading for hundreds of miles northward, all of them, save one who was killed by natives, returned southward. It was evident that, in order to be successful, the expedition must move from the north to the south, -- from the dreary and unknown wilderness to the warmer and populated regions. It also happened that while I was preparing for the expedition, I was shown a map which a native had traced with his knife on a piece of bark. This little map -- splendid example, by the way, of the usefulness of the geometrical sense in the lowest stages of civilization, and one which would consequently interest A R Wallace - so struck me by its seeming truth to nature that I fully trusted to it, and began my journey, following the indications of the map. In company with a young and promising naturalist, Polakóff, and a topographer, I went first down the Léna to the northern gold mines. There we equipped our expedition, taking provisions for three months, and started southward. An old Yakút hunter, who twenty years before had once followed the passage indicated on the Tungus map, undertook to act for us as guide, and to cross the mountain region, -- full 250 miles wide, -- following the river valleys and gorges indicated by the knife of the Tungus on the birch-bark map. He really accomplished this wonderful feat, although there was no track of any sort to follow, and all the valleys that one sees from the top of a mountain pass, all equally filled with woods, seem, to the unpracticed eye, to be absolutely alike.

This time the passage was found. For three months we wandered in the almost totally uninhabited mountain deserts and over the marshy plateau, till at last we reached our destination, Chitá. I am told that this passage is now of value for bringing cattle from the south to the gold mines; as for me, the journey helped me immensely afterward in finding the key to the structure of the mountains and plateaus of Siberia, -- but I am not writing a book of travel, and must stop.

The years that I spent in Siberia taught me many lessons which I could hardly have learned elsewhere. I soon realized the absolute impossibility of doing anything really useful for the mass of the people by means of the administrative machinery. With this illusion I parted forever. Then I began to understand not only men and human character, but also the inner springs of the life of human society. The constructive work of the unknown masses, which so seldom finds any mention in books, and the importance of that constructive work in the growth of forms of society, fully appeared before my eyes. To witness, for instance, the ways in which the communities of Dukhobórtsy (brothers of those who are now going to settle in Canada, and who find such a hearty support in the United States) migrated to the Am&uaucte;r region, to see the immense advantages which they got from their semi-communistic brotherly organization, and to realize what a wonderful success their colonization was, amidst all the failures of state colonization, was learning something which cannot be learned from books. Again, to live with natives, to see at work all the complex forms of social organization which they have elaborated far away from the influence of any civilization, was, as it were, to store up floods of light which illuminated my subsequent reading. The part which the unknown masses play in the accomplishment of all important historical events, and even in war, became evident to me from direct observation, and I came to hold ideas similar to those which Tolstoy expresses concerning the leaders and the masses in his monumental work, "War and Peace."

Having been brought up in a serf-owner's family, I entered active life, like all young men of my time, with a great deal of confidence in the necessity of commanding, ordering, scolding, punishing, and the like. But when, at an early stage, I had to manage serious enterprises and to deal with men, and when each mistake would lead at once to heavy consequences, I began to appreciate the difference between acting on the principle of command and discipline and acting on the principle of common understanding. The former works admirably in a military parade, but it is worth nothing where real life is concerned, and the aim can be achieved only through the severe effort of many converging wills. Although I did not then formulate my observations in terms borrowed from party struggles, I may say now that I lost in Siberia whatever faith in state discipline I had cherished before. I was prepared to become an anarchist.

From the age of nineteen to twenty-five I had to work out important schemes of reform, to deal with hundreds of men on the Amúr, to prepare and to make risky expeditions with ridiculously small means, and so on; and if all these things ended more or less successfully, I account for it only by the fact that I soon understood that in serious work commanding and discipline are of little avail. Men of initiative are required everywhere; but once the impulse has been given, the enterprise must be conducted, especially in Russia, not in military fashion, but in a sort of communal way, by means of common understanding. I wished that all framers of plans of state discipline could pass through the school of real life before they begin to frame their state Utopias. We should then hear far less than at present of schemes of military and pyramidal organization of society.

With all that, life in Siberia became less and less attractive to me, although my brother had joined me in 1864 at Irkútsk, where he commanded a squadron of Cossacks. We were happy to be together; we read a great deal, and discussed all the philosophical, scientific, and intellectual life, and there was none in Siberia. The occasional passage through Irkútsk of Raphael Pumpelly or of Adolph Bastian - the only two men of science who visited our capital during my stay there - was quite an event for both of us. The scientific and especially the political life of Western Europe, of which we heard through the papers, attracted us, and the return to Russia was the subject to which we continually came back in our conversations. Finally, the insurrection of the Polish exiles in 1866 opened our eyes to the false position we both occupied as officers of the Russian army.

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