Memoirs of a Revolutionist: Part Fourth, Ch. 12

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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.





    I HASTENED to share with my friends my impressions of the International Workingmen's Association and my books. At the university I had no friends, properly speaking; I was older than most of my companions, and among young people a difference of a few years is always an obstacle to complete comradeship. It must also be said that since the new rules of admission to the university had been introduced in 1861, the best of the young men--the most developed and the most independent in thought--were sifted out of the gymnasia, and did not gain admittance to the university. Consequently, the majority of my comrades were good boys, laborious, but taking no interest in anything besides the examinations. I was friendly with only one of them: let me call him Dmitri Kelnitz. He was born in South Russia, and although his name was German, he hardly spoke German, and his face was South Russian rather than Teutonic. He was very intelligent, had read a great deal, and had seriously thought over what he had read. He loved science and deeply respected it, but, like many of us, he soon came to the conclusion that to follow the career of a scientific man meant to join the camp of the Philistines, and that there was plenty of other and more urgent work that he could do. He attended the university lectures for two years, and then abandoned them, giving himself entirely to social work. He lived anyhow; I even doubt if he had a permanent lodging. Sometimes he would come to me and ask, "Have you some paper?" and having taken a supply of it, he would sit at the corner of a table for an hour or two, diligently making a translation. The little that he earned in this way was more than sufficient to satisfy all his limited wants. Then he would hurry to a distant part of the town to see a comrade or to help a needy friend; or he would cross St. Petersburg on foot, to a remote suburb, in order to obtain free admission to a college for some boy in whom the comrades were interested. He was undoubtedly a gifted man. In Western Europe a man far less gifted would have worked his way to a position of political or socialist leadership. No such thought ever entered the brain of Kelnitz. To lead men was by no means his ambition, and there was no work too insignificant for him to do. This trait, however, was not distinctive of him alone; all those who had lived some years in the students' circles of those times were possessed of it to a high degree.

    Soon after my return Kelnitz invited me to join a circle which was known amongst the youth as "the Circle of Tchaykóvsky." Under this name it played an important part in the history of the social movement in Russia, and under this name it will go down to history. "Its members," Kelnitz said to me, "have hitherto been mostly constitutionalists; but they are excellent men, with minds open to any honest idea; they have plenty of friends all over Russia, and you will see later on what you can do." I already knew Tchaykóvsky, and a few other members of this circle. Tchaykóvsky had won my heart at our first meeting, and our friendship has remained unshaken for twenty-seven years.

    The beginning of this circle was a very small group of young men and women,--one of whom was Sophie Peróvskaya,--who had united for purposes of self-education and self-improvement. Tchaykóvsky was of their number. In 1869 Necháieff had tried to start a secret revolutionary organization among the youth imbued with the beforementioned desire of working among the people, and to secure this end he resorted to the ways of old conspirators, without recoiling even before deceit when he wanted to force his associates to follow his lead. Such methods could have no success in Russia, and very soon his society broke down. All the members were arrested, and some of the best and purest of the Russian youth went to Siberia before they had done anything. The circle of self-education of which I am speaking was constituted in opposition to the methods of Necháieff. The few friends had judged, quite correctly, that a morally developed individuality must be the foundation of every organization, whatever political character it may take afterward, and whatever programme of action it may adopt in the course of future events. This was why the Circle of Tchaykóvsky, gradually widening its programme, spread so extensively in Russia, achieved such important results, and later on, when the ferocious prosecutions of the government created a revolutionary struggle, produced that remarkable set of men and women who fell in the terrible contest they waged against autocracy.

    At that time, however,--that is, in 1872,--the circle had nothing revolutionary in it. If it had remained a mere circle of self-improvement, it would soon have petrified, like a monastery. But the members found a suitable work. They began to spread good books. They bought the works of Lassalle, Bervi (on the condition of the laboring classes in Russia), Marx, Russian historical works, and so on,--whole editions,--and distributed them among students in the provinces. In a few years there was not a town of importance in "thirty-eight provinces of the Russian Empire," to use official language, where this circle did not have a group of comrades engaged in the spreading of that sort of literature. Gradually, following the general drift of the times, and stimulated by the news which came from Western Europe about the rapid growth of the labor movement, the circle became more and more a centre of socialistic propaganda among the educated youth, and a natural intermediary between members of provincial circles; and then, one day, tile ice between students and workers was broken, and direct relations were established with working-people at St. Petersburg and in some of the provinces. It was at that juncture that I joined the circle, in the spring of 1872.

    All secret societies are fiercely prosecuted in Russia, and the Western reader will perhaps expect from me a description of my initiation and of the oath of allegiance which I took. I must disappoint him, because there was nothing of the sort, and could not be; we should have been the first to laugh at such ceremonies, and Kelnitz would not have missed the opportunity of putting in one of his sarcastic remarks, which would have killed any ritual. There was not even a statute. The circle accepted as members only persons who were well known and had been tested in various circumstances, and of whom it was felt that they could be trusted absolutely. Before a new member was received, his character was discussed with the frankness and seriousness which were characteristic of the nihilist. The slightest token of insincerity or conceit would have barred the way to admission. The circle did not care to make a show of numbers, and had no tendency to concentrate in its hands all the activity that was going on amongst the youth, or to include in one organization the scores of different circles which existed in the capitals and the provinces. With most of them friendly relations were maintained; they were helped, and they helped us, when necessity arose, but no assault was made on their autonomy.

    The circle preferred to remain a closely united group of friends; and never did I meet elsewhere such a collection of morally superior men and women as the score of persons whose acquaintance I made at the first meeting of the Circle of Tchaykóvsky. I still feel proud of having been received into that family.

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